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There's An Airplane On The Runway. Can I Land?


You're on short final and you're cleared to land, but another airplane is still on the runway. Your hand is on the throttle, ready for a go-around. What should you do?

Did you know that tower controllers have the option to land an airplane on the runway when it's already occupied? Here's what you need to know...

One Pilot's Story

The following NASA ASRS report details an event in which separation confusion between a tower controller and pilot led to a go-around...

I was on final making a GPS approach to RWY 19 at FRG. The wind was about 60 degrees from my right at 14 gusting to 18. At 2 miles out, tower advised of one intersection departure before our arrival. I acknowledged. At 1 mile out, tower advised of 1 full length departure before our arrival. I acknowledged and said that I may have to go around. the tower told the Seminole departing "No delay." The Seminole pilot said he was rolling. Instead, he sat on the departure end of the runway for several seconds, as I was approaching at 85 knots.

Just as the Seminole began his takeoff roll, I did not think that I had enough separation to be comfortable. I initiated a go-around and advised Tower that I was going around and would stay to the right of the runway. The tower said that there was no need to go around, that she had adequate separation. As I was already overtaking the departing aircraft, which was now about 400 feet down the runway from the threshold, Tower said, "Don't go around," to which I replied, "I'm going around."

The report brings up a few interesting questions:

  • When are airplanes allowed to land on occupied runways?
  • How can pilots know if separation is adequate?
  • Should controllers preemptively tell aircraft that separation is adequate?

Same Runway Separation: Two Arrivals

According to the FAA's Air Traffic Control Procedures Manual (3-10-3), an aircraft can land on a runway when "the other aircraft has landed and is clear of the runway." BUT if it's between sunrise and sunset, this requirement does not apply if minimum distances from the landing threshold exist:

1) 3,000 Feet of Separation: When a Category I aircraft is landing behind a Category I or II.

But what are the categories of aircraft?

  • Category I: Small single engine propeller driven aircraft weighing 12,500 lbs. or less, and all helicopters.
  • Category II: Small twin-engine propeller driven aircraft weighing 12,500 lbs. or less.
  • Category III: All other aircraft.

2) 4,500 Feet of Separation: When a Category II aircraft is landing behind a Category I or II.

Same Runway Separation: One Arrival, One Departure

If the other aircraft is departing and has crossed the runway departure threshold, separation is guaranteed and another aircraft may land.

Again, however, exceptions apply:

1) 3,000 Feet of Separation: Category I aircraft landing behind Category I or II.

2) 4,500 Feet of Separation: Category II aircraft landing behind Category I or II

3) 6,000 Feet of Separation: When either is a category III aircraft.

Finally, "when the training aircraft is a helicopter, visual separation may be applied in lieu of using distance minimums."

What This Means For You

If you're landing at a towered field and are concerned about separation, remember that ATC has stringent separation criteria that they're required to follow. If you have time, confirm with the controller that you're still cleared to land.

If things get really tight, make a PIC decision on whether a go-around is appropriate. Never overfly another airplane if they're departing the runway, and remember that runways can be deceptively long, so you may have more room than you think. In most cases, when things get tight, a controller will tell you if separation is good and they will confirm that you're cleared to land.


What About Non-Towered Airports?

If you're flying into a non-towered airport, the short answer is to 'play it safe.' There won't be a tower controller to help you maintain a safe distance from other airplanes. Plan to land and take off with the runway environment fully clear.

Always communicate your position and intentions over the CTAF frequency and don't hesitate to ask other pilots for clarification of their intentions.

After all, when there's no controller involved, it's always better to land on an empty runway.


Have you ever been cleared to land on an occupied runway? Tell us about it in the comments below.

Swayne Martin

Swayne Martin

Swayne is an editor at Boldmethod, certified flight instructor, and a First Officer on the Boeing 757/767 for a Major US Carrier. He graduated as an aviation major from the University of North Dakota in 2018, holds a PIC Type Rating for Cessna Citation Jets (CE-525), is a former pilot for Mokulele Airlines, and flew Embraer 145s at the beginning of his airline career. Swayne is an author of articles, quizzes and lists on Boldmethod every week. You can reach Swayne at, and follow his flying adventures on his YouTube Channel.

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