Say you have a physically average person who is pretty calm under pressure. That person is on a small plane (I know nothing about planes. I’ll say a Cessna, but that’s just to set the stage. If this is a stupid plane to choose, please let me know!) and the pilot dies while they are in the air.
The person climbs into the seat, puts on the headset, makes contact with the ground, and there is a pilot there ready and willing to talk her in for the landing. (Any of these things may be unlikely, so feel free to point out where the problem would lie.)
What would be the likelihood of this person landing the plane? Assume (and please explain) anything else you need to assume to make a guess. (Yes, I understand that it’s a guess!)
Would it be nearly impossible, fairly likely, a dead cert?
Would it change a lot, a little, or not at all if she had a few lessons years before?
In my opinion, I think a pretty good chance they walk away unscathed. There is also a non-insignificant chance that something happens and they are seriously hurt in a botched landing, but I think odds are that a cool headed person could land a Cessna and walk away.
Some planes can be “all-manual,” and some planes you have to know how to read complicated instruments. This I have from my stepfather who was a 30-year Navy pilot. He says there are some commercial airplanes he’s not sure he could land even with radio control talking him down (although he’d try if he were the only pilot present, albeit, he no longer has a valid license), but there are some small planes that someone with no experience, who is bright and cool-headed could probably be talked down.
A plane isn’t like a car, when easy is so easy you can get in and go, and the hardest of all are still just sports cars with muscle clutches, or vintage cars with clutches, manual chokes, the shifter on the column, and no power steering. Some planes are the equivalent of a sedan with automatic transmission and power steering, and others are like a specialized armored vehicle, like a tank, or a submarine. There’s nothing instinctive about operating them, and the instruments require special training.
The biggest difficulties for me when I was given the stick in a glider were getting a feel for how much control input was required to make the plane do things. Having played 80s and 90s era flight sims, I was very surprised at how much control input was required to make anything happen. Without somebody in the back seat coaching me I would have been too gentle.
The second issue was the difficulty I had in spotting anything useful on the ground. Admittedly the airfield was a grass field, which looked like lots of other grass fields. I probably could have spotted a runway, if I was even looking in the right place.
Finally, once the airfield was pointed out to me, I was useless at getting the plane flying towards it. I’d even heard the term “step on the ball,” so I was more or less in coordinated flight, but I had no feeling for when to start pulling the plane out of a bank in order to be pointed in a particular direction.
Given enough time, possible even 30 minutes of playing, maybe I could have sorted out turning. I’m not sure I would have sorted it out enough to line up with a runway.
So, as a curious amateur with a basic understanding of the controls, but no real flying experience, given adequate time and space, somebody to talk me through it, and minimal cross winds, etc. I think I would have a reasonable chance of getting back on the ground with survivable injuries. I’d have a much lower chance of stopping wheel side down on the runway.
Jamie and Adam did it, but if I recall correctly, it took them two tries.
My brother in law had a side business back in the day where he and his dad had a small plane simulator built into an RV (old school, with all the controls, not a computer game) that he and my sister travelled around to podunk airports with, selling time on the simulator for small aircraft pilots to get their instrument flight rules (IFR) certifications. With a little coaching from BIL I “took off” from a small airport near San Francisco, flew it across the bay and “landed” in Oakland and aced it first time out. Sure, it wasn’t a real plane but it handled just like a real one would and I had no visuals at all to go by, just the instrument readings. I’d think it’s fairly possible for someone who doesn’t panic easily to follow directions well enough to land the plane–big advantage is that small planes have such low stall speeds that there’s plenty of time to think about your moves and ask questions. Jet plane? Yeah right.
I’m an instrument rated pilot and fly small airplanes every week.
Weather makes a huge difference:
If a non-pilot with no experience takes over in the clouds, or has to fly through the clouds, the chances of making a successful landing are zero.
If there is a mild to significant crosswind, you are going to break the airplane at a minimum.
If it is a nice clear day and you have plenty of fuel (several hours), you might be able to pull off a landing and walk away from it with only minor injuries or less. That time would be used to talk you through shallow turns and to get used to the throttle and pitch to control altitude and speed.
If you have to land a Cessna 172/182 or Piper Cherokee on a 2000’ runway - that’s probably not going to work. With a 10,000’ runway you’ve got a small chance.
