What does VFR Flight Following Provide?

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Original publication date: April 6, 2023
Last Updated: November 25, 2023
Author: Max Skyler
Topic: Flight Planning
Number of Comments: 0

VFR flight following can make the difference between a good VFR flight and a great VFR flight experience. While it is entirely optional, it can serve as a boon for pilots looking for increased safety and navigational guidance during VFR flight.

VFR flight following is an opt-in service for VFR pilots, whereby Air Traffic Control (ATC) can provide radar monitoring of your flight. Services offered include: traffic advisories, weather information, navigation assistance, and emergency assistance. Services offered by ATC are on a workload-permitting basis.

VFR flight bears some similarities to the services provided to pilots flying under Instrument Flight Rules (IFR). However, the former is less structured than the latter. Participation is not mandatory and compliance with directives is not mandatory, per se. Let’s cover the services provided by VFR flight following in complete depth.

What is the definition of flight following?

What does VFR flight following mean? As the name implies, flight following refers to the service whereby Air Traffic Control:

  • actively monitors your position during VFR flight via radar. This is accomplished by assigning you a unique transponder frequency that positively identifies you;
  • maintains an open and established two-way radio communication channel with you at all times, on a designated Air Traffic Control frequency.

What is flight following and when should you use it?

Flight following is entirely optional. It is not required by the FAA. It is a purely opt-in service, available upon request by pilots, during VFR flight.

Pilots can request VFR flight following services from Air Traffic Control at any time during flight. Pilots can also cancel, or opt out, of VFR flight following just as well, at any time. There is no obligation to leverage this service.

Having said that, once VFR flight following becomes active, you are expected to comply with Air Traffic Control directives, since you are now under their radar control.

Who provides VFR flight following?

VFR flight following is a service provided by the national air traffic control system in the USA. On any sectional chart, you can usually find the frequency for air traffic control by looking for the boxes with a thick blue or magenta border, usually found in the outer perimeter of Class B or Class C airspace. Alternatively, you can look up the approach control frequency in the FAA airport facilities directory. Simply look for your current airport, or if airborne, locate for the airport in closest proximity to you, and look up the approach control frequency associated with that airport.

In this example, VFR flight following in the vicinity of Trenton-Robbinsville Airport can be obtained by contacting McGuire Approach Control at 126.475.

You can also look up the nearest approach control for a specific airport in the Airport Facilities Directory. In this example, approach control for Trenton-Robbinsville Airport is 126.475.

How does VFR flight following work?

Should I use VFR flight following?

The clear, unequivocal answer is “yes”. Pilots are encouraged to take advantage of VFR flight following as much as possible. It is there for you, available, at your disposal. Why not have a second set of eyes on your flight, even though you are flying under VFR?

Having said that, here are some circumstances when you should use VFR flight following:

Cross-Country Flight:On any long-distance flight, where you have multiple checkpoints, when you are navigating in and around complex or congested airspace, VFR flight following can help you ensure you stay on your intended course and don’t veer off track. Furthermore, if there are a lot aircraft in the area, VFR flight following can help be your second set of eyes to help you steer clear of each other. One caveat: Flight following does NOT absolve the pilot of the responsibility of seeing and avoiding other aircraft. VFR flight following traffic advisories are provided on a workload-permitting basis. This means that Air Traffic Control gives priority to IFR (instrument flight rules) traffic, for which they are fully responsible to ensure proper in-flight separation between aircraft; therefore they will bide their time with VFR traffic advisories as their workload permits.
Flight Through Unfamiliar Territory:If you are flying in an unfamiliar area that you have never flown before, it would be helpful to have someone on standby to provide you vectors to help you stay on course toward your destination, and to help you identify landmarks, and airports in your vicinity and along your flight path.
Flight Over Questionable Terrain:It can be helpful to have a second set of eyes on you, if your intended route of flight might take you over terrain that is unamenable to emergency landings.
Flight Over Areas With Inadequate Radio Navigation Coverage:Whether it is a GPS outage, your aircraft isn’t equipped with GPS, you are unable to receive any VORs due to distance or VORs that may be out-of-service, or you experience any type of navigation equipment failure, VFR flight following can help you in the event that you become lost or disoriented.
Someone To Talk To In Case Priority Service Is Required:While Air Traffic Control is not the same as the emergency frequency 121.5, you may also radio them for emergency assistance, in case you are low on fuel or you have any engine problems and you find yourself needing to land urgently.

Should you always get VFR flight following?

Some would argue that you should always get VFR flight following whenever you go on any VFR flight, no matter whether it is a short hop between airports in your local area, or it is a long endurance bonafide cross country flight. After all, it is a free service that is available to you. Availing yourself of the services offered by Air Traffic Control through VFR flight following can only be beneficial for you. It certainly can’t hurt you.

