Close Calls is a column detailing the “close call” experiences of fellow pilots. Determining a close call can be quite subjective but for our purposes here a close call will be any situation where a pilot suddenly realizes the presence of a nearby aircraft that they were otherwise unaware of.
The reason for Close Calls and my personal mission to become a very public collision avoidance advocate was a fatal mid-air collision a little over a year ago that occurred near my home airport. A busy corridor exists there where traffic returning from the practice area to the north crosses traffic in an area that places the intersecting traffic close to each other in distance and altitude in an effort to fly below the class C rings of nearby Pearson Airport in Toronto. Despite the traffic in the area relatively few VFR aircraft choose to communicate with ATC which would provide assistance with traffic detection and might even allow them to enter the class C – at least enough to ease some of the congestion in the area beneath the rings.
Why are so many VFR pilots averse to using flight following? This month in Close Calls I ask an air traffic controller. This Controller obtained their private pilots license before beginning a career in ATC. Learning to fly at an airport which is located underneath a major terminal airspace, they recall how intimidating ATC can appear from within the cockpit. Having spent several years working as a Terminal Controller, they continue to enjoy exercising the privileges of a private pilot’s license during their leisure time.
(Anthony) Is it bothersome for air traffic controllers when VFR pilots request flight following? (Controller) No, a simple request is not bothersome to Controllers. Our role as a service provider is to ensure the safe orderly and expeditious flow of traffic. Something important for pilots to understand is the importance of an ATC frequency. A Controllers most important function is to ensure that IFR separation is maintained. The only vehicle we have to issue instructions to ensure this separation - is our frequency.
Perhaps the most important thing to remember as a VFR pilot who would like to request flight following is the importance of minimizing frequency congestion. We don’t expect every pilot who contacts us with a request to have impeccable phraseology, perfect radio etiquette or an in-depth understanding of what we do. There are however a few things I learned when I started in ATC that might be useful to remember.
When you’re going to call ATC, tune in the frequency and listen for a moment to ensure that you will not be interrupting an exchange between ATC and another aircraft. Once you are sure that the frequency is clear, interject with only your aircraft ident, and if you have already been assigned a discreet transponder code, include that as well (“Toronto Terminal, fox alfa bravo charlie squawking 5341”).
While we may not be speaking on the frequency when you call, we could be coordinating with another controller on a phone or hotline. When we are able to give your our attention we’ll let you know (“fox alfa bravo charlie, Toronto”). Now, please tell us a bit about your request (“Toronto, fox alfa bravo charlie is a Cessna 206, 12 miles north-east of Waterloo at 3,000, requesting flight following to Parry Sound”). It is important to ensure that there are no long pauses during your transmission. A good way to make sure you won’t have to pause during your transmission is, before calling, to ensure you’ve run through what you need to say in your mind.
Once we have this information, if we are able to provide the service we will let you know and ensure you’re correlated on our radar. If your flight path is going to take you through positive control airspace, such as Class C or D terminal areas, call early enough so that this exchange can be completed before you enter.
(Anthony) What do you want to say to pilots who feel intimidated by ATC?
(Controller) I wish there was a magic cure for this, or I could invite every pilot into a control facility to meet a Controller, but I can’t. What I can say is we’re human too. I remember how much I used to loath having to call terminal for fear I would make a mistake or otherwise embarrass myself. I used to find their stern matter of fact tone very intimidating. However, as Controllers we are taught to speak clearly, succinctly, and confidently to ensure pilots can understand us. While we may at times sound a little unfriendly, Controllers take great pride in their responsibility and work diligently to provide good service to our customers. Sometimes we are simply unable to provide VFR flight following because of the concentration of other IFR or VFR aircraft. Please don’t take that personally.
I would also suggest to those that find us intimidating to listen. Listen to ATC on a scanner when you’re not flying, or if you’re able to try to monitor ATC while you are flying. See what other pilots say and how they say it. I learned a lot as a pilot and a Controller listening to others work. In this way I was able to gain confidence. This confidence reduced how intimidating the system appeared to me. (Anthony) How can we encourage more pilots to make using flight following a good and safe habit?
(Controller) I think flight following is a wonderful tool. I use it regularly when flying cross country VFR. Using flight following ensures that ATC is aware of where I am and what I’m doing. It provides me with good information about what traffic is around me and could potentially conflict with my flight path. It ensures that if I need assistance someone is right there, knows where I am, and can be reached in an instant. I’m often provided with updates about special use airspace in the area. I also happen to find it interesting to listen to ATC, to see what’s going on around me and what conditions and reports other pilots are providing which might be useful to me.
While flight following is a super tool, it is important to remember its limitations. These weren’t all so obvious to me until I trained in ATC. First, as a VFR pilot, it is my responsibility to remain VFR… period. Controllers can’t see the clouds and rely on you to tell them when you need to descend or turn to remain VFR. Also, we must continue to maintain a good look-out for other traffic. ATC is unable to see everyone on radar, and sometimes other workload prevents them from passing all the traffic to our VFR customers.
Thanks Anthony for asking, it’s wonderful to have a venue to share our perspective.
(Anthony) I’d like to thank our controller for providing an opinion on flight following from the perspective of ATC. Once again I will continue to recommend that all pilots always maintain a good lookout, communicate diligently, consider acquiring PCAS, and get into the habit of using flight following.