I think by talking to someone on the radio, good weather and along runway with no wind, you have maybe a 2% chance of a normal uneventful landing.
3-50% of a botched landing that breaks the plane in some way and probably hurts you.
50% you crash and die.
This all assumes the radio is already tuned to some ATC frequency (tower, approach control, center, etc). If it is tuned to a local non-towered airport, that’s much harder because you don’t know who might answer (probably another pilot, but could be some random guy in the office). If you’re in the middle of nowhere and not on any local frequency, you’re probably doomed.
For most small planes (and large ones too) there is a small button on the left side of the yoke (steering wheel) called a push-to-talk-switch. You hold it down while talking and release it to listen.
The bigger trouble is the frequency that the radio is tuned to and which radio is in use. A typical plane will have two radios and you need to select the one to talk on. The radios are often referred to as Com-1 and Com-2. It would be fairly common to be listening on both radios but you can only transmit on one of them. There is an emergency frequency but no non-pilot is going to know it, or how to tune an aircraft radio. You’d need to hope that the radio is already tuned to a frequency that someone is listening on.
An elderly couple (John & Helen Collins) were in their private twin-engine plane. John was a pilot, Helen was not. John had a heart attack and died in the air. Helen managed to land the plane without injury, although the plane got a few dents. news article
If it is a Cirrus aircraft, there is a whole-airframe-parachute system with a simple red-handle to pull. In a situation like the one the OP described, a passenger should be able to fly to a rural, flat area and pull the handle. It will probably cause significant damage to the plane, but if you avoid power lines and such, should be very survivable.
Interesting video, however some of them were already at the far end of the runway before they even touched the ground. If it was really life-and-death I think the controller would have them push the throttle forward, circle around, and try again.
I did have a parachute on in the glider I flew. The pilot told me only once in all of the UK had a first time student been forced to jump and survived. So a parachute might not be terribly helpful. Though I’m guessing it’s probably easier to jump out of a plane in level flight than a glider missing a wing, or whatever condition was forcing you to jump from it.
A Cessna is a good choice because they’re like a bad rash - they’re everywhere and it’s unlikely they’ll go away any time soon.
(Actually, I like Cessnas and have more logged time in them than anything else. But really, they’re everywhere.)
Anyhow - as noted upthread, that scenario has, in fact, happened. People have landed in that situation and walked away. Also, been carry out by paramedics/EMT’s, and sometimes unfortunately did not survive the experience. I haven’t broken down the stats on success/failure on it, but certainly if a passenger finds themself in such a situation it is worth having a go at trying to save themself.
In the 2 and 4 seat Cessnas (and other things) I fly there’s no need for seat climbing (and it probably wouldn’t be possible anyhow, due to lack of space to maneuver in the cockpit). There are dual controls. If you’re my passenger I’ll make sure you’re strapped in properly and caution you NOT to touch the controls, and put a headset on your head so we can talk without shouting at each other. So you’re already in position to take over. Although I think we’re both hoping that wouldn’t actually be required in real life.
Eh… it’s possible. It’s been done. If you can get help over the radio the odds of success go up significantly. ANY experience will help - RC flyers will have some understanding of how to fly it, people who are frequent passengers may have picked up some theory if not actual experience, etc.
I think Desert Nomad covered it pretty well. In general, the larger the airplane/more complex the smaller the odds of success.
A LOT. Even one lesson at some point in the past would be helpful.
Again, Desert Nomad covered that. The real trick is whether or not it’s already tuned to a frequency that had a person who could help you available for a conversation.
If anyone’s curious - the emergency frequency for pilots is 121.5 (I think 243.0 is the military frequency but it’s been awhile since I reviewed the info.) But yelling “HELP!” on any frequency should get you attention.
The problem being that once you pull the Big Red Handle (yes, it is a big handle that’s red) you’re strictly a passenger. Steering will not be possible. Also, the user manuals for whole-plane parachutes pretty much warn you that your airframe will be totaled in such a situation. Do not expect the airplane to be usable again. The intent is to save YOU, not the machine. Also, according to folks I’ve spoken to who have used one, while the landing is survivable there is no guarantee it will be gentle and in fact it probably won’t be gentle. In other words, don’t do this for fun, save it for genuine emergencies.