I Asked a Pilot if a Common Idiot Could Land a Plane in an Emergency

Short answer: maybe, if he or she had plenty of help from air-traffic control and were good at multitasking.

Hannah Scholte

Hannah Scholte

An artist's impression of the author trying to work out how to land a plane

In movies, normal people are often put in situations where they have to land a plane. Maybe the pilot gets shot, has a heart attack, or is thrown overboard by terrorists who are eventually subdued, but not before they incapacitate everyone with aviation experience. But what if that all happens in real life? What happens next?

Pilots are generally sturdy men and women who are capable of handling a complex machine and have an understanding of physics. I am none of those things, but I was interested to see if the movies were overstating my abilities to step up in a crisis.

I called up a Broome-based pilot who captains charter flights over some of Australia's most remote areas. If you ever did find yourself jumping blindly into an unfamiliar cockpit, it'd likely be in a small, six-seater plane like his, as anything bigger generally has automatic controls and, even better, a second pilot.

(My pilot friend asked to remain anonymous, as he didn't want to be held responsible if someone actually ran with the following advice—we're just talking about a hypothetical situation for purely entertainment purposes.)

VICE: In movies, there are often situations where people need to land a plane. Without knowing much about me, do you think I could do it? Full disclosure: I can't drive a car.
My pilot friend: Well, it depends where you're going. If you're coming into somewhere like Broome you'd have the support of air traffic control and they can always get someone on the radio who's competent with an aircraft.

OK, so they'd talk me through it. Have you ever heard of this happening?
People have felt a ill, but no one has been incapacitated. Although people have been in the situation where they felt they couldn't proceed so they've returned and we've swapped pilots.

The medical processes are pretty strenuous—they investigate anything that's wrong with you. If you told them you were having fainting spells they'd put a restriction on your license.

Say everyone gets food poisoning except me, what general skills would help me not kill everyone?
Probably being good with multitasking skills, being able to interpret systems, hand-eye coordination, maths helps too, and some physics so you can understand how things are working. Problem-solving and judgement skills too.

If you're pulling a normal person into this they won't tick all those boxes.
How about critical thinking? You need to be able to weigh up the solutions like, "OK, the weather is really bad here, where am I going to go?"

I could manage that. So I find myself in the pilot seat—what do I do next? Radio someone?
Yes, get on that and see if you can get someone. Let them know what your situation is and get them to help you out.

What would I say?
Just say, "Our pilot has been incapacitated, this is our situation." They can give you advice from there.

Would I say "mayday" or something?
I'd probably issue a mayday because the pilot is incapacitated. We reserve that for immediate danger, and if the pilot's incapacitated there's a danger.

What if the radio is broken?
Well, you're not completely stuffed. If you're close to the airstrip you can certainly make a go for it. Arrive overhead and start descending. This is the time you really want to start looking around. Find the windsock at the airport and see which way the wind is blowing, you want to land the plane into wind to get a safer touchdown speed.

That's way too much independence for me—could I use my mobile and ring you? Or wait, mobile phones in planes are a no-no, right?
No, you could make a call, that's not a problem. It's just you'd have to be on a decent service provider if you want any sort of coverage. If you're not, you're struggling.

Tell me about the controls, could I sort of work them out as I go?
It's quite confronting. There're knobs everywhere, all sorts of switches.

What's the most important one?
There are six important ones. An altimeter, an airspeed indicator, an artificial horizon, directional indicator, turn coordinator, and the vertical speed indicator. That covers most of your flying and lets you know what the aircraft is doing in terms of its profile, speed, and what you're doing with height.

What's the worst thing I could do?
Push the nose of the plane down and get low. It's like going down the hill in a car and slamming your foot on the accelerator. Being in that panic to get down is bad, before you think about getting down just try contacting people first. Don't be in any sort of rush. People rush and that's when they make mistakes.

So I'm not supposed to slam the nose down, how do I land?
You want to arrive at an airstrip and put yourself in a downward spiral, with the wind. As you pass the threshold—the markings at the end of the landing strip—bring the first stage of the flap out. That's the extension of the rear of the wing. That will increase the surface area of the wing.

Then you push the nose down and bring the power back. Then keep flying along the edge of the rectangle and aim a third of the way along.

A trick is to put three fingers above of the dash and have your aiming point above those three fingers. As you cross the threshold, start bringing the nose back up a bit and it'll slow the aircraft down. Then the aircraft will touch down.

You say all that like it's really straightforward. How important is a perfect landing?
Safety is always the big one, you have to make sure it's completely safe first. And I think a good landing is also quite important because a lot of passengers judge the whole flight by the landing. If it's a bad one they go, "Well, that guy's not very skilled."

Dude, the pilot is dead. I'm a hero however I get this bird down. So when am I out of danger?
Once you've touched down you've still got to bring the aircraft to a complete stop. Keep the plane straight with the pedals and bring it to a stop. The breaks are above the pedals so push those. Then shut it down, turn off the keys, and you're safe to jump out and kiss the ground. There'll probably be firefighters on standby to make sure everything is OK.

Do you think I could do it?
I think you could, if you get the right assistance. If the pilot's completely gone, try to get on the radio or make a phone call if you can and try to get any support you can. It sounds pretty easy the way I explain it but there are so many terms and until you actually fly it's hard to understand.

I'm not overly convinced.
A lot of the flying stuff is like patting yourself on the head while rubbing your stomach—you have to be pretty good at multitasking to accomplish it.

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