Going off comms – what do aircraft do when their radio fails? | Aviation


What happens next?

The next actions depend to some extent on the type of flight and conditions under which the aircraft is operating. 

Radio failures in Visual Meteorological Conditions

Aircraft operating in Visual Meteorological Conditions (VMC) under Visual Flight Rules (VFR) must first squawk 7600. If the aircraft is operating in an airfield’s circuit pattern (also known as a traffic pattern), the pilot can follow visual signals from the ground, most likely using red and green lights. If the aircraft is outside the circuit, it must land at the nearest suitable airfield, and remain in VMC conditions.

Radio failures in Instrument Meteorological Conditions

Aircraft operating in Instrument Meteorological Conditions (IMC) under Instrument Flight Rules (IFR) will also squawk 7600 as soon as possible. Following this, IFR aircraft have more specific procedures to follow. Here’s a simplified summary…

  1. Maintain the last assigned speed, and the most recently assigned level or minimum safe altitude (whichever is higher) for 7 minutes. This time allows air traffic to coordinate their actions.
  2. Fly the flight levels and speeds as specified in the flight plan. If the aircraft was being vectored by ATC at the time of the failure, the flight will proceed in the most direct manner to the planned routing.
  3. Follow the flight plan to the designated navigation aid at the destination airport.
  4. Begin the approach from that navigation aid at the last acknowledged approach time or the estimated time of arrival based on the current flight plan.
  5. Fly the normal instrument approach procedure and land within 30 minutes after the ETA (a VFR aircraft should also try to land within that 30-minute period). 

These are the basic steps aircraft are mandated to follow. The arrival airport will have its own specific radio failure procedures.  These can be found within the approach charts and supplementary documents. This could mean specific actions are required during the approach and after…

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