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Each ATC facility can only issue certain instructions or clearances. For instance, only the control tower can issue landing clearances, and only for that specific airport. Legally speaking, does the pilot need to keep track of what instructions can and can't be given to them based on which facility they're talking to?

For instance, let's suppose that the guy working approach control just recently transferred from the tower, had a brain fart, and accidentally issued a landing clearance to an approaching plane. Let's further suppose that the pilot forgot that he wasn't talking to tower, accepted the clearance, and landed the plane. Obviously the controller is going to get in trouble for that, but is the pilot who accepted the clearance from the wrong facility also in hot water?

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    $\begingroup$ Eh, not certain the premise here is correct. "Anything is possible with coordination." It's not unheard-of for someone expecting a visual approach to be shipped to Tower before the approach clearance is issued; TRACON calls on the landline and says "Hey I forgot to clear N123, you can issue the visual approach" and Tower says "N123, cleared visual approach runway 36, runway 36 cleared to land." Or for a surveillance approach, the final controller will say something along the lines of "Tower advises cleared to land." $\endgroup$
    – randomhead
    Commented Mar 19 at 23:14
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    $\begingroup$ Also, unless TWR is also asleep in your hypothetical example, they will surely notice a plane on final which they know nothing about, and go "A/C on final, WTF you think you're doing, cancel landing clearance, go around". Followed by a chat with APP to figure out how the hell the plane got there. $\endgroup$
    – TooTea
    Commented Mar 19 at 23:19
  • $\begingroup$ @randomhead Yeah, that was my question. So you're saying that, if approach issues me a landing clearance, it's safe to assume that they coordinated with tower (or whoever) and I can just land? (Obviously, if it happened in real life, I'd double-check, but this is a hypothetical.) $\endgroup$ Commented Mar 19 at 23:29
  • $\begingroup$ Well there's "safe to assume" for certificate action and "safe to assume" for preventing a collision with another aircraft holding on the runway... if you're ever in doubt, definitely double-check. But (again I'm not a lawyer) as far as certificate action goes, I think if ATC gives you an instruction then you have no obligation to doubt the legality of that instruction. $\endgroup$
    – randomhead
    Commented Mar 19 at 23:37
  • $\begingroup$ I've issued a landing clearance as Approach before. The Tower controller is sitting right next to me, and sometimes it makes more sense to keep the plane on the approach frequency instead of changing to the tower frequency. So the tower controller will tell me to issue the landing clearance. Never had a pilot be confused by this. $\endgroup$ Commented Mar 20 at 8:05

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I'm not a lawyer, but I think no. The pilot's responsibility is to comply with ATC clearances (91.123a) and instructions (91.123b), to the extent that the instructions/clearances are compatible with the safe operation of the aircraft. Nothing says that the pilot must evaluate ATC instructions to ensure that ATC is legal to issue them.

If ATC tells a pilot to do something illegal or unsafe, like fly into a cloud when the pilot is VFR, then of course the pilot has the responsibility to reject the ATC instruction. But pilots are not responsible for policing ATC and ensuring that ATC is following their own rules—which can be overlapping and contradictory, not to mention less-than-obvious to a pilot.
For example: in order to use Line Up and Wait, the Tower control position must not be combined with another control position like Ground and the tower supervisor position should not be combined with another position. How is the pilot to know the staffing situation in the cab?
Or: In the Terminal environment, ATC is allowed to use diverging separation with a minimum of 15 degrees between aircraft courses when using one type of radar antenna, but the minimum is 45 degrees when the scope is using a different type of radar. The pilot will have no clue which is in use at any given moment.

An experienced pilot will have some situational awareness and will expect certain instructions/phraseology from certain facilities, but there's a lot happening on the ATC side that pilots don't see—coordination, rules, etc. For example at up/down facilities which are open throughout the night all functions will typically be combined into one single controller working in the tower cab, and there's no rule that the controller can't say

Cleared visual approach runway 36, runway 36 cleared to land, taxi via Alfa to the ramp, remain this frequency and have a good night.

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  • $\begingroup$ I kind of agree, but Approach issuing a landing clearance would in fact be dangerous. Approach can't see the runway, and doesn't know who else has been cleared on to the runway. It would be good for pilots to know that. $\endgroup$ Commented Mar 20 at 2:42
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    $\begingroup$ I've been issued landing clearances late at night by controller whom we checked in with as "XYZ Approach" many times. Who subsequently cleared us to taxi to our gate on that same frequency. Not my role to question if that controller is allowed to issue the clearance he just gave me - I've been cleared for an approach, so I fly it; been cleared to land, so I can land, and taxi via {whatever} to the gate, so I do that. (Also been cleared to taxi, takeoff, & land by controllers who can't possibly see my aircraft due to visibility in the hundreds of feet... I don't ask if their radar is ... $\endgroup$
    – Ralph J
    Commented Mar 20 at 4:49
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    $\begingroup$ ... working & approved for them to use for that purpose!) Some things you accept that they're following their rules & procedures, that I probably don't know & can't verify. And on that basis, the system works. Well. $\endgroup$
    – Ralph J
    Commented Mar 20 at 4:52
  • $\begingroup$ @DJClayworth At some airports the approach controller is sitting in the tower, so he absolutely can see the runway. $\endgroup$ Commented Mar 20 at 8:08
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    $\begingroup$ I refer back to the comment by @randomhead. Anything can be done with coordination. I was working the midshift on (I guess) a very clear night and had given the arrival a descent clearance. About 50 miles out, the aircraft reported the airport in sight. I called the approach controller to pass along the information. He said, "Clear 'em for the visual approach," which I did. $\endgroup$
    – RetiredATC
    Commented Mar 20 at 14:20

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