If there aren't published vectors to tell a commercial pilot which heading to take as they climb, can they decide where to make their initial turn on their own or would an ATC always involved in where they make the turn?

  • $\begingroup$ The takeoff clearance usually tells them what heading to hold and if any turns are to be made (above 400 feet.) Departure will give turns also. $\endgroup$
    – Mike Brass
    Commented Jul 21, 2019 at 4:29
  • $\begingroup$ @MikeBrass don't you mean above 500 feet, at least as far as new PBN rules are concerned (for LNAV engagement)? $\endgroup$ Commented Jul 21, 2019 at 21:15

2 Answers 2


The short answer is yes, a commercial pilot can make a decision when to turn.

To clarify a few points though, there really isn't such a thing as a "published vector". If a departure procedure with heading were to be published it would then become a Standard Instrument Departure, or SID. True, some SIDs will specify radar vectors, but this simple tells pilots that they should expect ATC to assign headings that will vary depending on traffic, not which heading they can expect to actually fly.

Next, "commercial" pilots don't do anything different than private pilots, airline transport pilots, or military pilots. When and where you turn during departure depends primarily on whether you are operating under IFR or VFR. Secondarily, decisions on when to turn will be based on terrain, noise abatement, company policy, and lastly personal preference.

So, considering my answer in light of the above, there is a big difference between a 737 operating IFR on a SID, and a commercial pilot in a 172 towing a banner under VFR out of a non-towered airfield. If you have a specific scenario you are wondering about you might get a better answer if you can narrow down the question.

  • $\begingroup$ Thx. I was referring to a U.S. commercial pilot flying a 737 under IFR. For example if there is a SID, does the pilot have the say where the initial turn would be made right after departure (e.g. 2 miles or 4 miles or 5 miles) before they get vectored? For this example lets say there aren't any noise abatement or terrain issues. $\endgroup$
    – FlyGRL
    Commented Jul 21, 2019 at 23:17
  • $\begingroup$ If there is a SID, fly the SID. If you are told to expect vectors, maintain runway or last assigned until given a new heading. Otherwise I am not quite sure what you are asking without an example. Each SID is different and there really isn’t a blanket answer. Why would you turn otherwise? Your are either cleared your own navigation, or driven around by ATC. There aren’t really any other options... $\endgroup$ Commented Jul 21, 2019 at 23:29
  • $\begingroup$ Thx. If there is published SID and the turns are always made at 3 miles, who can m ake the decision to start turning at 5 miles? Can a 737 pilot do that? Or would the ATC? $\endgroup$
    – FlyGRL
    Commented Jul 21, 2019 at 23:51
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ If you have been cleared to fly a SID that requires you to turn at 3 miles and you haven’t turned by 5 you are in violation of your clearance! ATC does not call your turn for you in case that’s where our miscommunication lies. When cleared for a SID or STAR you are expected to fly the entire published procedure without further guidance from ATC. That’s why they are standardized and published, to reduce radio chatter. ATC assigned vectors should be only out of necessity. Does that clear things up? $\endgroup$ Commented Jul 22, 2019 at 0:48

It depends. Commercial pilot could be doing a VFR part 91 flight from his own backyard.

I suspect you meant pilot of an airline flight? Yes, in one way or another he will be told which way to turn 99.9 % of the time, in the USA at least. Whether by tower, ODP, or company guidance.

  • $\begingroup$ Thx. I did mean airline pilot. I'm not that familiar with ODP, but is it possible for the company or ATC to direct a change from a turn that's normally made at 3 miles to 5 miles, on a published SID? I'm just wondering what the scenario would be in which that could happen? $\endgroup$
    – FlyGRL
    Commented Jul 22, 2019 at 0:08
  • $\begingroup$ @FlyGRL - We are also wondering what the scenario would be in which that could happen. Two possibilities: ATC initiated - If they need you to extend beyond the point where you would turn for traffic they will take you off the SID and provide vectors. Pilot requested - if for weather, minor cockpit emergency, or some other reason, the pilot can always request a deviation from the clearance, even if temporary. (real emergency just squawk and fly...) However, the company or anyone else cannot simply direct a change to a SID without asking or telling ATC. Does this answer your question? $\endgroup$ Commented Jul 23, 2019 at 0:22
  • $\begingroup$ Thx. Would this make a difference? The initial part of the route is defined by a compass heading and not satellite-based. There isn't an open departure. There are no emergencies, no changes in weather, no waypoints in the first segment until well after the turn. Most of the turns were made at 3 miles, now at 5 miles. Here's the SID (RNAV) route description: Climbing right turn heading 210, expect vectors to ----, then on track 009 to cross ------ at or above 13000... on (transition) maintain FL230. Expect filed altitude 10 minutes after departure. $\endgroup$
    – FlyGRL
    Commented Jul 23, 2019 at 17:12

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