Document Information
Version 3
Created 12/31/2015 23:50
Last Updated 01/05/2023 03:32
by Matthew Woerly

To help controllers learn about VFR on VATSIM, we have prepared this brief explanation of how to control VFR aircraft. All of these instructions are for use only on  VATSIM -- there are some situations in the real world that would be handled differently.  


General Rules for Controlling VFR 

The key things a controller working VFR flights must remember are as follows:

1. You (the air traffic controller) do NOT provide vectors (headings and altitudes) except in rare situations; instead, the pilot is responsible for navigation and terrain avoidance.

2. On a time-permitting basis, you can help prevent mid-air collisions by pointing out traffic, but in the end it is the pilot's job to spot other traffic and prevent a mid-air collision.

3. Because of #1 and #2, the pilot must be able to see clearly several miles away at all times. Therefore, Visual Meteorological Conditions (VMC) must prevail where the pilot is flying VFR. Without getting into the complexities of  "exceptions," the VFR rules say that an airport must have a ceiling of 1000 feet or more, and a visibility of 3 miles or more. If the weather is worse than that, the airport is "IFR" and you advise pilots that they will need to fly IFR ("the airport is closed to all VFR operations").

4. Any VFR aircraft not in the vicinity of an airport (typically more than 5 miles away) is usually NOT required to talk to ATC at all! (There are some exceptions - - see below).

5. VFR aircraft normally squawk 1200, except for certain circumstances.


Flight Following

A VFR pilot can ask for (controllers do not ask pilots if they want Flight Following) VFR Flight Following,  either when they are about to depart an airport (in any Class of airspace) or in the air.  Pilots do this because they want a radar controller to help them spot other airplanes, and to have someone monitoring them on the radio in case of emergency.  In this case, you treat the aircraft just like any other VFR aircraft, except they get a discrete squawk code (even at a class D airport).


Flight Plans and Route Clearances

Technically, a VFR pilot does not need to file a flight plan at all. If an aircraft calls you and says he's ready to depart VFR and you don't see a flight plan for them, you don't need to ask the pilot to file one. (If, however, he is departing from a Class B or Class C airport,  then you may create a flight plan.)  VFR flights are not given route clearances at all. In other words, IF they file a plan at all they do not have to file waypoints or fixes. That being said, it’s not a bad idea to file a route even when flying VFR. In the real world, you would want someone to know where to look for you if you didn’t return home that day.


Class D Airport (Tower and Ground Controllers)

Requirements to operate within the class Delta airspace: 2-way radio communication.



As mentioned above, a VFR flight won't get a route clearance, so the first controller the pilot will call is Ground (if available) or Tower, and will declare that they are ready to taxi. If they don't mention it, ask which direction they are going (this may affect which runway you send them to). Advise the pilot of the altimeter, and runway in use, and then give them taxi instructions. Then tell them to contact the Tower when ready for takeoff.  The pilot will call the Tower and say they are ready for takeoff. If they don't mention it, ask which direction they are departing.  When the runway is clear, you will give them four pieces of information:

1. The departure "procedure" (see below);

2. The current wind;

3. The runway they are using (and the intersection if they're not at the end); and

4. Cleared for takeoff.

VFR Traffic Pattern

Source: Aeronautical Information Manual (AIM) Chapter 4

The departure procedure requires an explanation because it is different than an IFR Departure Procedure. First, we need to remember the traffic pattern. If the runway uses the "standard traffic pattern," all turns are made to the left, as shown in this diagram. (Some runways use a "right hand" traffic pattern, where everything is the  same but all turns are made to the right.)  Let's assume you're using Runway 9. The following table shows what departure procedure to use depending on which direction the pilot is going:

Runway 9 In Use

Outbound Flight Direction Departure Procedure Phraseology
Eastbound Make straight-out departure ...
Northbound Make left crosswind departure ...
Westbound Make left downwind departure ...
Southbound Make right crosswind departure ...
Staying in the pattern Make left closed traffic ...


Runway 27 In Use

Outbound Flight Direction Departure Procedure Phraseology
Eastbound Make left downwind departure ...
Northbound Make right crosswind departure ...
Westbound Make straight-out departure ...
Southbound Make left crosswind departure ...
Staying in the pattern Make left closed traffic ...


Phraseology Example

The basic sequences will be (taxi): Runway-Taxi Via-Altimeter, and (takeoff): Exit-takeoff clearance-departure approval.

“Hillsboro Tower, Cessna 123AB is VFR departure to the North/South/East/West, ready to go at GA Parking”

“Cessna 123AB, Hillsboro tower, Runway 13 taxi via A A1, Altimeter XXXX”

Note: As soon as the aircraft is acknowledged, the requirement to operate in the class delta airspace has been met.

