How to request and use Flight Following on PilotEdge

May 1, 2016 2 Comments in Uncategorized by
How to request and use Flight Following on PilotEdge

Who doesn’t use Flight Following (FF) when flying VFR?

As it turns out, too many pilots. Common reasons are ‘mic fright’ or just plain ignorance. And the same seems to be true for flight simulator pilots too, flying VFR on PilotEdge (that awesome online multiplayer ATC network for serious simmers). Like me.

Here’s a blog post about my study of FF on PilotEdge. I searched the PilotEdge forums and real-world aviation websites to create a bigger picture of what FF is and isn’t, how to request it, how to make good use of it, and how to avoid making common mistakes. This blog post summarises my findings.

Disclaimer: This blog post is NOT intended for real-world flying; always consult a CFI in your local area. I’m just an uncertified pilot trying to understand FF in the context of my flight simulator training :)

If you spot any mistakes or have any suggestions for me to improve or expand on my understanding of FF, please let me know by leaving a comment below.

What is Flight Following?

Essentially, FF is optional flight assistance provided by ATC for VFR flights on a workload permitting basis.

Let’s break that down.

The workload permitting basis bit means that if ATC is busy (in the weekends, for example, or during fly-in events), controllers may decline your request for FF. Usually though, PilotEdge controllers will gladly accept your request.

FF is an optional service. This means you don’t ever have to bother using FF, not even in cases when ATC would actually prefer you using the service (I will address this one further down). However, FF was invented specifically because ATC likes to assist VFR flights during cruise too (in addition to coordinating their towered departures and arrivals). After all, lending a helping hand is what ATC is there for.

Airfoillabs_C172SP_high_res_5And yes, FF is about assisting you, not about governing you. FF is a free, on-the-go, support service of ATC for VFR flights to make flying more safe and efficient. There is nothing mandatory to it. Just ATC being helpful. In other words, don’t confuse FF with IFR, as these are totally different services. FF does not require you to file a flight plan. Under FF the only ‘governing’ by ATC involves their reply to your initial call for FF, usually prior to departure: At most, you will be assigned a certain heading to fly after takeoff, an altitude restriction, a Departure frequency, and a squawk code. After departure, ATC will only alert you of nearby traffic or airspaces, or hand you over to new radar controllers, while you do the flying. All other support that FF can provide, requires your explicit call.

FF is often described as ‘having an extra set of eyes’ keeping watch over your every stage of flight, not just your controlled departure or arrival. I prefer to view FF as ‘having an extra set of ears’ listening to me, in case I need help. A minor difference. However, both the ‘watch’ and ‘listen’ metaphors are valid, really. On the one hand, ATC will literally ‘watch over you’ on radar. On the other, ATC will also respond to whatever special requests you may have. These special requests can range from transitioning a controlled airspace, asking about weather conditions at certain airports, requesting vectors to navaids or airports, asking whether restricted airspaces are active or not, etc. Whatever flight related requests you have, ATC will gladly help out.

Practically speaking, under FF, you just fly your usual VFR flight — which can be a basic flight from A to B, or a sightseeing tour, a practice flight, or whatever you tell ATC you will do — but when you deviate from your reported flight intentions (substantially), YOU inform ATC of your deviations, rather than ‘requesting permission’ for any such deviations. As such, under FF, YOU remain ultimately responsible for ensuring safe separation from traffic, terrain, obstacles, weather, etc. and your navigation, as with any VFR flight.

By the way, the primary argument of CFIs to advocate the use of FF to their students is in case of in-flight emergencies: You would already be in contact with a controller who knows exactly who you are, where you are, and what you were planning to do. Good one.

In a nutshell: Enjoy using FF for every VFR flight you make. It’s safe, it’s helpful, it’s appreciated, and it makes your flights much more interactive.

When to use Flight Following?

Well, strictly only when you feel you need it. FF is not mandatory.

Yet as I pointed out, many believe you should just use FF anytime you fly VFR. The question ‘When to use Flight Following?’ is really only reflecting a lack of understanding the purpose of the service.

However, if you are not planning on using FF all the time, which is totally fine, here’s the catch: You might frustrate ATC if you don’t request FF (i.e., establish contact with TRACON/ARTCC) in congested airspace.

Airfoillabs_C172SP_high_res_40Take a flight from KSNA to KSMO, for example. You could easily fly VFR without FF and zig-zag around the Charlie’s and Delta’s, fly underneath the Bravo, while being totally legal. You can even be ignorant of all the departure and arrival routes of bigger jets in and around those airspaces, and ignorantly buzz around without busting any of those airspaces.

However, imagine the controllers of those airspaces, seeing your little Cessna fly around on their radar screens. Those controllers need to ensure safe traffic separation between any of their IFR/FF flights and you. Since they are not in contact with you, controllers would need to divert their inbound and outbound traffic around your out-of-radio-contact Cessna butt to make sure no one gets into trouble. Not a polite thing of you to do. And think of your field of view from the cockpit: countless high speed traffic around you, airspaces to avoid, etc., all on your own. Not at all a safe situation to be in without that ‘extra set of eyes’ keeping a watch over you and providing you with a temporary heading or altitude restriction to keep the traffic flow safe and tight.

