VFR Phraseology

Copied From: P3 Rating: VFR Flight Planning and Flying

What You Need to Know


  • Flight Following: a radar service from ATC which will provide air traffic warnings, weather warnings, and terrain and obstacle warnings to a VFR pilot. The Approach/Departure controller may provide this near their airspace, or they may hand you off to the Center controller for that area. Flight Following is available (assuming the appropriate controller is online) on a workload-permitting basis; ATC may decline to provide these services if they are too busy with IFR traffic. However, in VATSIM, it is rare (except possibly during major events) that the controller wouldn't agree to provide it. More often on VATSIM you'd get declined for Flight Following because there isn't a controller currently logged on who handles that area.



  • VFR aircraft must be talking to ATC within B, C, or D airspace -- in Class B airspace that must include a specific clearance to enter, but in C and D space, simple two-way communication (where ATC has responded to you specifically by callsign) is sufficient.
  • For all ATC transmissions you should state the facility callsign, then your callsign, then your message. For all readbacks, you should read back any instructions you were given (specifically headings/routes, altitudes, speeds, or runway or taxiway clearances) followed by your callsign.
  • VATSIM employs a "top-down" coverage structure. The progression upward is Clearance Delivery --> Ground --> Tower --> Approach/Departure --> Center. For whichever you need to contact, if they are not online, move to the next one up the chain (who covers the same geographical region) until you find one that is.
  • The first communication step in a VFR flight is to retrieve the ATIS message for the origin airport, or, if none is available, the METAR observation.
  • The second step is to get your clearance. The call should include what aircraft type you are, where you are, what direction you're going, whether you have the ATIS or weather info, and optionally whether you would like Flight Following. The response will include heading/routing, max altitude, departure frequency, and squawk code. In some circumstances (i.e. where no radar services are to be provided after departure), the departure frequency and/or squawk code may not be included.
  • The third step is to get taxi instructions. It's a good idea to be looking at the airport diagram when these come and have some method of jotting down the series of taxiway letters, so you can read them back correctly and follow the route given without error.
  • When being handed off to Tower, "Contact..." means to switch over and check in, and "Monitor..." means to switch over but REMAIN SILENT and wait to be called.
  • The fourth step is to obtain your takeoff clearance. The clearance may include a post-departure heading/routing or altitude, then may include wind information, then will definitely include the runway number and "clear for takeoff." If the post-departure heading contradicts the clearance you were previously given, the new instruction overrides the former. If none is given, you should follow the instruction in your clearance. If neither were given, it's best to assume runway heading until told otherwise or until clearing the airspace.
  • At any point if Tower or Departure says "turn on course" or "resume own navigation," it means you're free to turn toward your destination.
  • The fifth step will be working with Departure. The controller will radar-identify you, usually by verbally verifying your altitude. While in a Class B or C space, VFR pilots are bound by all headings/routings, altitudes, and speeds they are assigned; however, altitudes are typically given as an "at or below" so they may descend to avoid clouds if necessary.
  • Once in Class E space, if you elected for Flight Following, you'll receive Traffic Point-Outs, weather advisories, and terrain alerts. Traffic calls should be responded to by advising "negative contact" (or the non-standard but often-used "looking") or "in sight." "No factor" means that the traffic's no longer in danger of conflicting with your path. ATC will recommend altitudes and headings but you're free to navigate and climb/decend on your own. You should advise ATC if your overall plan changes radically from what you originally told them.
  • The pilot should check the ATIS or METAR for their destination prior to approaching B, C, or D airspace. It's the VFR pilot's responsibility to ensure they are talking to the appropriate facility, even if under Flight Following. The call to enter the space should come 6-10nm prior to entering. That call should include location, altitude, and intentions -- either arriving at a particular airfield or "transitioning the Class {XXX} airspace to the {direction}."
  • Class B space requires a specific "cleared to enter Class Bravo." Class C and D requires a controller to acknowledge you in any fashion by callsign, except if directing you to "remain clear." If the entry requirements are not met, the pilot should turn or climb/descend as necessary to avoid the airspace.
  • It is possible, although rare, that ATC might be unable to allow VFR traffic into a Class B area, even if the flight's destination is a field within that airspace. The pilot will simply need to hold outside the airspace, or divert to an alternate destination.
  • Once back under positive control from ATC, the rest of the flight should simply proceed as instructed by the controllers, reading back and complying with all headings/routings, altitudes, and airspeeds. Once within sight of the airport, a pattern entry instruction will be given, then landing clearance, and then taxi instructions to parking.


