A controller at Phoenix-Mesa Gateway Airport in Arizona ordered a pilot to land and then grounded her after she appeared to be confused and disoriented while flying in the immediate area of the airport. The Cessna 172 pilot, who said she had a private pilot certificate, appeared to not comply correctly with the controller’s instructions as other aircraft landed and took off at the airport. At one point she asked to “go back to Falcon Airport” about 15 miles away but the controller had had enough. “I’m going to make you land here at Gateway,” he said and after she’d exited the runway he told her, “You’ve proven yourself a risk to aviation safety at this time.” He then told her she was to go to the FBO to get an instructor presumably to fly her back to Falcon Field Airport.

However, the ground controller had trouble getting her to follow his instructions to the FBO and had to tell her which way to turn at every intersection. “The FBO is to your left where the BP gas sign is,” he finally says. The aircraft is registered to an LLC in Yorba Linda, California.

Russ Niles
Russ Niles is Editor-in-Chief of AVweb. He has been a pilot for 30 years and joined AVweb 22 years ago. He and his wife Marni live in southern British Columbia where they also operate a small winery.


  1. I was @ kffz this morning when that pilot was cleared for right close traffic for 4R. A few minutes later I heard the tower tell her she was going the wrong way and she needs to go to right close traffic. It didn’t happen so tower told her to go to 3000 and cross midfield to be able to go to right close traffic for 4R. She didn’t sound like she was an English speaker so she didn’t understand what was being said. I can’t believe a CFI let them fly alone.

    • ‘Commercial pressure’ in flight schools can lead to this. I have seen students who just went off the runway due to being unable to adequately maintain directional control (with an instructor on board) be sent solo immediately after. This from a major flight-training provider.

        • No, you haven’t. You may have heard “Make short approach,” or “Make right closed traffic.” Close Traffic has no meaning. Look it up.

          • Cool, dbier. Find it in the Pilot Controller glossary and I’ll concede. If you can’t find it, either you are mis-hearing or the controller is making an error.

          • From FAA Pilot/Controller Glossary: CLOSED TRAFFIC- Successive operations involving takeoffs and landings or low approaches where the aircraft does not exit the traffic pattern.

            For almost 50 years I believed it was “close traffic”. I’ve had it wrong all this time myself.

        • Me too. And, actually, a lot of times. If that is correct in the point of view of controllers’s paraphraseology, I’m not sure, but sure I’m I’ve listened that a lot of times and I had no intention to try to correct the controller that have said that word.

  2. Can someone explain to me how this is even legal? What authority gives ATC the right to tell a pilot where to land?

    • The pilot was in the controllers airspace, the controller had every right to direct her to land. Obviously she was confused and was having trouble with the plane. The controller probably saved her life.

    • The controller can tell you to do many things which you may or may not decide to do…at your (and your certificate’s) own peril. And you can file a complaint against them if you think it was “out of line.”

      I’ll bet the subject pilot won’t be doing that!

    • I understand where you are coming from, Alexander. I think we are dealing with a fringe case here. Normally, the pilot in command’s decisions carry greater weight than that of ATC. However, this seems like an example where the words “pilot” and “in command” do not apply to what the person at the controls was doing. I suspect the controller did not rely on the FARs for his actions, but rather fell back to FAA policy. Ultimately, the FAA has authority for the national airspace system, and I suspect policy directs controllers when that “authority” can be exercised. I do not work for the FAA, but if I were this controller’s supervisor, I would wholeheartedly stand behind his actions if any investigation came up. Public safety first, right?

    • 91.123 (b) broski. Unless you say “unable” or are in an emergency, you have to play ball with ATC.

    • The pilot would have the option to say no if they felt the instructions were a danger to safe flight. Instructing a dangerously confused pilot to land wouldn’t fall into that category.

    • Flying at MQY in the beginning of my training years ago we listened to the tower provide instructions to an obviously very recent first solo who asked to take a quick ride around the patch before going elsewhere. Based on her confused read backs and poor pattern work she obviously needed breather. Tower sent her to the run up area and called her CFI on his cell phone then told him to get has @ss out to the field and take care of his student. As in NOW. I have no idea the controller’s source of authority, but it was the right thing to do. [We weren’t aware of all elements of the story at the time of occurrence, obviously].

    • When you’re in controlled airspace, the AIR TRAFFIC CONTROLLER CONTROLS THE SPACE. Unless you declare an emergency, they are in charge. You don’t land without permission. You don’t take off without permission. You do not leave that airspace without permission. Unless it’s C or B, you don’t need permission to enter as long as two-way radio communication is established, but otherwise, once you’re in, they’re the boss, and they can order you to land.

      • I should say emergency or safety of flight. Can’t safely make that landing and need to go around? You can. But you can’t just decide that you don’t wanna, so they can’t make you.

    • 91.123: Except in an emergency, no person may operate an aircraft contrary to an ATC instruction in an area in which air traffic control is exercised.

  3. Flying is a “privilege” NOT a right, so the authority has the power to enforce regulations that are designed to keep and promote safety. If you are driving and endangering people, the “Police” will do the same thing.

    • Show me the regulation that grants ATC that power. As PIC I have the right to override the regulations and ATC for safety of flight. I do not see that language in that in the controllers manual. What that controller did was kidnap a pilot and should be charged criminally.

