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I'm a student pilot doing all VFR flying and making flight plans for training. I've heard that most people don't file a flight plan for VFR outside of training though, and instead request "flight following" from nearby ATC.

When can I do this in flight? Which ATC can do this for me?

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As SkipMiller said, you can basically request flight following at any time and any certificate level - student, sport pilot, private pilot - the service is available to anyone.

Also:

We're told that FF is "workload permitting".
I used to think that meant they'd give you services when they can. But I was wrong about that. Instead, once they accept you, you're in the system, and get full services. If they get too busy, they'll tell you and kick you out of the system. ("Radar Services Terminated; Squawk VFR")

FF depends on radar services. When flying rather low and near mountains, its easy for them to lose you.

As for when you should request it: You can request it at anytime.
Personally, I wouldn't be in a hurry to request it as soon as you depart. Wait until you're established on course, in a cruise-attitude (instead of a climb), and everything is settled and running smoothly. Then know your position, and how you're going to report it. Know where you're going (both by name and ICAO identifier), and try to anticipate any questions they might ask.

Look for the Center/Approach/Depature where you are (look in your AF/D for an airport close to you), and call up with:

You: "Seattle Center; November 12345: VFR, with request"
translation: Calling Seattle Center, this is N12345. I'm VFR (so you haven't heard from me before... don't be surprised!), and I have a request.

Center: "November 12345: Say request."

You: "November 12345 is SkyHawk, 10 mi. South of Harvey Field, 4,500 feet. Request VFR Flight Following to Friday Harbor"

translation: I'm a Cessna Skyhawk, my location and altitude will help you find me. I'm asking for FF to this other airport."

Center: "N345: Squawk 4532 and Ident."

You: (Set your transponder to 4532, press the Identify Button), and say "4532 and Ident, N345"

Center: "N345: Radar Contact, 11 mi. south of Sierra Four Tree, at 4,500. Traffic at your 1o'clock, 5 mi. North Bound, Altitude indicates 3,000."

translation: I found you on my radar scope, and am describing the position I see you. (If you disagree, speak up!). You have traffic ahead and slightly to your right. Their transponder indicates 3,000 feet, but I cannot independently verify that.

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    $\begingroup$ I'll add that "workload permitting" in busy airspace can be greatly effected by how competent you sound on the radio. When getting vectors to KEWR in the NYC class B, I could always correctly guess who did and didn't get ATC services based on their initial call. $\endgroup$ – casey Jan 1 '14 at 1:05
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    $\begingroup$ Interesting :) In which direction? Sounding incompetent will get you FF (as you might need it more as a novice pilot?) or sounding competent will get you FF (as you know how to communicate and will therefor take up less ATC time)? $\endgroup$ – vincent.io Apr 6 '16 at 10:20
  • $\begingroup$ If I were a student pilot on a solo XC I would ask for FF as soon as I switched from tower or departed. If the departure airport underlies class C or B, I would ask ground for a code before departing. $\endgroup$ – rbp Apr 6 '16 at 22:39
  • $\begingroup$ Workload permitting means that they can effectively not provide services without terminating you. $\endgroup$ – mongo Dec 26 '18 at 17:17
  • $\begingroup$ @mongo: I have been told exactly the opposite: That once you are under FF, you are receiving services, and if they are unable or unwilling to provide full services, they will terminate you. Providing limited or no-service without a "Cancel FF" notice is not an option. $\endgroup$ – abelenky Dec 26 '18 at 17:23
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Since a student pilot posed the query, here are some various thoughts based on my experience with FF. I'm a low-time VFR pilot (500 hours). I rarely make short flights; mostly cc for 1-3 hours. (I wouldn't typically use FF for a 30-min hop). I consider FF a HUGE privilege that could easily be taken away if enough GA pilots abuse it, neglect it, or don't take it seriously.

I always use FF at night. I highly recommend that. I do a lot of night flying.

If I'm flying thru or even near Charlie airspace by day, I use FF near and thru that region.

If I'm flying near or thru Bravo airspace by day, I use FF for the entire flight.

I have never been refused for FF. Maybe it required a 2nd request a few times, but never refused.

Make sure your transponder is kept in good working order and calibrated according to your AD once you get your own plane. If there is an issue with your transponder, FF may ask you to ident, and if they still can't establish a fix on you, they may ask you to recycle your transponder (turn it off, give it 5 seconds, turn it back on, let it re-set.) Never do this unless asked or without asking their permission. You drop off their radar completely for several seconds, and if they're not expecting it they'll rightfully freak.

It's very easy to miss a call from FF if you're talking with your passengers. I inform my passengers that I'm using FF and I either need to isolate myself or limit discussion. Most of my passengers love to hear the ATC chatter.

Don't refuse a "request" from a controller unless it creates a safety concern. For example, I've been kindly requested to veer around a busy corridor near Louisville at 11 pm when UPS has taken over the airport. (Why would I say no?) Understand if you're not in the corridor or in the airspace, FF will "request" rather than "demand." Tell them you'd be happy to. It will probably cost you 90 seconds. Remember you're the smallest guy they're watching. Respect that!!

