Night had fallen outside my approach control. I was settling into my chair in the radar room when Center handed me a Cessna 172. Remarks showed it was an IFR training flight to one of our Class D satellite airports.
I checked the time. That airport’s tower was closing momentarily. We routinely ran non-towered ops in there after hours, so there was no cause for concern.
Just before the top of the hour, their controller called me on the landline. “Hey Approach, we’re going home,” he said, then added, “By the way, just a reminder, the airport’s going to be closed tonight.”
I sat up straight. “Uh … what?” The information screen above my scope showed no NOTAMs indicating a closure for that airport. The tower guy clarified: His airport operations had just received final approval for some construction work late that day. The airport would be shut down overnight, for four nights total.
Alrighty then. As always, those who work in aviation must adapt to new conditions. What can ATC and pilots do in the face of unexpected closures like these?
The Floor is Lava
I had my supervisor refresh our NOTAM feed and verify the details. There it was: “AP CLSD” or “airport closed.” Our facility checks NOTAMs as part of its daily checklists, but this particular one was issued after the most recent checklist had been carried out. Thankfully, the tower controller gave us that verbal warning. We updated our information display to reflect it as well.
So, let’s consider the scope of this closure. Had the NOTAM read “RWY 9/27 CLSD,” and that was only one runway out of several, no big deal. Non-towered airport ops leave the runway selection to the pilot. My visual approach clearance to the Cessna would’ve been, “Cleared visual approach [name of] airport,” not to any specific runway. A temporarily closed runway is marked by a yellow or lit X at each end of the runway, and runway lighting is often turned off or disconnected.
However, an “AP CLSD” is much more significant. Per FAA Advisory Circular 150/5370-2G, Operational Safety on Airports During Construction: “When the airport is closed temporarily, mark all the runways as closed.” That means X’s and disabled lights for every runway.
Of course, our Cessna was left without their intended landing site. I notified the Skyhawk, “I’ve just received word. Your destination airport is closed for the entire night. Say intentions when able.” Obviously, they hadn’t known about it either, and were as befuddled as I was by it. A couple minutes passed as they conversed in the cockpit.
They opted to change destination to another non-towered airport, 20 miles away. I cleared them to their new destination and amended their flight plan to reflect it. They’d also had a return flight filed off their original destination. I amended its departure point to their new destination, so they wouldn’t have to refile it. All in all, it was an easy fix.
Hurry and Hesitation
The next night, the same airport closed down again. Five minutes afterwards, a corporate jet pilot called. His passengers had run late. “I’ve talked with airport operations,” he told me. “They’re going to open the airport back up for us. Can I get a clearance and release, so we can get out of here?” The NOTAM feed still showed “AP CLSD.”
Let’s talk liability. Imagine you’re at a red light in a small town. It’s the dead of night. There’s no traffic around you and this red light is taking forever. You decide to run it. A cop spots you, and you’re busted. However, your risky actions— and their consequences—affect only you, and no one else’s.
Controllers, on the other hand, bear responsibility for other people’s lives, and here we had a couple red flags. Releasing an aircraft off an airport that’s NOTAMed closed is questionable practice, even if it is non-towered (more later). NTSB records are also filled with accidents where a pilot who’s experiencing “gotta-get-there” syndrome, with passengers breathing down his neck, doesn’t exercise the best judgment.
Picture this scenario: Based only on his word, I release him for departure off this airport. Well, it turns out, he had only glanced around and didn’t see anyone at that moment, so he figured it’d be OK to scoot on out. What he failed to see was some digging equipment staged on the runway. The work crew was en route to pull it off per the airport’s request. The NOTAM would be cancelled once the runway was cleared.
On takeoff roll, the pilot strikes the equipment and winds up in a tumbling ball of airplane and people. There are injuries, or worse. Sure, the investigators will likely come after him. However, what kind of liability would they place on me? “Why’d you release him? You knew it was still officially closed for construction.” It’s an area as murky as the North Atlantic in winter.
Safety demands communication and verification, not just with pilots on the radio, but with other available players. We called the airport’s operations department, who confirmed they were indeed processing the NOTAM cancellation. We wanted to be 100% sure everything was fine.
Soon, the closure NOTAM disappeared. We gave the pilot his clearance and his release, and he departed normally. Shortly thereafter, the airport reissued the closure NOTAM. We understood the pilot wanted to get going, but we needed to do our due diligence first. The less gray area the better.
I Just Work Here
This is the perfect time to note that ATC has no say on the open or closed status of an airport or runway. Sure, we controllers sequence traffic to, from, and on an airport, but we don’t maintain or operate the airport itself, or issue/ retract closure NOTAMs. Per FAA Order 7110.65, 3-3-1—the ATC regulations book—“Legally, only the airport management/military operations office can close a runway.” It’s the same for opening it.
There is an exception. In the event of a crash or serious aircraft difficulty— like an onboard fire or landing gear failure— time is of the essence and ATC is allowed to shut the airport down on the airport authority’s behalf. This is spelled out in a written letter of agreement, and allows rescue crews to perform rapidly without interference from other aircraft. Afterwards, only airport ops can reopen the field.