      • She was in the controllers airspace, the controller has the right to direct her to land. She was obviously a danger to those within the airspace. She was not kidnapped, she could rent a car and leave.

        • Absolutely, not. I cannot believe some of the comments in here. People seriously need to go read 7110.65 and 91.123.

          ATC has ZERO authority to tell a pilot to land. Zero. Delta, Bravo, makes no difference.

          91.123: “When an ATC clearance has been obtained, …”

          OBTAINED not MANDATED.

          Step back for a moment. Forget about this inexperienced pilot who clearly needed a few more lessons from her CFI.

          What if the Tower controller gets too busy and says, “N123A, I’m going to need you to land right now, there are too many people in the traffic.”

          You think that’s acceptable?

          No, it’s not.

          The controller can tell the aircraft to get of their airspace or deny them a landing clearance. That’s it. He or she can not under any circumstances tell the pilot, “Sorry, I’m too busy, so you are going to have to land now.” “Sorry, I don’t like how you fly the pattern; you are going to have to land now.” What?!

          MOREOVER, if what some of the comments say here were true that means controllers can now “judge” airmanship on the fly and make all kinds of decisions for the pilots.

          You’re PIC. Don’t give that right up so easily.

          Everyone chiming in safety: What if the command to land forced her to do rash things instead of allowing her to collect herself and go to an airport she IS familiar with? What’s safer?

          The reckless reasoning (91.13) is also bogus. She wasn’t reckless, she was disoriented and probably inexperienced. Big difference. Everyone on their mighty pedestal shouting safety has been there.

      • Yes, you do. However that right comes with responsibility and consequences. The FAA employs the “reckless” term for situations such as this.
        It appears, and correct me if i am wrong, that you suggest that she did not need to listen to the controller and was free to fly away. While you are correct in your assumption it would come with consequences. The reckless rule would be used against you and enforcement action would have surely followed.
        What really appears to have happened here is that a Controller saw a situation where a pilot was having a meltdown due to possibly a language, psychological or some other problem. He did exactly the right thing to avoid further endangerment of both the pilot and others.
        Bravo to him! A half a bravo to the pilot who had the sense to realize she was in way over her head and listened to him.

        • Reckless is one thing. Disorientated is quite another. I didn’t read anything in this story that implies she did anything wrong intentionally. From what I read, if she was such a threat, the controller should have cleared the space and assisted her to a safe landing. It sounds to me like he did the exact opposite. perhaps a combination of her poor english and his short fuse.

      • Here’s the regulation. FAR 91.123 (b): “Except in an emergency, no person may operate an aircraft contrary to an ATC instruction in an area in which air traffic control is exercised.” Unless she was experiencing an emergency, she was legally obligated to comply with the ATC’s instruction.

        • UNABLE- that is all she needed to say. I wish you well when ATC vectors you directly into a thunderstorm and will not allow you to deviate under 91.123. we need more NTSB reports to read.

          • Perhaps a key point is that she did NOT say “Unable” – was she unable/unwilling to do so?

            It might also be noted that there were no reports of thunderstorms in the nearby area.

          • And I will gladly say “unable”. However, I’m not aware that she said so or declared an emergency, during or after the flight.

      • There are two different problems here: Controller had the right to issue legal instructions in accordance with the FAR and .65 and has enough slack to do what needs to be done in order to facilitate traffic sequencing in their airspace. They don’t have the authority to override or speak for the administrator or “authority,” so they can’t make up rules and force a pilot to follow them. Terminating an operation falls under operational control, which the tower does not have over a flight. There are mounds of legal interpretation regarding ATC waiving FARs (often speed below 10000) in the database, and all of it falls on the side that ATC does not have the authority required to change or waive FARs. So this is a sticky situation for both the pilot and controller. Since it likely prevented a worse outcome, they’ll probably be treated leniently but the instructor involved may have a little answering to do.

      • If you’re on the ground wanting clearance to depart, and ATC isn’t giving it to you, are you being abducted? No. You’re free to park your plane and drive away. She was free to drive away.

      • Yes friend, but we are a community that needs look after itself regardless of a “reg” permitting. Like my wife from Brazil this likely Asian girl does not rely on english as her first language. You cannot imagine how daunting in and of itself that can be. Since you haven’t, spend a week in a country alone where english is not the 1st language. The controller instinctively protected this person who wasn’t protecting herself. In grad school at Vanderbilt I walked into a car jacking on campus blithely thinking about some engineering problem or maybe a girl. The perp was trying to take a woman’s car in front of the VA. I reached inside the car, through the open window and yanked him out onto the pavement by his hair face down and announced I’d cut his hand off if he didn’t drop the keys. He did. Cops arrested him a moment later. Girl was fine but shocked. Classmate walking with me looked at me like I was a maniac. And then smiled. Just crazy Marine stuff going on there. I couldn’t find the manual that morning in 1988 … LoL. Maybe the controller couldn’t his many either.

