The Whys and Hows of Flight Following

by Malcolm Dickinson, CFI

This article explains the advantages of using VFR flight following and gives examples of the radio communications involved.

Flight following advantages:

Flight following ("radar advisories" in official terminology) is useful because it does a few things:

Gives you someone to talk to in case anything goes wrong.  Someone who already knows exactly where you are, what type of airplane you are, and where you were headed. 

Gives you the equivalent of another set of eyes looking out for traffic.  Receiving advisories does NOT relieve you of your very great responsibility, as PIC, of maintaining a constant visual lookout for other traffic.  But it does help

If you are instrument rated and should encounter unexpected IMC, you're already talking to the person who you'd need to contact to request a "pop-up" clearance.

If you're a student pilot, or flying into an unfamiliar area, it gives you contact with someone who knows the area and can give you a little coaching if needed, e.g., "the airport is twelve o'clock, five miles."  I remember finding Poughkeepsie airport with the help of the controller on my third solo cross-country.

 Determine who to contact for flight following

In the NY to Boston area, use this chart which shows all the TRACON ("Approach") and ARTCC ("Center") frequencies in the area. It also shows all ATCTs (towers) and AFSS (Flight Service, "Radio") frequencies as well.


- If you don't have it along, or if you're outside that area, then use the frequencies indicated on the Terminal Area Chart.

- If you're in a place not covered by a TAC (e.g., upstate NY) then check the A/FD entry for the nearest IAP-equipped airport to determine the frequency for Approach.

- If you're not near an approach-equipped airport, check the "Air Route Traffic Control Centers" section of the A/FD for the nearest ARTCC ("Center") frequency.

- Finally, if that doesn't work or you don't have an A/FD along, call the nearest FSS (flight service /"Radio") using a VOR.  Give them your location (and a PIREP while you're at it) and ask for the frequency for flight following.  They will give you their best guess and if the frequency isn't right, the controller who answers will be able to provide the correct one.


Listen for a moment, to see how busy the controller is and to wait for a clear space.  Nothing annoys them more than someone who steps on another transmission

Addressing the controller by their correct title seems to help.  "Boston Center", "New York Approach", "Bradley Approach", etc.

Give your type, full tail number, and location, e.g., "Grumman 123RC, one two miles northeast of Madison VOR."  In the same transmission, give your location in round numbers and in reference to a sizeable airport or a VOR.


two zero miles southwest of Binghamton

one five miles north of Massena VOR

ten east of Bridgeport

five north of the Tappan Zee Bridge

over Danbury

But not:

"one two point three miles on the two five niner radial of Madison VOR" (too specific)

and not: "two south of Candlelight Farms" (too small an airport)


   - Grumman 12345, Cherokee 12345, Comanche 12345, Cessna 12345

 but not: "Arrow," "Warrior," "Cherokee 180," "Tiger," etc.

A few minor points about the call-up:

Now is the time to make a good impression on the controller.  Don't waste his time. Don't be verbose.  Don't use slang.  Stick to the facts.  Know your position, altitude, and the name and identifier of your destination airport before you call.

Always give your FULL call sign on initial call-up. 

As a fine point, it is only necessary to say "November" when calling FSS or Flightwatch, or if the tail number of your aircraft only has three digits (November tree zulu kebec).  According to the AIM, drop the "November" any time you are using your aircraft type.  "November 9284 Papa" or "Comanche 9284 Papa" but never "Comanche November 9284 Papa."

3. When the controller responds, state:

 your tail number

 your type and location, if they didn't understand it the first time

 your altitude

 "request advisories en route to ___ " (or "request flight following en route to ___ ")

 your destination (provide the airport identifier and general location if it's small)


 12345 at five thousand request advisories en route to Nantucket

 12345 is a Comanche, one zero north of Madison VOR at tree thousand five hundred, request advisories en route to Bradley

 12345 is over Bridgeport, request advisories en route to one one november, north of Danbury

 12345 climbing through four thousand five hundred, request advisories en route to alpha golf charlie, near Pittsburgh




    Controller: Cessna 345, frequency change approved, report back on the frequency."




    You: "135.57, 345 g'day."  (Enter the new frequency into your flip-flop radio while you read it back - or write it down if no flip-flop.)



    Controller: Cessna 345, roger, Albany altimeter tree zero zero two." (you set your altimeter as you hear the setting)





You: "Approach (or Center), 345 is ten miles from Danbury, cancel advisories"

Controller: "Cessna 345, roger, squawk 1200, frequency change approved" (change your transponder while s/he's saying it)

You: "345, squawking VFR, g'day"

And now you're just another anonymous aircraft in the sky, beholden to no one.


Controller: "Cessna 345, ten miles from Orange County Airport, radar service terminated, change to advisory frequency approved."

You: "345, squawking VFR, g'day"


Controller: "Cessna 345, leaving my airspace, radar service terminated, squawk 1200, frequency change approved."

You: "345, squawking VFR, g'day"

Or you could say: "345, squawking VFR, could you give me a frequency for further advisories?"

Controller: "Aahh, could try Boston Center in about two five miles on 125.85."

You: "Thanks, g'day"

When you get cancelled like this, it's usually because you've traveled into a remote area and you're not high enough to be picked up by the distant ARTCC radar.  If you want to continue advisories, you could offer to climb in order to be handed off to Center.  Squawk 1200, and asking how high you'd need to climb.  Then you can decide whether you want to bother.

Or sometimes they can't get through on the phone line to the next sector.  In this case you'll hear something like this.

Controller: "Cessna 345, unable to affect handoff to New York Approach, radar service terminated, squawk 1200, frequency change approved.  Try New York Approach in one zero miles on 126.7."

You: "345, squawking VFR, g'day"


Questions to: