The Pros and Cons of Using Flight Following When Flying
The question of whether you should or should not use flight following is a topic that comes up a lot. I’m going to do my best to address that question, once and for all. But first, for all of the non-pilots out there, let me give a brief explanation of exactly what flight following is.
Flight following is an aviation tool that allows pilots to receive assistance from Air Traffic Control centers around the United States. Flight following uses radar to assist pilots with avoiding severe weather, avoiding other aircraft, and otherwise navigating their flight plans safely.
Although not always legally required, flight following is a valuable safety tool that all pilots should know how to use well, especially if flying cross country. Here, I’ll be going over some of the pros and cons of flight following.
Use of Flight Following is Different for Every Pilot
There are many strong opinions among pilots. A lot of pilots tend to think that ‘their way is the right way’. But the truth of the matter is that everybody learns differently. How and when a pilot uses flight following depends on a number of different factors. It’s important to make clear that everything I write here is strictly based on my own personal experience.
Now, a quick note. There are two general kinds of flying, VFR and IFR.
In aviation, VFR (Visual Flight Rules) refers to when pilots primarily rely on their vision to fly. IFR (Instrument Flight Rules) refers to when pilots primarily rely on the airplane’s instruments to fly.
While FAA rules require that all VFR pilots receive some degree of IFR training, an IFR rating requires extensive training and experience. I strongly urge VFR pilots to stay away from IFR conditions. However, if you find yourself in IFR conditions as a VFR pilot, it’s important to know what to do. I go into more detail on that in this video.
Now, moving on the pros and cons of flight following.
The Pros of Flight Following
It goes without saying that flying airplanes has its risks and, before all else, pilots need to have a sound flight plan that prioritizes safety. Flight following is, above all, a great safety tool for pilots.
An Extra Eye in the Sky
Flight following puts you in direct contact with an air traffic controller. Pilots do have tools available in their aircraft, but having the added technology and expertise of an ATC is a huge benefit. They can look out for traffic for you. They can send weather updates. Sometimes, they can even help you navigate towards your destination.
It Improves Your Radio Communication Skills
Air traffic controllers are typically dealing with multiple pilots at a time, so it’s important to be clear and concise when communicating with them. There’s a whole lingo involved and it can feel like learning a new language. To get a feel for what I mean, check out this video to hear some examples from my time in training.
Having excellent radio skills is something that all pilots should strive for and flight following helps you develop them. Not only are you communicating, but you’re constantly hearing other pilots as well. The more you train your ears, the more naturally it will come to you.
Easier Transitions Between Air Spaces
The FAA classifies all airspace in the United States. Depending on your location and altitude, you may or may not need clearance. Flight following is helpful because you are already communicating with ATC and they will let you know if they need you to alter your course and divert.
This also applies if you’re approaching a military airspace. If there is any activity that would prevent you from getting clearance, they will quickly let you know. If the restriction is limited to a certain altitude, they can let you know if you can fly above it.
It’s a Great Learning Tool
You can see flight following as a kind of early stage of training for IFR flying. With instrument flying, pilots are in constant contact with ATC and having those radio skills is a must.
So, as you can see, there definitely are some great benefits to flight following. However, in my experience, there are also some downsides.
The Cons of Flight Following
Not everything about flight following is great. I’ll go into detail on what I consider to be the cons.
Flight Following Means a Noisy Cockpit
If you’re hoping to have a quiet cockpit or to have a conversation, it won’t be realistic with flight following. There is constant chatter on the radio and any conversation will be constantly interrupted. It’s also important that you pay constant attention, because you never know when ATC will be addressing you.
It Can Add More Time to Your Flight Plan
ATC is tasked with keeping air traffic safe, and there are times when they have to alter your trajectory or delay your landing. It’s something that you should take into consideration when you plan to fly through busy airspace.
It Can Divert Your Flight Plan
There are times when flight following can alter your flight plan significantly. They may have you make several turns and it can challenge your ability to get your navigation back on track.
It Can Make You Too Dependent
Flight following is a great tool, but it’s important to keep in mind that you, as the pilot, are the one flying. Ultimately, you have to develop all of your skills confidently. Being too reliant on flight following can slow down your progress.
It’s Not Always Available
Flight following isn’t always an option. There are places where it’s simply not available. But even if available, there are times when they are too busy to help you.
Should You or Should You Not Use It
I really do believe that it all depends on you. There are definitely times when it is necessary and beneficial, but in many circumstances, it won’t make sense for you. Either way, I hope this gave you a good sense of the pros and cons of flight following.