Have We Been Cleared to Land?


Operating in and out of towered airports requires a landing clearance prior to touchdown. Pilots do occasionally land without a clearance. Depending on the circumstances, this could become an FAA violation: something every pilot should want to avoid. The solution? Almost every airplane has a built in advisory system to alert the pilot as to the status of his/her landing or takeoff clearance. You just have to know how to use it.

I’m talking about the landing light. So how does it work? It’s quite simple:

Always taxi with the landing light off, using only your taxi light as needed. Once you hear the magic words “cleared for takeoff,” you should instinctively switch on the landing light. It doesn’t matter if it’s day or night, just turn the light on. Your climb checklist should have you turn the light back off once on your way.

Landing light is off, which means we must not have been cleared to land yet.

Landing light is off, which means we must not have been cleared to land yet.

Follow the same discipline with your landing clearance. The landing light should not come on until you have been cleared to land. On short final, take a quick glance at the landing light and verify that it is on — that’s your reminder that you have in fact been cleared to land. This is also a good time to double check “three in the green” for retractable landing gear pilots.

It may sound crazy, but airplanes land without clearances more often than you might expect. Sometimes controllers get busy and forget to issue the landing clearance. This happened to me the other day, but because the landing lights were still off on short final, I caught it and asked the controller for the clearance myself.

At other times it is the pilots fault: we forget to contact the tower in the first place. Before you laugh and say “I’ll never do that,” what if approach issued the following?

“Cessna 12345, cleared for the ILS 36R approach, contact tower 119.7 crossing MGHEE.”

It’s almost a set up, isn’t it? Now you’re cleared to shoot the approach, but not to land. Worse, you have to stay on the approach frequency for a few minutes: just enough time for you to forget to call the tower. If you operate in and out of controlled airports enough, you will mess this one up sooner or later. And if you use the landing light trick, you just might save yourself a world of trouble.

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About the author
Pat Flannigan is a professional pilot and aviation blogger. He has been flying for fifteen years and is currently working as an airline pilot in the United States.

10 Replies to Have We Been Cleared to Land?

  1. Nice tip, but it sounds contradictory to what I learned. I know that airliners often turn the landing light on when clear to land, but in light aircraft I prefer to turn it on on downwind. This is to make my aircraft more visible and easier to spot by the others. Depending the type of joins used (90°, 45°, 270°, overhead, direct in base, …) this can make a difference.

    There are also some airports which require to turn it on when entering the CTR (i.e. Cannes, France, LFMD). Relying on the switch in that case could be misleading…

    • No doubt the landing light makes the airplane more visible, and I tend to have it on within 10 miles of a nontowered airport. You just never know who’s flying around and not minding the radio.

      I haven’t done any European flying, so your saying that a requirement to enter certain types of airspace over there is to have the landing light on? I’d like to learn
      more about that, I think I’ll go look up Cannes.

      Thanks for commenting Vincent!

  2. I tend to leave the landing light on whenever I’m below 10,000 feet for visibility. That’s what I was taught. Different strokes for different folks, I guess.

    But I do like the idea of using switches and settings in the aircraft as reminders. For example, it’s easier to dial in a pressure setting when you get it than to write it down and then dial it in. I know other Cirrus drivers who take this kind of thing further but I can’t remember exactly what they do but it’s similar to your idea.

    Another thing relating to lights that I was taught is vital actions before lining up for takeoff: ‘lights, camera, action’. Lights = pitot heat, landing light, nav lights, strobe etc., Camera = transponder, Action = (prop), mixture, fuel pump. It’s quite a useful reminder.

    • I was taught something similar: instead of leaving the landing light on, I leave my taxi/recog lights on below 10,000 or in cruise at altitude.

      Good ole “lights camera action” on the runway will save your bacon every time. It’s almost as valuable as the GUMPS before landing check.

    • Julien says:

      The good thing with “lights, camera, action” is that it also works on exiting the runway: lights off (esp. strobes), transponder on SBY, flaps up, fuel pump off. A really handy one.

  3. The case of Cannes is the only one I know about. You can find the French AIP online at http://www.sia.aviation-civile.gouv.fr

    I’ve never heard of “Lights Camera Action” before, and like it, great tip. On final, I like Red – Blue – Green (mixture, prop, landing gear).

    I like to note frequencies I’m given before dialing them in for a simple reason: if the radios fail, I know which one I was on and can tune my hand held radio directly, without having to ask on 121.5.

  4. Sylvia says:

    Hmm, this trick would work great for me though as I haven’t kept my night rating up. The switch position would remind me what the status is (although knowing me, I’d forget and kill the battery *sigh*)

    I learned red-blue-3greens as a final last minute check.

  5. Paul says:

    I also use the same trick for cleared to land. I don’t turn the landing light on until I hear “cleared to land” from tower. I usually glance at the landing light switch on short final, just to be sure.

  6. Mike Bennett says:

    Great tip! I follow the same thought process, but instead of the landing light I use the taxi light as my “cleared to land” light (running both the taxi and landing light during the landing). In my area of the country while flying VFR under the NY class bravo I like to have my landing light whenever possible.

Please, share your thoughts and opinions

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