Pilots who are receiving radar advisories, better known as VFR Flight Following, often wonder if they will be cleared to enter airspace along their route.
For example, assume you’re flying VFR between Albany, OR (S12) and Scappoose, OR (KSCP).
(To see the route below on charts at SkyVector.com, click here.)
As you can see on the chart below, the direct route takes you over Salem (KSLE), a Class D airport; just west of the Class D airspace at Aurora, OR (KUAO); and later through the Class D airspace at Hillsboro (KHIO). The course also tracks just west of the busy Class C airspace that surrounds Portland International Airport (KPDX).
After takeoff, you contact Cascade Approach for flight following, get a squawk code, and, without restrictions from ATC, proceed on the direct route to KSCP. An overcast layer at 3000 ft. MSL restricts your cruise to at or below 2500 ft.
Do you have to contact the towers at KSLE and KHIO for permission to transit their airspace? Although you’ll remain legally clear of the Class D airspace at KUAO if you can remain on the direct course, what if you need to zig and zag to avoid clouds? Should you contact Aurora Tower? What about the Class C airspace at KPDX?
The September 2017 issue of Air Traffic Procedures Bulletin (PDF), a newsletter for air traffic controllers published by the FAA, clarifies the roles of pilots and air traffic controllers when pilots are receiving flight following. The bulletin notes that pilots and controllers have shared responsibility.
VFR Aircraft Receiving Radar Advisories (VFR Flight Following) Approaching Class D
What are ATCs responsibilities? Who is responsible for the pilot’s communication responsibility within the Class D surface area?
Many times, pilots receiving VFR Radar Advisories believe that as long as they are talking to one ATC facility, they have fulfilled their responsibility for entering a Class D airspace. Pilots may believe that controllers will tell them when/if they are approaching a Class D surface area. As controllers, we have a responsibility to coordinate with the appropriate ATC facility having jurisdiction over the airspace.
First, controllers must follow the guidance in Air Traffic Control (JO 7110.65, PDF available here):
As controllers, we have a responsibility to coordinate with the appropriate ATC facility having jurisdiction over the airspace, FAA Order JO 7110.65W states:
2-1-16. SURFACE AREAS
b. Coordinate with the appropriate control tower for transit authorization when you are providing radar traffic advisory service to an aircraft that will enter another facility’s airspace.
NOTE− The pilot is not expected to obtain his/her own authorization through each area when in contact with a radar facility.
But the bulletin notes that pilots also have a regulatory requirement to establish two-way communications before entering Class D or Class C airspace, as noted in the AIM and other sources.
The pilot’s responsibility to meet their radio communication requirement to enter Class D airspace is NOT eliminated when receiving VFR Radar Advisories. The Aeronautical Information Manual, 3-2-1, states:
d. VFR Requirements. It is the responsibility of the pilot to ensure that ATC clearance or radio communication requirements are met prior to entry into Class B, Class C, or Class D airspace. The pilot retains this responsibility when receiving ATC radar advisories. (See 14 CFR Part 91.)
To resolve this conflict, the bulletin goes on to explain:
Since both the controller providing VFR Radar Advisories and the pilot who is receiving the advisories have a clear responsibility, there can be some confusion about which party is communicating with the ATC facility having jurisdiction over the Class D surface area. 14 CFR 91.129 includes language that specifies that it is the pilot’s overall responsibility for complying with the Class D communications requirement.
There are a few ways controllers can assist pilots when providing VFR Radar Advisories that will ultimately help with controller workload. Since the pilot is responsible for their Class D communication requirement, if the controller coordinates with the ATC facility having jurisdiction over the surface area, let the pilot know, so they do not query you. If you are too busy to coordinate, you are required to terminate VFR Radar Advisories in a timely manner so the pilot is able to contact the Class D ATC facility prior to entry.
It’s also important to note that air traffic control facilities have letters of agreement (LOA) to establish local procedures, such as entry and exit routes at busy airports, handoffs between facilities, and similar matters. These LOA are not typically published for pilots. An LOA may allow an approach facility to send aircraft under its control through a Class D surface area at specific altitudes and along certain routes. Or the LOA may streamline the coordination required before one controller allows an aircraft to enter another controller’s airspace.
For more information about your obligation to follow ATC instructions, see Compliance with ATC Clearances and Instructions—Even When VFR.
For more information on this topic, see BruceAir’s Guide to ATC Services for VFR Pilots.