    • I believe this is true when it comes to enforcement actions. I don’t think, however, a tower controller has the authority to force a pilot to land if that is not their intent. A tower controller’s responsibility is to control the flow of traffic into and out of the airport, therefore they can deny a landing clearance, direct a go around, direct an aircraft leave the traffic pattern, and demand a phone call due to a “possible pilot deviation.” I don’t see how a pilot can be violated for not complying with a “land now” order that’s based purely on an order that’s based solely on a controller’s subjective evaluation of a pilot’s qualification. Can ATC SUGGEST you land? Certainly. But I just don’t see how a pilot can be violated for ignoring an order a controller has no authority to issue. You might get violated for “careless & reckless operation” based on whatever behavior ATC observed prior to the land order, but I don’t see how you can be violated for not complying with an order to land.

      • I agree. Unless something has changed since I was trained 40 years ago, the pilot has the ultimate authority to accept or decline a controllers instructions (advisories). This is the first time I’ve ever heard a controller attempt to force a landing. I would guess the tower Cheif had a set down with him/her also. For those so willing to give up a bit more of their freedom, they should study up on the FARs. Perhaps share with us their findings.

        • FAR 91.123 (b) reads thus: “Except in an emergency, no person may operate an aircraft contrary to an ATC instruction in an area in which air traffic control is exercised.”

          • @Ken Goodrich. I want you to Google 7110.65 and read the ATC side under “Landing Clearance”.

            Landings are done via clearances not instructions. You obtain a “clearance” to land not an instruction to do so.

            Last I checked, you get “cleared to land” not ordered to!

            ATC has no authority to tell a plane to land. Full stop (get it?).

            (btw, a retired FAA controller is down below, read his comment as well)

            Heck, let me ask you this another way:

            Can ATC tell you WHAT airport to divert to? (that would effectively be the same thing as giving you an unwanted landing clearance)

            Under normal ops, they can not.

            [people mentioned 9/11, busted TFRs, aliens attacking, you now have homeland security involved, call AOPA]

            They will ask you to “Say intentions” and can even help YOU (and often do) as PIC make a choice THEN vector you accordingly and coordinate with the appropriate facilities. You gave them that right once you told them your intentions – not the other way around.

            Btw, as many savvy pilots have already stated: It was in her right to say “Unable” or “Negative” (this is probably more technically correct) and get an amended clearance she is willing to take.

            91.123 is to enforce pilots to follow ATC instructions when we allow them. That’s right, when YOU as PIC allow them, e.g., by filing and then being radar identified (that has a lot of legal implication when you are in RADAR CONTACT).

            Most ATC professionals are overworked, underpaid heroes who do an extraordinarily great job of keeping all of us alive. They are in fact an indispensable resource, and one that our entire NAS is entirely dependent on to truly function.

            HOWEVER, we don’t give up PIC because some Tower controller is having a bad day or even if he sees unsafe ops – he needed to coordinate with the pilot, not command her. And although I agree his intentions were admirable, his execution, not so much.

          • Alexander,
            Nobody here is denying her authority under 91.3 to declare an emergency and ignore the controller’s instruction.

          • Alexander, there’s a difference between refusing to comply for safety reasons, and refusing to comply just because you feel like it. Doing the latter is a violation of 91.123 (b), whereas the former is not.

          • @Dan and @Ken – that is just not true. She did not have to declare anything.

            Landing is not an instruction, it’s a clearance. And she has ever right to refuse that clearance (she didn’t ask for it) and the Tower had no right to demand that she land.

        • “Ultimate authority” doesn’t mean you can ignore an order just because you don’t feel like listening. If you can’t safely comply, then you can reject an order as “unable,” but you can’t just because you don’t feel like doing as you’re told.

          • If the controller, who now has taken total responsibility of the flight, orders her to land on a runway with a 90 degree crosswind blowing at 20 gusting to 30, who is responsible for the wrecked airplane?

          • Mike C., you’re begging the question. The PIC has responsibility for the flight – she cannot pass that on to someone else. As others have pointed out, she could always fall back on ‘Unable’ if she had to.

    • If she deemed the controller’s instructions unsafe, she would have the right to refuse the instructions. Otherwise, she’s legally obligated to comply. Seeing as SHE was the one being unsafe in this situation, the controller had every right to order her to land.

      • So I guess you’re one of those pilots who doesn’t listen to ATC because “they can’t tell you what to do”?

        • That is certainly one way to look at it.

          Another way: Staying safe in the NAS requires both ATC and pilots working together. That means pilots complying with ATC instructions and obtaining clearances while ATC giving reasonable requests and granting those clearances.

          99.9% of the time, that’s what you hear occurring every single flight.

          When the two sides don’t meet, they need to work together to get back on the same page ASAP.

          Being PIC (to me at least) is not just a logbook requirement. It means using the fullest extent of abilities to guarantee the safety of the flight. If I feel ATC has given me a clearance that is unreasonable (for whatever reason), I need to work with them to get an amended one so both sides can agree upon. And if ATC sees me not complying, they need to work with me to get me back on track.

          e.g., I can’t demand a clearance to land or enter a Bravo and they can’t demand I divert to a specific airport or tell me to land randomly.

          In the end, it’s a partnership, and an imperfect system too, but one that works really well when both sides understand there roles and responsibilities.

          • You’re arguing this in such a way that I suspect you are an unsafe pilot who doesn’t like that you can be directed to land when you don’t wanna. If you’re a safe pilot, then you’re not going to find yourself at risk of being told to get your ass on the ground and have someone else retrieve your plane.

            As a woman pilot, I want to defend her, but I can’t, not when she was unsafe to be in the air at that time and was confused about basic orders.

