What happens in control towers in aircraft emergencies?

What happens in an emergency on a plane has been well covered. But what happens in the control tower and at the airport when a plane declares an emergency? For instance, do they have emergency numbers for all aircraft manufacturers? I’m aware that on occasions the emergency services get scrambled because I’ve seen it (on a test, not for real, thank goodness), but I don’t know the decisions behind activating them.

Control towers manage the airspace within ~ 5 miles of the field, plus everything on the ground. Other ATC facilities manage the rest of the airspace. So in all likelihood an emergency will involve more ATC facilities than just a control tower. Those other facilities are usually located in dull windowless buildings miles from an airport.

In any case, ATC will provide traffic priority to the emergency aircraft, moving other traffic as necessary. They will generally assign a single controller to talk to the emergency freeing that controller up from handling his/her other aircraft.

ATC will notify the facilities downstream, including the tower at the point of intended landing. Typical info is aircraft type, number of people, estimated arrival time, amount of fuel in both quantity & in time, plus overall nature of the emergency & likilihood of evacuation. They will also notify the regulatory side of the FAA to get the paperwork monster underway ASAP (one must have one’s priorities in order!)

The tower at the landing field will be responsible for alerting the airport management & the airport fire department. Airport management has procedures in turn for alerting area hospitals, etc.

For airline aircraft, ATC will also notifiy the airline’s ops center so they can play along too. The airline has an emergency responose system that will swing into action to marshal its forces if need be.

Once the aircraft gets near the field, tower will plan where to put the airplane after landing. For some incidents the airplane will stop on the runway & that’s that; folks will evacuate ASAP. Other’s they’ll stop on the runway because taxiing is unsafe, but there’s no immediate danger to the pax. In that case the aircraft may be towed to a terminal, or simply off to an unused taxiway & stairs brought up to take off the folks.

After that, ATC’s job is pretty much to keep the fire trucks from getting in the way of the other aircraft trying to use the airport.

If the emergency has a meaningful chance of getting ugly on landing, they’ll pre-stage the airport fire/rescue folks along the runway.

And if it does turn into a crash (WAG: a 1 in 100,000 shot), ATC gets to close the field & process the holding or diversion of the other inbound aircraft for the next hour or more.

In all, ATC’s role is to be the first point of contact for the aircraft and to advise, assist, and coordinate as necessary.

As a pilot, I expect (hopefully, not too unreasonably) that ATC is my “go-to” person for whatever he and I can think of to un-screw the situation. Fire truck, Factory technical representative, bag of donuts, whatever. Their capabilities, I don’t know…

At a minimum:
Clear the airspace and any piece of airport I might think of landing on. Every runway is the active in an emergency. Ditto taxiways, the ramp & long-term parking.

Look at the aircraft with binoculars (“is the landing gear down?”-type emergencies)

Get the fire trucks rolling.

Start the Search and Rescue efforts. This leads to them wanting to know how many people and how much fuel you have on board right when you are busy with other stuff. But hey, they can’t ask you after the crash, can they?

Provide expert witness skills and observations (and a recorded radio & radar picture) to the FAA accient investigators.

I’ll continue with a short digression on emergencies. Unlike Hollywood, most are pretty mundane.

The utility of contacting the factory is negligible, and becoming moreso as the aircraft get more complex & computerized. There simply isn’t enough detailed information presented in the cockpit for the factory to do the traditional Hollywood “uber-nerd engineer connects the obscure dots & tells the pilots to do X, saving the day (but still not getting the girl).”

In most cases the crew’s emergency response process devolves to, “turn off whatever is acting up and land at the nearest suitable airport”. For non-oceanic flying, that generally means you’ll be on the ground in 15 minutes tops. Even for oceanic, they’re never more than about 3 hours from an airfield and there are only a few places on earth where they’re more than 2 hours. So the cliche of “nursing the stricken craft for hours to landfall” is also pretty much history.
To be sure, there are occasionally failures that require serious derring-do on the part of the pilots to survive, and ATC can be a huge help by handling all the notifications and providing the pilots a very simplified & distraction-tolerant path to the airport. But many professionals go an entire career without having a serious one.

Multiplied by the vast number of flights each day, serious no-shitters are probably about a once-per-week-or-two occurrence in the US.

kdeus, aviation doesn’t stop when an aviator declares an emergency. There is still other air traffic and there is still activity on the ground at the airport.

Unless you’re flying an out of control DC10 into Sioux City (and even he was aiming for a runway), the idea that by virtue of an emergency you’ve given yourself the latitude to re-write SOPs is not really accurate.

You want ATC to clear a taxiway or ramp for you to land on? Do you know how unconventional this is? I once saw a Twin Otter land on a taxiway intentionally. It was at an uncontrolled airport that only had one runway and the wind was straight across the runway at about 40kts.

I suggest to you that ATC will not clear you to land on a ramp under any circumstances. The airport that I work at has 2 runways of 9 and 11 thousand feet long X 150 feet wide. There are 3 ILS approaches, 4 NDB, a localizer back course, VASI, centre line lighting. I can see wanting to land in the grass under some circumstances but not a ramp. The ramp that I work on has airplanes parked on it (long term parking), fuel trucks, forklifts, people, buildings. Please don’t consider my ramp an option for landing even in the course of an emergency.

ATC is very accommodating during an emergency, but their job is to clear a path for you to proceed direct to the airport and have crash fire and rescue services standing by at the airport or arrange for search and rescue if you crash off-site. I’ve never heard ATC being a liaison with a manufacturer. I’ve heard a tower controller tell a distressed aircraft that company maintenance would like him up on their frequency, but I’ve never heard ATC relay a message from Boeing.