Center ATC - Pilot tips, do's and don'ts

Tips for flying while on Center frequency

Center ATC provides services in two ways: (1) helping to ensure separation in the skies and (2) assisting Approach and Departure ATCs. The tips you see below are based on common mistakes and great practices we see happening in IF and I hope they contribute to provide some more clarity.

Reference info:

Tyler’s Center ATC tutorial
IFATC manual, Center section.
Approach Procedures Tutorial (part 3)

Pilots, please do

Please don’t

  • do a check-in AND a request for flight following . See points 4 and 5 above.
  • request your climb to cruise altitude. Just climb and follow your flight plan. See here.
  • deviate from your flight plan unless instructed by the ATC
  • respond with ‘unable’ when instructed with headings or altitude that deviate you from your flight plan.
  • Change frequency to Approach, Tower, without permission of Center ATC. Wait to be transferred.
  • Press VNAV somewhere at cruise altitude and go to bed.
  • Request an ILS approach for an airport outside Center’s area.

It’s quite ok to

  • request an ILS or Visual approach, especially if the destination airport does not have an Approach controller.
  • wait with requesting an approach for your destination airport, until handed over to Approach controller.
  • request Radar Vectors to your destination airport, but most likely the ATC will just let you ‘continue as filed’

Practical application

When departing and being handed to Center ATC from Tower or Departure controller you will:

  1. check-in and receive ‘Radar Contact’
  2. Fly your flight plan, climb to cruise
  3. Receive any vectors or speed instructions from Center to avoid possible conflicts
  4. After ‘Continue as filed’, go back to your flight plan and on your way
  5. after leaving Center’s airspace wait to be released from Center’s frequency or handed over to another area.

When inbound, entering the Center ATC’s airspace you would typically:

  1. request flight following to your destination airport
  2. Follow your flight plan
  3. At Top Of Descent request descent via the STAR; start your descent
  4. Wait until being handed over to Approach
  5. Request your ILS or Visual approach

OR (other inbound example)

  1. request ILS or Visual approach to your destination airport/runway
  2. Wait for ‘Continue as filed, expect ILS/Visual approach for runway xx’
  3. Follow your flight plan, descent as needed (no need to file a descent request)
  4. Either receive final vectors for the ILS clearance, or just receive clearance (depends on how well you can intercept the localizer with your flight plan)
  5. Wait until being handed over to Tower
  6. Report inbound on the ILS/Visual

Hope the info and the examples come to good use.


Really hoping a ton of people read this. I have seen at least on of these points misused by almost every pilot during a session, hoping this clears any questions or just teaches others the correct way of doing it!


Pilot: “N245NH, with you at 5000 ft”

Center: “N245NH, Radar contact”

3 seconds later…

Pilot: “N245NH, request flight followi-“



This… this is fantastic. And important. Hopefully people take the time to read through it!

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Hi Anton, I was wondering if it’s good practice to ask center any altitude change (e.g. for a step-climb) when cruising and being on an IFR flight plan when crossing the FIR?
This isn’t necessary when flying VFR with or without flight plan right?
Nice topic btw!👍

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Hi Stef, Nice to hear from you again! Hope you are keeping well.

I have tried to do find the answer in the Pilot Manual and it wasn’t that easy to get a full picture. What I got was:

  • needed when on flight following and wanting to descent
  • not needed climbing to cruise (including step climb)
  • not needed when on ILS approach and ‘continue as filed’

So my answer would be: no, don’t do altitude requests when climbing.

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Please correct me if I am wrong, but isn’t flight following VFR and check-in IFR? If so, I think it’s worth mentioning in the post.

There is IFR flight following along with VFR flight following. Check-in and flight following mean the same because of this reason.

What is IFR ff and what is VFR ff? I mean the commands?

IFR Flight Following basically says the pilot can follow their FPL to their destination. It’s the same thing as a check-in. VFR Flight Following is basically when you have no FPL and just wanna fly about with visual flight rules.

VFR is with no destination usually, IFR is with a destination.

For example:
VFR: “N1234 is 3nm NE of Towne at 6,500ft, flying VFR”
IFR: “N1244 is 3nm NE of Towne at 6,500ft, requesting flight following to Milwaukee”

Does that help?

Yes that does help! Thanks!

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Same command, just one is VFR and one will have the flights destination.

The pilot chooses if they are VFR or IFR (with destination) and ATC just has to accept Flight Following.

That was a rule of thumb I always used. I studied the manual to see if I could find this, and I found this (check out manual links):

Please let me know via direct message if you believe I missed something.

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Had a few questions about the different approach types. Here is a (slightly old) tutorial on what to do and how to communicate around the different types of approach.

I’ve had a few questions on when to activate VNAV.

The answer is in the manual, section on VNAV.
In short: Using VNAV in three steps:

  1. Check your flight plan and ensure that the altitude restrictions are present for the procedure you are about to fly, you will require these for VNAV to work correctly
  2. Approaching your TOD, make sure to request altitude change if there is active ATC
  3. Once you have clearance and it is clear, access the Autopilot FCU and tap VNAV to arm this function. Your altitude and VS will change color to magenta to indicate that VNAV is armed

In the Please don’ts section of my post I have added: Press VNAV somewhere at cruise altitude and go to bed.

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