“Hillsboro Tower, Cessna 3AB holding short Runway 13”

“Cessna 3AB, Make (right/left) (crosswind/downwind) departure, Wind XXX@XX runway 13, cleared for takeoff; departure to the south (north/west/east) approved."


Closed Traffic

Aircraft in the pattern at a busy airport can create problems if you’re not careful.  A pilot flying the pattern can generally make his legs as long or as short as he wants.  If you have other aircraft on approach, or maybe someone else in the pattern, you could potentially end up with a conflict.  Therefore, the following is recommended:

1. Give aircraft specific instructions about when to contact you such as, “Report midfield downwind,” or, “Report 3 mile final.

2. If you’ve got aircraft on approach that could cause a problem, take control of the pattern aircraft.  Have the pilot extend the downwind leg, or tell them, “I will call your base.”  This way, they won’t just turn into oncoming traffic.

3. Use traffic advisories often.  You can also have one aircraft follow another in the pattern.  This can save you a lot of work giving each individual plane directions.

4. Finally, don’t be afraid to limit the amount of traffic in the pattern or to close the  pattern altogether.  Reserve this option for when you really can’t handle any more traffic.  However, if you can, allow the pilots to have fun and fly.


Phraseology Example

"Cessna 123AB make closed (left/right) traffic, runway xxx, report midfield downwind each pass. Wind-runway-cleared for takeoff."

The aircraft is NOT departing; so a departure instruction is not necessary, just pattern direction.

"Report midfield downwind" is especially useful when busy so you know to issue your landing clearance.



Arriving aircraft will contact the Tower when they are 5 to 10 miles from the airport, and they should give you their position and intentions (such as, "11 miles northwest, inbound for landing," or "over Elliot Bay, inbound for touch and go's").  Again, you won't be able to tell who is who, because all aircraft squawking 1200 are just identified with a box on the VRC screen, along with their Mode C altitude.  Based on their position, you should give instructions on how to enter the traffic pattern and when to call again. Something like "Enter left traffic for Runway 9, report midfield  downwind," or "Make straight-in to Runway 9, report 2-mile final." See the following chart that goes along with our example above using Runway 9:


Runway 9 In Use

Inbound Flight Direction Departure Procedure Phraseology
From the East Enter left downwind traffic, report midfield on the downwind.
From the North Make mid-field 45-degree entry, report on the 45.
From the West Make straight-in to Runway 9, report on a  two-mile final.
From the South "Cross the airport midfield at xxxx feet or above" (at least 500 above traffic pattern) "and then make a 45-degree entry, report on the 45."

Again, you don't tell the pilot what heading to fly, or exactly what altitude. You just tell them how to get into the pattern.  Your job is to plan sufficient spacing between each plane to make safe landings. If necessary, help a pilot spot another plane to follow: "Traffic is off your nose and 2 miles, a Cessna, follow that traffic on downwind." That way, it is the pilot's job to maintain good separation.  Once a plane is on the downwind leg (or on about a two-mile final), clear them to land. If another plane (or two) will be landing first, say, "You are number two [or three] for  landing." You don't tell them when to turn base unless you need to put more separation  between them and the preceding aircraft (in which case, say "I'll call your base turn for traffic.")


Clearance Options for Arrivals

The tower controller will issue one of the following clearances to aircraft arriving at the airport.

  • Full stop - A regular landing clearance, aircraft will touch down and exit the runway. "Cleared to land."
  • Stop and Go - A/C will touchdown and come to a full stop.  Reconfigure and take off again.  Use cautiously, you are giving the aircraft permission to remain stopped on the runway up to 2 minutes. 
  • Touch and Go - Aircraft will touch down, reconfigure for takeoff, and take off again without coming to a stop.
  • Low Approach - Aircraft will make the approach, but will not touch down.
  • The Option - Allows aircraft to perform any of the preceding maneuvers. In circumstances where a certain procedure is not available due to operations (i.e.  2 a/c in the pattern, you don’t want to give a stop and go clearance) "Cessna 123AB, wind XXX@XX rwy 16C cleared for the option, stop and go unavailable."
  • Make short Approach - Not a clearance, but an additional instruction used to expedite an aircraft's base leg to clear the path for other traffic-  i.e. pattern traffic turns base as approach hands off an IFR arrival on a 9 mile final. "Cessna 123AB, Make short approach."


Phraseology Example

“Portland tower, Cessna 123AB 5 miles east of battleground VOR inbound to land”.

"Cessna 123AB, Hillsboro Tower, squawk 1601, make left downwind runway 10L, altimeter XXXX."

"Cessna 123AB, wind XXX at XX, runway 10L, cleared for the option, stop and go unavailable."



Aircraft approaching a Class D airport but not intending to land there (just to fly over) will contact the TWR. They should be given a minimum altitude to maintain (usually 500 feet above traffic pattern, "Maintain at or above 2000 feet") to keep them away from arriving and departing aircraft. When time permits, you can give transiting pilots traffic alerts to help them avoid other planes. VFR pilots in a Class Delta airspace are responsible for their own safety and separation.


