Today I was in a simulator on runway 20R at KSNA. ATC gave me a VFR clearance and told me to fly heading 080 on departure. The runway has right traffic. I turned right and was told by ATC I should have turned left because you're supposed to always take the shortest turn to assigned heading when given a heading, even if the runway has an opposite traffic pattern.

My question is: Where does the FAR/AIM specify this rule? Are there any other legal publications that specify this?

Bonus points if you can cite a reference to this rule in any PPL textbook e.g. Jeppesen's Guided Flight Discovery Private Pilot. Thanks.

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    $\begingroup$ Did they give you a turn direction, e.g. "turn left heading 080"? $\endgroup$ Sep 29, 2014 at 16:37
  • $\begingroup$ No. I think that may have been part of the test because I think in the real world they would say 'left turn approved' or something like that. So the question is: When they leave it unclera, what should you do? Left turn or right turn? $\endgroup$ Sep 29, 2014 at 18:20
  • $\begingroup$ Actually, in the real world, you'll probably just get a heading in your departure clearance. If you don't get a heading, you need to fly runway heading. There are a lot of technicalities when it comes to flying IFR, and a lot of the rules are not obviously in the regs. Then again, you were VFR, so I'm not sure what's up with that. $\endgroup$
    – egid
    Sep 30, 2014 at 3:21

1 Answer 1


The most important point is that if any ATC instruction isn't clear then you should just ask them to repeat or clarify it.

Having said that, turning in the shorter direction is stated in the FAA's Pilot/Controller Glossary:

FLY HEADING (DEGREES)- Informs the pilot of the heading he/she should fly. The pilot may have to turn to, or continue on, a specific compass direction in order to comply with the instructions. The pilot is expected to turn in the shorter direction to the heading unless otherwise instructed by ATC.

In my personal experience, ATC almost always say left or right for heading changes if you're on an approach or departure, but sometimes leave it out if you're in cruise. That makes sense to me: the busier the airspace the more they want to make sure that you don't turn the wrong way.

  • $\begingroup$ Thanks! Yes I think the point here is that unless you know this regulation, there is no uncertainty on whether it's clear or not, you'll simply fly the runway pattern and so won't ask for clarification. $\endgroup$ Sep 29, 2014 at 21:38
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    $\begingroup$ It's also important to note that @seattle272SP's example isn't actually a heading change, it's an initial departure heading. Those are a different animal. $\endgroup$
    – egid
    Sep 30, 2014 at 3:22

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