More Detail

By contrast to IFR flights in the US, which are almost always in communication with Air Traffic Control, VFR flights often occur in airspace which does not require ATC contact, either for the whole flight or a portion of it. In fact, the ATC communication requirements for pilots flying VFR are different depending on what type of airspace you are in. Because of that, unlike our P4 Lesson on IFR communication which includes a phrase-by-phrase chart for each step of an IFR flight, this guide is a little less structured, to account for the variations. However, it's outlined into some general reminders about airspace classes and good communications practices, then breaks the flight itself down into seven basic steps and provides some explanation on the types of communication that occur within each.


First, as a refresher, let's remind ourselves of the general rules for VFR communication in the various US airspace classes:

  • Class A: not applicable; no VFR flights are permitted in this space.
  • Class B: an explicit ATC clearance is required before entering the airspace, and pilots must abide by all ATC instructions.
  • Class C and D: two-way communication must occur before entering the airspace, and pilots must abide by all ATC instructions.
  • Class E: ATC communication is optional, but Flight Following is available by request if ATC's IFR workload is not too high. Either way, pilots are free to navigate as they choose.
  • Class G: No ATC services are available (ATC may not have sufficient radar coverage in this area), and pilots are free to navigate as they choose.

Here are some general reminders regarding ATC communication, much of which was covered in the P1 rating:

  • When initiating a call to an Air Traffic Control facility, you start by giving their callsign, then yours, then your message. When checking in initially to a new Controller, you should always give your position (including altitude, if airborne), and intentions. If climbing or descending, your altitude report should include both current and destination altitudes.
  • Most acknowledgments include reading back key pieces of information, to verify to the Controller that you heard them correctly. ALL acknowledgments end with your callsign. ("Roger," by itself, is only valid in TV and movies.)
  • Controllers will sometimes use shortened versions of callsigns, particularly General Aviation ones. You should never respond with a shortened callsign unless the Controller has first used that shortened callsign with you.

Don't forget the VATSIM "top-down coverage" model, which means that controllers also handle the duties of nearly all of the lower-tier unstaffed ATC positions within their airspace. The progression of ATC positions is Clearance Delivery --> Ground --> Tower --> Approach/Departure --> Center. For whichever you need to contact, if they are not online, move to the next one up the chain who covers the same geographical region until you find one that is. If Center is staffed, they are generally handling ALL unstaffed Air Traffic Control duties within their sector. If you get all the way up to Center and still don't find staffing, you should monitor the VATSIM general advisories channel (nearly always 122.8) and announce your intentions via text; no ATC communication is required since your airspace reverts to being uncontrolled in such a scenario. (NOTE: a neighboring controller at any level is not able to provide services to your area.)

Anytime you are flying on VATSIM and you have questions about anything you are instructed to do, ask your Controller to "say again" and/or clarify. Often, they will repeat the instruction verbally and send it via text, which can be helpful if the issue is understanding a facility name, route waypoint name, or other location-specific term you're unfamiliar with. If not, it's not a bad idea to request that they "Say again via text." Sending them a PM is acceptable if you don't want to tie up the frequency, but, understand that any time-sensitive commands should occur over the main channel. PMs are best used to clear up any confusion later on, rather than for real-time instruction.



When retrieving ATIS information, the pilot doesn't need to say anything here; if there is an active ATIS frequency for your origin airport, simply tune the channel and listen to the recording. You can also retrieve it via text by double-clicking on the Controller's callsign in the vPilot list, or by typing ".atis {XXXX}_ATIS" in the vPilot command line, where {XXXX} is your origin airport's ICAO identifier. The key pieces of info to get are the wind/visibility/cloud conditions, altimeter setting, runways in use, and ATIS identifier letter. If no ATIS is online for your airport, get the METAR instead, which will give you the wind, visibility, clouds, and altimeter. This can be done in vPilot by typing ".metar {XXXX}".


