Towerless Tribulations

Flying IFR out of a non-towered airport? Knowing what to do, using standardized phraseology and some good ol’ courtesy make it easy.


Recently in my duties as an air traffic controller, I’ve noticed a trend: more than a few pilots struggle with non-towered airport procedures. Unfortunately, I’m not talking about a student pilot on his first-ever instrument flight. In that scenario, fumbles are expected. 

Instead, I’m talking about pilots flying jets and turboprops who—I suspect—could be inexperienced or rusty with the phraseology. They might fly to 99 towered airports, and suddenly flight 100 takes them to a non-towered field, leaving them out of their comfort zone. Let’s review some of the verbiage that commonly leaves folks askew. 

Get a Hold of Yourself

Let’s start with just getting the clearance. An IFR clearance can be obtained several ways at a non-towered airport: radio the overlying ATC facility via a posted clearance delivery frequency, call the same facility via a listed phone number, or—old school—contact Flight Service, who will contact that ATC facility on your behalf. 

No matter the method, the meat of the clearance is nearly identical to one received by a control tower’s Clearance Delivery. “N123AB is cleared to [destination airport] via [route], maintain [initial altitude], expect [filed altitude] one-zero minutes after departure. Departure frequency [freq]. Squawk [code]. Hold for release.” 

That last phrase—“Hold for release”—is the key difference. Per AIM 5-2-7, “When ATC states in the clearance, ‘hold for release,’ the pilot may not depart utilizing that IFR clearance until a release time or additional instructions are issued by ATC.”

Radar facilities are required to provide IFR separation between IFR aircraft, typically three-to-five miles horizontally or 1000 feet vertically. What if there’s another IFR aircraft already released for departure from your airport, overflying it low level, or nearby and cleared for an approach into it? We cannot allow you to depart due to potential conflict. Non-towered airports are “one in or one out” to ensure that separation. 

Like a Tower controller saying, “Hold short Runway 9,” hold for release is a restriction bearing significant safety implications. And yet, many pilots fail to read theirs back. When it happens, I need to get after them. “Verify hold for release.” It’s part of ATC’s requirements (see next section) and a safeguard against serious traffic conflicts. 

There are plenty of slow non-towered airports that see one IFR every thousand years. Those aren’t the ones I’m talking about. Just yesterday, I had a sequence of five IFR aircraft into one, with multiple IFR aircraft waiting to depart. Three simple words—“hold for release”—helped me keep everything in order.

Them’s the Rules

There is an understanding that if 1) a non-towered airport IFR clearance is issued and 2) the controller doesn’t say, “Hold for release,” then an immediate departure release is granted to that aircraft. You have been cleared, therefore you go. This is where we enter a bit of a murky area.

For controllers, per the ATC rule-book, FAA Order 7110.65, section 4-3-4: “Departures from an airport without an operating control tower must be issued either a departure release, a hold for release, or a release time.” There is no ambiguity, no (D) None of the Above. A controller must issue one of these three options.

While a release is not a takeoff clearance (as mentioned below) it is a significant element in the safe process of getting you airborne on an IFR clearance. If ATC slips up and forgets to add “hold for release,” what should you do?

Let’s use a ridiculous example: You’ve taxied out to a runway at a towered airport and call Tower, “Ready for takeoff.” Tower replies, “Roger.” No takeoff clearance issued. So, you sit. Time passes. You call tower again. Tower replies, gruffly, “What are you still doing here? I never said ‘hold short.’ You said you were ready for takeoff and I acknowledged. Why didn’t you depart?”

Does that sound right to you? I’d hope not. Where’s the “cleared for takeoff”? When a controller isn’t using the right phraseology, it should trigger some alarm bells.

In AIM 5-2-6, it says, “ATC may issue ‘hold for release’ instructions in a clearance to delay an aircraft’s depar-ture for traffic management reasons (i.e., weather, traffic volume, etc.).” It says “may,” with an automatic release implied unless a hold is specified.

However, ATC’s rules also state clearly that they have to issue one of those release options. So, it’s a bit of a no-man’s land. Technically, yes, you’re released, but it’s due to an omission on ATC’s part. Not the greatest practice.

The problem is these vagaries can have implications nationwide. If one controller or ATC facility is slipping on their requirements, then those pilots also get used to an erroneous standard. When those pilots fly out of a different airport, these varying expectations can cause issues with the unfamiliar controllers.

So, if no release or hold for release is issued to you, hold on the ground, and ask the controller, “Verify released for departure?” Make sure you’re all on the same page. If ATC gets salty, tell ’em to reread Point 65 Section 4-3-4. 

