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  #1  
Old 04-22-2012, 08:27 PM
Echo Tango Echo Tango is offline
 
Join Date: Nov 2009
Location: SFO Approach
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Default "The Machine" (VFR Flight following)

I've seen a lot of confusion on the board about flight following, or tracking a flight on flight aware, and why flight following is sometimes terminated or a new code is given to a pilot during a flight. I thought I would do a short write-up on how airspace works pertaining to VFR flights and their relationship with FSS and ATC.


There are two computers in the FAA, used by controllers. One is the NAS (national, also known as "the machine") and one is ARTS (local). Each center (all 21 of them) has its own NAS computer, called "Host" (the name isn't important and won't be mentioned again), and they all talk to each other across the country, which forms a national database of all IFR and participating VFR flights in the National Airspace System; this is why Flight Aware will show your flight almost every time when you talk to the Center, but only sometimes when you are talking to an approach control. Centers = in the NAS (machine), approach = maybe in there.

Approach Controls are very like centers in that they have their own computers (ARTS). These are local computers and they have very limited capabilities (by limited, i mean we put in all or part of your callsign and that's it). The reason for this is generally workload (or laziness ) related. Just as the Center computer communicates with other centers to form a national database, ARTS associates itself with one single computer (the Center whose airspace is over top of it) and one computer only. This means if the approach next door to mine is under Cleveland Center, and I'm underneath Chicago Center, I can't automatically "flash" your callsign to "hand you off" to the adjacent facility. At this point, your flight is either terminated an we instruct you to contact the adjacent facility, or we make a short phone call and you just hear a frequency change and are none the wiser.

So with ARTS, you're basically an "x" followed by three numbers. That's all we see. If controllers keep asking you "whats your destination today" on initial contact, you're probably in ARTS. If you were in "the machine" we would get a paper strip (most places) with your destination, type, and (rarely) route on it. You will generally also get the same code "subset," as well, ie 02xx or 45xx. if you get one of these that you recognize, you're in ARTS. NAS codes are random.

Notice we haven't mentioned Flight Service yet. The simple reason is, we don't talk to them much. They protect you by looking at your enroute time and whether or not you call them to tell them you're still alive. An important side note here is that it's still a good idea to file a VFR flight plan even if you're talking to ATC. For one, we don't put in your Search and Rescue info, and even if you give it to us, we really have no way (or time) to relay that to anyone. Secondly, we might terminate you 15 (or more) miles from your destination, and if you don't make it there, nobody will be waiting for your call.

In summary:
1) If you're talking to a Center, you'll probably get flight following the whole way and your family can watch you on Flight Aware (though unfortunately it's not a real return, just a general "estimation" of where you are. If you burst into flames, flight aware will still show you happily flying your course).

2) If you're talking to Approach, you can get put into the machine if you ask (realize that it's a bit of a pain but most will do it).

3) If you REALLY want to be in the machine (and i dont recommend making a habit of it, because it's a bit of an abuse of the system) you can file IFR and just tell the controller to amend you to VFR when you call clearance/ground. Usually, we'll just amend your altitude and keep you in the system for flight following the whole way (we'll also have your whole intended route, instead of KXXX direct to your destination). I would still call FSS (after departure) as well and tell them that you're VFR and open/close as normal.


Clear as mud?

Last edited by Echo Tango : 04-22-2012 at 09:19 PM.
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  #2  
Old 04-22-2012, 08:57 PM
FlyArmy FlyArmy is offline
 
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Thanks for the write up!
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  #3  
Old 04-22-2012, 09:02 PM
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Rosie Rosie is offline
 
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Location: I live in on the Rosamond Skypark (CA) and am married to Victoria (Tuppergal).
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Echo Tango: Please answer this one for me (us)....I've learned that if I'm given a code BEGINNING with Zero (0), the controller is going to send me on my way via 1200 upon leaving his/her airspace... Rosie
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  #4  
Old 04-22-2012, 09:06 PM
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dmaib dmaib is offline
 
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Great info Echo Tango. Thanks for the post!
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  #5  
Old 04-22-2012, 09:09 PM
Echo Tango Echo Tango is offline
 
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Rosie View Post
Echo Tango: Please answer this one for me (us)....I've learned that if I'm given a code BEGINNING with Zero (0), the controller is going to send me on my way via 1200 upon leaving his/her airspace... Rosie
that's probably what their local code subset begins with. each approach has a 2-digit prefix for their local codes. ours are 45XX.

it could be several things.

they could be busy or you could be entering busy airspace where it's "bad form" to hand off a VFR

it could be a center boundary thing as described where they don't want to have to make a call.

or it could even be a local culture thing. but im guessing it's either coordination-intensive or the next people are too busy to take VFR handoffs, so they just don't bother trying anymore. some of our adjacent facilities are like that.

i will generally go out of my way to put people in the system and try to hand them off, but my first priority is separating aircraft. if i'm busy, the first to go are VFRs. what you could do is just ask what the next controller's frequency is and give them a call. when i terminate i usually give the pilot that and tell them to contact "xxx apch on xxx.xx in 10 miles."

hope this helps

Last edited by Echo Tango : 04-22-2012 at 09:13 PM.
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  #6  
Old 04-22-2012, 09:23 PM
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az_gila az_gila is offline
 
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Can you elaborate on the link to FlightAware.

My weekend flight to Flagstaff did not appear on FlightAware even though I had Flight Following all the way - except for 5-10 miles at each end - and spoke to ABQ center on three different frequencies and had a transponder code.

This seems to happen frequently to me with FF... and now I always call in as "full call sign is 12GA" to tell them that's all of the digits...
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  #7  
Old 04-22-2012, 09:57 PM
Echo Tango Echo Tango is offline
 
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Quote:
Originally Posted by az_gila View Post
Can you elaborate on the link to FlightAware.

My weekend flight to Flagstaff did not appear on FlightAware even though I had Flight Following all the way - except for 5-10 miles at each end - and spoke to ABQ center on three different frequencies and had a transponder code.

This seems to happen frequently to me with FF... and now I always call in as "full call sign is 12GA" to tell them that's all of the digits...
that's strange, i'll ask some center guys i know about this. it could be possible that flight aware is only seeing stuff that's filed off the ground versus a point in space. this is kind of an interest of mine, so i'll definitely look into it and get back to you. i'll do some experimenting tomorrow

did ABQ give you your initial code or was it an approach control?
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  #8  
Old 04-22-2012, 10:09 PM
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RV7Guy RV7Guy is offline
 
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Location: Chandler, AZ
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Default Good information

Thanks for the information. It is interesting learning how the system really works. I use FF on any flight out of my area (100NM+). I've had great success using the system over the years. Many times the controllers will ask about the RV, the type and engine commenting on the speed. Not unusual to hear, "I've got a 6 or I'm building an xx."

EchoTango, tell use who you are, what you are building/flying. We are all friends here.

Thanks again for the great information.
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  #9  
Old 04-23-2012, 12:53 AM
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NickAir NickAir is offline
 
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Default The Machine, FF

Thanks for the insight from a professional perspective. RV operators are not all commercial pilots. Great info!
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  #10  
Old 04-23-2012, 09:55 AM
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Mike S Mike S is offline
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Thanks for a good writeup, it makes a lot of sense the way you put it.

Also, builds on info I learned last week when I did a tour of NorCal TRACON. That was an interesting experience for sure.
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