In natural disasters, transportation infrastructure is often among the first and most critical of public services to be disrupted. Not coincidentally, it's also a time that tends to see small airports become vital intake for international support.

If aircraft acting on humanitarian concerns, say a commercial airliner loaded with doctors and medicine, wants to land in a major city affected by a natural disaster where radar is destroyed, ATC is non-functional, and runways are... surprisingly clear, what is the procedure for arranging landing?

In practice, do humanitarian support just approach, land, and deal with the consequences later?


3 Answers 3


In the U.S. at least, HADR doesn't launch aircraft until a crisis aka disaster has been identified, even if at launch they don't yet know if the problem is lack of potable water or civil unrest over rigged elections.

An already flying commercial airliner won't have a glut of doctors and medicine unless it's been chartered for an already identified crisis, so it's unlikely to divert to this one.

If, after an identified disaster, an aircraft flies there to assist:

  • A helicopter doesn't need ATC support to land in an off-airport parking lot, of which a major city would have many.

  • A fixed-wing aircraft, needing an approach path, lacking ATC response, would revert to non-ATC protocols, just like at a small Midwestern grass strip or an Alaskan inlet. VFR.

Non-aero analogy: fire trucks and ambulances don't fret over parking tickets.

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ I agree, before you send any sort of commercial jet you will send in a load of specialists to get it ready for them, including setting up some sort of ATC. $\endgroup$
    – GdD
    Nov 10, 2019 at 11:02
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    $\begingroup$ Or even not so small grass strip—there are untowered airports with paved runways and scheduled flights of Q400s and ATR-72s. $\endgroup$
    – Jan Hudec
    Nov 10, 2019 at 14:27

I flew to Libya under humanitarian support in 2013 when there was a civil war going. We flew with the technician to operate cargo doors and one cabin crew to support us. We were carrying a cargo of medicine and food with Airbus A320. It may not be the complete answer of yours but we followed a special procedure as;

Malta control was the closest and working ATC with full radar coverage until the shore. They had phone contact with Tripoli tower. Tripoli airport is very close to the shore line. The weather was VFR and they provided wind and visibility which is enough. Malta radar made us decent to 10,000 ft. at the exit point and hold for confirmation with the guy in the tower. After 10 min. he gave us a clearance as; "You are cleared to VFR approach and land in 20 min. vacate runway from the end, backtrack on parallel, cargo operations waiting on parallel runway touchdown side. Take-off time xx:xx zulu, after take-off runway heading 5000 ft and right turn to XXXXX point. Contact Malta Radar."

So there will be no navaids, no ATC and no radar that follows you. But the Malta radar was following us almost all the time. Also, you still need to follow non-ATC operations, which means blind transmitting all the time.

We flew to GPS coordinates of the airport and descent to 5000 ft. when we see runway, we joined the visual pattern.

  • $\begingroup$ Thank you for an experienced based answer. $\endgroup$ Nov 17, 2019 at 21:27

No ordinary commercial flight will land at an airport in a disaster zone as you describe. However, it isn't impossible, and special crews trained in disaster relief operations do it all the time.

First of all, ATC is not required. All pilots are trained in landing at uncontrolled (aka pilot-controlled) fields, which comprise the vast majority of airports. The US alone has ~15,000 airports and only ~500 of them have a control tower. And most of those control towers close at night.

Secondly, ATC does not need radar, just radio sets which are easily flown in if all the ones on the ground are destroyed. The FAA even sets up temporary towers for air shows or fly-ins at normally uncontrolled fields. Likewise, the US military (and presumably others) practice landing at fields in hostile territory, securing them and setting up ATC operations. Radar improves safety, efficiency and capacity, especially in bad wether, but even most towered airports have no radar coverage.

Therefore, the actual humanitarian flights, even only a few days after the disaster hits, can have a relatively normal aviation support infrastructure available. It's the ground situation that keeps normal (scheduled commercial) flights away.

The obstacles are primarily legal and political. While many countries are quick to accept assistance, some are not. Getting permission for the flights themselves, customs waivers for the cargo and visas for the relief workers can sometimes take days or even weeks depending on political issues—and nobody is flying in until they're sure they won't be shot at, either by the local military or militia groups that may have taken advantage of the disaster. There may also be insufficient ground infrastructure to move supplies and workers from the airport to where they're actually needed as well.


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