            Yet you’re acting like it’s personal for you. Why?

          • What legal criteria (regulations) can be used to decide which ATC instructions to comply with and which to ignore, besides those instructions deemed as unsafe?

    • Does it really matter if it’s a privilege or right? I’m happy to assert my right to use the sky, and agree to protect your right if for no other reason than self interest of my own right.

      OTOH, it doesn’t seem to solve anything anymore by deciding what’s a right vs what’s a privilege. It’s my right to bear arms, but if I’m in NY, it’s less a privilege than it is a liberty and property risking endeavor.

      Funny, now that I think about it, that’s how flying has become.

    • Ever hear of “Due Process”? Yes the FAA and the courts have the authority to ground you or take away your driving or flying privledges. But the Police or FAA controllers do not. Or has this woke society taken that constitutional right away also?

      • It’s not about a “woke society.” A shopping center has the right to set the rules for its parking lots. They can decide who can stay there. The public may have the right to enter under most circumstances, but the final rules rest with whoever owns/operate the shopping center, even though they aren’t a court.

        When you’re in controlled airspace, the authority over the airspace gets to set the rules and tell you what to do. You can reject those orders if you can’t safely carry out that order or declare an emergency, but you can’t decide you just don’t wanna. FAR 91.123 (b), which is…y’know…the FAA’s rules…literally say this. But go on and blame wokeness, you silly little bigoted snowflake, go on and blame women and people who aren’t white and straight having rights for the FAA’s long-standing rule on this.

      • The police can bust you for DUI, impound your car, confiscate your driver’s license, and hold you in jail till a friend picks you up.

        [At least in California they could, in the late ’80s. Even if you blew a 0.03% when the limit was still 0.10%. Don’t ask me how I know.]

  4. I see nothing wrong with ATC saying “Make this a full stop.” Had this been an initial solo flight, and this kind of inability to follow ATC direction happened–I believe that ATC has that ability to deny further danger to the pilot–and other pilots. ATC is responsible for TRAFFIC SEPARATION–when you have a non-compliant pilot that is unable to follow instructions–they pose a danger to everyone.

    In auto racing, a non-compliant driver may be ordered off the track with a waving black flag. I see nothing different here.

  5. It looks to me that the controller took whatever action he could to keep a bad sequence from continuing. If an instructor had been flying with her, it’s likely the instructor would have taken control of the airplane. Sometimes it’s “whatever it takes” and it gets sorted out afterwards. If the controller faces some kind of consequences for overstepping authority as specified in the rulebook, some, maybe not all, FAA officials will probably take the circumstances into account. As long as the controller is not made out to be some kind of hero…

  6. We don’t get to hear all of the exchanges between the pilot and ATC; however, what we do hear is a pilot who sounds distracted and shaken. The controller issues the obligatory invitation for a phone call and that is where it should have stopped. This controller was way out of line in directing the pilot to land along with the commentary on aviation safety. During my career with the FAA I, like this controller, made a few unprofessional and unnecessary transmissions and was called to answer for them. I hope FAA management does the same with this controller. Unfortunately, unless someone leaks information we will never know what happens to either party.

    • And yes, hopefully there will be a serious review of the pilot’s performance by FAA Flight Standards. If she is a student, or a newly certificated pilot, her CFI is already taking steps to address this issue. If this pilot isn’t a student, the best the instructor and/or flight school can do is prepare a really strong defense of their own actions.

    • @Gregg, 1000%. The controller WAS WAY OUT OF LINE and borderline reckless giving an unwanted clearance to land (that’s what it was). I hope he gets talked to and told to NEVER EVER do that again. His intention may have been good, but his execution was just awful. There are more professional ways to handle situations like these.

      • On top of that, his comment “you are grounded” was WAAAAAAAAAYYYY over the top! I’m trying to think what I would say if a controller told me that? Logically I guess he thought I needed to get on the ground to collect myself? But an ATC controller thinking he could “ground” me is laughable. He has ZERO authority to “ground” a licensed pilot. He could have told the pilot to call when they got on the ground (which, based the pilot’s rattled condition) would likely caused additional stress on the pilot. Or, the controller could have alerted the FSDO to meet her when she landed. The controller’s behavior only further soiled their reputation. The controller personified the famous saying: “ The FAA [ATC] isn’t happy until you’re not happy!”

        In my thinking, at best he could have gotten her out of the “close” pattern. If he wanted to be an extraordinary controller, he would have handed-off his current workload, gotten her to a different frequency, and calmly helper her calm down and then helped guide her to Falcon Field. That kind of help would have been a win-win for both SAFETY and PILOT DEVELOPMENT with the added benefit of planting the seed in the pilot’s mind that ATC is kind, understanding and there to HELP!

  7. If a non-pilot read this string, they’d be shocked. You’ve got a plane flying amid lots of others, under the control of someone who’s charged with preventing them from crashing into each other. The pilot is unable or unwilling to follow the instructions of the crash-preventer to stay in the lanes that will avoid crashes. To avoid danger to the other planes, the crash-preventer says “get on the ground and stay there”. Seems like a common-sense result, and our legalistic arguments about the crash-preventer’s technical authority (including straw-man hypotheticals) reflect a surprising unwillingness to give the crash-preventer the benefit of the doubt. No harm was done; serious harm may have been averted. Hard to see why we’re fussing, unless it’s an unfortunately absolutist view of the authority of the PIC. Would any civilians think ATC should have left the pilot up there wandering around disobeying instructions?

