Over the last few years, I have had several debates with a pilot friend over the use of flight following and I don’t think we will ever agree 100%. My opinion is to use it always, where his opinion is, “if you’re flying VFR, it’s not necessary – see and avoid” he says.
I have had my pilot’s license for just over two years now. I did the better part of my private pilot training at a towered airport where flight following is easy to pick up and often suggested or offered by air traffic control. So from day one, it was preached to me by my instructor to always use it. This quickly became part of my routine whether I was going out to practice maneuvers or going on a cross country VFR flight.
At the onset of my training, I asked for flight following because my instructor told me to. The more I flew, the more I saw the benefits of it. To date, I’ve avoided near misses on two occasions thanks to air traffic control advising me of another aircraft I was on a collision course with that I never would have known about otherwise.
A Near Miss
My first near miss was right after I took my private pilot check ride. My instructor and I departed Mankato and were en-route back to Rochester at 3,500 feet when the controller came on and advised me of another aircraft headed right toward me. Both my instructor and I started looking for the other aircraft but could not see it. A moment later the controller says…
“I suggest you turn 20 degrees right and climb.”
Without hesitation, I turned the aircraft 20 degrees right as suggested and started to climb. The controller came back and said “aircraft at your 11 o’clock 1 mile.” I looked out the window and saw a twin engine aircraft whiz by us. My instructor looked at me and said “thats why you use flight following”. After he said that, I thought to myself thank god for air traffic controllers. A mid air collision would have made my good day (after passing my check ride) into the last day of my life.
My second near miss was just a few days ago as a matter of fact. I was flying westbound back to Rochester with my wife and a friend (the same one who doesn’t agree with me on flight following) after having breakfast at the Jet Room at the Madison, WI airport. We were at 4,500 feet and air traffic control said “aircraft at your 12 o’clock eastbound 5 miles 5,000 is a Cessna 182.” The aircraft I was flying happened to be equipped with ADS-B in/out as did the other aircraft that was headed right for me. I could see him on my Garmin 430 and my iPad. I told my friend and wife to look out the window and help me find this aircraft.
I advised the controller that I did not see him. The controller said…
“turn 10 degrees left, vector for traffic”
The controller told the other aircraft the same thing. A few moments later, the controller told me “that traffic is at your 1 o’clock, 1 mile.” I looked out to my 1 o’clock and there the other aircraft is. I looked over at my friend and said, “did you see how close he was, thats exactly why I use flight following and why you should as well.”
I’ve done quite a bit of flying since I got my private pilot’s license and have always used flight following, including a round trip flight from Rochester, MN to Chicago Midway. I have never had a controller decline this service or seem irritated because I was just a VFR guy.
Flight Following provides the VFR pilot with much more than just traffic advisories. You get many of the same protections and services that a pilot would who is on an IFR flight plan.
- Weather warnings.
- TFR avoidance.
- Clearance through Class C and D airspace and even Class B if its not too busy.
- Emergency assistance – in the event of an emergency, you’re already in contact with ATC and they know where you are. So if you do have an emergency, all you have to do is tell them and they will give you priority and any assistance you need.
Now, it is important to remember that just because you are on flight following does not alleviate your responsibility as a pilot to see and avoid other aircraft. Flight following does increase your situational awareness and in my opinion is an added safety measure. So next time you fly request flight following and reap the benefits!