Now, in real life, only a fool would dare to fly through the LA airspace without FF. But in setting of PilotEdge you could and be perfectly legal (and not considered a fool :p). However, consider being the cooperative and safe pilot here, and identify with the bigger system of flight control: Use FF especially when flying near or in traffice dense airspace (like around KLAX, KLAS or KSAN).

On a side note, if you plan on making a small hop from one Charlie to another, from KSNA to KONT for example, FF will allow controllers to anticipate and better coordinate your flight, assigning you just one single squawk code and squeezing you nicely into the traffic flow (as the Departure and Approach controllers are working closely together; in case of PilotEdge, these controller positions are even seated by the same person). Not a big thing, but just another example to illustrate the point that FF can make life easier.

The above examples illustrate the benefits of FF, not only to the pilot, but to ATC too. So, really, FF is about raising everyone’s situational awareness of traffic (intentions) in order to better coordinate traffic flow. Pretty much every flight school thus promotes the use of FF to their students as a common-sense service.

I get that now.

Where to ask for Flight Following?

You can request FF either on the ground (at the ramp, before startup or taxi) or in the air (after departure, during cruise).

ATC prefers you to request FF on the ground though, at the start of your flight, for two reasons. First, you never know when you need assistance (take an in-flight emergency), so better to use FF from the start of your flight. And second, the non-radar controller (Clearance or Ground) has often the most free time to input your request in the system. The radar (TRACON/ARTCC) controllers are typically more busy. Likewise, the same is true for your own workload as a pilot: You probably have more mental space on the ground and time to process ATC’s initial instructions than after departure or during cruise.

Therefore, as a general rule, you request FF on the ground at the start of your flight.

Who to ask for Flight Following?

This depends on the type of airport you depart from.

Bravo or Charlie airports

At a Bravo or Charlie class airport, you always check-in with Clearance first, irrespective really of whether you plan to use FF or not (on PilotEdge, the only exception to this rule is when you plan to do traffic pattern flying; skip Clearance and call in with Ground instead). On a Bravo and Charlie, FF is not an opt-in, but an opt-out: FF is automatically given to departing aircraft. Meaning, Clearance expects you to announce your departure by including all the information needed to input a general FF request (see further down).

If you do not like to receive FF in this case, just announce your regular Delta-style VFR departure to Clearance and end your announcement with ‘negative flight following’. This way, you will still be given a squawk code and departure directions, but after departure, after having left the Bravo’s or Charlie’s outer 20nm ring airspace, your ATC service will be terminated by the Tower controller just like when leaving a Delta class airport.

TRSA airport (KPSP only, as part of the PilotEdge service area)

When departing a TRSA class airport (KPSP), contact Clearance to get Flight Following. Contact Ground if you do not require FF. Add ‘negative flight following’ here anyway as some PilotEdge controllers treat KPSP as a Charlie class airport and are known to thus instruct pilots to check in with Clearance first.

Delta airports

When departing a Delta class airport, request flight following from the Ground controller as there is no Clearance Delivery here.

Untowered airports

This one is more tricky.

When departing an untowered airport, you can only request FF in-air, after departure or during cruise, as no controllers are present on the field. You cannot contact TRACON/ARTCC from the ground.

But how do you know what Departure/Approach/Center controller to contact in this case?  You can look up the nearest TRACON/ARTCC frequency in the Airport Facility Directory (AFD) of any airport that you’re at (see Skyvector or Foreflight). It might say something like ‘Dep/App is handled by Los Angeles Center on 127.1’ or it might plainly state both the Departure and Approach frequencies, or even several Departure frequencies.

When departing the untowered airport, during climb, contact the Departure controller. During cruise, contact Approach or Center. If in doubt who to call, just contact either controller. Controllers will kindly direct you to the right frequency.

In the air

When in-air, when passing an airport, look up the TRACON/ARTCC frequency in the AFD of that airport and check in with either Approach or Center (or what the AFD tells you to do).

How to request Flight Following?

Requesting FF is a two-step procedure. You start with a ‘cold call’, followed by a ‘hot call’. A cold call is an initial, empty call to the controller to attract his or her attention before you relay your actual request. That actual request is called the hot call.

This two-step procedure is useful (and much appreciated by the controllers), as your actual FF request (hot call) covers several pieces of information that the controller needs to manually input into the system. If ATC is busy at the moment, they will reply to your cold call with ‘aircraft calling, please standby’ or ‘aircraft calling, try again in 5 minutes’. Gives them room to que you up, depending on their workload.

So, first the ‘cold’ call, then the ‘hot’ call.

Let’s imagine we start at KSNA, on the ramp. Get a piece of paper and a pencil ready, tune in on KSNA Clearance Delivery and carry out your cold call:

You: John Wayne Clearance, Skyhawk, PH-TIM, south east ramp

That’s the cold call. Nothing more, nothing less. Always include your position on the field. Don’t include your weather information yet or any other stuff. Just a plain first position call.