Do I need VFR flight following?

Since flight following is not mandatory, the question of whether you need flight following can be rather subjective. The danger of asking yourself the question of whether you need flight following or not, is that if you deem the answer is “no” in a particular situation, your answer should not be based on one of the so-called “hazardous flight attitudes” that all pilots are taught about during their initial flight training. An example of this might be the “macho” attitude, where you believe yourself to be an expert pilot and that VFR flight following is somehow “limiting” or is a somehow a sign of “weakness”.

Perhaps the better question to be asked is: “Would flight following be beneficial to me in this circumstance”? And as far as the answer to this question is concerned, it is perfectly acceptable for the answer to this question to be “it depends”.

When should you not use flight following?

There are certainly some circumstances when you should not use VFR flight following. In some cases, that is simply because you cannot use flight following.

Some reasons for this are actually obvious. For example, you would never use VFR flight following when flying under IFR conditions.

And then there are reasons where it might not make sense to use flight following. For example, if you plan to stay local to your own airport, such as if you are engaging in pattern work. In that case, you would not use flight following, because you would be remaining on your local Common Traffic Advisory (CTAF) frequency or Control Tower (CT) frequency. The airport would remain within gliding distance, and you as the pilot presumably would already have the airport in sight at all times.

It may also be of questionable value to use VFR flight following for short distance flights, for example where the departure and destination airports are neighbors.

Flight following also falls into a gray area when it comes to transitioning through Class B, Class, C, or Class D airspace.

Can I get flight following without a flight plan?

You do not need to be on a VFR flight plan in order to request flight following. You can simply request flight following, even if you have no particular destination, and you are just doing some scenic flying or practice maneuvers.

Does a VFR flight plan include flight following?

Perhaps one common misconception is that flight following is included as part of filing a flight plan. This is actually not the case. A VFR flight plan only provides tracking for your flight, in the event of an emergency, primarily for search and rescue procedures, and for Air Traffic Control’s general awareness. But filing a flight plan does not require you to remain in constant communication with Air Traffic Control, the way VFR flight following would.

Is flight following the same as a VFR flight plan?

Flight following and filing a flight plan are mutually exclusive activities. You would request flight following as a separate activity. And you would file a flight plan as a separate activity. They are not the same thing, and do not offer the same type of service to pilots.

What is the difference between VFR flight following and flight plan?

VFR flight following is an optional service that allows you to request radar monitoring of your flight through Air Traffic Control, and which provides air traffic advisories, real-time weather information, and navigation vectoring upon request.

A VFR flight plan, on the other hand, is an electronic document that you would file with the FAA prior to your flight, which includes a number of details, such as:

Your contact information
Your departure time
Your estimated time of arrival
Your intended route of flight
Alternate airports
Your planned cruise altitude
Your planned cruise airspeed
How much fuel you have onboard
The make and model and color of your aircraft
The number of passengers you have onboard
The type of navigation equipment you have on board

A VFR flight plan primarily serves a threefold purpose. 

Air Traffic Control will use this information:

to help plan traffic separation
for flight tracking
for search-and-rescue operations in the event of an emergency

A VFR flight plan must be canceled upon arrival. If you haven’t canceled your flight plan within 30 minutes upon your scheduled time of arrival, then the FAA may attempt to locate you, and if they are unable to, they may commence search and rescue operations.

Both VFR flight following and VFR flight plans are optional for pilots flying under VFR in the United States.

Note that this is not to be confused with an IFR flight plan, which is mandatory to be filed, if flying under instrument conditions or in Class A airspace.

Can you request a flight following without a destination?

Unlike a VFR flight plan, in which you are required to specify your intended destination airport, you are not required to specify a destination when requesting VFR flight following. You do however, have to give ATC an indication of what are your intentions during flight.

For example, you can merely inform ATC that you are planning to do some practice maneuvers over a specific area, or you could inform ATC that you are going on a sightseeing excursion and then you will be returning back to your airport of origin.

Can you request VFR flight following on the ground?

If you are departing from a controlled airport, in which there is a control tower, you can typically request VFR flight following from ground control or the tower, prior to your departure.

This does come with a caveat, though: If there is a lot of traffic and the controllers are busy, they may deny your request for VFR flight following, and advise you to pick it up from ATC once airborne and clear of their airspace.

Can I change altitude on VFR flight following?

Maintaining a specific altitude is not a requirement of VFR flight following. Keep in mind that VFR flight following is entirely voluntary. There is no hard mandate for you to comply with ATC directives under VFR flight following. ATC guidance is merely advisory in nature. The onus is always on the pilot-in-command to see and avoid all other aircraft while flying under visual flight rules.

