# What happens when the airport shuts down

In Die Hard 2 terrorists take over an airport's ILS and landing lights on a snowy night (visual landing is impossible) and start making threats essentially holding the planes hostage.

The tower immediately sends incoming flights away to the diversion airports and "rack and stack" those already in the landing holding patterns. They also notify the pilots what happened mentioning that after the crisis is over they will start landing planes in order of fuel emergency and that radio may go dead later. Later in the movie the planes in the air actually start running out of fuel and one actually tries to land in the fog.

What is the protocol when you are a pilot in that situation? Do you just turn to your alternate when you have been circling around for 30 minutes (the "Final reserve fuel" for commercial jets).

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I was on a flight with a fuel emergency two months ago. We were actually circling for 45 minutes for the weather to clear up, when the alternate airport shut down as well! We were diverted to a small airport that had no facility to service the A330 we were on. They were able to fuel us, but we could not leave the plane. The procedure for refueling a plane full of passengers is very interesting, even for the passengers. For instance, all the doors were opened (in the rain) and we had to be in our seats with no electronic equipment, and seatbelts were required to be unbelted. –  dotancohen Jul 3 at 8:32
@dotancohen The refueling bit seems odd to me. Airliners are routinely fueled with passengers onboard at gates during turnarounds with no special passenger requirements. –  dvnrrs Jul 3 at 12:26
I don't know why they made such a bit deal, then. They even waited for the fire trucks to come before they would start pumping fuel. Would you like the flight number and date, if public reports are available for more info? Perhaps there is more to the story. –  dotancohen Jul 3 at 12:45
@dotancohen It might make a good standalone question if you're curious (and those details might help someone else). I don't know the answer, but I think it must have something to do with the facilities (or lack thereof) at the unexpected diversion airport, or some other nonstandard situation. –  dvnrrs Jul 3 at 13:26
I asked about the situation here. These comments can thus be purged if necessary. –  dotancohen Jul 7 at 8:46

## If a "terrorist takeover" like this were to happen in the real world...

### ...and the tower still had communication capability:

The tower controllers would advise pilots of the situation, and likely instruct them to return to the Approach frequency to coordinate their next steps (probably a landing at an alternate airport).
Presumably the tower would still have telephone communication as well, and be able to let Approach know to expect the planes to come back because of the emergency, otherwise the pilots would certainly inform the approach controllers of what's going on when they switch back to that frequency.

### ...and the tower has no communication capability:

With no response from the tower the usual thing for pilots to do is return to the Approach frequency to find out what's going on. The pilots could elect to attempt a landing anyway, treating the airport as an untowered field (this somewhat famously happened at KDCA, for somewhat different reasons), or proceed to an alternate airport.
If the weather required an instrument approach and the ILS radio signals are not transmitting this would be something the pilots could detect pretty easily (similarly if they were turned off while flying the approach there would be indications in the cockpit that the signal was lost and the pilot would execute the missed-approach procedure), and they would proceed to an alternate airport, again coordinating with the approach controllers.

## ...in any case:

No matter what the situation the aircraft would divert to their alternate airports long before they were in danger of running out of fuel. They would notify ATC of the situation and proceed to an alternate airport. (If not cleared by ATC to proceed to an alternate at some point any sane pilot will declare an emergency for low fuel and proceed on their emergency authority to make a safe landing somewhere.)

So basically there's some "artistic liberties" taken in Die Hard 2 in the interest of making it a movie you'd want to sit through.
A movie where a bunch of terrorists take over an airport and a bunch of flights divert to alternate airports (mildly inconveniencing the passengers) while the National Guard surrounds the airport and deals with the terrorists wouldn't sell nearly as many tickets!

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As a former Guardsman, don't count on the Guard. Probably SWAT, FBI, or Homeland Security. Most people don't live near their armory and are just regular citizens. Terrorist activity is criminal in nature, not necessarily war-like if say the Russians decided to invade. Sorry to hijack your answer :) –  staticx Jul 3 at 10:45
Out of interest, would capturing Washington Dulles actually cause a loss of ATC? I kind of feel like there ought to be someone else able to take control of such a significant airspace when the airport goes silent, and clear the pilots to proceed elsewhere. Adjacent airspaces? The region isn't short of metro areas. But I don't know why I feel that since I know nothing about ATC ;-) –  Steve Jessop Jul 3 at 21:33
@staticx Perfectly valid points :-) In the real world local police and/or the FBI would probably deal with the issue. Movie Land though you'll usually wind up with military or Guard intervention the second the "T" word is uttered, because police are boring :-) –  voretaq7 Jul 4 at 0:56
There was an episode of Air Crash Investigation where a South American plane was in a holding pattern near New York for so long it ran out of fuel and crashed on Long Island (IIRC). So it has happened at least once! –  sevenseacat Jul 4 at 8:50
one more impossibility from the movie (if I remember correctly) is that they had "changed the ILS to cause the aircraft to crash" so probably somehow redirected the ILS signal to send the aircraft somewhere different from the runway. That'd need physical access to the antenna arrays and a lot of time and tooling to change their setup. –  jwenting Jul 5 at 2:32

As Pilot In Command, once you determine your intended destination is unavailable for any reason, you just switch to your previously determined alternate.

In the movie the weather is below VFR minimums, so I would expect the pilots to simply switch back to Center frequency & request an immediate diversion to their alternate. A few might hang around for a short period, but I'm confident all would leave long before they were in any danger.

As noted in the question (Final reserve fuel) there's no major concern about running out of fuel.

On a side note, I've always disliked that movie - the premise that pilots are that stupid goes way beyond "suspension of disbelief".

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the premise that pilots are that stupid goes way beyond "suspension of disbelief" -- Idunno, pilots do some pretty stupid things, particularly looking at the number of fuel exhaustion/fuel starvation incidents in General Aviation. (I do agree that in this particular film the pilots are displaying stupidity far in excess of what I would normally ascribe to them. Particularly for airline pilots, who should have diversion criteria beaten into their brains during training.) –  voretaq7 Jul 2 at 20:11
@voretaq7 Some pilots are that stupid and worse (e.g., this, this and this). But the movie sort of implied that all the pilots were, across the board. –  dvnrrs Jul 3 at 13:30
"I've always disliked that movie" -- I guess there's only one way to learn what it's like to be a cop watching all movies ever, and that's to watch a movie made in which your profession acts stupid. As a computer programmer I'm doing all right, in movies we're socially stunted brainiacs. –  Steve Jessop Jul 3 at 21:36