    • Serious harm may have occurred as well. The Controller got lucky. And I’m glad the pilot landed safely.

      What if she panicked and decided to land literally “immediately” and didn’t fly a standard traffic pattern colliding with another aircraft? What if she just lost control of the aircraft? These aren’t strawman hypotheticals – they’ve happened, people have died because of it.

      It’s not legalistic, it’s safety. Hopefully, more non-pilot savvy readers will pick up on that. You need to diffuse the situation, not bark unwanted clearances to a shaken-up pilot who is clearly having trouble flying a plane.

      • She already wasn’t flying the pattern she was supposed to fly. She was a danger in that moment and needed to get to the ground, not sent out to hopefully find another airport to hopefully land at. She was struggling to hold a heading. For the safety and preservation of her life, she needed to be on the ground ASAP, and as she was already at an airport where someone had eyes on her and could send help if she had a bad landing, getting her down there was the right thing to do, and likely saved her life.

        Only unsafe pilots are going to think that the controller should have sent her on her merry way and hoped for the best. Only unsafe pilots will argue that other unsafe pilots should be left in the air to do what they want.

    • “Serious harm may have occurred as well.” That’s right, but which one was more likely to result in harm? Letting a pilot continue flying unsafely or getting them on the ground ASAP?

  8. I directly disobeyed a controller’s instruction once, during a strong x wind and a “unused” runway directly into that strong crosswind. The runway had been just a taxiway for some years, and the controller told me he was unable to grant me clearance to use it to land, there was no other traffic in the pattern, so I used the “unable to comply” statement, landed there anyway, and all I got from the controller afterwards was a “nice landing.” We both did what we had to do, no problemo.

  9. I have trouble understanding exactly what happened here. Was this PIC unable to land her aircraft? Unable to follow simple vectors for landing? Apparently she required detailed instructions for all taxi instructions.

    I don’t really care what the regulations are for allowing ATC to order a plane to land. I am at a loss to imagine a pilot who takes off solo when she doesn’t know how to fly a plane.

    • Here again, your comment “apparently required detailed instructions for all taxi instructions” shows your lack of understanding how the real world works at an airport. It is not at all uncommon to ask for and receive “pregressive” taxi instructions at an unfamiliar field. I have requested that often and never received the slightest negative feedback from a controller. And the same goes for inflight.

      • Except she didn’t ask for it. She was too confused to know what to do, even to ask for a progressive taxi. There’s nothing wrong with asking for one, but a lot wrong with not being clear-headed enough to ask for it.

  10. First, the student apparently spoken English as a 2nd language. The primary responsibility was the Instructor who let her go solo without the required training and the required standard of english comprehension.
    I will never forget a Helicopter Instructor at Upper Limit Aviation in Salt Lake City who told me not to bother doing a pre-flight on an R44. I did the pre-flight and found a tail strike, I asked him “What happened”, the answer was that “Suzie had a tail strike”, That is he blamed the student for a tail strike.
    A check of the records reveals a string of accidents over a long period of time that reflects “a problem”.

    Here is the problem, Some schools, engage in blatant immigration abuse, it trapps students into staying with one school, where they cannot change instructor or change schools, the moment they complain about an instructor the school can go behind their back, Cancel their M1 and next time they cross the US border they get banned for years.
    I’m an FAA CFI-ii in Canada and get lots of calls from US licenced pilots in Canada who “can’t enter the USA” and often its a tale of how an unethical school screwed them over.
    There are locations in Canada where large quantities, of foreign students do training and in Alberta or BC its not uncommon to hear radio calls that are foreign student solo’s with english that fails the required standard.
    School chief instructors are placed under a lot of pressure to accept marginal English skills and especially chinese who have dubious Chinese issued english certificates.

    • Tail strike? I assume you mean a stinger strike, and if so, that’s a pretty common occurrence in flight training (particularly for CFI candidates who have to do full down autos). There’s even a standard for how badly compressed the stinger can be before it’s unairworthy.

      If you mean actual tail strike–was the tail rotor missing? Or is that made of stronger stuff than it appears (and feels)? 🙂

    • “First, the student apparently spoken English as a 2nd language.”

      Thanks for adding a bit of levity to this discussion!

  11. Reading the comment here seems to indicate that following ATC instructions is optional. I’m goin’ to get in my 172 and do a few touch and go’s at ORD. I’ll just ignore the ruckus on the radio from the tower.

    • Right? I’m stunned at how any people are literally arguing that, as PICs, they get to decide if they’re going to comply with ATC. I think a lot of people need to go back to basic training, or at least brush up on FAR 91.123 (b).

      • Noelle, I had a situation working a radar monitor scope during simultaneous, triple ILS’s into DIA. I am responsible for making sure no one blunders through the NTZ on either side, or overtakes with speed the aircraft in front. The tower controller issued an instruction to the center runway aircraft in solid IFR, to “S”on turn on final for spacing. Would you comply with that instruction? Short story, I overrode the tower controller, and instructed the aircraft to remain on the localizer, and reiterated the speed to fly.

