Training in Southern California develops and requires good radio communication skills. Initially, your communication is with tower and ground controllers and other pilots in the practice area or at a non-towered airports. Once you start going to an airport besides those in the immediate area, you will want or need to talk with SoCal Approach.
What is SoCal Approach?
SoCal Approach is a consolidated TRACON (Terminal Radar Approach CONtrol) that handles all of the low altitude IFR traffic in Southern California. If you look at an LAX Sectional, or LAX or SAN Terminal chart, you’ll see many boxes with frequencies for SoCal Approach. SoCal consolidates what would otherwise be separate controlling organizations for LAX, Burbank, Ontario, etc. There are dozens of controllers, each handling one or more sectors (and communicating on the associated frequency for that sector), but they work together to make smooth handoffs between sectors (more on that later).
What can SoCal Approach do for me?
But I’m only a student or VFR pilot, not an IFR pilot. They also offer services to VFR pilots, workload permitting. This is an important point to remember. They are there primarily for IFR traffic; as a VFR pilot, we need to work to fit into the system. The service we typically get is “flight following”. This means they follow us on radar and try to alert us to any traffic in our area and direct us to avoid it. However, that isn’t guaranteed and we still need to always “see and avoid”.
How do I start talking with SoCal?
First, you need to identify which frequency to use. When departing El Monte, it is generally 135.05 when heading westbound and 125.5 when heading eastbound. When you have received a frequency change from El Monte, switch over the appropriate frequency and listen for a few seconds before speaking. When you’re sure you aren’t jumping in the middle of an ongoing exchange, you can make your first call. The first call lets them know you are there and have a request. Usually, just “SoCal Approach, Skyhawk 19760, VFR request” (or whatever your tail number is) is sufficient. Now, I have had times when SoCal was so busy that I couldn’t get a word in for minutes. In that case, you have to stay clear of Class C airspace until you are able to establish communication. In a few cases, I’ve decided to climb above the Class C and try a different frequency further along (that has been very rare though).
If it isn’t busy, the controller will usually respond quickly, saying something like “Skyhawk 19760, go ahead” or “Cessna 19760, say position, altitude, and request” or “Skyhawk 19760, squawk 4623 and ident, say destination”.
Ultimately, the controller wants to know
- Your tail number
- Your current position & altitude
- Your planned cruising altitude
- Your destination (& route if it isn’t obvious)
- Your type of airplane and equipment
In the “squawk, ident, and say destination” example, the controller will use your ident to determine position and altitude, with a later confirmation.
After your request, the controller will usually respond with something like “760 squawk 4789, Burbank altimeter 29.97” (you should read back the code and altimeter setting). The squawk code should be entered into the transponder and the altimeter setting into the altimeter.
One thing to keep in mind is that approach control is very concerned with altitude. The reason is that airplanes will often be separated by only 500 feet vertically and they need to make sure it really is 500 feet. Each sector will provide an altimeter setting and you will be prompted to confirm your altitude when you first are “radar identified” and with each new controller.
Requesting flight following on the ground
In the previous section, we assumed we were already flying and wanted to get flight following. That’s the only option when departing from non-towered airports and even from many towered airports (EMT was this way until a few years ago). However, many towered airports can help get you into the system while you are still on the ground. This tends to be true for class D airports that are under or very near class C or B airspace. If you are unsure if an airport can help, just ask… “ground, can you help with flight following?”.
Initially, I recommend that my students make a request of ground, while they are in the runup area (asking as you taxi, often results in this info being thrown at you as you taxi causing a bit of overload). The information you need to provide is the same as we discussed before… “Ground, Skyhawk 19760 requesting flight following to Camarillo”. This may result in questions about your requested altitude and aircraft type and equipment (but often it doesn’t, as they make a good guess). You will be given a squawk code, a frequency/controlling agency, and possibly some restrictions. You should read these back to ensure you have them correct. For example, “Squawk 1234, SoCal approach frequency 125.5, maintain at or below 2,500 until advised”. I will then enter this squawk code in my transponder, load the frequency in standby, and ensure that I understand any restrictions I’ve been given.
When you are ready to depart, you communicate with the tower controllers as you normally would, but at some point, expect a “contact SoCal approach” instruction rather than the more generic “frequency change approved”.
