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Can ATC order an aircraft to go around if there is a tailwind? Or should ATC give the pilots the current wind information and let them decide whether to go around or land?

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  • $\begingroup$ Most commonly it's because the aircraft in front of you didn't get off the runway fast enough. $\endgroup$ – Ron Beyer Feb 16 at 3:50
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In real world practice, ATC will have a specific direction for traffic to land and takeoff based on their specific criteria. Regardless of which direction ATC chooses to make the traffic flow, the PIC can choose any runway and/or direction he wishes to land. As long as both parties coordinate and agree, the aircraft can land based on the ATC’s chosen direction or the pilot’s chosen direction. ATC will usually make sure approaching aircraft are kept aware of the wind conditions so that agreement can be made. Either party can decline/deny the approach and/or landing.

An example of this is when aircraft approach our local Class D airfield VFR. They announce that they are inbound with the intention of landing. The PIC will typically then accept whichever runway ATC assigns. When an aircraft approaches IFR, they will typically know which approach and runway they wish to use. The PIC will typically have already negotiated/coordinated this with approach before being transferred to tower. If the aircraft is approaching the airport practicing IFR in VMC, they will negotiate/coordinate the approach and runway to use directly with the tower.

ATC is responsible for traffic separation in their area of jurisdiction. Although, the PIC has ultimate authority over the safety of flight of his/her aircraft, ATC has the authority on whether that flight can include ATC’s physical domain. That domain includes specifically the runway and taxiway surfaces. They can choose whether or not to give an aircraft clearance to use the runway. They can also revoke that clearance for the sake of safety. Some instances where ATC may revoke clearance and call for a go around include:

  • Reversal of surface winds.
  • Windshear.
  • Runway incursion by another airplane.
  • Runway incursion by a ground vehicle or personnel.
  • Runway incursion by an animal.
  • Ceilings or visibility going below acceptable runway visual range.
  • Closing the airfield due to an accident or emergency.
  • Inadequate spacing between aircraft.
  • Landing gear issues unnoticed by the landing pilot.
  • other safety issues specific to ground or airfield environment safety.

Even before an aircraft approaches the airport for landing, ATC can prohibit them from entering their airspace in its entirety. The aircraft will have to remain outside of the airspace until ATC gives them the clearance to enter.

All of this can be superseded by the PIC in the case of an actual emergency on the part of the aircraft.

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    $\begingroup$ Thank you for that perfect answer $\endgroup$ – Vito Feb 16 at 3:32
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    $\begingroup$ @Vito - Thanks for the compliment. I’m sure someone else could have given a more complete yet briefer answer. There are a lot of smart people on this site willing to help and answer questions. $\endgroup$ – Dean F. Feb 16 at 4:22
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    $\begingroup$ It's important to note that aircraft are often certified to a specific tailwind component for takeoff and landing, typically 10 kts or 15 kts on jets, 5 kts on light aircraft. That's component, not a direct wind speed limit, so a 20kt quartering-from-behind crosswind that imposes a tail component of 10kt is technically within the airplane's operating limitations if it's certified for a 10kt tail component. The controller can't know what applies to a given airplane and therefore generally won't try to make those kinds of judgement calls, that are really airmanship, except in extreme cases. $\endgroup$ – John K Feb 16 at 4:58
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Generally speaking, ATC must instruct an aircraft to go around whenever the controller has reason to believe the landing cannot be performed safely. In most cases, an ATC-initiated go around is caused by unexpected unavailability of the landing runway, for example if another aircraft, vehicle, person, wildlife (birds) or obstruction enters (or fails to leave in time) the runway.

The controller does not know the limitations of every specific aircraft type. Factors such as wind (crosswind, tailwind), braking action (snow/ice on runway) and ceiling/visibility is announced to the pilot, who is responsible for ensuring that the prevailing conditions are within aircraft and crew limitations. Crucially, different aircraft have vastly different limits, and they can even change from flight to flight (maybe one day the aircraft is heavily loaded and need a longer runway, for example.) The pilot knows the specific limitations, the controller does not. So a sudden change in wind should not cause the controller to instruct the aircraft to go around, rather, the controller will inform the pilot of the change, and it is up to them to determine whether or not to continue the approach.

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