  12. Most controllers would have just given her a heading to Falcon Field and told her to clear their airspace. That would be the “pilot’s rights” thing to do. However, he wasn’t real confident she could make it back on her own so he gave her a landing clearance. This was the “I’m afraid she’s going to kill herself and/or someone else” thing to do.

    *IF* she is in fact a private pilot as she claims, then an investigation should be launched into whatever DPE signed her off. Sounds like that person, and the flight school need some recurrent training.

    • My guess is she went through 141 pilot mill and I’d hold that operation as responsible as the DPE. It’s very possible she managed to sneak through the checkride at her local airport where everything was familiar to her and ATC instructions were almost the same every time while still be incompetent to operate at other airports. The DPE spends a few hours with the applicant and on a private, likely not much more than 1 hour in the cockpit. The student spends 50+ hours in the air with their instructor in most cases. Who was the most likely person to recognize the problem?

  13. I was trying to find the ADS-B track on this flight but oddly it doesn’t seem to exist in FlightAware. The are hundreds of other tracks in the history for N738XD, but nothing I could find recently that went to Gateway (KIWA). Anyone find the ADS-B track on this flight?

    • I’ll bite. What’s so terrible? Lots of good information uncovered about the roles, rights and responsibilities of people on both sides of the mic. Apparently it happened years ago and if I’d known that I wouldn’t have run it but now I’m glad I did.

  14. I think the bottom line is they BOTH had certain “rights” and “obligations”. ATC certainly had the right to suggest landing and provide “clearance” to the pilot to land, thus satisfying his perceived obligation of maintaining safety, AND the Pilot had the right to refuse landing by stating “Unable” for whatever reason she deemed appropriate.
    From there, the Pilot should have requested a vector “Outside of controllers air space” in order to return to origin or reenter the approach. ATC would then be obligated to provide requested vector outside of airspace.
    While the Controller’s intentions were good, his “Demands” made a bad situation worse. It sounds like he was more interested his asserting authority, than providing assistance to a confused pilot.
    Russ, you sure know how to “stir the stew”… good subject matter!

  15. I totally support the tower controller’s decision. Remember after 911 the saying “if you see something, say something”, and I add to that “do something”. Don’t sit on your butt and leave it up to someone else to do the right thing. That person should never have been signed off by an instructor if she didn’t understand and speak English well enough. As to the letter of the law for the tower controller, who cares they did the SAFE thing. That’s all that matters!!

  16. I think the main confusion here is the difference between a “Clearance” and an “Instruction.” We have to follow controller’s instructions unless there is a safety issue (flying into a thunderstorm). Instructions are things like, “extend downwind,” “fly heading …”, “climb and maintain …” etc. A landing clearance is a clearance, not an instruction. My guess is that “you have to land right now” is not an instruction that is in the list that controllers are allowed to issue. You need a clearance to land and takeoff and an controller can’t force a clearance on you (at least VFR). I’m not an ATC guy so I stand to be corrected but this is the way that I understand it. All that said, I’m glad he got her on the ground, against the rules or not.

  17. Absolutely with the controllers right to instruct an aircraft to make a full stop!! It happens everyday at bust VFR towers. “Touch and go not authorized, full stop only.” I can’t believe the two people here arguing with conviction that this doesn’t or can’t happen! Also, you don’t send a disoriented pilot away. The safe thing is to have them land.

  18. If it had been my child in that plane, I’d be VERY GRATEFUL to the controller and not arguing about a potential overreach of authority! The controller took what he believed was appropriate action to save one or more lives. Arguing over whether he over-represented his authority to get her to comply and down before a potential tragic outcome really misses the point.

  19. Very interesting debate going on here. Might I add another angle? What about the controller declaring an emergency on behalf of the pilot? I’ve seen that before; would the conversation today be different if that had happened here?

    • Apparently it couldn’t have been much of an emergency as she had the wherewithall to land the airplane as directed. IMHO, without knowing all of the facts it seems to the controller simply had a bad day and took it out on her. As we all do from time to time. But that’s not to say I have any disrespect for them as they do a terrific job 99% of the time. Yes the gal wasn’t the best pilot and she obviously was in over her head but that’s not the time for the controller to exacerbate the situation with open communications like that. End of story.

  20. The FAA has issued interpretation of 91.123b to mean that you need to comply with ATC instructions in ALL situations, unless it is unsafe to do so. Google ‘FAA Caras Letter’ to read about it. Whether or not the controller exceeded their authority in this case is a separate issue. Regardless, you can’t argue it in the air, and ignoring it is not a legal option.

    • @Craig, that is a great letter to quote:

      “Pilots flying in controlled airspace must comply with all ATC instructions, regardless of whether the pilot is flying VFR or IFR, in accordance with§ 91.123(b). ATC instructions include headings, turns, altitude instructions and general directions. The Pilot/Controller Glossary of the Aeronautical Information Manual (AIM) defines ATC instructions as “[d]irectives issued by air traffic control for the purpose of requiring a pilot to take specific actions; e.g., Turn left heading two five zero,’ ‘Go around,’ ‘Clear the runway.”‘ See AIM, Pilot/Controller Glossary. In contrast, the Glossary defines advisory as “[a]dvice and information provided to assist pilots in the safe conduct of flight and aircraft movement.” Id.

