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I was flying my first solo cross country today with VFR flight following heading east at 5,500 ft. As I approach my top of descent (TOD), the controller nonchalantly said, "[call sign], you can descend to 4,500, if you want." So I replied that I would descend to 4,500. I got handed off to the next controller and told him, "[call sign] level at 4,500." He got somewhat annoyed that I wasn't at an odd-thousand-plus-500 foot altitude heading east, so I told him I would continue descending to 3,500.

My question is, how should I have handled this? Should I have told the new controller I was restricted at or above 4,500 even though the previous controller didn't explicitly say I was restricted (recall she just said, "you can descend to 4500, if you want").

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  • $\begingroup$ Often they restrict your descent for other traffic. Looks like the other controller didn’t get the message. Nothing to worry about. $\endgroup$ – JScarry Jun 11 '18 at 0:51
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There is a bit of a misunderstanding as to what happened here

Should I have told the new controller I was restricted at or above 4,500 even though the previous controller didn't explicitly say I was restricted (recall she just said, "you can descend to 4500, if you want").

You were not restricted to anything (assuming you were within any airspace limitations), flight following is not the same thing as being vectored. Sometimes on flight following you will hear something like

VFR Altitude At Your Discretion

When you are on flight following you are subject to ATC vectors when they are issued in controlled airspace (A,B,C,D and E) but you are also free to maneuver within the VFR regulations so long as you are not asked to hold a course or avoid a certain area or move for traffic etc.

you can descend to 4500, if you want

This was not an explicit instruction and not one you needed to comply with nor the floor to which you could come down to technically. They were saying there was no apparent traffic conflicts and if you (for what ever reason) wanted to come down you were clear to at least 4500 ft.

However there are some cases under flight following where you should comply with instructions. Im actually not sure what the legality is on this since you technically don't need to take FF in which case "see ad avoid" is your responsibility. But on any note I have received something like

Turn left 20 degrees for traffic climbing out of 2500 for 8000

In my experience flying trainer sized stuff in the congested north east corridor, flight following (which ultimate often comes from approach control in this area) will vector you out of the way for jet traffic. Strictly speaking this has occurred in class E airspace where VFR aircraft are largely free to do as they wish.


You may have also been handed off to an angry controller, but you should stick to VFR cruising altitudes when possible as per § 91.159.

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    $\begingroup$ Unless we know where the OP was flying, they may not even have been subject to 91.159. That regulation only applies to altitudes of 3000 feet above the surface, so for example around Denver, you wouldn't have to comply with the even/odd rule until at least 8,000 feet. The OP was also authorized by ATC to decend to 4500, so even if it did apply, ATC authorized a lower altitude. This was the controllers fault, not the pilots. $\endgroup$ – Ron Beyer Jun 11 '18 at 2:22
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    $\begingroup$ @RonBeyer My understanding is that under flight following you can ascend and decend at your own discretion (without clearance) although its generally a good idea to ask first. I often get the "vfr decend at your discretion" when on FF asking for a lower altitude. $\endgroup$ – Dave Jun 11 '18 at 2:27
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    $\begingroup$ That is correct, you are VFR and flight following is just radar separation service unless you are in airspace where you are controlled (like around an airport). I've done it both ways (just adjust altitude and ask) and nobody has ever said anything when I "just did it", but when asking I get anything from "approved" to "N12345 you are VFR, altitude your discretion" (with the overtone of "don't ask me again"). $\endgroup$ – Ron Beyer Jun 11 '18 at 2:32
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    $\begingroup$ "you are not subject to ATC vectors unless you are in Class B, C or D controlled airspace" is not correct. Remember that class E is controlled airspace, therefore per 91.123(b) you must comply with all ATC instructions. See the Karas interpretation for explicit confirmation. $\endgroup$ – Pondlife Jun 14 '18 at 2:21
  • $\begingroup$ @Pondlife Interesting, I have adjusted accordingly $\endgroup$ – Dave Jun 14 '18 at 2:53
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Not sure why that controller was grumpy except that some controllers are always grumpy. Just say '[previous] center' cleared the descent to 4500.

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