If there is an IFR aircraft on approach that has already received an approach clearance, and he reports being at the final approach fix but the controller does not have him in sight yet, can the controller give the aircraft clearance to land at this point, or does he have to wait until he has the aircraft in sight (which may be on short final)?

And what are the rules for (let's say) a VFR flight on final (maybe the controller can't see him due to rain over the field, etc.)? Also, are there any reference documents (ICAO/FAA/Eurocontrol) that have information on this?

Here's a more specific IFR scenario: let's say the aircraft is making a CAT I ILS or maybe a VOR DME approach, in a non-radar environment. Does the tower need to see the aircraft before giving a landing clearance? The runway itself is clear from other vehicles or aircraft. Does the controller issue a "continue approach" instruction until he can see the aircraft and then clear it to land? O does he just issue the landing clearance at the final fix ( if the runway itself is clear)?

  • $\begingroup$ The edit changed the scope of the question considerably and took the question from controlled airspace into non-controlled airspace. I would suggest changing the question back, approving this answer and asking a new question that covers ils and no radar. $\endgroup$ Apr 30, 2018 at 0:45
  • $\begingroup$ @RowanHawkins no i don't mean in uncontrolled airspace. Airspace without radar is still controlled by procedural control. the question was strictly the landing clearance part, does the tower need to have a visual on the aircraft or not.. (i'm new here so forgive me if i didn't do something correct ) $\endgroup$
    – user30767
    Apr 30, 2018 at 2:13
  • $\begingroup$ There are plenty of airports where there are instrument approaches, but no tower at all. In those cases, you can be cleared for the approach and never receive a landing clearance. Instead you would just switch to advisory freq. This is just a comment because the exact question asks about receiving a "landing clearance" that doesn't happen in that case. $\endgroup$
    – Adam
    May 1, 2018 at 12:58

4 Answers 4


The FAA's ATC orders cover this for the US. Note that controllers can use radar instead of visual contact:


When an arriving aircraft reports at a position where he/she should be seen but has not been visually observed, advise the aircraft as a part of the landing clearance that it is not in sight and restate the landing runway.

Aircraft observance on the CTRD satisfies the visually observed requirement.

(A CTRD is a Certified Tower Radar Display.)

As others have said, operations in poor weather would be very difficult if controllers needed to see all aircraft before clearing them to land.

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Thank you for the FAA ATC order link, i found other useful information as well. $\endgroup$
    – user30767
    Apr 30, 2018 at 21:38
  • $\begingroup$ I understand from the quoted orders that radar observation actually counts as visual observation. Correct? If yes, that would somewhat contradict your last paragraph. $\endgroup$
    – bogl
    May 6, 2018 at 14:39

No, a tower controller does not need to have an aircraft in sight in order to issue a landing clearance.

There may be some variations upon this basic rule depending on jurisdiction. I am speaking from the context of FAA jurisdiction.

I fly in and out of multiple airports that are not radar equipped. I routinely receive landing clearance before the tower has me in sight.

In cases of good weather (VFR), the controller will typically wait till he or she has us in sight before issuing the landing clearance. This will often be preceded by an instruction for us to report over some point in order to facilitate that visual contact.

In cases of poor weather, the controller has little or no choice in issuing a landing clearance before establishing visual contact. Just today, I was flying an ILS approach and the controller issued our landing clearance while we were still in the clouds. We broke out of the clouds a few minutes later, at least five miles from the runway, so the controller could have waited, but did not need to. In very poor weather, for example with visibility of half a mile, the controller would probably never see our aircraft at all while we were in the air. At this airport the controller would only be able to see us as we rolled out on the runway after touching down.


In many cases, the controller has a radar set, and knows the positions of approaching aircraft that way. It is not necessary for him to obtain visual confirmation in at least that case.

It is necessary for the controller to know that previous aircraft and/or vehicles have cleared the runway - that is fundamentally what landing clearance is about. He may be able to see that for himself (again possibly with radar assistance), or he may need to rely on reports of moving clear.

Another vital factor is that the pilot gains visibility of the field before reaching minimum descent altitude. He has already gained landing clearance at that point, but as the tower tends to be in mid-field, the aircraft is not necessarily in sight from the tower! On a Cat-III approach, minimums are at zero feet and suitably fitted aircraft can land in solid fog, unable to see the runway even after coming to a halt. So this makes it obvious that the controller literally seeing the aircraft on approach is not necessary.

VFR is another matter, of course. Often there is no tower at all at a VFR field, and everything is the pilots' responsibility.

  • $\begingroup$ Lets say in the IFR scenario the aircraft is making a CAT1 ils or maybe a VOR DME approach, in a a NON Radar Environment. Does the tower need to see the aircraft before giving a landing clearance? The runway itself is clear from other vehicles or aircraft. does the controller issue a continue approach untill he can see the aircraft and then clear to land? or just issue the landing clearance at the final fix ( if the runway itself is clear) $\endgroup$
    – user30767
    Apr 29, 2018 at 21:43

One doesn't even need to be on final to get a landing clearance. Depends what else is in the area. I flew into Manchester, NH this weekend (called Manchester-Boston now it seems, but not in all places), http://www.airnav.com/airport/KMHT nice VFR day, was cleared to land while 3-4 miles south of the airport for Runway 24 on what turned out to be a very wide downwind leg (once I realized the airport was at my 9:00 - I had been looking at my 12:00 for it). Good distance for the commercial jet traffic I guess, bit wide for a 4-seat prop plane.


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