Landing a plane - who decides, pilot or control tower?

I read an article where it was suggested that the pilot of the recent Flydubai plane ignored weather warnings and made the attempt to land. Whether this is true or not in this particular case my question is this - Who makes the decision to land? I always thought that it was up to those in the control tower to make the decision and therefore give the ‘okay’ to land. This plane apparently circled for 2 hours- again who makes the decision to circle rather than go to another airport? Thanks for clearing this up for me.

Rule 1: The captain has ultimate authority for the safety of the aircraft.

Rule 2: In an emergency, there are no rules.

With that said, the control tower’s job is to control traffic flow and keep two planes from occupying the same space. The tower advises pilots and disseminates information. The airport manager makes the decision whether to close the airport.

The pilot must adhere to certain rules (like minimum descent altitude without visual observation of the runway).

It’s not ATC’s job to decide such things. And airlines may have more restrictive requirements than the local laws. The approach controller cannot be expected to know such things for every airline. Whatever the PIC asks for, he gets. If it can reasonably be accommodated or it’s an emergency. By the way, there was nothing all that unusual about the weather in this crash.

It’s possible they were just going down for a little look-see before deciding to divert. The fact that they asked for an alt of 8000, far above the normal missed approach altitude, tells me that they were probably planning on getting out of there and in any case knew there was a high chance of having to go around. They discontinued the approach quite early. There was nothing dangerous about what they did (I don’t know if that’s what you were trying to imply).

Thank you. Not implying anything. I’ll leave that to the experts. The article just made me wonder who does make the decision. Thanks for the insight.

Ultimately, it’s the pilot who’s sitting in front of the bank of controls, and nobody else, so ultimately, it’s always going to be the pilot who decides. The official stance is just a pragmatic recognition of that unalterable fact. Ground authorities can tell the pilot to do things, and they can impose consequences after the fact if he or she doesn’t, but they can’t land the plane themselves.

From what the always-reliable news sources :rolleyes: say, the flight aborted their first landing and circled for about two hours before before making the second, fatal attempt. Given how light on fuel most airlines run these days - and DubaiAir may be an exception - they may have been up against a critical fuel supply and said “f*ck it - it’s now or never.”

Pure speculation from a non pilot. And the article that I read was on CNN’s website; American news media more comic book than non-fiction.


According to they had approximately 2.5 hours of fuel left. That’s plenty of time to open a bottle of wine, have a romp with a couple flight attendants, and still make it to their alternate with plenty of time left. Carrying lots of fuel isn’t all that unusual when your destination is going to charge you a helluva lot more for fuel. But say the report of fuel remaining from avherald was incorrect…

  1. If they were low on fuel they would have said something to approach control. They did not.
  2. If you’re down to your last drop of fuel you don’t go around
  3. When they got switched from tower back to approach control the pilot handling comms casually read back the frequency and said “bye bye”. Nothing was at all urgent at that point.
  4. Even if you run out of fuel you don’t nosedive the aircraft into the ground

There was a fireball on impact, suggesting there was plenty of fuel in the tanks.
Its possible that there was an uncontrolled engine failure, or perhaps some other fault, that interfered with the critical action of pitching the nose up … Hit by lightning ?
Two hours circling in a storm… It fatigues everyone, including the passengers… Its possible that a passenger freaked out in a panic attack , due to the rocking and bumping from the storm’s gusts and cross winds, and attacked the pilot , to prevent the landing.

Wow, I like that theory. It might make for a good book, but the author would have to explain how the passenger got through the bullet&grenade-resistant door and overpowered both pilots in the short time between the handoff and the start of the dive.

It’s far more likely IMHO that two guys screwed up a routine go-around and flew a perfectly good aircraft into the ground. Caused by not knowing how to fly the airplane. Caused by company not allowing them to fly the airplane but once every 6/12 months. These companies train automation managers instead of pilots and then they wonder why we’re seeing an increase in handling errors lately.

The control tower gives a plane permission to land - whether or not to actually land is always up to the pilot.

In a declared emergency the pilot basically says what he/she is going to do to deal with the situation and the control tower does their best keep everyone else out of the way.

