Question for ATC

I’ve been wondering for a while a couple of questions pertaining to VFR aircraft and ATC. Really looking for someone with ATC experience to insert their two cents.

  1. What are your thoughts on VFR flight following? Do you prefer to have VFR aircraft in communication, or is it another headache for you?

  2. I usually don’t file a VFR flight plan but do pick up flight following when travelling cross-country. Would it help out the controller to have a flight plan or does it matter?

As a pilot I can only answer number 2. ATC does not get your VFR flight plan (in the US) so it doesn’t matter.

VFR flight following falls into the category of “Additional Services” for a controller. This is from Paragraph 2-1-1 of the 7110.65, the FAA ATC Handbook

"In addition to its primary function, the ATC system has the capability to provide (with certain limitations) additional services. The ability to provide additional services is limited by many factors, such as the volume of traffic, frequency congestion, quality of radar, controller workload, higher priority duties, and the pure physical inability to scan and detect those situations that fall in this category. It is recognized that these services cannot be provided in cases in which the provision of services is precluded by the above factors. Consistent with the aforementioned conditions, controllers must provide additional service procedures to the extent permitted by higher priority duties and other circumstances. The provision of additional services is not optional on the part of the controller, but rather is required when the work situation permits. Provide air traffic control service in accordance with the procedures and minima in this order except when… … 201.html.1

The rest of the section involves the different duty priorities for a controller. The first one, of course, is separation and issuing safety alerts. The controllers can approve or deny your request for flight following after working out in their head where you fall under all these different priorities. The key phrase is “required when the work situation permits.”

The thing to remember about using flight following as a replacement for filing a VFR flight plan (or, as it should be referred to, a Plan For Search And Rescue Crews) is that additional services are the first things a controller offloads when higher priority duties begin to add up.

I know the book definition, I’m just curious about controllers personal opinion. Do they prefer to not have the additional workload and just have that 1200 code on their screen that they know nothing about? Or does it help them by being able to identify that code and its intentions? What made me think of this was on a recent trip hearing ATC give lots of traffic advisories of “VFR traffic, type and altitude unknown”

Just the kinds of things I wonder about as I sit in the Comanche and watch the miles tick away on the GPS.

Opinions among controllers will probably differ, but it really doesn’t matter what an individual controller prefers. Flight following is a valuable service to pilots. You will receive traffic alerts and safety advisories, in addition to navagational assistance and several other services. In the event you have an emergency, already being in voice and radar contact and tracked by ATC can save minutes when seconds count.

It is important to note the difference between filing a VFR flight plan and requesting flight following. As previously mentioned in this thread, flight following is provided on a workload permitting basis. It is possible that if you fly into a high density traffic area that the controller could terminate radar services without warning (unless you are within Class B or C airspace). Of course, if this happens you are no worse off than not using flight following to begin with. It is important to note that by requesting flight following you are not ensuring that search and rescue efforts will be made if you crash. If you are receiving flight following and unexpectedly disappear from the controller’s display, he should find out why, and that may begin a search and rescue effort. But the only way to ensure that you will receive search and rescue services is to file and ACTIVATE a VFR flight plan. Keep in mind that there are time parameters built into this chain of events that may delay an actual search for a few hours or so. Consult the Aeronautical Information Manual, Paragraph 6-2-7, and FAA Order 7110.10, Flight Services, Chapter 8.

Getting back to controller preferences, if you want flight following, most, if not all controllers, would prefer that you put your flight information into the system as you would if you were on an IFR flight plan, and I’ll explain how to do that.

Using one of the automated systems like DUAT or DUATS, simply flie an IFR flight plan but make 2 additions. In the requested altitude box, enter the letters VFR followed by a virgule (or forward slant) then your requested VFR altitude in hundreds of feet with no spaces. For example VFR/025. Also, in the remarks section add “Request Flight Following”. Don’t worry about filing an IFR flight plan if you are not instrument rated. By requesting the VFR altitude as described above, ATC will treat you as a VFR flight. You will not be handled as an IFR flight unless you hear the words “CLEARED TO…”. When you first contact ATC, state “request flight following, I’m in the system”. Most control towers will receive your proposed flight information 30 minutes prior to your proposed time of departure, and will have it available for approximately 2 hours after your proposed time of departure. If you also want the added protection of search and rescue, file a duplicate VFR flight plan and don’t forget to activate it.

You can also do this over the telephone with Lockheed Flight Services the same way. I have not been able to do it using as their system will not accept the VFR altitudes for an IFR flight plan.

Flight following is like a free insurance policy. In my opinion, it would be foolish not to use it whenever possible.

I hope this information is helpful.

Thank you for your reply. Like I said, this was just one of those questions that dance through my head while blazing through the skies at half the speed of smell: Is the controller thinking, “Ugh, another VFR contact to babysit!” or “Good, now I know who, what, and where this target is going so I can separate him from others.” I think I had heard of the filing a VFR/IFR plan like you mention, but have never tried it. That may be the answer to my other question, do I help the controller by having a filed flight plan? It seems like when you call up ATC cold for flight following, there is a lot of information you need to give them, and sometimes I’ve had difficulty especially when the route of flight is anything other than direct, like when avoiding Class B airspace.


Just a low and slow pilot trying to stay out of the way!