Controller: PH-TIM, John Wayne Clearance, standby

This means the controller is busy. No need to reply with ‘Roger’ or ‘Affirmative’. ‘Standby’ is code for ‘I’m busy, hold on’. On PilotEdge, this reply does not happen that much.

Controller: PH-TIM, John Wayne Clearance, say your request

Time for the hot call, we now have the controller’s attention.

You: PH-TIM, is a Cessna Skyhawk, slant alpha, with Bravo, requesting Flight Following to Palm Springs International, at 7500

A few things to explain here.

First, repeat your call sign and aircraft type only. You don’t need to repeat the controller’s position or your position at the ramp.

Next, your aircraft type. Don’t just say ‘Cessna’ but include Skyhawk, or Skylane, Citation, or whatever subtype you have (makes a big difference to the controller).

Then your equipment suffix. Generally, if you have GPS on board, say /G. If you just use radio, say /A. Look it up. This informs ATC of what kind of navigational instructions they can give you during your flight, if needed.

Next, add the latest local information code.

Then, you request FF to your destination airport. Don’t include your departure airport, as this is obvious to the controller. If you suspect your destination airport to be unfamiliar to the controller, you could add the ICAO code of the destination airport (in this case, ‘Pappa Sierra Pappa’). Here, you can also add specifics, like ‘via Ramona’, ‘via the Mini route transition’, ‘with a touch and go at Ontario’, etc. Keep it lean, though.

Finally, state your cruising altitude. If you plan to fly above 3000ft AGL (AGL!), stick to VFR altitudes MSL (MSL!): Flying West (180-359): 4500, 6500, 8500, 10500, etc.. Flying East (360-179): 3500, 5500, 7500, 9500, etc.). Pronounce the altitude as “7000-500”, not “75-100”).

ATC will input all of the above into the system, under your squawk code. All controllers will then know who you are, what you are, and where you are going.

Okay, so ATC replies:

Controller: PH-TIM, clearance on request, standby or (next) PH-TIM, roger, after departure fly heading 123, stay at or below 2400, Departure frequency is 123.45, squawk 1234

Repeat the instructions to the controller.

You: After departure, heading 123, stay at or below 2400, Departure frequency 123.45, squawk 1234, for PH-TIM

And there we are. You’ve requested FF and are ready to taxi.

How to depart with Flight Following?

As soon as you’ve requested FF from Clearance or Ground, you contact Ground (again) to request taxi clearance. Because the controller already knows what you’re planning to do, you can just request taxi clearance.

You: John Wayne Ground, Skyhawk PH-TIM, ready to taxi.

Controller: PH-TIM, taxi to runway 12 at Delta, via Alpha, Bravo, Charlie, and Delta.

Airfoillabs_C172SP_high_res_69You taxi to runway 12 at Delta, contact Tower, and request your departure clearance. Here, the Tower will not repeat your FF departure instructions as provided by Clearance earlier. You just receive a simple ‘cleared for takeoff’. Also, be sure to already put your Departure frequency into your standby frequency to make life easier.

Now, the question is, from what altitude do you start flying your assigned heading, altitude and contact Departure?

Here are the rules. First, you start flying your assigned heading from 500ft AGL (yes, that’s even sooner when starting your turn to crosswind as part of closed traffic flying) while continue to climb to your assigned altitude. Second, after 1000ft AGL, you should expect to receive a call by the Tower controller to switch to the Departure controller. If not, say around 1500ft, request the switch from the Tower controller yourself. NEVER switch frequencies yourself during ANY stage of your FF flight … the only exception to this rule is when switching from Ground to Tower, before your departure. ALWAYS wait for the controller to instruct you to switch frequencies.

With Departure, you keep flying your assigned departure instructions. You are not allowed yet to resume your own navigation. Once you reach the border of the airport’s airspace, Departure will instruct you to switch to Approach or Center. You’ve just completed your FF departure!

PS. If you’re departing from a Delta-airspace airport, the Ground controller will most likely instruct you to contact Approach or Center after departure (as Delta airfields do not have their own radar controllers).

How to cruise with Flight Following?

Airfoillabs_C172SP_high_res_75So, after your departure, when in contact with Approach or Center, you just fly your planned VFR flight on your own. Again, you are free to make any speed, altitude, or heading changes without requesting any of these from the controller. Remember, this is not IFR flying. Do stick to your VFR cruising altitude though, or, inform the controller of your newly intended cruising altitude.

During your flight, ATC will inform you of nearby traffic or alert you of any airspaces that you might bust. They will also hand you over to other controllers.

How to arrive at your destination with Flight Following?

That’s simple. Just announce to the controller that you’ve got the airport in sight. The controller will instruct you to switch to the Tower controller of the airport or to the airport’s CTAF frequency if you destination airport is untowered.

How to terminate Flight Following?

If for any reason you like to terminate FF during any stage of your flight, just announce it.

You: SoCal Approach, Skyhawk PH-TIM, would like to terminate Flight Following

The controller will approve your request, instruct you to reset your transponder to VFR (1200), remain VFR at all times, and resume your own navigation.