Having said that, if ATC does assign you an altitude or a block altitude, it would be in your best interest to comply, as it may be necessary in order to maintain traffic separation.

It would also behoove you to voluntarily inform ATC of any altitude changes.

After all, the whole point of VFR flight following is to afford VFR pilots a second set of eyes on their flight, something which is otherwise mandatory for IFR pilots.

Does VFR flight following clear you through airspace?

A common misconception among VFR pilots is that as long as you are on VFR flight following, you do not need to obtain a clearance to fly through various airspace configurations, such as Class B or Class C. The logic behind this fallacy assumption is that since you are already in communication with ATC, and ATC knows where you are at all times, it may appear to be redundant to request a separate clearance.

However, this misconception is unfounded. The reality is that the FAA makes it very clear that you must always obtain a clearance before entering Class B airspace, and you must establish two-way radio communication with the approach control or control tower of any airspace that that enter. This is true, whether you intend to land at that airport, or whether you are merely transitioning through that airspace.

ATC will advise you when you will need to tune your radio to ATIS (Automatic Terminal Information Service) or to contact Approach Control or the Tower of the respective airport, in which you will would no longer be in contact with the former, and would now be in touch with the latter.

Can you fly through Class C airspace with flight following?

The same rule applies for flight through Class C airspace, that would apply to flight through Class B. The only difference being that Class C does not require an explicit “clearance” per se, the way Class B does. But it does require you to acknowledge ATIS, establish two-way radio communication, and switch to their assigned transponder code (if different than that which was assigned by ATC).

Does flight following clear you through Class D?

Likewise, flight following also does not clear you through Class D automatically. The same rules apply, and you will need to obtain ATIS and establish two-way radio communication with the Class D control tower.

Do you have to cancel VFR flight following?

Do you have to terminate VFR flight following at any point?

No. You do not necessarily have to cancel VFR flight following upon arrival at your destination, the same way you would be required to cancel a VFR flight plan.

Air Traffic Control will typically cancel it for you, once you arrive within the traffic pattern at your intended airport of landing, whether it is your home airport or some other airport.

When should I cancel my flight following?

Since VFR flight following is completely voluntarily, there is no mandate for you to cancel it, per se. In other words, there is no penalty for “forgetting” to “cancel” flight following. 

This is not to be confused with a VFR flight plan, which does incur consequences if you neglect or fail to cancel it upon landing.

So there is no right or wrong answer to this question.

However, since VFR flight following is primarily useful during the enroute portion of your flight, and not so much during takeoff and landing, you could very well request a termination of VFR flight following once you are in the vicinity of your intended destination airport.

How do I cancel VFR flight following?

If you do not proactively cancel VFR flight following, ATC will inform you that they are terminating the service, once they see that you have arrived in the vicinity of your local airport, and that you have it in sight.

You could, however, simply cancel VFR flight following, while airborne, anytime, simply by informing ATC that you would like to cancel it.

It is as simple as that.

What is the most common way to obtain flight following?

The simplest way and most common way to obtain flight following is to request it.

You can request it from the control tower at your departure airport.

You can request it from departure control / approach control at your departure airport.

You simply contact the controller, identify yourself with your aircraft callsign, and state that you are requesting VFR flight following, followed by a very concise description of your intentions.

For example: “Chicago Approach, N12345 requesting VFR flight following to Detroit”.

ATC will then assign you a transponder code to tune into, and may ask you to state your altitude and heading.

How do I find the flight following frequencies?

If you are airborne and would like to request flight following, you simply check your sectional chart or airport facilities directory for the closest airport in your vicinity.

You may use either a paper sectional chart or an electronic version, such as ForeFlight or Garmin Pilot, and look for the Approach Frequency under the Frequencies section of the airport’s information.

What is required for flight following?

At minimum, you would obviously need a two-way communications radio.

You would also need a functioning transponder, that allows ATC to identify you.

If you intend to fly through Class B or Class C airspace, you will specifically need a Mode-C transponder, that includes altitude-encoding.

What is VFR flight following vs IFR?

VFR flight following is very similar to IFR flying, in many respects. You are in touch with ATC at all times. ATC is monitoring your flight and may issue you vectors, assign you altitudes, and provide you with weather information.

The primary differences are:

  • VFR pilots are required to see and avoid other aircraft, whether flights under IFR conditions place the burden of responsibility of traffic separation on ATC.
  • Compliance with ATC directives is mandatory under IFR, and participation in VFR flight following is completely mandatory. It can be canceled in flight at any time, by either the pilot or by ATC. (ATC would cancel it in extenuating circumstances where their workload does not permit them to provide their services to you.)

Max Skyler

Max Skyler is a Private Pilot with nearly 200 hours of total flight time under his belt.

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