by Kyle Ramsey


Ensure VFR pilots understand their responsibilities for separation of their aircraft from all other aircraft and objects.

At the end of this lesson the student will understand the rules of VFR aircraft separation as they apply to controlled and non-controlled airspace. The student will also understand the available radar services and how to use them to effectively maintain separation.



For the most part, when flying VFR, separation of your aircraft from all other aircraft is solely the pilot's responsibility. Pilots are responsible to maintain visual separation until flight paths (altitudes and/or courses) diverge for any traffic in the area. If you get too close, you may come close to "flying formation" on an aircraft you have not made prior arrangements with and would therefore be in violation of regulations in a few countries.

Normally though, one aircraft keeps a safe distance from another. One of the closest spots VFR aircraft come to each other is in airport patterns. Make sure to leave enough distance such that you can make a safe landing behind another aircraft, giving them enough time to land and clear the runway before you land.

Radar Services
In controlled airspace (and everywhere in VATSIM) you can get radar services to help you see and avoid other traffic. They may also advise when your altitude is getting close to a minimum altitude and or high terrain (a mountain) nearby.

ATC may also give you a visual approach clearance to a controlled airport, instructing you to follow an aircraft ahead of you. You are expected to maintain a safe separation distance to make a safe landing. The pilot also accepts responsibility for wake turbulence separation under these conditions.

If traffic is called out by ATC, they will provide a clock position (12 o'clock is directly ahead, 6 o'clock in directly behind you) and some idea of their path and altitude ("Piper 123, traffic your 1 o'clock, a Citation, heading 300 at 12 thousand feet"). ATC will make these callouts for both IFR and VFR traffic. Answer that you heard them and are taking action ("Piper 123 looking for traffic"). If you see the aircraft, tell ATC ("Piper 123 has the Citation in sight"). 

You may also receive vectors when VFR using ATC services for separation purposes. Turns, climbs and descents, and speed changes are common ways ATC will vector aircraft around each other ("Piper 123, turn left 200 for traffic, make best speed").

There are many variations in the practice of visual separation, although the principle is quite simple. Basically, it goes back to Aviation Rule #1: Don't hit nothing.

Ask a controller for pattern work at an airport that has a few departures and arrivals. Don't pick one who is swamped with IFR traffic during a fly in. Apply separation principles to the arriving and departing traffic.