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My understanding is that private pilots are able to contact air traffic control and request "flight following", as it may help them with their situational awareness. Beyond that, however, I'm curious:

Is this a common procedure? What sort of "situational awareness" benefits can be realized by a "flight following" request? What are other pros/cons of such a request?

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  • $\begingroup$ Thanks for the responses, all. I misread a meta post earlier, and I was going to hold off on marking an answer, but I understand better now that I should feel free to mark the one I found most helpful. I appreciate everyone's willingness to share their knowledge! Thanks again! $\endgroup$ – Dustin Jul 28 '16 at 3:23
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I typically like to get VFR flight following if I haven’t filed a flight plan for longer distance flights. The biggest advantage here is that somebody knows where I am if something should happen.

I don’t typically find the chatter too bad, but you do have to be on the ball, especially when handed off from a local airport to an Air Route Traffic Control Center (commonly referred to as just “Center”) frequency. Often on flights out of my airport (KGRB) I will get handed off to Minneapolis Center, which is relatively busy frequency.

Another nice thing is that it gives you some practice talking in busy airspace. You really have to follow the rules and jump in when able. Sometimes they won’t hear you because you are transmitting over other aircraft that you can’t hear, so the frequency will appear open. It’ll sound like they are talking to themselves.

So here is how I see it:

Pros

  • You are talking to somebody and working with other traffic in the airspace
  • You are on a frequency you can broadcast an emergency to. Yes we all know about 121.5, but you are not guaranteed to get somebody on the other end.
  • ATC knows where you are, and if you fall off the radar and don’t respond, they will initiate a search. If you just file a VFR flight plan they won’t even start until 30 minutes after your planned arrival, and then they start calling airports and contact numbers, then start a search. They may not know where you fell off your flight plan so the search area is much bigger.
  • They can help route you around active MOAs, TFRs, and other airspace/weather issues that don’t show up well on paper maps.
  • Traffic advisories (as others pointed out)
  • Can provide a vector to where you want if you get lost.
  • Don’t need to open a flight plan if you can get following all the way.
  • Good radio practice

Cons

  • Flight following is “workload permitting.” They may call up and say Radar services terminated; squawk VFR at any time, turning your flight back into normal VFR. If you didn’t file a flight plan, now you should call up FSS and open one en route, which is more difficult.
  • Requires you to be on-the-ball with your radio transmissions on busier frequencies. If you frequently fly from uncontrolled airspace, this can be intimidating.
  • You may get vectored around a bit, but I usually don’t have that problem. I’ve typically contacted the destination airport by 20 miles out and either got clearance or vectors anyway.
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  • $\begingroup$ Thanks for the thorough answer! Follow-up: As someone who isn't yet licensed, I was surprised to read that 121.5 (a frequency I had come to understand as "someone somewhere is listening for emergencies here") won't always have someone on the other end. Is it common for that frequency to be unmonitored in an otherwise active airspace? $\endgroup$ – Dustin Jul 28 '16 at 3:06
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    $\begingroup$ Most towers monitor it as well as FSS, and even some high flying airliners, however that doesn't mean you are going to get a response. If you are in a really remote area or don't have line of sight to a receiver, you may go unheard. Also, if you do get a response, they still may not know where you are, especially if you don't know (or are too busy to tell). Remember, flying is Aviate, Navigate, and Communicate, in that order. A lot of times you may not have the ability to call for help because you are flying the plane first. $\endgroup$ – Ron Beyer Jul 28 '16 at 3:16
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    $\begingroup$ I might make a little more of that last con. The quid pro quo of flight following is that they're keeping an eye on you, a VFR flight, on top of all their IFR traffic, so in return you're expected to help make things a little easier overall by letting them route you around IFR traffic instead of the other way around. How likely they are to do so depends on the volume of nearby traffic; inside a Mode C veil around busy airports, expect quite a bit of it. In smaller cities with less overall traffic, not so much. $\endgroup$ – KeithS Aug 23 '16 at 14:37
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It is called "VFR Flight Following", and it is a common and recommended procedure.

Personally, I request "Flight Following" on longer flights, when carrying passengers, or anytime I'm not 100% confident.

When I'm just flying myself in good conditions, I don't bother with Flight Following.

The Pros:

  • They help with traffic advisories, calling out what traffic you should be aware of.
  • You're already on a frequency talking to someone, in case an emergency should occur.

The Cons:

  • It can sometimes be a lot of chatter in your ear, especially if my passengers want to chat.
  • They expect you to maintain your requested flight; if you go zig-zagging around for sight-seeing reasons, they'll ask for your intentions a lot, or warn you about being off course.

For another good question on the topic, see this post

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  • $\begingroup$ Thanks for the concise response. I'm going to leave answers unmarked for a while longer in case anyone else has more to chime in with; seems like you guys like to give 24 hours on this SE? $\endgroup$ – Dustin Jul 28 '16 at 1:06
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Well as you pointed out, flight following is beneficial as it integrates you in with the flow of other controlled air traffic and, as ground controllers are tracking the progress of your flight, they can provide you with better situational awareness of traffic, weather, TFRs, newly introduced NOTAMs and also provide an additional resource in case of an emergency.

Flight following is not always available to a VFR pilot in controlled airspace, depending on controller resources available for traffic on flight plans.

One disadvantage for requesting flight following, particularly around major commercial hubs eg KLAX, KATL, etc, is that GA airplanes will often be vectored in order to conform with a controller's preferred traffic flow, which may add additional time onto a flight, even when the intended destination of your airplane is not within that airspace. This is one of the major reasons that pilots on VFR flights often don't contact controllers near Class C or Class B airports or run under the shelves of their airspace. This was the case with JFK Jr's aircraft on the night that it crashed - not due to a failure to request flight following but done so as a means to expedite their trip to KMVY.

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    $\begingroup$ Is there a recommended source for more relevant info about JFK Jr's flight? $\endgroup$ – Dustin Jul 28 '16 at 1:04

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