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Air Traffic Control, When Radio Contact Fails
By Dale Wright, NATCA Director of Safety and Technology

November 1, 2014 - Question: If radio contact failed completely, how else would air traffic control communicate with an aircraft? 

Answer: If the aircraft is on the ground, there are several ways to communicate if its radio has failed. Each tower is equipped with a light gun and the controller can point this at an aircraft. By using white, red and green light signals, the controller provides instructions to the pilot. 

The controller may also contact an airline who can relay a message if its aircraft is equipped with ACARS (Aircraft Communications Addressing and Reporting System), which is a type of communication system using technology much like a text message. 


If the aircraft is airborne, there are fewer options available. Many people may remember the pilot of the Northwest aircraft that overflew his destination several years ago. The radio communications did not work with the aircraft, and neither did the airline's ACARS (text message). 

If an aircraft is airborne and loses radio contact with the controller, they are expected to continue on their last cleared route and execute an approach to that airport. Controllers would keep aircraft out of the way of this aircraft. This happens very rarely. 

Q: What recommendations and improvements would air traffic controllers recommend to ensure an incident like the missing Malaysia Airlines flight doesn't happen again? 

A: Worldwide coverage of aircraft through satellites (ADS-B) would go a long way to potentially help prevent a situation like that of MH370 in the future.


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