Your first call to SoCal approach should include call sign, altitude, and any restrictions. For example, “SoCal approach, skyhawk 19760, 2,000, restricted to 2,500”. You should expect a request to ident and a local altimeter setting.
What should I expect when I’m with SoCal?
If there’s no traffic, SoCal Approach will be uneventful. If there are many planes, expect frequent traffic callouts and/or vectors to avoid traffic. An example of a traffic callout: “Cessna 19760, traffic at 2 o’clock, 4 miles, southbound, climbing out of 3000 for 10000, Boeing 737. Report traffic in sight”. The controller is telling you about an airplane that may be of concern. You (and your copilot or passengers) should attempt to locate the traffic, but make sure you don’t forget to fly the airplane first and foremost. If you locate the traffic, say “760 has traffic in sight”; if the traffic was reported as close and converging, I’ll report the traffic not in sight after a few more seconds spent looking. If you see the traffic, you may be told to “maintain visual separation”; this means you have responsibility to avoid the traffic.
You might be told something like “760, turn right 20 degrees for traffic departing Burbank”; you should read back “turn right 20 degrees, 760”. That’s a vector for traffic. You should maintain that new heading until given a new heading or told to “resume own navigation”. You could also be assigned a change in altitude or told to level off temporarily while in a climb or descent.
If I need to change altitude (for terrain, or to try for smoother air, or to begin a descent for landing), I feel its a good idea to alert SoCal to your change. If you’ve been assigned an altitude, it’s mandatory to request a change. If you are just flying an altitude you chose, it’s still a good idea. For example, I might say “SoCal, 760 would like to begin a VFR descent”. The response might be “VFR altitude at your discretion” or “descent approved at or above 4500″ (common when descending north of Ontario heading back to El Monte”.
What is a handoff?
Each controller handles a specific area, known as a sector. These sectors are not specifically mapped on VFR charts. Within a sector, that controller is responsible for controlling IFR traffic and maintaining separation between IFR traffic and other traffic. When your route takes you into another sector, the two controllers will execute a “handoff”.
You’ll be told something like “Cessna 19760, contact SoCal approach on 124.6”. You should respond back with the assigned frequency and your tail number, for example “124.6, 760”. Enter that new frequency into your radio and switch over to the new frequency. Listen again to make sure you don’t step in the middle of a transmission and then “check in” with something like “SoCal Approach, Skyhawk 19760, 4500”. The controller will generally respond with an altimeter setting, but sometimes, you’ll just get a “roger”.
In SoCal, many sectors are only a few miles across. On a typical flight from El Monte to Camarillo, we’ll be with SoCal on 135.05, 124.6, 134.2 and Pt Mugu Approach on 124.7 Looking at the LAX TAC, you’ll see those SoCal frequencies, but not the Pt Mugu frequency. Not all frequencies you’ll be assigned will show on VFR charts. The chart will give you a guess at what to expect, but you’ll sometimes get an unexpected frequency.
How do I know when they’re done with me?
The most common ending to your time with SoCal will be “760, radar services terminated, remain on your beacon code and contact El Monte tower”. This means SoCal is no longer providing flight following and that you should contact the tower. Since you were told to stay on your code, it generally means that the tower controller knows you are coming.
In other cases, you may be rather unceremoniously “dropped”. That usually goes something like “760, radar services terminated, squawk VFR, frequency change approved”. That means you’re on your own and that you should put 1200 in the transponder. This commonly happens when you are going to a new sector or controlling agency and they’ve been unable to work out a handoff or that you are leaving radar coverage.
If you are nearing your destination and can see the airport, you can say something like “SoCal, 760 has El Monte in sight”. This may get you an earlier frequency change if that is needed.
What about when I leave Southern California?
When you leave SoCal approach, there are a number of other controlling agencies you might be be handed off to: “LA Center”, “Joshua Approach”, “Pt Mugu Approach”. These are different groups, but they operate much the same, but may have much larger areas of control.
What if I think the controller has forgotten about me?
What if a vector is taking me into LAX Bravo or terrain?
If I’m departing another airport and I need to get flight following, how do I know who to call?