      Landing ain’t an instruction. It’s a clearance. The Tower did this for safety concerns which is “advisory” in nature.

    • You’re wrong! 😉

      Basically this is a special case that should never have happened in the first place. When weird things happen then, by definition, it’s unusual and we’ll have to see how it plays out.

  21. The pilot in command always has the authority to do what they feel is best. If they follow the controller’s instructions they are yielding their authority to the controller. I say that as a retired tower operator and pilot.

  22. There are some here that seem to mainly troll the topic instead of being open to views that in the end, only differ slightly in point.

    Point – The pilot was operating in a manner that was considered not safe, not just to her, but to other pilots that were in the pattern
    Point – The Tower controller has been working with the pilot for some time and perhaps was becoming short as her confusion and inability to perform ATC instructions was elevating the potential for harm and this potential added strain to a controller handling not just her flight, but others.
    Point – She could not taxi without detailed instructions which again showed a lack of situational awareness and the ability to follow instructions.
    Point – The best possible outcome for her was to land and given the pilot maybe did not understand English well, the controller eventually phrased an instruction in a manner that was clear, direct and obtained a positive reaction and result (she landed)

    I bet you a dollar that 99% of the commenters here are experienced pilots, US pilots with a good grasp of English along with a good dose of ego. Of course y’all understand the idea that PIC can say ‘cannot comply” or “negative” to an ATC instruction and, though I doubt the controller would have said “Land the plane” to y’all sage pilots, if he did you would say “unable”….but perhaps, just maybe this pilot did not no or was never really taught that so when she heard “Land the plane”, it was a clear enough instruction to follow….so she did.

    Speculation – Had the controller said “You are cleared to land immediately on x runway, emphasizing immediately, would that pass muster to the legal eagles here? How far different is “clear immediate” from “you will land now”?

    Question – What if, if the controller, becoming very concerned about airspace safety, instead of “commanding” her to land said to all other planes in the pattern or airspace, “you are all required to keep clear class x airspace until this situation is under control”. They can not allow you in, they can direct you out but I bet y’all be pretty pissed, or pissed if she turned into your space. Anyone, would you want to be in the pattern with Random pilot not sure what she’ll do next.

    No doubt the controller had a talking too by a super, but more along the lines of “Hey Joe,I known that was very stressful, but you have to work what you got so watch the phrasing next time (psssttt…good job)”.

    One can hope the pilot got more training, focused on PIC and situational awareness (and English lessons).

    I guess y’all missed the one where a pilot (in a Bonanza) was taxi’ing from hanger to runway trying to follow tower instructions and was failing miserably. Eventually the tower told the pilot to stop where he was and wait for ground personnel. Do the trolls here howl and say “he can’t order that, pilot could just say ‘unable'”, except the pilot was stinkin’ drunk. He did stop the plane, ground personnel came to his plane and he was arrested with something like .13 BAC. Was the controller wrong to state “stop the plane”? of did he make a judgement call in a fringe situation to possibly save the life of the pilot an maybe people on the ground.

    Good Lord…chill a bit and see it as learning moment, not beat people over the head moment.

    • If she’d requested a progressive taxi, the detailed taxi instructions would have been a nonissue. But she didn’t have the wherewithal to request it in the first place, yet needed it.

    • According to some here, all he would’ve had to say is “I don’t feel like it”, and could have kept taxiing.

  23. She said she had a Private Pilot certificate. Whoever gave her her check ride should have failed her and sent her back to her CFI.

  24. I have instructed many pilots to return to parking because they could not get to the runway assigned. Was I wrong?
    If someone can not taxi out, why would I allow them to create a hazard to other aircraft operating in the system or to themselves?

    Remember, the first rule of air traffic is “To Prevent Collisions”

    I have “booted” planes from my airspace for non compliance with instructions. And yes, a controller most certainly can instruct an aircraft to land because they are too busy. As in Full Stop expect to Taxi back to the runway.

  25. This sounds like an incident that happened at Gateway something like five or ten years ago. It was discussed on line, but I haven’t been able to find the thread.

    • I found a couple of threads on this incident. The earliest was from September of 2012, and included a partial ATC recording that confirms that it’s the same incident. Are links allowed in comments here?

      • Comments with links need to be approved by a moderator before they show up. You will see your own submission, but it will be prefaced by a notice that it is awaiting moderation.

  26. The best thing this gal could have done (and SHOULD have done) is to exit Gateway airspace as quickly as possible and return to Falcon. It is obvious that she didn’t understand the controller and his instruction and became confused and disoriented. It happens. Gateway is not a good place to learn atc communications. Same with Norcal and Socal.

  27. This is a 13 year old incident, as Mr Richard Palm points out. It’s also consistent with the registration info and recent flight tracking of this C172-N368XD-owned by a Mesa AZ entity, sold in 2013, then owned and flown in SoCal

  28. All comments considered, the best solution in the given situation would have involved effective communication, assessment of the pilot’s situation, offering assistance, collaborative decision-making, involvement of supervisors if needed, and avoiding immediate orders. However, the emphasis should be on ensuring safety, addressing the pilot’s disorientation, and working together to find a suitable resolution. Considering the airspace where all this played out, I’m with the controller.

  29. This entire incident could have been avoided by the controller simply stating “Make this a full stop.” That’s a legal clearance, and it removes the threat from the system and the threat to other pilots. Upon landing, the errant pilot could have been directed to “call this number to discuss.”