... or "Clearance" (with air-quotes)

The term "clearance" is used here loosely. In strict terms, an explicit clearance is only required for departures from a Class B field, or, that would otherwise put you into Class B airspace. However, even in Class C situations, ATC will often want you to talk to Clearance first to get routing, altitude, departure frequency, and squawk code assignments. (NOTE: sometimes at Class C and nearly always at Class D airfields, these functions for VFR traffic are handled by Ground in conjunction with the taxi instructions. So if you encounter an airport where the VFR procedures seem to combine steps two and three, and are handled by a Ground rather than a Clearance controller, that's not unheard of.)

Because the message you're about to give contains a lot of information, it's not a bad idea to get the controller's attention first: "{facility} Clearance, {callsign}, VFR request." Once acknowledged, your request will go as follows: "{facility} Clearance, {callsign}, {aircraft type} at {parking location}, request Class Bravo Clearance for a VFR {direction}-bound departure, we have Information {ATIS ID}." At your option, you can add "... request Flight Following at {VFR cruise altitude} to {destination}," or, "... negative Flight Following." We'll talk more about Flight Following later in this Lesson. Note, if you're not headed into a Class B area, you can just say "request VFR {direction}-bound departure" and don't need to use the word "clearance."

The response will come in this format: "{callsign}, cleared out of the Class Bravo airspace via {routing instructions}, maintain VFR at or below {altitude}, departure frequency {xxx.xx}, squawk {squawk code}." You'll need to read back the headings/routings, the max altitude, the departure frequency, and the squawk. Note that the route they give you won't be all the way to your destination (in fact, you might not have even told them your destination!) -- it'll be to the edge of their airspace. At a Class C facility, "cleared out of the Class Bravo airspace via {routing instructions}" would be replaced by "on departure, fly {routing instructions}". At a Class D, that might be replaced by something as simple as a pattern exit instruction; i.e. "left downwind departure." Also at a Class D, if you did not request Flight Following, you may not get the Departure Frequency nor the squawk code, since after departing the pattern you're pretty much out of their airspace.

If no ATIS was available for your origin airport, instead of "we have Information {ATIS ID}," you can say "we have the weather for {origin location}." It lets the controller know they don't have to spend a minute and a half reading off the METAR report over the channel, especially helpful if they are very busy. Also, on VATSIM, remember that if Clearance isn't on, just move to the next position up until you encounter one that is staffed. If you end up talking to Approach/Departure or Center, when you give your parking location, it's nice to say which airport you're at, since they're probably responsible for covering more than one.

If you're looking for a clearance to practice some VFR traffic pattern circuits, the usual way to request that would be "... for closed traffic." The response from ATC will indicate "left closed traffic" or "right closed traffic," indicating whether the pattern should consist of left or right turns (as described in Lesson Six). At ATC's discretion, aircraft performing closed VFR traffic patterns even at a Class B or Class C field might not be issued a squawk code, since they will be remaining within Tower's airspace.

One important note is that the altitude assignment for VFR aircraft is almost always an "at-or-below," unlike an IFR clearance which is a specific altitude. This is because the VFR pilot is still responsible for avoiding clouds. Headings or routings must be adhered to, but the pilot has discretion to descend and avoid clouds if necessary without needing to clear each change of altitude with the controller.



The taxi request is fairly straightforward. The pilot will say, "{facility} Ground, {callsign}, request taxi for a VFR {direction}-bound departure"; or, if you were already on the Ground frequency and were told after your readback, "call ready for taxi," then "{callsign}, ready to taxi" is all you need to say. Ground will respond by giving the departure runway followed by the taxi route. It is important that you be looking at the Airport Diagram when this response comes, and be ready to jot down the instructions. This helps not only for a successful readback, but for following the correct route you were given. (Failing that task and ending up on a parallel taxiway seems like a harmless mistake, but could put you head-on with another airplane -- and if you're VFR in a light aircraft at a commercial airport, that airplane could be significantly bigger than you!) The response will be as follows: "{callsign}, runway {rwy#}, taxi via {series of taxiway letters}", and your readback needs only to be "runway {rwy#} via {series of taxiway letters}, {callsign}."

