I like to use flight following whenever possible because who wouldn't want traffic pointed out to them for free?

But just as the controllers are doing me a favor, they sometimes ask me to do them a favor.

For example, depending on a given runway configuration, they might vector me way far out from the airspace. During times like these I end up just wanting to terminate. I'm far clear of the class C, and they've added 20 minutes to my flight.

How is it that they move me so far away when plenty of aircraft who didn't even bother to call up approach are flying so freely without incident? To anticipate objection, this is while staying out of the charlie itself.

Is there anything I can do to ask if I can change altitude to avoid rerouting? I'd hate to call up, have them assign me a squawk, and then say "like to terminate" moments later.

  • $\begingroup$ While on flight following, you ARE under air traffic control (just on a VFR flight plan). It may be different elsewhere, but in the United States, pilots are required to follow ATC instructions while in controlled airspace, per 14 CFR 91.123(b): "Except in an emergency, no person may operate an aircraft contrary to an ATC instruction in an area in which air traffic control is exercised." The pilot would need to terminate FF in order to avoid having to follow ATC instructions. $\endgroup$ – newmanth Jul 27 '15 at 20:01
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    $\begingroup$ @newmanth A VFR flight plan and FF are totally unrelated; ATC doesn't even know if you have a VFR flight plan. And of course you have to follow ATC instructions, but that assumes you're under radar control. It isn't really clear (to me) from the question if the aircraft was under radar control at any point or not, hence my question about phrasing. $\endgroup$ – Pondlife Jul 27 '15 at 20:14
  • $\begingroup$ @Pondlife, you are correct about the flight plan part. I should have instead said "VFR flight". Whether or not the flight is under radar control is not relevant, as ATC will deny flight following if there is no service and will terminate if they lose radar contact. My only point was that as long as a pilot is in contact with ATC they are obligated to follow controller instructions, regardless of the type of flight. I only posted this to make sure someone doesn't come by this question, and start thinking ATC instructions were optional during VFR flight. $\endgroup$ – newmanth Jul 27 '15 at 20:24
  • $\begingroup$ Wait, ATC doesn't know about VFR flight plans? It's not in their system just FSS? $\endgroup$ – flyinghigh Jul 27 '15 at 21:12
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    $\begingroup$ The controllers are not "doing you a favor", they are doing their job! $\endgroup$ – expeditedescent Mar 2 at 4:41

There is indeed a Quid Pro Quo with flight following: you're adding to the controller's workload, and they may ask you to do things to help alleviate that workload (like not flying through a busy approach/departure corridor).
Some controllers will also vector you around a hot MOA (even though you can fly through it VFR their normal operating mode is for IFR traffic) while others will simply alert you that the MOA is hot and leave it up to you to decide how to handle that.

Because there's no language in the ATC manual for "Hey could you please fly around this area so you don't make my job harder?" when controllers want to ask you to do something they use the language they do have, which takes the form of instructions (vectors).

As a pilot you should remember that vectors are the opening round in a negotiation: If a controller gives you a vector you don't like you can always ask them why, and often you can negotiate for something better.
This is true for IFR flights as well - The only exception is when a controller uses the word "Immediate" or any variation thereof (then you do what they say and ask your questions later).

If you know you'll be flying through an arrival or departure path you can offer to change your altitude to stay out of the way. Your handy VFR Sectional or Terminal Area Chart shows some of the arrival and departure paths for busier airports:
TAC excerpt
If you offer a climb or descent controllers will usually tell you what altitude they need you at so you aren't in the way, and if they're not forthcoming you can ask ("What am I being vectored around? Can I go through at a different altitude?").

Finally remember that as a VFR flight you are under no obligation to accept their vectors in Class E airspace: If you don't like what the controller is asking you to do and can't negotiate something better simply say We'd like to cancel flight following at this time and continue on your own navigation (keep listening to the frequency to see what they do and maybe you'll come up with better alternatives for your next flight).

The controllers may grumble about it, particularly if they just put you into the system and you immediately cancel services, but that isn't your problem.

  • $\begingroup$ I'm no expert but I think the official phraseology is "cancel flight following" or "cancel advisories". Whatever "you'd like to" do at any given time really isn't interesting to the ATC (and in situations like these, probably somewhat unprofessional). $\endgroup$ – KeithS Jul 27 '15 at 20:41
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    $\begingroup$ @KeithS You'll hear both but you are right about "cancel" vs. "terminate" (fixed). What the pilot would like to do is always relevant though: We're the ones flying. (It also sounds better/nicer than N12345, cancel flight following. - while I'm all about concise transmissions it does help to remember you're talking to a human being on the other end of the radio.) $\endgroup$ – voretaq7 Jul 27 '15 at 20:46

Yes, if you are receiving radar services you must comply with ATC instructions. And contrary to voretaq's otherwise excellent answer, simply electing to terminate radar services so as to avoid those instructions or restrictions is not necessarily an option.

There are two reasons for this, one legal and one practical.

Legal answer

Let's look at 14 CFR 91.123 Compliance with ATC clearances and instructions. Paragraph (a) concerns ATC clearances. When you're on flight following you don't receive clearances except for practice approaches or Class B operations, so that doesn't really apply. But look at paragraph (b):

Except in an emergency, no person may operate an aircraft contrary to an ATC instruction in an area in which air traffic control is exercised.

That's pretty cut and dried. There are only two exceptions: 1) if an emergency exists or 2) if you're not in an area "in which air traffic control is exercised," i.e. uncontrolled (Class G) airspace. If you choose to call ATC and request radar services, and ATC issues an instruction, you must comply with that instruction. You can request to terminate radar services and change your frequency, but the controller is well within their rights to disallow termination. Note that when terminating radar services ATC will use the phraseology "frequency change approved" or "change to advisory frequency approved." This approval is not guaranteed!

(To counter the claim that "an area where air traffic control is exercised" means only Class B/C/D airspace, compare the wording in the AIM 4–3–2a vs 5–4–3a.)

Practical answer

Consider the reason you called ATC in the first place.

It might be that you wanted to transition certain airspace and being in two-way communication with ATC is a requirement to enter that airspace (B/C/D). In that case you will have to remain in contact with ATC and comply with any instructions they give in order to remain in the airspace.

But it might be that your route remains entirely within Class E airspace; communicating with ATC is not a requirement, but you decided to do so anyway. Why? To receive traffic information! You still have a legal responsibility to see and avoid other traffic, but because you are receiving radar services ATC will call traffic that may be a factor and thereby help you carry out this responsibility. If ATC issues an instruction or restriction, it is to keep you away from traffic you might be unable to see or avoid—we do not issue vectors for controller amusement.1 Any instruction you receive will be because the controller thinks it is necessary to ensure the safety of your flight. Why would you choose to discontinue this service exactly when it would be most helpful to you?

Certainly, as voretaq points out, you can query an instruction and suggest (or ask for) an alternative. But if the controller is unable to issue an alternative instruction, you must comply.

1Vectors for controller incompetence are another matter.


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