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New flyer here. When you’re requesting departure clearance for a cross-country VFR, do you have to specify the destination airport to the controller, or can you just specify a direction (eg. “VFR to the south”)?

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Just say direction of flight.

If they need more info, they'll ask:

N12345: Say destination.

I've almost never heard that, except if they think you might be headed towards weather or a TFR.

Examples:

Understand you're headed to the south. Be aware of Stadium TFR in effect.

or

Understand you're headed to the south; have had reports of severe weather in that direction.

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There are a few considerations here that the previous answers have each touched on. I'll consolidate and expand.

First of all when I (a controller at a Class C airport) hear "flight following" I take that to mean you want to receive traffic advisories from ATC all the way to your destination airport/area. At a Class C we give every departure a squawk code anyway, so you saying "flight following" is telling us you don't want to be terminated when you get outside the Charlie. If you do want to squawk VFR when able, don't request flight following. We'll give you a squawk from our delegated local code bank that won't interact with the flight data system.

If you actually are requesting flight following, whether on the ground or airborne, we need to know your destination (ideally the exact airport) in order to create a flight plan for you. Otherwise we have no way of passing control to the next facility down the line.

Class B Departure

This is the most restrictive class of airspace for VFR flights because it's the most restrictive for controllers. You are provided active separation from both smaller VFR/IFR aircraft (target resolution or 500 feet vertically) and larger VFR/IFR aircraft (1.5 NM or 500 feet vertically). Therefore you need an explicit clearance to operate in Class B airspace, to include departing from the Class B airport, and you need to have a discrete squawk.

You will call the Clearance Delivery controller to request your Bravo departure clearance. If you want flight following say so and tell them your destination and requested altitude; they will put you into the NAS and give you a squawk code that will allow your flight to be handed off to controllers down the line after the initial departure facility. If you don't want flight following say that too; give them your desired on-course heading. More information is better—if you know your heading, say it! Don't just say "to the south" when you mean a 210 heading. You'll likely be advised "Radar service terminated, squawk VFR, frequency change approved" as soon as you exit the Class B.

Class C Departure

This is less restrictive than Class B. You are provided separation from IFR aircraft (target resolution or 500 feet vertically) and given traffic advisories and safety alerts on VFR aircraft. You still need a discrete squawk but you no longer need an explicit clearance to operate in the airspace; all you need to do is establish two-way radio communication.

You will still call Clearance Delivery (or Ground, if no Clearance frequency is published) to get your departure squawk and departure instructions if any. If you want flight following say so and tell them your destination and requested altitude. If you don't want flight following don't give a destination! That just confuses us. But you're still going to be controlled by a radar controller for at least a little while on your way out, so give an on-course heading instead of just a cardinal direction. You won't be terminated until you're 20 miles from the airport unless you request termination sooner.

Class D Departure

Least restrictive. You are not provided separation from IFR nor VFR aircraft, only traffic advisories and safety alerts. Therefore you do not need to be on a discrete squawk but you do need to establish two-way communication.

If you want flight following call Clearance or Ground and say so. Some Class D towers are connected to the flight data system and are able to issue a flight following squawk themselves; some towers have to call their overlying radar facility to request a squawk, and some won't even do that (they'll tell you to request it airborne with the radar controller themselves). If you don't want flight following you can just advise your cardinal departure direction. Tower will have you squawk VFR as soon as you exit the Delta, and you'll never talk to a radar controller.

TRSA Departure

A TRSA is a mandatory Class D airport/surface area with an optional Class C outer area. Pilots are assumed to want TRSA services (separation from IFR and known VFR traffic, therefore a discrete squawk) unless they tell the controller otherwise. Depending on your choice, treat as either Class C or Class D as described above.

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If you request flight following when you call Clearance, they will generally want to know which direction you're heading. Furthermore, filing a flight plan is always a smart and safe thing to do -- these certainly require destinations, among other details.

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For VFR flight at least in the US, you don't need departure clearance. You can choose to get flight following though for safer flight, and in that case you're supposed to give ATC basic information including your callsign, altitude, and destination.

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  • $\begingroup$ At the Class C airports I fly out of (and some larger Class D, like Van Nuys) you need to call Clearance Delivery for a departure clearance. It’s usually a simple clearance, something like ”fly runway heading, remain below 2,500'’ but it is different than departing smaller Class D airports. $\endgroup$ – JScarry Oct 6 '17 at 14:50
  • $\begingroup$ @abelenky a departure clearance is different than a takeoff clearance. One is for the airspace (Class B) the other for the runway. $\endgroup$ – Steve Kuo Oct 6 '17 at 16:07
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If you only give them a direction of flight, Clearance Delivery will give you a “local” squawk code, and Departure will usually terminate radar services as soon as you exit their class B/C airspace. If departing a class D airport, you don’t need a departure clearance, and they won’t give you a code at all.

If you give them a specific destination, they will assume you want Flight Following and give you a “national” squawk code, which should get you handoffs from facility to facility the entire way.

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