(INTERESTING TIDBIT: one helpful tip I've picked up on by watching other pilots via TeamViewer is that some will use the command line in vPilot as a sort of scratchpad for ATC instructions -- typing out assigned altitudes and headings, amended route clearances, taxi instructions, or any other complex command that they might not be able to remember without jotting down. Then instead of pressing [Enter] and sending the text over the ATC channel, they simply backspace it out once it's been read back and acted upon.)

By the way, it's also common to get an update on the altimeter setting when given taxi instructions; so, if that's the case, include that in part of your readback as well.

Ground will hand you off to Tower once you get close to the departure end of your assigned runway. If they say "contact Tower on {frequency}", read that back with your callsign and then switch to the new frequency, then check in with the Tower controller by saying "{facility} Tower, {callsign}, holding short runway {rwy#}." If the instruction was instead to "monitor Tower on {frequency}," then you acknowledge that to Ground, switch over to the new channel, and DON'T SAY A WORD. This is used particularly when Tower is very busy. The difference between contact and monitor is precisely that when asked to monitor, you don't contact them to advise you're monitoring. Ground will have already told Tower you're coming over -- Tower will call you when they're ready to!



ATC: "{callsign}, [fly runway heading | {other instruction} | {none}], wind {heading} at {speed}, runway {rwy#}, clear for takeoff."
You: "{Readback of post-takeoff instruction if given}, clear for takeoff runway {rwy#}, {callsign}."

In short, Tower will lead with the post-departure instruction if they have one, or they will skip that. In some circumstances they don't give the wind information either; if they do, it is for informational purposes only and doesn't need to be part of your readback. But you'll always get a runway number and the explicit instruction "clear for takeoff." Read back the heading / altitude / whatever other instruction you were given if there was one, "clear for takeoff runway" and the runway number, and (as always) end with your callsign.

When no post-departure instruction is given, either:

  • default to the routing you were given in your initial clearance; or,
  • if you weren't given a specific routing in your clearance, fly runway heading until you're told otherwise (or clear the B/C/D airspace);
  • also, if you're given a command by Tower that contradicts what was in the initial clearance, the Tower's instruction takes precedence;
  • if at any point you are told "turn on course" or "resume own navigation," those both mean essentially that you're free to turn and head toward your destination.

More-or-less as soon as you're climbing and retracting gear and flaps and are turning to whatever assigned heading or route you were instructed to, you'll be handed off to the Departure controller. If you're departing from a Class D facility and not about to enter Class B or C airspace, then you can skip the next step and go straight to the section on flying in Class E space.



The very first thing the Approach/Departure controller needs to do is radar-identify you. This means they must verify that the target on their scope that they believe they are talking to is in fact the one they are talking to. They have several methods of doing this; but, for an aircraft that has just departed from a particular airfield, since its expected location is known, they will typically simply need to verify your altitude. So, first, make sure your Transponder is indeed in Mode-C and that you have dialed in the correct squawk code (those should have been done before takeoff, but, better late than never!). Second, when checking in, you'll give their callsign, your callsign, and your current and target altitudes: "{facility} Departure, {callsign}, climbing through {current altitude} for {target altitude}." Their response will be, "{callsign}, radar contact, {instruction}." That radar contact response specifically means their scope correctly matches your target with your callsign and flight information. From here forward, for any instruction you're given, you just need to read it back and add your callsign. (Oh, and, don't forget to actually do whatever it is they instructed, as well!) And again, at any point if you're told "turn on course" or "resume own navigation," it means you're free to turn toward your destination.



Once you get to the edge of the Class B, C, or D airpsace, one of three things is going to happen:

  • If you declined Flight Following, you'll be told, "leaving my airspace, maintain appropriate VFR altitudes and resume own navigation, squawk 1200, frequency change approved." Sometimes "maintain and squawk VFR" is shorthand for the same thing; being told to squawk VFR is equivalent to being told to squawk 1200. (If you weren't receiving radar services prior to that, such as departing a Class D, they'll skip that part since you'll already have 1200 dialed in.) Remember that it's mandatory to monitor the VATSIM general advisories frequency (usually 122.8) when not in contact with ATC.
  • If you opted for Flight Following, here's where it begins. Upon clearning the airspace you'll get the above notice, absent the change of squawk: "leaving the Class {Bravo/Charlie/Delta} airspace, maintain appropriate VFR altitudes and resume own navigation, {remain this frequency | contact xxxxx on xxx.x} for Flight Following." The boundaries for TRACON facilities (which handle Approach and Departure) generally go out significantly further than the edge of the Class B or C, so often, you'll stay with your current controller even after crossing into Class E space. Outside of those lines, or above 10,000, you'll most likely be talking to the overlying Center controller. Class D facilities don't include wide-reaching radar so you'll be handed off to a TRACON or Center more-or-less as soon as you leave the traffic pattern.
  • If you didn't specify whether you wanted Flight Following, this will probably be the time you are asked, and then one of the two above bullets will apply accordingly.