Traffic Advisories

VFR Traffic advisories are different from radar traffic advisories and are much more relaxed. In a traffic advisory from the tower, the main things you want to include are the aircraft's type and its position.

        "(Callsign), traffic is a Beech 58 off your (left/right) wing."

        "(Callsign), traffic is a Cessna 152 off your nose."

If saying the position from the first aircraft is difficult you can say their position in the pattern.

        "(Callsign), traffic is a Cessna 162, midfield downwind runway (XX)"

        "(Callsign), traffic is a Cessna 182, 4-mile final runway (XX)"

        "(Callsign), traffic is a Mooney turning downwind runway (XX)"

If the second aircraft has the first in sight you can say:

        "(Callsign), follow that traffic, runway (XX), cleared for the option. number (2,3,4...)"

If you end up having traffic on the runway or flying over the runway that will cause a problem you could say:

        "(Callsign), go around, traffic on the runway."

        "(Callsign), cancel takeoff clearance, traffic overhead the runway."


Class B or C Airport (Tower and Ground Controllers)

Requirements to operate within the Class Charlie airspace: 2-way radio communication and transponder with mode C.

Requirements to operate within the class Bravo airspace: 2-way radio communication, transponder with mode C, and clearance to operate within the Bravo Airspace.



Aircraft departing from an airport in Class B (like KSEA) must get a departure clearance. This is slightly different than a full IFR route clearance. If a Clearance Delivery (DEL) position is staffed, the pilot should call DEL for their departure clearance. Otherwise, GND or TWR will handle this. You’ll note that a VFR departure clearance has these elements:

1. Cleared to operate in the Class Bravo airspace;

2. After departure, maintain XXXX feet or below until clear of the Class B/C airspace (to get the plane out of the way of other aircraft and out of the Class B/C airspace as soon as possible);

3. **Departure frequency XXX.XX

4. Squawk XXXX. (Standard squawk code is given at that airport)

**NOTE: You should have already determined if the pilot has requested flight following once clear of the Class B. If so, issue the frequency of the controller that will be providing radar services to the pilot. If not, you can omit this from the clearance.

Notice what is missing compared to the usual IFR clearance? No "cleared to" the destination, no specific altitudes to fly.  Normally you want the pilot to fly one of the standard VFR departure patterns when leaving a Class B airport because you want to get that plane away from the (usually faster) IFR traffic coming in and out. That's why you give specific limiting altitude. The aircraft contacts GND for taxi and then TWR for takeoff. After clearing the aircraft for takeoff, the TWR should remind the pilot to "Maintain VFR at all times" -- in other words, if an altitude takes a plane toward a cloud, the pilot MUST tell the TWR so the TWR can approve deviations. Finally, when the plane leaves the Class B airspace, the TWR controller says,  "Radar services terminated, Squawk 1200, maintain VFR, frequency change approved, good day."


Departure Phraseology Example

“Seattle Tower, Cessna 123AB is VFR departure to the North/South/East/West, ready to go at GA Parking”

“Cessna 123AB, Cleared to operate in the Seattle Class Bravo Airspace, Maintain VFR at or below XXXX, Squawk XXXX, Altimeter XXXX.  Runway 16L taxi via Bravo”

     Note:  Now, in our 1st transmission to the aircraft, we have established two-way radio communications, assigned the unique squawk code, and issued a verbal clearance to operate. All requirements have been met. The remainder of the exchange HAS NOT CHANGED

“Seattle Tower, Cessna 123AB holding short Runway 16L”

“Cessna 3AB, Make (right/left) (crosswind/downwind) departure, Wind XXX@XX runway 13, cleared for takeoff; departure to the south (north/west/east) approved."



Aircraft landing at an airport within Class B or Class C airspace are required to contact the appropriate ATC facility before entering the airspace. Usually, if the plane is small and coming in under the airspace, they will contact TWR first. The TWR controller assigns a unique squawk code and advises the pilot how to approach the airport (usually similar to Class D arrivals, such as "report entering left downwind"). The only difference is that usually, you don't want them on a long final approach to the runway, since you'll probably have high-speed IFR aircraft coming down that approach path. A close-in base turn is almost always preferable. Additionally, before entering Class B airspace the aircraft needs a CLASS BRAVO Clearance "Cleared into the Seattle Class Bravo airspace".



Aircraft approaching an airport in Class B or C but not intending to land there (just to fly over) and flying at a low level (below the airspace until within about 5 miles of the airport) will contact the TWR. These should be treated just like arriving aircraft, with a squawk code, advice on how to transit the airport (such as "Cross the airport at the approach end of Runway 16"), and an altitude to maintain.