Which regulation or AIM section specifically states when a pilot is required to report negative contact? It appears that different airports in the US have slightly different expectations.

My understanding is that ATC is only relieved of separation requirements when the pilot says "Traffic in Sight". However, if ATC says "Cessna 123, Number 2 following traffic on downwind", if pilot says "Number 2 following traffic on Downwind, Cessna 123", that is the same as saying Negative Contact. In other words, unless the pilot says the magic words "Traffic in Sight", ATC treats anything else as negative contact. Until the pilot reports traffic in sight, or ATC says "Report Traffic in Sight", it seems like unecessary radio traffic for pilot to report negative contact, unless specifically asked by ATC.

Also, what do tower controllers think about this?


2 Answers 2


The short answer is that in your example there's no reason to assume that the controller was asking the pilot to maintain visual separation. If the controller had wanted the pilot to do that, they would have asked if the pilot had traffic in sight and the pilot would be expected to answer the question.

The ATC orders have an entire section on visual separation (section 7-2-1) with lots of details. There are two types: ATC-applied and pilot-applied, depending on who's actually responsible for maintaining the separation. I think you're asking about pilot-applied separation, and there's really nothing in the dialog you quoted that suggests the controller intended the pilot to maintain their own separation. In fact, it's possible that the controller was maintaining visual separation themselves based on seeing both aircraft, and that doesn't require the pilot to have the other aircraft in sight.

If ATC assigns pilot-applied separation, they need to hear two things from the pilot: they have the traffic in sight, and they will maintain visual separation. See 7-2-1(a)(2)(c):

If the pilot reports the traffic in sight and will maintain visual separation from it (the pilot must state both), the controller may “approve” the operation

The Orders have an example and it's laid out as a three-step process: first the controller tells the pilot where the other aircraft is, then they ask the pilot to confirm traffic in sight, and finally if the answer is positive they ask the pilot to maintain visual separation. Since ATC is asking a question, the pilot has to answer one way or another, whether that's with "traffic in sight" or "negative contact".

Coming back to the example you gave, the controller simply told the pilot that they were number 2 behind other traffic. The controller didn't ask if the pilot had traffic in sight and while the pilot might volunteer that information, the controller didn't need it at that point in time (they might need it later if the aircraft are getting too close, or something else changes).

Long story short, if ATC needs to know if you have the traffic in sight then they'll ask you.

  • $\begingroup$ Great answer! This was my understanding that if they wanted me to report traffic in sight they would ask, which I usually volunteer anyway. But when its not in sight I usually don't report it because its assumed, unless they specifically ask. I'm flying at a busy field where it appears that ATC expects pilots to report both Traffice in Sight and Negative Contact without being asked. Maybe I'll call the tower and ask them if its a local thing. $\endgroup$
    – Devil07
    Commented Oct 24, 2020 at 2:01
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    $\begingroup$ @Devil07 Thanks, I’m glad it helped! There are lots of informal local practices out there and calling the tower wouldn’t hurt. If your field is busy and especially if it’s a lot of training traffic then ATC may be more concerned about who can see who. $\endgroup$
    – Pondlife
    Commented Oct 24, 2020 at 2:09

Pondlife has a good answer for if the both aircraft are IFR. In that case visual separation is used in lieu of other standard separation (radar, non-radar, or vertical separation), and in that case the "traffic in sight"—"maintain visual separation"—"wilco" sequence must happen before standard separation is lost.

But for VFR aircraft, at least outside of Bravo airspace, we don't actually have ANY minimum separation. Obviously it would be very bad if two planes hit. But until they hit we don't have a "deal" (loss of separation). Look in the 7110.65 chapter 7 under Class C VFR service and Class D VFR service. In Class C, we have to have "target resolution" (dots on the scope don't touch) between a VFR and an IFR aircraft, but there is no standard separation VFR-VFR. In Class D there isn't even target resolution. All we have to provide are traffic advisories and safety alerts.

What does that mean for a VFR pilot? If we call traffic in the downwind and say you're going to follow them, we assume you have the traffic in sight and will proceed under standard VFR/VMC "see and avoid" procedures as required in Part 91. The back-and-forth "will maintain visual separation" isn't required. And even if one of pilots is actually IFR, if the tower can see both planes and issues proper control instructions, for example "follow the traffic on final," tower-applied visual separation can be used without going through the whole sequence.

edit: to actually answer the original question. If you get traffic called, you should always respond with "looking" or "negative contact" or "traffic in sight." ("Got him on the fish finder" is completely useless and unnecessary.) Because of what I said above, we do different things based on if you have the traffic in sight or not.

There are also some mandatory traffic calls we give even if you don't need to do anything about it, for example merging target procedures say that for certain types of aircraft/flight plans we have to call traffic if the targets will merge and we don't have more than the required vertical separation. This is for your situational awareness so you don't freak out if the TCAS starts yelling at you, but we don't actually need you to do anything because the minimum separation is still legal separation. Even in that case a quick "looking" is good so we know you heard.

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    $\begingroup$ Good answer, and welcome to Av.SE! Always good to have more controllers on the board to get that perspective on things. $\endgroup$
    – Ralph J
    Commented Jan 31, 2021 at 2:45
  • $\begingroup$ @randomhead thanks for the contribution. I'd like to clarify your second to last paragraph. Isn't "looking" and "negative contact" treated exactly the same by ATC? Also, if the pilot doesn't say "traffic in sight" doesn't ATC keep providing advisories until the pilot sees the traffic or they ask "report traffict in sight" or "do you have traffic in sight?" I'm really interested in your point of view. $\endgroup$
    – Devil07
    Commented Feb 1, 2021 at 7:42
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    $\begingroup$ @Devil07 yes, I think "negative contact" is technically correct but you can say "looking" if you like, it's shorter. Same difference on our end. And yes, we will continue to provide advisories (or otherwise control the situation, e.g. extend downwind) until you report in sight—but we want you to say something to acknowledge the transmission, hence "looking." $\endgroup$
    – randomhead
    Commented Feb 1, 2021 at 12:10

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