(INTERESTING TIDBIT: while Class B and C boundaries are easily identifiable on VFR and Enroute Lo charts, and boundaries between ARTCCs are noted on Enroute Lo and Hi charts, there isn't a general publication which shows TRACON boundaries. If you're in Class E space below 10,000, even well outside of any Class B/C space, you could very well be in an Approach/Departure's area for purposes of Flight Following or IFR ATC. Looking at the Chart Supplement publication for a nearby airport can tell you which ATC facility handles the surrounding area, but, failing that, it probably doesn't hurt to check in with the nearest Approach/Departure controller and they can direct you to the correct frequency if it isn't them.)

While under Flight Following, you're free to navigate and climb/descend as you choose, though if your intentions should change radically from what you originally advised was your destination, it's nice to let the controller know so they can make sure their IFR traffic gets around you. ATC will provide air traffic warnings, weather warnings, and terrain and obstacle warnings to a VFR pilot under Flight Following. They won't give you an assigned altitude, heading, speed, or route -- but they will make recommended changes to your flight parameters in the case of a pending traffic, terrain, or weather conflict.

As with any radar service to VFR aircraft, Flight Following is available on a workload-permitting basis; ATC may decline to provide these services (saying, "unable" when requested) if they are too busy with IFR traffic. However, in VATSIM, it is rare (except possibly during major events) that the controller wouldn't agree to provide it. Generally they assume you're flying online because you want to interact with ATC; of course, whether that's the case is completely your choice. More often on VATSIM you'd get declined for a Flight Following request because there isn't a controller currently logged on who handles that area.

Other than general weather briefings, the most common type of warnings provided by ATC during Flight Following are traffic point-outs. These are given as a clock-based bearing from your present position and direction, meaning, that traffic which is straight ahead is referred to as "at your twelve o'clock," traffic straight off to the right is "at your three o'clock," and so forth. The point-out will include the bearing, as well as information on the aircraft type, its altitude, and its direction of travel. The preferred appropriate responses would either be "in-sight" or "negative contact"; although non-standard, I actually prefer the more concise "looking" because "negative contact" takes longer to say and also sounds like you looked once, didn't see it, and gave up.  Whichever you choose, you don't want to say "not-in-sight" because that can be misheard as "got it in sight".  I even recommend NOT reading back the instruction as "will report traffic in sight," because your message might be heard as "{something something} traffic in sight."  If a pilot responds to a traffic point-out in the negative, i.e. that they don't see it, the controller will usually provide a recommended course or altitude change in order to avoid the traffic. If ATC advises that a given aircraft is no factor (or sometimes they'll say that it's "not a factor" or is "no longer a factor"), this simply means that they're not in conflict with your flight path anymore, and it's safe to continue on as you already were. If you should happen to catch sight of traffic after ATC has declared it no longer a factor, there's no benefit in calling it in-sight; at that point it's just wasted radio traffic, and it's best to just let it pass along silently and keep the frequency clear for more urgent business.



As you are approaching Class B/C/D space, possibly after you have started your descent from cruise, it's a good time to check for an ATIS message for your destination (or failing that, for the primary airport within the airspace you're about to enter) -- and if not, retrieve the METAR for that location instead.

Remember that before re-entering Class B airspace, you need to get an explicit clearance from the Approach controller. Before re-entering Class C airspace, you need to establish two-way communication with the Approach controller. Before re-entering Class D airspace, you need to establish two-way communication with the Tower controller. In any of these cases, USUALLY if you are receiving Flight Following, your current controller will hand you off at the appropriate time -- but when VFR, regardless of whether or not you are under Flight Following, IT IS THE PILOT'S RESPONSIBILITY to ensure they are talking to the correct controller before entering their space.

