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If I get an initial heading to fly in my clearance from Clearance Delivery, but the Tower controller does not repeat the heading to fly in my takeoff clearance and I stay on runway heading, can the FAA take enforcement action against me (aka did I do something wrong)?

Is the Tower controller obligated to repeat the heading to fly in my takeoff clearance, or is it expected that I do what was in the clearance issued to me?

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Yes, the FAA can and will take action in that scenario. I know because it happened to me :-)

A couple of years ago I was departing IFR from KPDK and my clearance included a right turn after departure. It was a busy and very hot day and I had to sit and hold for release (in a C182 in 100F heat...), so when Tower offered to get me out if I could depart immediately, I jumped at it. Tower cleared me for immediate takeoff without repeating the right turn instruction and I forgot about it in the rush.

I climbed out on runway heading and I started thinking that Tower was waiting a long time to turn me over to Departure. When they did, Departure told me to turn right immediately but I had to say "unable" because I now had obstacles to my right. I was vectored back on course and Departure asked me twice what the Tower had cleared me for, so it was obvious that something had gone wrong although they didn't give me a "possible pilot deviation" warning. Fortunately I was never close to busting the ATL Bravo.

I got home, listened to LiveATC, realized that I'd forgotten the right turn instruction, filed an ASRS report and forgot about it. 89 days later the FAA called to investigate (they have 90 days to act) because ATL Approach had reported it as a "course clearance deviation". Long story short, after a couple of calls and emails they dropped the whole thing without any record because they said it was a trivial incident and I'd shown a positive and "compliant" attitude with them. Although I have to imagine that if I'd busted the ATL Bravo or caused a loss of separation, the outcome might well have been different.

I don't know whether Tower is required to repeat the initial heading instruction (it may be in the ATC Orders), but my experience certainly shows that you can't rely on it. I commented in my ASRS report that if Tower had repeated the instruction it could have helped to prevent the whole issue.

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  • $\begingroup$ I've never had tower repeat the turn CD gave me; my guess is that if they did that, pilots might start ignoring it and not notice when they gave a different turn. $\endgroup$ – StephenS Dec 22 '18 at 19:00
  • $\begingroup$ @StephenS I've never had them repeat it either, and I don't know if it's a good idea or not. In the specific scenario I described I think it would have helped, but that's just me in one particular situation. $\endgroup$ – Pondlife Dec 22 '18 at 19:16
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    $\begingroup$ A friend of mine was busted when he was given a level off altitude in the initial clearance, 3000ft, then when contacting departure at about 2500 he was told to continue to 7000. So having received it at 2500 or so they just carried on through 3k, but he was a bit tardy and by the time he'd read back the new altitude, they were PAST 3000, like 33 or 3400 (It was an empty RJ, climbing like a rocket). The got busted for failing to level off at 3000, because the revised clearance doesn't have "legal" effect until it is read back. I don't think many pilots know this. $\endgroup$ – John K Dec 22 '18 at 19:42
  • $\begingroup$ @JohnK Was the pilot busy flying the plane and couldn't read it back immediately? Or was there so much other traffic on freq, and he couldn't get a word in? If the latter, I would understand (as the ATC) if another pilot "cut in" without letting him read it back first. $\endgroup$ – jeff0000 Dec 22 '18 at 21:28
  • $\begingroup$ Not sure of that detail but yeah there could have been another communication going on he had to wait for, and blew past 3000 while waiting. In any case, as a strict technicality he should have leveled off at 3000, but normally they don't and nobody gets excited. I had heard a rumor that some controllers at this ATC unit were unhappy with some previous flight crew complaints and were getting hyper sticky with people as a result. Not totally sure. Important to know about that technicality though. $\endgroup$ – John K Dec 23 '18 at 1:42
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It is expected that you will do what was in the clearance issued to me, which you read back as part of the clearance acceptance process, unless the tower modified it prior to giving you clearance to take the runway and depart.

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Technically yes. In the absence of any other instruction, the tower would expect you to turn to the heading given in your departure clearance at the appropriate time, which would be after passing 400 ft. So if you continued on runway heading after 400 ft, the tower controller will likely watch for a while, then if he/she is convinced you are going to continue on runway heading, would probably give an instruction to fly the correct heading and do nothing more, or ask you what you are doing, or something similar.

Whether you get busted for it would depend on a lot of things, like the air traffic unit's policy, your demeanor, whether the controller thought it was an honest minor slip up with no ramifications, or a something that caused a traffic conflict and got people excited, and so on.

That sort of thing was why I used to go out of my way to be super friendly and polite to controllers (a cheerful "good morning" when checking in never hurts as long as it isn't burning up too much air time during busy periods). Like anybody else, controllers enjoy happy, cheerful professional interactions more than not, and this often buys that little bit of goodwill that makes the difference between getting busted or not in borderline situations.

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  • $\begingroup$ Turning at 400ft? In many places that may be a violation of 91.119(b) or (c), if not lethal. IMHO, turning with inadequate obstacle/surface clearance is not "necessary" when a short delay can make the turn perfectly safe (and legal). I've never had ATC try to fly me into the side of an office building before, but I'm fairly confident FSDO would side with me for not complying--and if not, at least I'd be alive to complain about the injustice. $\endgroup$ – StephenS Dec 22 '18 at 19:44
  • $\begingroup$ Read the CFR more carefully; "except where necessary for takeoff or landing". Standard IFR obstacle clearance departure requirements, in the absence of any special requirements for a given runway, are no turns below 400 ft, then 200 ft/nm in any direction until above min IFR altitude for the area. So if I had a heading to fly after departure, and the runway had no special requirements, I'd start turning any time after passing 400 feet. If there is an office building in the way, it will be reflected in the departure minima for the runway, obviously. $\endgroup$ – John K Dec 22 '18 at 19:58
  • $\begingroup$ Am I expected to know that for VFR FF? So far, I've just relied on (what I thought was) common sense for when to make the turn, and nobody's ever complained that I waited too long. $\endgroup$ – StephenS Dec 22 '18 at 20:51
  • $\begingroup$ Ah I see the problem... we are talking IFR departures here in the first place so this doesn't really apply. VFR, you would do what tower tells you or observe the normal VFR procedures in the absence of any instructions, so no worries. $\endgroup$ – John K Dec 22 '18 at 21:00
  • $\begingroup$ Context was CD giving a turn on departure, which also happens for FF, so I figured their expectations would be the same. I've also flown with some IFR friends, and they seemed to turn about where I would, so I was surprised when you said 400ft. $\endgroup$ – StephenS Dec 22 '18 at 22:11
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If you are given a heading, you must read it back. If you read it back, you have acknowledged and accepted it, and are required/expected to comply. If you do not, you are in violation. If you cannot take the heading assigned, you must say so, and do not accept the heading.

ATC would be all over you if you don't follow the heading that you say you will. They can report you to the FAA, and they may take action against you. If there is no immediate risk, likely nothing will happen. If you cause a near miss, or other real incident, then you'll be more likely to be suspended or fined.

ATC's job is not to repeat instructions to you, it is your job to repeat them to yourself. Write it down.

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