Whenever you hear your tail number called, put your right hand on the frequency dial before they say the next word. Nothing annoys FF more than low time VFR pilots asking two or three times to repeat a frequency when they are handing you off to the next sector.

Learn which FF calls MUST be answered and which don't. You'll probably learn mostly by trial and error, but you can get in far more trouble by saying nothing than by offering a quick, "937 Affirm." When they say, "937, traffic at 10 O'clock, 7,000 feet. No factor." you don't have to reply ... but why not? "937 Roger." It's a lot like being reassured that your teenager didn't fall asleep in the middle of a conversation.

I never fail to affirm a frequency change on a handoff ... I don't necessarily read back the new frequency ... just "937 Affirm. G'night." If they go looking for you, they have reason to be annoyed. I've been the "annoyer" before.

Always help a controller who is asking you to help find a missing pilot. They'll love you for it. (If you ID yourself as a student, they likely won't pick you to ask for help) That's reason #267 to always keep a pen handy ... a semi-panicking controller who says, "937, can you do me a favor? Go to 123.475 and see if you can find N654 Mike Papa. He never terminated radar coverage and we can't find him." It happens. More than you'd think. Drives the controllers crazy.

ALWAYS advise on your altitude changes. They'll usually say, "Maintain VFR and advise of any altitude changes." Again, it will drive them nuts if you start a descent without advising. When you advise, they will always verify and usually thank you.

If you're using an intermediate waypoint such as an airport or VOR, let FF know it if it's far enough off of a direct route to your destination airport that it could cause some confusion. 04º ... don't bother. 25º ... bother. Same goes for deviating around weather. Chances are they'll let you know of the approaching weather before you see it, but do all you can to make their job easy. Beat 'em to the punch and they'll appreciate it.

Once I'm within 15 miles or so of my destination airport, I often get the feeling that FF is reeeeally wishing I'd terminate radar so they can get rid of me ... but since a lot of confusion and bad things can happen on approach, don't terminate FF earlier than you feel comfortable. They'll want you to tell them you have the weather and the field in sight when you terminate. Whether it's legal, proper, assumed, or otherwise, when you advise, "Indy Service, N937 has the Indy Metro weather and field in sight" they will immediately respond with their "termination" spiel. By day, I typically do this 8-10 miles out. By night, especially with any weather, rarely before 5-6 miles out. When you start flying RNAV/GPS or ILS approaches, that's usually the intermediate approach fix.

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    $\begingroup$ While this is incredibly useful, it doesn't really answer this specific question. It might be best for you to ask and answer a more general question about flight following. $\endgroup$ – Nick Jan 26 '14 at 16:43
  • $\begingroup$ 5 seconds is no longer necessary unless you still have a cavetron in your txp. If you drop off radar for 5 seconds is no biggie. The radar system will go into "coast" mode that projects your position in the absence of a txp signal. $\endgroup$ – rbp Apr 6 '16 at 22:42
  • $\begingroup$ @WildFlyer Good post, but you got a couple of things wrong. ATC doesn’t give you suggestions or requests. If they tell you to do something you must do it. If you don’t want to do what they say, then don’t get Flight Following. Also, always acknowledge an ATC radio call. If you don’t they’ll just have to repeat it. I always let them tell me to contact the tower. The tower knows who you are and is ready to fit you into the sequence. At an uncontrolled field, they will often let you know how many other planes are in the pattern or approaching the airport, so I never drop FF but let them drop me. $\endgroup$ – JScarry Mar 13 '17 at 22:40
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You may request flight following anytime, pre-certificate and after. My CFI required me to request FF while on my student solos - and sometimes ATC is too busy to grant that service, so don't be too surprised if you are turned down. It is always based on a workload permitted basis by ATC.

Another tip - while you are a student pilot, always identify yourself as a student in your flight following request. ATC does in fact go out of their way to assist students.

Nowhere is this written down, but I would not request FF for a very short flight. To me that is just annoying to the controller. But that may just be me.

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I would request flight following on most flights, short or long as soon as practical, which means, on the ground (with ground control) or if at an uncontrolled airport after I have finished flying the plane safely out of the pattern and started navigating to my destination (even if I am not at cruising altitude yet). If you talk to ATC and they are too busy, they will let you know that they are too busy, But most air traffic controllers would much rather have radio contact with you, then not be in radio contact and try to guess what you are doing. For example you are flying vor outside their controled airspace and are ascending to your planned flight altitude, mean while, a wide body commercial plane is descending across your flight path. It is easier, quicker and safer to talk to you about keeping your current altitude until advised, or change your heading then have to divert a wide body plane around you which is on an IFR flight plan because you did not see them.

You get the added safety of another set of eyes looking out for you (some of the time as work load permits) and they get communication with you and an ability to move you around to increase safety. They get another piece on the board that they can legally control, that they normally have no control over. It is a Win for both sides.

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