The general thresholds for doing this are as follows:

  • Class B: the airspace typically goes out to somewhere around 20nm from the airport; if you intend to enter that space, it's best to contact them prior to entering the 30nm threshold (marked as the Mode C Veil -- meaning that you must have a Mode-C Transponder operating within that band, whether you intend to utilize ATC services or not).
  • Class C: the airspace radius is usually only 10nm, but it's best to contact Approach at least 20nm out -- in fact, notices to that effect appear on VFR sectionals surrounding all Class C airports. (The frequencies listed on the charts may or may not apply; you should check vPilot or VAT-Spy or other similar sources to see exactly which VATSIM Approach frequencies are currently in use.)
  • Class D: the radius of the airspace is just 4nm, but, it's common to start talking to them about 10nm out. (This is consistent with the general guideline for making position and intention announcements on a CTAF frequency at a non-towered field.)

Like the initial Clearance call-up, it's advisable to get the controller's attention with just their callsign, your callsign, and "VFR request" at first. Once ackowledged, the format for your call is to give their callsign, your callsign, your position (including altitude), and your intentions, followed by the ATIS Identifier or "with the weather at {destination}." Position can be in relation to a VOR or to the arrival airfield. Altitude should include current and target altitudes, if different; "descending thru {current altitude} for {target altitude}." Intentions could be "for arrival at {destination}," for example, or, "transitioning thru your airspace to the {direction}." If it's a Class B space, proper phrasing for the intentions should include "request clearance into Class Bravo for {xxxxx}".

The Class B controller MUST respond with a message which includes your callsign and "cleared into the Class Bravo Airspace". The Class C or D controller must respond with any message (aside from "remain clear of the Class {Charlie | Delta}") that includes your callsign -- meaning that "Aircraft calling, please standby" doesn't count, but, "{your callsign}, please standby" does. If these conditions are not met, you must be prepared to turn or climb, to avoid entering their airspace, until they are!

Note how we mentioned before that radar services to VFR aircraft are always on a workload-permitting basis; ATC may decline to provide these services (saying, "unable" when requested) if they are too busy with IFR traffic. Note that this includes allowing VFR aircraft into Class B airspace -- even if you intend to land at an airport within that area. It's rare in the real world and even moreso on VATSIM (except during large-scale fly-ins and other events) -- but, if Approach's IFR workload is too high, it's quite possible that they'll ask you to remain clear. (See "Additional Resources" below for a real-world example of a VFR pilot who wasn't aware of this rule!)

(INTERESTING TIDBIT: one odd quirk of VATSIM -- what the community likes to call a "VATSIM-ism," as it deviates from real-world ATC services -- is that very often when you're about to enter Class C or D airspace, the controller handling that space is the one you're already talking to, due to top-down coverage rules. Some pilots like to do a little check-in of sorts to make sure they're explicity permitted to enter the airspace, but since two-way communication is all that's needed, and you already have established that, the common network etiquette is that no additional call to ATC is required in such a case. For Class B entry, even if you're already talking to the controller in question while in Class E space, you still need to hear the words "Cleared into the Class Bravo.")

If you are entering B or C space without having been under Flight Following, you'll first be re-radar identified and assigned a new squawk code. Once inside any of these airspaces, you're back to being bound by all assigned headings or routes, altitudes, and speeds -- read each one back and end with your callsign. You'll be asked to report the destination field in sight; if you don't see it, simply say "negative contact" or "looking," and if you do, say "airport in sight." (As we mentioned, above, it's advisable to avoid using "not-in-sight" or even to read back "will report in sight" as it could easily be misheard as having indicated that you see it.) You'll be given a pattern entry instruction to your arrival runway. You'll be handed off to Tower for your landing clearance. You'll be switched over to Ground once you're off the runway, or, you'll be told to stay on Tower's frequency if they prefer. Then that's it -- you're on the ground taxiing to your parking location. Congratulations; you just successfully flew a VFR flight under ATC on VATSIM!