For situations where there are no control towers there are right-of-way rules that pilots follow, along with speaking to each other over the radio. It’s somewhat like getting on and off the freeway.

Thanks for the correction, Core . The reports from the same crappy (but not paywalled) news source initially indicated that the plane crash after slapping the tail against the ground, rather than nose-diving. Again - I have a source, but I always question its credibility.

Don’t think so. After 9/11 all airliner cockpit doors were both equipped with locks and strengthened to prevent incursions. Also, since 9/11, any passenger who attempts to gain entry is going to be immediately (and violently) subdued by both the crew and other passengers nearby (I know I would)…

To the OP:

ATC are like a set of traffic lights. They can give or deny permission to land but they don’t make a “decision to land” anymore than a green traffic light makes a decision to drive a car through the intersection. That is all on the flight crew.

I was under the impression the aircraft had made a second go-around and climbed to a significant height. An engine failure shouldn’t cause issues as it is the single most practiced of all failures. Lightning doesn’t normally cause issues other than frying some avionics. That said, many crashes are caused by something, or a combination of somethings, that don’t ordinarily cause crashes.

Through a locked, armoured, flight-deck door?

Unfortunately there is a tendency for some “journalists” to lurk on aviation related message boards such as PPRuNe and when an accident happens they will take the speculative ramblings of a poster as “expert opinion” and report it as such. You can get into a feedback loop where someone speculates a cause on PPRuNe, a journalist reports the cause citing “aviation experts”, then PPRuNe posters see the report and use it to give further weight to the initial speculation not realising that that is where it was sourced from in the first place.

Moral of the story is to treat any news reporting with extreme scepticism unless it is citing known factual sources such as a preliminary accident report. Even then you’d be well advised to go straight to the source as in the media’s attempt to dumb down information for the masses the real information can become twisted and lost.

I was on an Aero Mexico flight from Puerto Vallarta to Tijuana one fine Sunday afternoon. Until we flew into a major storm system close to home. At one point I realized that we had been flying a really long time. We had apparently had been circling the airport in the blinding weather for at least 90 minutes. At which point we got hit by lightning. Areo Mexico. The rosaries were flying. I don’t know for a fact what the pilot said to Ground Control, but we started coming down fast. Real fast. He positioned us for landing and had the wing flaps extended as far as they would go (to my mind). We came in so fast landing on the runway, at what seemed to me to be full-power that I always assumed the the pilot told the Ground that he was coming down right now. He didn’t know what the possible damage from the lightning strike was and that he was sure as hell going to fly through whatever wind sheer was going to try and stop him. And then when we were on the ground it was just like in a movie. Yee-Haw!!

I like AeroMexico in general. My AeroMexico story involves flying from Cancun to Mexico-Juarez. Mexico (as it so often is) was rainy and foggy. We attempted to land, didn’t, so the pilots executed their missed approach procedure. We circled around and landed safely the second time, about 20 minutes later.

The one the really worried me when I was younger was arriving DTW to Orlando (high school band trip). It was (what I know know as a simple) missed approach, too, but in this case the pilot actually announced the reason to everyone on this beautiful, sunny, Florida day: there was another airplane on the runway. Now days this isn’t a big deal, but to a cynical 16 year old it didn’t put a lot of faith in ATC (I would later join the Army and service ATC equipment).

Icing perhaps …

Perhaps. There are lots of possibilities. Maybe another pilot loss of control event.

There is (disturbing) CCTV on NPR’s website that suggests that the aircraft, or at least an engine, might have been on fire as it came down.

What you saw were no doubt landing lights? I haven’t seen any indication of fire in any of the clips I have seen. Well except for that fireball resulting from the aircraft making contact with the ground, of course.

Off-topic, but: Is it technically “CCTV” if a camera is transmitting the video on an open frequency available to any average Joe with a wireless camera receiver?

Here is the clip I saw (Warning: grim). I have no expertise at all, so you may be right. It just seems like an awfully large and irregular light to be a landing light, and the way it swirls made me think of fire. It could be a reflection of some kind, I suppose.