Rare emergencies aside, airports and/or their runways can close for a variety of reasons. It could be as mundane as mowers cutting runway edge grass. Perhaps it’s for routine maintenance, such as replacing runway centerline lights or scrubbing the tire rubber buildup off the touchdown zone. A long term closure may be required for major construction work, like runway resurfacing or lengthening.
Runways aren’t typically closed willy-nilly. Their pavement might be torn up. Workers and vehicles could be swarming across them. One day, I saw lightning blow a huge hole in one. I’ve even seen airports organize 5K runs on a closed runway, with thousands of people hoofin’ it down the centerline. None of that mixes well with airplanes.
Hold My Beer
So, let’s revisit that corporate jet from earlier. However, this time, the airport cannot rescind the closure. Construction is already underway. Rather than wait, the pilot insists on departing.
What can ATC do about it? Well, nothing. There are no regulations specifically preventing a pilot from landing or taking off on a closed runway, except in the case of a TFR or FDC NOTAM. You read that right. First, he’s at a nontowered airport. Beyond issuing IFR clearances and releases, ATC has no authority there, and non-towered operations are already at a pilot’s own risk. If he wants to depart and pick up his clearance in the air, we can’t stop him.
Even at a towered airport, if a pilot insists on departing a closed runway, ATC can’t stop him. We can only withhold a takeoff/landing clearance and advise him of his liability. Here’s the guidance in FAA Order 7110.65 3−3−2, CLOSED/UNSAFE RUNWAY INFORMATION: “If an aircraft requests to takeoff, land, or touch-and-go on a closed or unsafe runway, inform the pilot the runway is closed or unsafe.”
If the pilot presses the matter, 3-3-2 continues. “a. If the pilot persists in his/ her request, quote him/her the appropriate parts of the NOTAM applying to the runway and inform him/her that a clearance cannot be issued.” What if that isn’t good enough? “b. Then, if the pilot insists and in your opinion the intended operation would not adversely affect other traffic, inform him/ her that the operation will be at his/her own risk.”
The 7110.65 spells out ATC’s phraseology for this very situation: “RUNWAY (runway number) CLOSED/UNSAFE. If appropriate, (quote NOTAM information), UNABLE TO ISSUE DEPARTURE/LANDING/TOUCH− AND−GO CLEARANCE. DEPARTURE/ LANDING/TOUCH−AND− GO WILL BE AT YOUR OWN RISK.”
Now, while landing on a closed runway or at a closed airport itself isn’t outright prohibited, you might still end up in hot water from other factors. There could be local city or county ordinance violations, such as—of all things— trespassing charges. If you’re a “flier for hire,” will it violate your company’s policy? However, the FAA’s real hammer is CFR 91.13 (a): “No person may operate an aircraft in a careless or reckless manner so as to endanger the life or property of another.”
What if the pilot takes off, and nearly flattens an unseen construction crew downfield? Those workers notify airport operations, who in turn inform the FAA. Knock, knock! Here come the investigators. Per FAA Order 2150.3C— the FAA Compliance and Enforcement Program—departing a closed runway in a careless or reckless manner could produce a certificate suspension and/or fines for his company, depending on the circumstances.
You never know who’s watching. I’ve seen accounts where a pilot landed on a closed runway, and there happened to be a FSDO inspector in the FBO. The pilot got hit with a violation. There have been some high profile wrong-surface landings in recent years, and the FAA isn’t taking things lightly.
To sum this all up: if you must use a closed runway, be prepared to take responsibility for your actions. Doing something dangerous—whether by accident or by intent —might leave you footing a steep bill. Simply ask yourself, “Just because I can … should I?”
Any Safe Port in a Storm
There are certainly situations where a closed-runway landing can actually be the best option. Severe weather conditions, critical fuel status, emergencies, or a fouled active runway could leave no alternatives. In a crisis, a closed runway could be better than, well, no runway.
My friend at another tower had a light twin in his pattern suffer an engine failure. My friend cleared the twin to land on the active runway. But the aircraft struggled to maintain altitude, and instead declared he was putting it down on the nearest runway, which was closed for construction. Vehicles and work crews were scattered across the approach end of it.
ATC could neither legally clear the twin to land, nor safely send him around. He told his Ground controller, who was talking to all the vehicles, “Get those trucks off the runway!” But the startled crews weren’t vacating fast enough. Even if they cleared, the runway was still legally closed. (Again: ATC can’t open a closed runway.)
So, my friend said the only thing he could: “Runway is NOTAMed closed and unsafe. Numerous vehicles on the runway. Landing will be at your own risk.” He needed to be up front that there would be no landing clearance and the pilot was assuming the burden of responsibility. Perhaps that sounds callous, but we need to be clear.
The twin acknowledged and managed to flatten his descent to pass over the vehicles, and land beyond. Ground also rolled the fire trucks, who rushed to the aircraft as it came to a safe stop. Everyone breathed a sigh of relief.
Good judgment is a given requirement in all aspects of aviation. When it comes to airport and runway closures, proceed with caution and exercise extreme situational awareness.