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Ready for take-off

VFR departure clearance explained

It can be daunting when Tower rattles off a departure clearance that you are not prepared for. Starting your flight "on the back foot" is never much fun. So here is what to expect from Tower, and under what circumstances your departure clearance will differ.

Tower will only ever give you one of three things, or any combination of the following:

  1. Clearance

  2. Instruction

  3. Information

A CLEARANCE is preceded by the words "(your call sign) is cleared ........."

An INSTRUCTION is when they tell you to report at a position, this will be either a height or a spot on the earth. They might ask to to report at whichever point you reach first.

INFORMATION is when they tell you about weather or other aircraft.

Lets say you want to fly from point A to point B. Point A is in a CTR (Class C airspace) and point B is in Special Rules Airspace, and is unmanned, but you want to fly in the TMA, above the Special Rules area, where you will talk to Approach. (Don't know what I'm on about? You need to complete the Restricted Radio Course to be put in the picture !)

There are two ways you can ask Tower for departure:

  1. Start up and call for taxi for your flight. This way you will definitely first be routed BELOW the TMA, and will have to call Approach for your climb after you are airborne and out of the CTR.

  2. Request start, or request OFFICIAL start. This gets Tower to alert Approach that you want to climb straight into their airspace. Depending on their inbound traffic, you might be allowed to climb straight up to your chosen Flight Level without a step, or have your climb delayed. The difference between Requesting START and requesting OFFICIAL START, is for the former, you just have your Master and Avionics on, and are running purely on your battery while calling Tower and waiting for their response. When you request OFFICIAL START, you have started your engine, and have activated your battery charging system, so you are not depleting you battery while you wait for them to call you back for start, but you are burning a little fuel, and warming up your engine.

Here's an example of how you ask:

Make contact: "Pietermaritzburg Tower, Student ZU-SAA"

Tower: "SAA, Pietermaritzburg Tower, go ahead"

Communicate "Request official start for a flight as per flight plan to Greytown, Flight

what you want: Level 75 on request"

Tower: "SAA standby"

You wait for Tower to come back to you....

Tower: "SAA, official start approved, taxi holding point Alpha, QNH 1016, report

ready for departure."

You should know what to say from here.

Somewhere along the line you will be asked if you are ready to copy your after departure clearance. If you respond "Affirm" then be ready with a pencil and paper, or a Chinagraph pencil and the Perspex window. (I use Chinagraphs / China Markers on my laminated maps and on the cockpit window. Easy to use, easy to read, easy to rub off.)

A standard VFR departure from Tower will go something like this:


Aircraft Callsign Zulu Uniform-Sierra Alpha Alpha

Cleared take-off Cleared take-off

Runway {rwy number} Runway 16

Surface wind {the wind and direction} Surface wind south easterly at 10kts

After take-off turn {left / right/ continue straight} After takeoff left out

Report {at a spot & at a height, or not above Report Northdale Ridge not above

a height} 5000ft

Squawk {........} Squawk 5242

The stripe above 5000 indicates below 5000 ft (right). You may be given your Squawk with this departure clearance, or before, or after take-off. You will also be told, somewhere along the line, to call Approach for further climb.

Even if you call for start, you are not guaranteed to be cleared directly into the TMA. It all depends on the traffic and the Approach Controller.

If you DO get cleared straight into the TMA, your after departure clearance will sound more like an IFR departure clearance. Like every departure clearance it is pretty standard so you can have a notepad ready with to complete the clearance.

Here is an example: Tower clears you:

Aircraft call sign ZU-SAA

Cleared x to y Cleared Pietermaritzburg to Greytown

After take off Rwy {...} After take-off Runway 16

Left hand out {or right hand out, or ahead} Left hand out

Climb to Flight Level {......} Climb to Flight Level 75

Contact {whichever} Approach Contact Durban Approach

on {frequency} on 125,75

passing {height} passing 5000 feet

Squawk {.........} Squawk 5242

Then you say this all back word for word (that's why you write it down)

Then Tower says:

"Readback correct"

"SAA cleared take-off runway ONE SIX, surface wind WUN SIX ZERO degrees at TEN knots"

Only now are you cleared for the take-off. Read this back, then take off.

Preparing this makes it a whole lot easier.

Hope this clears things up, if you had any doubts! You can do my SA Restricted Radio Course ONLINE here. It is compulsory to complete a course (wherever you do it), to earn your Restricted Radio License for your NPL, PPL, Drone or Hot Air Balloon license.

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