When departing IFR from a Class D airport, must you wait until the Tower instructs you to change to Departure?

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    $\begingroup$ Are you asking about a specific country/regulator, or is this a general question? $\endgroup$
    – Pondlife
    Jul 26, 2017 at 16:46

4 Answers 4


When operating within class D airspace (operating Air Traffic Control Tower) pilots are to maintain communication with the tower until instructed otherwise.

On an IFR flight departing from a tower controlled airport, the tower controller will instruct the pilot when to change frequency to contact the next controller (the IFR Departure Controller). Remain on the current frequency until instructed to change.

Here is an except from the pertinent regulation (FAR Part 91):

§91.129 Operations in Class D airspace.

2) Departing flight. Each person—

(i) From the primary airport or satellite airport with an operating control tower must establish and maintain two-way radio communications with the control tower, and thereafter as instructed by ATC while operating in the Class D airspace area;

Note: It should be noted however, that in the U.S., departing IFR military turboprop/turbojet aircraft (except transport and cargo types) will be instructed to "change to departure control frequency" before takeoff. [ref:FAA JO 7110.65, paragraph 3-9-3 a. 2.]

This requirement allows pilots of single-seat high-performance aircraft, as well as certain other military aircraft, the ability to avoid being distracted by changing to another (e.g., departure control) frequency immediately after takeoff. Further, many military fighter type aircraft used to have (probably some still do) radios positioned in the cockpit in a location that requires looking down or moving the pilot's head/eyes in such a manner that might cause momentary disorientation, which is not a good idea right after takeoff and close to the ground.

U.S. military control towers and some (perhaps most) joint-use military/civilian control towers have an "override" frequency (same frequency as the departure controller uses), for use in case some emergency situation that occurs just before, during, or immediately after departure requires urgent communication with the pilot (e.g., engine fire on takeoff noted by the tower, or similar type situation).

  • $\begingroup$ It usually happens pretty soon after takeoff. If you don't get a handoff freq, how long would you wait before you start to think you missed it or they forgot you? $\endgroup$
    – TomMcW
    Jul 26, 2017 at 18:12
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    $\begingroup$ @TomMcW I would ask for clarification when approaching the initial cleared altitude. "Flight 123 approaching 5000 ft, request higher". You don't really need to worry about the controller forgetting you, you should just worry about getting good service (such as continuous climb) - you can't possibly know all the local ATC procedures anyway, so all you can do is focus on things from your own perspective. $\endgroup$ Jul 26, 2017 at 18:45

You should never leave a control frequency without an explicit instruction to do so. This can be a literal instruction (the controller telling you to contact another unit/frequency), or a procedure described in the AIP. For example, at some airports, a part of the description of the standard instrument departures read "When passing 1000 ft, contact Departure on 124.975" or similar. Here is an example from Copenhagen, Denmark:

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Unless such a procedure is in place, you wait until the tower changes you to the next frequency. That's the beauty of flying as a controlled flight - you don't need to worry about which frequency you should be on, the current controller will always hand you over to the next one when required.

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ "KASTRUP DEPARTURE". I read that as Ketsup Departure. I must be hungry $\endgroup$
    – FreeMan
    Jul 26, 2017 at 19:45

Yes, no frequency changes until instructed.
(unless previously requested and approved, which seems unlikely on an IFR departure)

The phrase is typically, "N12345, Over to Departure. G'day"


Since you are IFR, in your question, you do as told. Which means as instructed or as cleared. If a SID is applicable, you conform to the SID, unless cleared otherwise.

If you are VFR, which you said you were not, then the game is different. In general the do as instructed / cleared applies, but some new nuances come into play.

For example, VFR, you need only maintain tower com while in Class D, so leaving Class D, you can go where you want. May not be considered polite, but if you think you are forgotten, and they are really busy, you might just go. They will see that you checked in with departure at most facilities.

Common courtesy is to let the tower hand you off, or prompt them for a hand off.

  • $\begingroup$ Please don't just leave the frequency without telling. We don't just forget aircraft. If you leave and we later try to call you, it might get treated as a radio failure. $\endgroup$ Jul 26, 2017 at 20:35
  • $\begingroup$ @j.hougaard I have certainly had ATC forget me when operating VFR. Moreover VFR lost comm after exiting ATC's airspace is a non-issue in the US. $\endgroup$
    – J W
    Jul 27, 2017 at 3:25
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    $\begingroup$ Like @JonathanWalters I have had ATC (tower as well as approach, departure, and center, forget about me VFR, and have also had it happen IFR, although rarely. In the distant past, it was common for places I flew IFR to not have constant VHF/UHF communication in CONUS. Also, it was quite common that I would do approaches in uncontrolled airspace, where IFR communications were not always available, and were not essential. $\endgroup$
    – mongo
    Jul 27, 2017 at 22:21
  • $\begingroup$ @J.Hougaard, if you're VFR at KFRG, they never give any hand-off. It's a very busy delta, and they just want you to go on your way. I typically remain on frequency for a few miles outside the delta, then switch. I've definitely seen other east coast deltas work this way. $\endgroup$ Aug 7, 2017 at 18:09
  • $\begingroup$ That's pretty much standard fare, unless you are in some low volume area like Ithaca NY Class D. Except on move-in day at the college. Then it's hard to find ramp space for your 604. $\endgroup$
    – mongo
    Aug 7, 2017 at 22:27

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