Basic ATC structure is an important thing to understand about our airway system and how to fly within it. While, it’s something that many new and VFR pilots only probably don’t know or possibly care about, it’s valuable information. I learned to fly in NYC, while I didn’t have to file IFR flight plan, I talked to ATC on a daily basis when flying either because of the tower or flight following. Basic ATC structure came up as a question on my dispatcher exam, and I deal with ATC reroutes and delays every day now.
Here is a quick synopsis of how a flight will talk to ATC from beginning to end:
These controllers have your filed IFR flight plan and either clear as filed or tell you the way they want you to go. This isn’t to frustrate you, it’s possibly due to flow control or weather that has popped up (hopefully, you’re aware of it though!) Airlines get their PDC (pre-departure clearance) through their ACARS (Aircraft Communication Addressing and Reporting System) printer to cut down on radio communication and possible error.
Next, you’ve gotten your ATIS (I didn’t include it since you’re just listening to a recording, not talking to a person) and are ready to taxi. You let these controllers know which ATIS you have and ready to taxi. They’ll give you instructions on where to go and if to hold short of any runways or taxiways. I always write it down, even if its simple just in case I forget with something else going on.
Ground will turn you over to Tower who will instruct you on when it is clear to takeoff. They will shortly hand you over to approach control after takeoff.
These are the controllers that work at TRACONs (Terminal Radar Approach Control) in terminal areas. They help vector traffic to and away from airports. Depending on your route of flight, if its short you may only talk to these controllers. If not, they’ll hand you over to the next set.
If you’re doing a long flight you’ll talk to Center. There are 22 centers in the US and you can see their outlines in the map I posted. I have to refer to this map a lot still to get to know their boundaries since there seems to be no rhyme or reason to it.
Back to approach and you’re descending into your destination.
Approach will hand you back to tower to clear you to land. When calling tower, they’ll want to make sure you have the current ATIS and your location.
Depending on how busy the airport, Tower will hand you over to ground to taxi back to your gate or FBO.
This isn’t ATC but most likely you’ll be calling an FBO or an airline their ground operations to fill up on fuel and for other services once parked.