Communicate With ATC Before You Plan Your Flight

Visiting a center can give you a valuable overview of how the system works.

If you fly in or near congested airspace, you might have wondered at the rhyme or reason to some of your IFR routings, or the vectors you were issued when receiving VFR flight following. A good way to remove some of the mystery is to visit an air traffic control center. Though your training provides the fundamentals of how the ATC system works, there is nothing like standing behind a controller and picturing the traffic within his or her airspace from the view on the radar screen. And if you're able to listen in on communications, you'll gain a first-hand appreciation for the need for pilots to listen and speak professionally. Some facilities are more accessible than others, so you might not be able to arrange a visit, but it is not forbidden, even after 9/11.

If you are not able to arrange a visit, you can call the center and-if time and traffic permits-discuss an upcoming flight with an experienced controller. Or gain a general awareness of how the airspace is arranged. Be sure to ask first if they have the time to spare, but you can ask about possible routings, and what factors go into determining which way you'll be vectored after takeoff or as you approach an area that has its own peculiarities. For example, you might learn that if the large airport nearby your route is using the north-facing runway, you might need to either take a wider path or plan to pass by at a recommended altitude to keep you out of harm's way.