VFR flights are not required to talk to ATC except within B, C, or D airspace. In Class B airspace that must include a specific clearance, but in C and D space, two-way communication is sufficient. For all ATC transmissions you should state the facility callsign, then your callsign, then your message. For all readbacks, you should read back headings/routes, altitudes, speeds, or runway/taxiway clearances followed by your callsign. VATSIM employs a "top-down" coverage structure; if the controller you need is not online, move to the next one up the chain who covers the same geographical region until you find one that is.

The basic progression of a VFR flight through ATC starts with retrieving the ATIS or METAR for the origin. Next is a clearance request; at a Class C this isn't an explicit clearance but still contains most of the same instructions, and at a Class D would typically be handled by Ground and might only include a pattern exit. For Class B and C, and D if you're going to ask for Flight Following, you'll also receive a Departure frequency and squawk code. Next would be your taxi instructions; when handed off to Tower, "Contact" means to switch and call them, and "Monitor" means to switch and wait for them to call you. When you get your takeoff clearance, it will often include a post-departure heading/routing and/or altitude; if that conflicts with what you had received in your clearance, the Tower instruction takes precedence. Once in the air, you'll read back and comply with all instructions just as you would if IFR; the only difference is that your assigned altitude will be an "at-or-below," allowing you to descend to avoid clouds if necessary. At any point if Tower or Departure says "turn on course" or "resume own navigation," it means you're free to turn toward your destination.

Once you pass into Class E airspace, ATC communication is optional. The service is called Flight Following and it includes advisories about air traffic, weather, and terrain. ATC can recommend headings and altitudes but the flight proceeds at pilot's discretion. Traffic point-outs should only be responded to with "negative contact" (or "looking"), or "in-sight" to avoid being misheard. "No factor" means the traffic isn't a potential conflict anymore.

Returning to Class B, C, or D airspace requires talking to the appropriate controller 6-10nm prior to entry and advising your location, altitude, intentions, and whether you have the ATIS or weather report. A Class B controller must explicitly clear you. A Class C or D controller must only respond with your callsign and NOT instruct you to "remain clear." Pilots should plan to turn or climb/descend to avoid space they haven't met the communications requirements for. ATC can refuse a VFR flight's entry into Class B space; the pilot must either hold outside of the space, or divert.

Once back in positive control, simply read back and adhere to all instructions. Call "negative contact"/"looking" or "in-sight" when asked to report the airport in sight. Once you have, you'll be given a pattern entry instruction, then a landing clearance, then taxi instructions to your parking location.


Additional Resources

  • YouTube: LiveATC - "Are you saying we can't land at Newark?" -- this is an example taken from LiveATC.net and saved as a YouTube video in which a helicopter flying VFR is denied entry into the Newark Class B area, even though he intends to land at Newark. At the end, the pilot requests that the controller "mark the tape," which is essentially pilot slang for saying that he wants the time noted on the recording because he intends to file a complaint with the FAA later. The controller somewhat unprofessionally responds, "Knock yourself out" (in case you're not familiar with this idiomatic expression, it basically means, "go ahead, your threat doesn't scare me"). However, ultimately, the controller is correct; he is not obligated to allow a VFR arrival into Class B airspace if his current IFR workload is deemed too high, and any complaint to that effect by the pilot to the FAA, if it was ever filed, most likely did not get very far.


     1: Which of the following is a true statement about VFR departures?
                  a. after switching to Approach/Departure, they usually radar-identify you by asking to verbally verify your altitude.
                  b. if VFR in Class B airspace, it's okay to pass through clouds.
                  c. when VFR in Class C airspace, usually radar services are not being provided, so you should be squawking 1200.
                  d. all of the above.
                  e. none of the above.

     2: Which of the following is a true statement about VFR arrivals?
                  a. all VFR flights are automatically handed off by ATC to the appropriate B, C, or D controller prior to entering their airspace.
                  b. ATC responding to you by saying, "aircraft calling, standby," is sufficient two-way communication to enter C or D airspace.
                  c. it is possible that ATC could deny a VFR flight's entry into Class B airspace.
                  d. all of the above.
                  e. none of the above.

     ANSWERS: 1. A ... 2. C

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Rob Shearman, Jr. (This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.)
Chief Flight Instructor, VATSTAR
DISCLAIMER: all information contained herein is for flight simulation purposes only.
revised October 2017

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