Specifically, when is it legal to turn to your on-course heading?

I find that sometimes the tower will give me an instruction to "turn on course" but sometimes they don't. Are you supposed to stay on the runway heading when you do not get the instruction to turn on course, or do you just go ahead and turn after reaching some altitude?

  • $\begingroup$ That "on-course heading" reminded me of a good (old?) article by Don Brown here: avweb.com/news/sayagain/189197-1.html?redirected=1 . It's not exactly an answer to your question, but it's a great source to understanding why ATC assigns "runway heading" first $\endgroup$
    – Radu094
    Mar 13, 2015 at 7:30
  • $\begingroup$ One thing to remember is don't be afraid to ask if you don't know. ATC is there to provide you a service and the controllers should be happy to provide you clarification. $\endgroup$
    – GdD
    Mar 13, 2015 at 10:25

1 Answer 1


Either C or D controllers will likely accept your requested heading, which can be given as a rough compass point, on initial contact. This contact will be after picking up the terminal info on ATIS, when you contact ground. Your preferred direction will be passed up the chain. A class D may tell you something like "cleared for takeoff, Northbound departure approved", in which case I would feel free to turn as soon as I deemed it safe. In a class C scenario, the same thing could happen, but they might vector you around other traffic. In all cases "resume own navigation" will be permission to take your heading.

If you are still on runway heading and feel you have not been given a clearance sending you where you want to go, you may contact tower or departure control, depending on whom you are with, and say something like "Tower, Diamond two-eight bravo, request heading zero six zero" They may respond with an "approved as requested" or "heading zero six zero approved" or they may give you instructions to "fly present heading, I'll call your turn" indicating they are not ready for you to take your heading yet.

The short answer is, you can take your heading when you have been cleared to do so. Understanding when you have been cleared is a matter of becoming familiar with standard phraseology.

Controllers I have worked with, especially at C and D airspaces have been accommodating. Their job is to send pilots where they want to go while keeping aircraft out of each other’s way. They have rolled along with me when I have changed my mind about landing, I can say "I changed my mind, I'd rather depart the pattern to the south" but to be brief I'll say "Cancel landing intention, request south departure." As airspace gets bigger and controllers are busier (which can vary by location and even time of day) brevity becomes increasingly important. To get practice, you can find out when an particular airspace is less busy. Controllers have been known to be chatty when traffic volume is low, and you may even be able to ask questions about preferred phraseology.

  • $\begingroup$ "Northbound departure approved" is the phraseology that's been going whoosh right over my head. I did not take that to be a clearance to actually make the turn. Thank you. $\endgroup$ Mar 13, 2015 at 10:41
  • $\begingroup$ 29R, what jurisdiction does your answer cover? Because "Northboard departure approved" is not icao-compliant, AFAIK. If I received that clearance, I'd ask the controller for clarification. I am just curious. $\endgroup$ Mar 13, 2015 at 13:36
  • $\begingroup$ Speaking from experience in the Western U.S. The phraseology may be peculiar to the controllers at my neighborhood D (KPVU), but seemed to be similar to other Delta and Charlie Airspaces I've been into. Often they will give instructions to cross a particular road before making a turn, effective for local traffic where the pilots know the geography. I have had to tell controllers that I'm "unfamiliar" after which they will explain the features they are referencing or alter their instructions. Charts in the U.S. have magenta flags marking named points with names for VFR reference. $\endgroup$ Mar 14, 2015 at 1:49
  • $\begingroup$ At the airports I've flown out of, if I request a well-known, named departure and it's approved, I just fly the departure as they expect and they'll tell me if they want something different. For example, Reid-Hillview has something called the "Calaveras Departure" which is known to local pilots to mean turning over the Calaveras Reservoir. If they say "Calaveras Departure approved" before takeoff, you just fly the departure and typically they just tell you when you can change frequencies. $\endgroup$ Oct 17, 2016 at 22:58

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