    Not only is that a legal clearance, but it empowers the controller to direct other traffic away from the problem aircraft–AND it doesn’t tie up the frequency.

    In any case, the controller action removed the threat from the system. Separating and sorting traffic is what controllers DO. NOT taking action in this case was apparently not an option. No “second guessing”–these events were happening in REAL TIME–and apparently, the controller’s actions WORKED. Hard to argue with success.

  30. So to summarize:

    1). She wanted to land but was disoriented and confused
    2). She was driven instructions (clearance) to land by the controller
    3). She landed
    4). Because the controller wasn’t going to give her a takeoff clearance she was handed off to the ground controller
    5). The ground controller grave her taxi instructions to the FBO
    6). She taxied to the FBO
    7). The ground controller wasn’t going to give her a clearance to taxi to the runway
    8). Consequently she needed to find a different way back to Falcon Field and someone else to pick up the plane
    9). End of story (except for any potential FAA paperwork or retraining)

    • Where did you see or hear that she wanted to land at this airport? Looking at the Phoenix TAC, it’s entirely possible that she just wanted to transition the class D. The YouTube video doesn’t start early enough for us to determine that. The terrain and overlying class B don’t provide a lot of alternatives for VFR flights from FFZ to the south.

  31. Well?, I see many people with authority here pitching in, and reading what’s legal and what’s not.
    I think the important thing here is everybody is safe, maybe, maybe not, controller got a chat with the airport manager and she with the CFI.
    We may be considering that she was overwhelm and happy to comply just to get out of the way of other traffic, maybe the controller was happy that she comply and his/her airspace was safe to other pilots.
    It happen to me that the controller was wrong and I comply for the safety of the situation, and other point that I called, “unable” and got on with my flight, then came in the please when able “write this number “ to explain the decision made.
    Another o was wrong beginning of my traductor as a PIC and it safe me from getting in trouble and very VERY happy with his help, did I had to comply 100% no! But I was very happy to comply and follow his direction to a safe flight and see my family s again.
    In flying many things can go wrong, it’s an apparatus make to fly by people, guide and controller in airspace regulated by people and people do mistakes, so many things can go to the grey area, so the important thing is not who is right just for the sake to who is right, but what the safest way to go about the situation.
    Then you can explain all you want after, or do whatever you want in a matter you want and people just may die Because of it. And that is never good.

  32. I think there is a lot of speculation about what is legal. That would be figured out in some level of a judicial system, likely FAA’s own process, and would have lawyers go through this and we’d end in a place where both sides had a really good argument.

    Wrong is not binary, it is one third of a spectrum (gray being in the middle). It’s more a question of what the controller should have done and what they didn’t do that will determine “right or wrong”. I think the number of non-lawyers here have proven the outcome to be gray from a legal perspective, to be determined later if it goes through a process to draw said conclusion.

    The other question is what should the controller of done.

    I think back to the video of the woman on solo who lost one of her tricycle gears on takeoff and the controller tells her and then asks her something along the lines of “please advise your intentions”. That was the right answer but quickly the controller adopted to giving advice and making some assumptions, like having her circle until someone coached her down. It was a really good execution, she turned away some other aircraft and made a lot of decisions for the pilot but also didn’t need to force her into any of them.

    This guy probably was a bit more cavalier. Kicking her out of the airspace was bad, but she had also asked to go to Falcon Field, which may have improved the situation MORE than where she was. Additionally, if she chose to take off again without a CFI, was the tower going to evaluate the log book and make sure she had been signed off? It starts to create a liability chain around ATC determining something close to airman certification standards. It is a slipper slope to controllers giving clearances to certain pilots. My point here isn’t that it was blatantly wrong, it was that he is creating a slipper slope that was unnecessary.

    I think a little bit more grace and handling and awareness would have helped. I certainly wouldn’t have told a pilot they are a safety risk nor would I try to get them to copy that number down in flight. I think the controller made it harder to resolve and didn’t have a lot of patience. He took a high workload situation and started making it harder. She wasn’t going to “get away”.

    Other alternatives:

    1. Was there a path for her to safely get to Falcon? A string of vectors may have been possible. They could have done this with Flight Following outside of the bravo if that was a concern.

    2. Was she able to hold a heading? It appears she was.

    3. Did they think about if the fact she could biff the landing based on the same safety concerns? They clearly had concerns about airspace, but not her ability to safety land.

    4. Did the way they spoke to her help, hurt or was it neutral to the situation. I’m not sure I care about being “nice”, but safe resolution requires a teamwork like approach. This wasn’t teamwork.

    5. It seems like they determined she no longer was qualified for Private Pilot privileges, and implied temporary restrictions (needing a CFI to leave), that’s clearly not their ability, but short of that could they have succinctly and patiently communicated differently for a safer outcome?

    My point is if both sides were aligned with the outcome and comfortable, this wouldn’t be being discussed. The fact is he made a decision without trying to resolve in a teamwork like manner. He may argue he didn’t have the time.

    If there was a crash, the NTSB report would talk about training standards and the controller adding additional pressure and not evaluating other alternatives. The FAA would find a middle ground and send the controller to Alaska is my guess. You don’t want to be “in the gray”.