There have been quite a number of accident reports referenced here at Aviation.SE about commercial (passenger or freight) flights executing controlled flight into terrain on approach for landing. The accident reports always seem to revolve around the pilots not knowing they are too low, failing to recognize or respond to the GPWS, etc.

While I understand that the pilot in command has the final say on what happens on board the aircraft, ATC is responsible for giving the PIC instructions to get him safely to the end of the runway.

In the case where ATC has given the PIC the approach route, whether VFR (flight following) or IFR, how much time, ability, and requirement does ATC then have to monitor that flight to ensure that it's on the expected course and at expected altitudes? In other words, how much responsibility does ATC have for failure to monitor the situation and allow these accidents to happen?

If necessary, differentiate between different CAAs, but I would think the answer would be fairly similar around the world.


There are a couple of nice answers, but they're not addressing (in my head, at least) the question I was attempting to ask, so it seems I didn't ask it well. I'll clarify further:

In a situation such as Eastern 401, the pilots had already contacted the tower to indicate that they had an issue - the nose gear lock light failed to illuminate. While attempting to determine what the cause of the problem was (bulb burnt out or gear not actually locked), they forgot to aviate and flew into the ground. In a situation like this, particularly where ATC has been notified that there was an issue with the flight, it seems to me that they (ATC) would have been more alert to the flight and notified the pilots that they were descending when they should have been holding a steady altitude.

This is the type of situation that I'm asking about (though not specifically EA401), and I'm wondering what role, if any, ATC should or does take in monitoring and alerting flight crews to altitude deviations, especially on approach.

  • This is very broad, too broad to be answered as there are so many potential situations and each would have to be discussed to get an answer – GdD Jun 15 '16 at 16:41
  • On the one hand, @GdD, I can see that and agree with you. On the other, however, ATC deals with hundreds/thousands of flights daily crossing in a multitude of directions & altitudes and they're required to keep minimum separations (in many potential situations). Helping to ensure landing aircraft keep a minimum separation from the ground (instead of another aircraft) doesn't seem that far outside what they do already. – FreeMan Jun 15 '16 at 16:53
  • I agree with Freeman. A sufficient answer could, for example, explain the MAWS system and how it's supposed to be operated. – Cody P Jun 15 '16 at 18:18
up vote 6 down vote accepted

This is potentially a very broad topic, but here's some information about the US.

As a general principle, safety is ATC's first priority so obviously they have a basic responsibility to provide whatever information and action are required to keep aircraft safe:

FAA ATC orders 2-1-1:

The primary purpose of the ATC system is to prevent a collision between aircraft operating in the system and to provide a safe, orderly and expeditious flow of traffic, and to provide support for National Security and Homeland Defense.

The orders explicitly say that ensuring separation and issuing alerts take priority over everything else. Section 2-1-2, DUTY PRIORITY:

Give first priority to separating aircraft and issuing safety alerts as required in this order. Good judgment must be used in prioritizing all other provisions of this order based on the requirements of the situation at hand.

Section 2-1-6, SAFETY ALERT defines what an alert is and when to issue one (this section is referenced throughout the orders):

Issue a safety alert to an aircraft if you are aware the aircraft is in a position/altitude that, in your judgment, places it in unsafe proximity to terrain, obstructions, or other aircraft. Once the pilot informs you action is being taken to resolve the situation, you may discontinue the issuance of further alerts. Do not assume that because someone else has responsibility for the aircraft that the unsafe situation has been observed and the safety alert issued; inform the appropriate controller

It's difficult to say much more than that because there are so many possible scenarios. But you can search for "safety alert" in the orders and the AIM to get more information and there's some limited content in the orders 5-15 about radar displays and alerts.

If ATC fails to issue a safety alert and that leads to an accident, then it will be mentioned in the NTSB report, e.g. LAX04FA205:

Contributing to the accident was the failure of both the Center and TRACON controllers to properly respond to the aural and visual Minimum Safe Altitude Warning System (MSAW) alert.

But actually acting on a safety alert is entirely the pilot's responsibility, of course (this is from the AIM 4-1-16):

Once the alert is issued, it is solely the pilot’s prerogative to determine what course of action, if any, to take

how much time, ability, and requirement does ATC then have to monitor that flight to ensure that it's on the expected course and at expected altitudes?

ATC must not vector you into the ground (besides not vectoring you into other aircraft, which is their primary responsibility). For this they have minimum vectoring altitudes (MVA) indicated on the radar scopes and when issuing vectors, must assign you safe altitude.

Beyond that, any warnings are provided on best-effort basis and their ability to alert aircraft about unsafe position is often limited:

  • They don't have detailed map of obstacles and their heights, only the minimum vectoring altitudes that usually cover large areas and are rather generous. So aircraft often fly lower under VFR or when executing a visual procedure (e.g. a circling approach) and it is safe as long as they have ground in sight. But when pilots lose suddenly ground visibility, they usually have lot of work trying to get oriented, so they don't report they lost it to the controller, so the controller can't advise them. That is how many CFIT accidents happen.

  • How busy the controller is varies wildly. But a busy controller might have 20 aircraft on their scope. With that many they spend most of the time looking for conflicts, which the system also helps them with, and coming up with routes to avoid them. That doesn't leave much time and mental capacity to look for aircraft below MVA.

On emergency situations, or even on abnormals, the ATC will provide the instructions, according to the manuals and procedures. All the instructions, given by controllers, can be, at any time, avoided by pilots, if they interfere on the safety, for example, courses (into bad weather), altitudes (if the aircraft can't reach or maintain), turns (if they are unable to comply), and pilots will say that, giving alternatives. On radar service, the ATC is responsible for the navigation, and all the responsibilities go under them. So, controllers have all the skills to conduct all the situations, including the emergency ones, and if they are not possible to be accomplished by the crew, they will say that and give another opition.

Your Answer

By clicking "Post Your Answer", you acknowledge that you have read our updated terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy, and that your continued use of the website is subject to these policies.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.