Words Have Meaning

Okay, you’ve held for your release and call me number one, ready to go. I tell you, “Released for departure. Enter controlled airspace heading 090. Clearance void if not off in five minutes. If not off within five minutes, advise us within 10 minutes of intentions.” 

The very first part of that phraseology—the release itself—trips up quite a few pilots. Perhaps used to hearing “cleared for takeoff” at towered airports, they slip in words like “cleared” and “takeoff” into their readback. 

In the space of one hour the other day, I had a Citation Sovereign, a Super King Air, and a Beechjet 400 call at different times to request their releases from non-towered airports. Each one managed to flub the readback. “Cleared for departure”—No. “After takeoff, fly heading…”—No. “Cleared for takeoff.” Wow. No. 

Why is this bad? Imagine I’m working Tower. You call ready for departure. I then scan the runway, the departure end, and the final, verifying there are no aircraft or vehicles impacting you. I’m also keenly aware of the obstructions and terrain in the immediate area and have been trained to know which headings and altitudes steer you clear of them. 

“Cleared for takeoff,” is a very weighted phrase through which ATC assumes substantial responsibility for your safe departure. If aircraft at non-towered airports read back “cleared for takeoff,” the implication is that they’re assuming someone else is ensuring runway and obstruction safety for them. That’s not the case; they are fully on their own until they enter controlled airspace and are radar-identified, hence the very different phraseology. 

I therefore corrected each aircraft’s readback. “Negative. You are released for departure. Enter controlled airspace heading….” There have been times where I’ve had to issue the release multiple times—leading to both sides getting annoyed—until I get the readback I need. As I mentioned earlier, I suspect it’s due to unfamiliarity with flying out of non-towered airports and perhaps some expectation bias gained from frequent tower operations.

Photo by the author

Sharing is Caring

Let’s finish off with some discussion about arrivals and IFR clearance cancellations. When you’re cleared for an approach to a non-towered airport, that airport’s yours. ATC will protect that airspace. You’re the only IFR aircraft allowed into, out of, or near it, either on the air or on the ground, until you cancel IFR. 

The larger reality of this is that there could be other pilots waiting on you. No one can make you cancel IFR, but if the opportunity is there to do so safely, others—pilots and ATC alike—will appreciate it. Most pilots cancel in a timely manner, often before landing if conditions are VMC. From time to time, though, I encounter pilots who lack situational awareness or—being cynical here—apparently don’t care how their actions delay others. 

I mentioned earlier that I was working a sequence of five aircraft into a non-towered airport yesterday, with some departures waiting as well. It was a stunningly VMC day. The first couple of arrivals cancelled well away from the airport, allowing me to get a couple of departures out. 

Then… there was the third guy, a Learjet. I told him, “Cleared visual approach. Report IFR cancellation in the air on this frequency, or on the ground [frequency].” I also emphasized, “A prompt cancellation of IFR would be appreciated. Numerous inbounds and outbounds waiting. Change to advisory frequency approved.” 

He replied tersely, “We’ll cancel on the ground,” and just switched on over to the CTAF frequency. As I watched the Lear’s target fly the 10 miles to the airport, I delay-vectored the two other jets and had three outbounds waiting. Of course, I was also working all my other traffic.

Here’s the kicker: the Lear landed … and never called to cancel IFR. The entire time, the airport was effectively closed to IFR traffic and everyone else was burning fuel and time. When I explained the reason for the delay to another waiting jet, he muttered on frequency, “Great. What a team player….” After several minutes had passed with no radio call, our supervisor had to call the airport FBO and have them visually verify the Lear landed. Only then was I able to resume IFR operations there. 

Let’s be clear again: No one can make the Lear pilot, you, or any other pilot cancel IFR. If the visibility and ceilings aren’t cooperating, it’s obviously not an option. However, if weather conditions allow it and there’s nothing unusual going on, help your fellow pilots and ATC with a prompt IFR cancellation. Treat others the way you’d like to be treated. 

Non-towered operations certainly have their idiosyncrasies, but a clean readback and a little courtesy can go a long way towards making them easier for everyone. 

Tarrance Kramer always appreciates a good readback and a prompt cancellation of IFR while working traffic out in the Midwest. 


  1. I’m a rusty IFR pilot. I’ll remember that I will not get a clearance to takeoff when receiving my departure clearance. That is my see and avoid responsibility to take off. Also I’ll remember to cancel IFR prior to landing (if in VMC). Great lesson!

  2. Excellent article. The only thing that I’ll disagree with is the phraseology “Enter controlled airspace heading xxx”. If I recall correctly, the phraseology in the 7110.65 is “When entering controlled airspace fly heading xxx”. The former implies that you must already be on heading xxx when enter controlled airspace. The latter implies that when you enter controlled airspace, you must then turn to heading xxx.


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