Your Eyes in the Skies: The Air Traffic Control System

Thanks for joining us for this week’s topic on Air Traffic Control and how you can better utilize the system and gain confidence in yourself when using ATC!

Many questions raised about this topic included how to contact your local Approach/TRACON facility for Flight Following or access into controlled airspace, how to properly transmit on ATC controlled frequencies, and much more. Since this topic is very broad, we may not be able to touch on every aspect of the ATC system and the questions we have received, however, we hope you learn something from this article!

To start, let’s imagine you want to fly from your home base airport to another airport that is 200 miles away. You are VFR (Visual Flight Rules) and the weather is calm with a little haze that limits visibility to 7 miles. You are confident in your flying, but want an extra set of eyes watching for other aircraft in your area. You decide to pick up Flight Following for the flight. Here’s how you should contact controllers:

“Potomac Approach, Cirrus 325BK.”

A short and simple transmission will avoid clogging up the frequency of potentially congested airspace and allow a controller the option to respond if they are able to.

When they are ready, they will respond with:

“Cirrus 325BK, Potomac, go ahead.”

Once they have acknowledged you, continue with your request:

“Cirrus 325BK is a Cirrus SR20, 3 miles Northwest of the Richmond Executive Airport, 1,700 feet, VFR to First Flight Airport, request flight following.”

ATC will transmit back to you giving you a four number code to put into your transponder and will likely request you press the IDENT button with a very short statement like this:

“5BK squawk 4583, IDENT.

Once you show on their screens with the assigned code, you will be given any further flight following instructions from the controller. Each time will be slightly different, all dependent on where you are and how busy the airspace is. Expect a transmission from controllers to be similar to this one:

“5BK, radar contact 4 miles North of the Richmond Executive Airport. Maintain VFR at or below 2,500 until clear to the South of Richmond airspace.

You should then respond with:

“Maintain VFR below 2,500 until clear of Richmond airspace, 5BK.”

Though this is not always what a transmission would be like, it is a good example of what to expect from controllers. When ATC is ready to pass you off to another controller you may receive something like this:

“Cirrus 325BK contact Norfolk Approach on 125.7, good day.”

Your response should be short and simple, like this:

“125.7, good day, 325BK.”

Once you have been given the new frequency, change to it and wait for a few seconds to make sure you do not transmit over another pilot or the controller. Then, make a call such as:

“Norfolk Approach, Cirrus 325BK, VFR, 2,500.”

If controllers along your route are too busy with traffic on IFR flight plans or dealing with an emergency aircraft, you may be told:

“5BK, unable to continue flight following at this time. Radar service terminated, squawk VFR, frequency change approved.”

The controller may leave the termination at that, or give you another controller’s frequency to try to pick up flight following with them. If so, repeat the flight following steps at the top of this article. Controllers never want to turn pilots away from VFR Flight Following, however, they are only able to handle but so much at one time.

Here is a simple list to of things to make sure you have ready to tell controllers when picking up VFR Flight Following:

  • Full tail number (ex. N325BK)
  • Aircraft type (ex. Cirrus SR20)
  • General location to nearby airports (ex. 4 miles East of Stafford Airport)
  • Altitude (ex. 3,500)
  • Intentions (ex. flight following to Charleston Executive Airport)

Below is a video produced by Boldmethod going into additional detail of using VFR Flight Following, along with taking you flying and listening to the different transmissions.

We hope you enjoyed this week’s topic on Air Traffic Control and Flight Following. Join us next week for: Shaping a Professional Pilot: How You Should Get Started.

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