This is a hypothetical scenario, but I'm interested to know if there are any regulations/guidance for what ATC should do in this situation.

The hypothetical nightmare scenario:

  • The runway is blocked by a crashed airliner and can't be cleared quickly.
  • The airliner is full of injured passengers who will take time to move.
  • The next aeroplane in line to land has an engine failure and is gliding to the runway (so can't go around).
  • You're in a hilly/built-up area so other options for landing are limited.

Clearly, you can't have one aircraft landing on top of a crashed aircraft, so what should ATC do?

Some of the options I can come up with (in roughly ascending order of how crazy they sound):

  • Switch him to a different runway e.g. LHR has two parallel runways (but if he's close to the airport making the sudden move across to another runway might be dangerous without power?)
  • Empty a taxiway (but you'd probably struggle to empty it fast enough at a busy airport?)
  • Point him towards a grassy bit of the airport
  • Allow him to land, but aim to land before or after the crashed aircraft (crash is probably at start or end of runway, so might just work)
  • Wish him good luck and tell him to find somewhere else to land (you know that's possibly going to result in him crashing, but at least he won't crash into the already crashed aircraft).

So is there any advice for the controller and if so what is it?


Note the source of this question was listening to a recording of the ATC when BA38 crashed at LHR. The controller asks the next aircraft to go around - it made me wonder what would happen if they had said no!

  • 19
    Welcome to aviation.SE! There's nothing wrong with hypothetical questions but there's unlikely to be a good, specific answer to this one. As the FAA's ATC orders say, "Because of the infinite variety of possible emergency situations, specific procedures cannot be prescribed. [...] select and pursue a course of action which appears to be most appropriate under the circumstances". – Pondlife May 31 '17 at 12:29
  • 4
    @Pondlife thanks - I guess "no, they don't give any advice" is still a valid answer. – stripybadger May 31 '17 at 12:43
  • 3
    Related: May an emergency aircraft land on a closed runway? – fooot May 31 '17 at 16:11
  • 9
    You ask "what should ATC do?", but really the question should be "what should the pilot do?" It's the pilot who makes the ultimate decision (example). ATC's job is to ensure aircraft separation through communication. – 200_success May 31 '17 at 18:00
  • 4
    @Ben That said, you're right about the best option being to avoid the scenario in the first place. An airplane crashing into the runway followed by the airplane behind it losing all engines on short final is incredibly unlikely. If the engine failure has already occurred, ATC generally won't be landing other aircraft in front of the emergency aircraft on the runway that they're directing it to. That way, there's no worry about the aircraft in front of the emergency aircraft not being able to vacate the runway in time for the emergency landing. – reirab May 31 '17 at 21:53
up vote 44 down vote accepted

What's the procedure? The procedure is, be creative to save as many lives as possible!

Really. The procedure is to determine a course of action which will likely result in the best outcome for everyone, utilizing all resources and given all constraints. Period. It is as simple as that.

There are infinitely many scenarios, and one cannot be trained for everything. However, pilots and controllers are trained to remain calm. When we look at the accident report years later, reading the document, we can easily say "if the pilots had done that, people would have been saved...". The important thing is that the people who were responsible at the time had to remain calm enough to look at the big picture instead of focusing on a particular problem, otherwise they can easily overlook a solution.

During training, it is common to throw multiple failures / emergencies together. The purpose is not to train the trainee to react to this exact combination of failure, since that is rather unlikely. Rather, the purpose is to simulate a stressful environment, under which one has to make sound and logical decisions.

  • The airport may be able to deploy an aircraft arresting barrier to stop the incoming flight short on the runway. These are commonly available at joint civil/military fields but there's no reason a major airfield couldn't have one for emergencies.boeing.com/commercial/aeromagazine/aero_13/runway_story.html – Arluin Jun 1 '17 at 19:51
  • 1
    If I had to completely guess, landing over the obstacle and driving off the end, or landing before, hitting the breaks hard, and driving off the side of the runway seem like options that might help a little. – mbrig Jun 2 '17 at 2:27
  • 3
    I guess the name of the procedure is JSS, which stands for Just Survive Somehow – inaliahgle Jun 2 '17 at 9:20

No, there is no standard procedure for handling a scenario like the one you describe. It is up to the pilot in command, in cooperation with air traffic control, to decide what to do.

There are generally very few specific procedured defined for handling emergency situations. Handling unusual situations is exactly why there are pilots and air traffic controllers at all. We come up with solutions to problems that no one has ever seen before, or even thought about - it's what we get paid to do. If there was a rule for how to handle every single hypothetical scenario, we would be long gone, replaced by computers. But that is not possible - at least for now.

An example of how the title situation was handled in real life.

UA497 took off from the KMSY (New Orleans International) 2011-04-04 7000 ft runway and 4 minutes after wanted to return. The Longer runway (10104 ft) was closed at the time for lengthy repairs with equipment on the runway.

Pilots wanted the longer runway but it couldn't be cleared in time. They eventually landed on the 7000 foot runway, and veered a bit off to the side and were stuck for some hours. http://flightaware.com/resources/airport/MSY/APD/AIRPORT+DIAGRAM/pdf

Overview of aftermath (plane ran off side of runway and took time to clear) http://www.cnn.com/2011/US/04/04/louisiana.emergency.landing/

"United Airlines pilot, control tower conversation: 8 minutes and 44 seconds of steely calm" http://www.nola.com/news/index.ssf/2011/04/united_airlines_pilot_airport.html

It's a hypothetical scenario, perhaps, but one that has actually been considered and legislated for in at least one case.

If you're flying to Easter Island, you're not allowed to commit to it until any previous traffic has landed.

As with so many things in aviation, it's a lot easier to get out of this sort of mess when the system prevents you from getting into it in the first place :)

  • well, that's nice in theory but in the hypothetical case presented here it's either land, ditch, or crash. Wonder what'd the verdict be if a tower controller tells an out of fuel airliner gliding in on Easter Island to divert to the nearest other airport (which is hours away...) because the runway is blocked... – jwenting Aug 9 '17 at 5:51
  • @jwenting: At which point there would certainly be an investigation because ATC won't allow anybody past the midpoint (where Easter Island is now closest) until after the runway is vacated. – Joshua Apr 8 at 4:48

Like was said, there is no standard for a scenario like that. The pilot in command will take the decision.

If there is another runway or taxiway available to land, the ATC will send the aircraft there.

If none: We start praying and looking for a place to land. After choosing one, we communicate to the ATC in order to send the rescue.

  • 2
    This should be a comment. It does not provide any new information to be considered an answer. – Jimy Jun 1 '17 at 12:24
  • 3
    "We start praying and looking for a place to land": You should start with the second option imho. – mins Jun 1 '17 at 17:01
  • 3
    @mins Procedure agrees with you. Aviate, Navigate, Communicate. – anaximander Jun 2 '17 at 9:25

There is a simple rule that allows pilots to do whatever is necessary in an emergency. So what happens in such a case is that the pilot declares an emergency , tries to figure out (together with the ATC) what to do but finally decides on his own what the best possible solution is.

He is allowed to disregard even ATC commands in an emergency (although he is still held responsible for his actions!).

So even though ATC can advice, they're "not the one in charge".

The pilot would most probably land on the blocked runway and turn sideways into the green to not collide with the other airplane.

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.