It's that time of year again. The time when the seasonal pilots dust off the airplanes, remove the bird nests from the engine cowling, kick the tires and light the fires. Along with the traditional worries about how the airplane will perform, and how the pilots themselves will perform, there is one more issue from the ATC point of view: How the radio and procedures work will go on that first flight.
Throughout the year, this is something we watch. Now, most of the pilots we speak with fly on a regular basis, so they're a little more practiced about what to expect and what we expect, but even those that do fly regularly sometimes have some troubles. We know that. We know that not everyone is perfect. But in the pursuit of this unachievable goal, I thought I'd lay out some things for the VFR pilot who calls the ACC for what the AIM calls "enroute radar surveillance". Something that we in Moncton ACC, have come to know as "flight following".
First off, what is flight following? If you enter Class D or higher airspace on your VFR flight, the service is a little different, as it becomes a control service that you'll be provided with. But if your VFR flight is within Class E airspace (and sometimes the service will be provided in Class G airspace, but not always), you can call and ask the ACC or watch over your flight. When providing this service, ATC will, on a workload- and equipment-permitting basis, keep you apprised of pertient traffic information on IFR and other VFR aircraft operating in your area. They may also provide you with significant weather information along your route of flight, especially if it may preclude you from proceeding VFR. Flight following is not a control service. A pilot should be aware of what class of airspace he or she is in at all times, so they know what's expected of them, and what they can expect from ATC. Also, knowing this helps a pilot determine what authority ATC has over their flight, if any.
What flight following is not: It is not a substitute for the old "see and be seen" rule of VFR flight. You, as a pilot, are still required to look out the window for the same old reasons. You are responsible for avoiding terrain and obstructions, as well as IFR weather conditions. ATC's radar can usually pick out areas of precipitation, but to us, it may be a ceiling 5,000 feet AGL that you can fly under, or it could be a layer based at 200' AGL that you can't go under. We won't know. Also, while we do have limited information on terrain and obstructions, we don't carry it all. Remember we're geared more for IFR than VFR. The next thing that's still of importance is watching out for traffic. In many areas outside of busy terminal areas, we can't see an aircraft that doesn't have a transponder. This means that you could very well be flying around an area where there are gliders, paradrops, or just other aircraft with no transponder or an unserviceable one and we wouldn't know it. So regardless of whether you're talking to the ACC, you still have to look out the window.
This service is completely dependent on communication, too. Once you check in, you should remain on the ACC's frequency unless you have to leave. And we know there are a variety of reasons why you might have to leave ATC's frequency: Updating of the FIC with new flight plan information or PIREPs, transiting Mandatory Frequency Areas, making position calls through published training areas, and so on. But the tip here is this: If you do have leave ATC's frequency while they're providing this service to you, give us a "heads up". Let us know that you're leaving and how long you'll be off if you plan to return to us. That way, if we're looking at traffic approaching that we haven't told you about, or we simply can't provide you with the service any more, or whatever, we have the opportunity to tell you. It happens often that a VFR aircraft calls in and requests the service, but when we try to call to provide some information, the pilot has left our frequency and we can't communicate with him/her. So what is the pilot expecting at this point? Who knows?
Also make communications brief and to the point. We don't need to know everything that's going on, but tell us what we need to know. Generally, make your initial call with our callsign then yours. This gives us a chance to look for your flight information or get ready to copy it. When we reply, give us some basics: Your type of aircraft, where you are, where you're going and how high you're planning to fly. If we want more, we'll ask for it. But this tells us where to look for you and what you'll be up to. If any of that changes (say, you want to climb or descend, or you have to change your destination), let us know. That way we'll know what's going on and won't be guessing what's happening. If you suddenly start to climb, other aircraft that may not have been traffic for you may come into the picture, so we can tell you about it.
Lastly, when the service is being terminated, we'll tell you. It'll be more or less plain English, something to the effect of, "Radar services terminated, cleared enroute frequencies". What we're telling you, at this point, is this: "I can't provide you with any more services. You can switch to whatever frequency you'd normally be using if you weren't talking to me." If that's 126.7, or an MF or ATF, or whatever, you can switch to that when you hear a statement like this one. Also, it happens sometimes when you call that the ACC is just too busy with other traffic and they can't provide you with flight following. They'll generally tell you so right up front, "Unable flight following, cleared enroute frequencies." This generally means that there are other tasks that are taking up the controller's attention and the service cannot be provided. And this may be true even if you don't hear the ATC radio busy with chatter, since a lot of our workload is "behind the scenes" coordinating with other ATC units. Since ATC is a control service before anything else, it can often mean that the controller is absorbed in the provision of IFR ATC services and can't commit the time or attention to watch over you. But it can also mean that they simply can't provide it where you are. For example, radar coverage may not permit ATC to see you along your route of flight at your chosen altitude. Either way, if you hear a statement like this, it means that ATC can't provide the service to your flight at that time.
Hopefully, this answered many of your questions. If not, please feel free to post in the forums in the ATC section, and we can help provide you with more specific information.