Passenger landing a plane safely


I wonder if there are any examples of the opposite–an inexperienced passenger taking the controls in an emergency, leading to death for all?

MODERATOR NOTES: The thread is from January 2013, revived in Oct 2013 in Post #27, and revived again in June 2014 in Post #28. That’s OK, we don’t care about resurrecting old threads with new info, I just want y’all to be aware and so be cautious in respond to a post that’s over a year old. – CKDH

In combat, at least one example (substitute “non-rated crewman” for “passenger”).

Medal of Honor citation for SSgt Archibald Mathies, United States Army Air Force:

Emphasis mine.

Two of the relatively uninjured members of the crew of this damaged B-17 stayed with the plane and the critically injured pilot and attempted to land the plane, rather than bail out and let the pilot die in the inevitable crash. They didn’t succeed in landing the plane, and died along with the pilot. But they tried.

But this airplane has four engines. It’s a different kind of flying, altogether.
{had to be said)
Ever wonder if someone has been talked through the take-off? :eek:

It’s a different kind of flying.

It’s a different kind of flying.

39 minutes apart? I am disappoint.

May not be exactly what you’re looking for, but flight attendant Andreas Prodromou on Helios Airways Flight 522 attempted to take over after the pilots were incapacitated. Although Prodromou had a commercial pilot’s license he was not trained or certified to fly the B737. He also did not really have time to make the attempt. The flight crashed and all aboard were killed. So… inexperienced with that type of aircraft, even if he was a pilot of some sort.

Be careful with this one. Small planes are one thing. Commercial jetliners are another realm completely. And do you mean somebody who knows nothing at all about flying? How about a private pilot who has flown four-seaters, or a desktop simulator buff who has studied a jetliner’s systems and controls?

The outcome in all cases is liable to be a catastrophe, but some would fare better than others. It depends too on the meaning of “land.” Do you mean from just a few hundred feet over the ground, in ideal weather, with the plane stabilized and pointed toward the runway, with someone talking you through it? Or do you mean the whole, full-blown arrival, from cruising altitude to touchdown?

I saw the MYTHBUSTERS thing 2007, the Discovery Channel show “Mythbusters” set things up in a NASA simulator stripped down to represent a “generic commercial airliner.” The hosts took the controls, while a seasoned pilot, stationed in an imaginary control tower, carefully instructed them via radio. On the first try, they crashed. The second time, they made it.

But all they really did was land a make-believe airplane from a starting point already close to the runway. The scenario most people envision is the one where, droning along at cruise altitude, the crew suddenly falls ill, and only a brave passenger can save the day. He’ll strap himself in, and with the smooth coaching of an unseen voice over the radio, try to bring her down. For somebody without any knowledge or training, the chance of success in this scenario is zero.

This person would have to be talked from 35,000 feet all the way to the point where an automatic approach could commence, complete with any number of turns, descents, decelerations, and configuration changes (appropriately setting the flaps, slats, and landing gear). I reckon that would be about as easy as dictating organ-transplant surgery over the telephone to somebody who has never held a scalpel. It’d be tough even for a private pilot or the most obsessive desktop sim hobbyist. Our would-be hero would have a hard enough time finding the microphone switch and correctly configuring the radio panel, let alone the maneuvering, programming, navigating, and configuring it would take to land safely.

A few of you might remember the film Airport ’75. A 747 is struck near the flight deck in midair by a small propeller plane, and all three pilots are taken out. I almost hate to say it, but dangling Charlton Heston from a helicopter and dropping him through the hole in the fuselage wasn’t as far-fetched a solution as it might sound. It was about the only way that jumbo jet was getting back to earth in fewer than a billion pieces. The scene where Karen Black, playing a flight attendant, coaxes the crippled jumbo over a mountain range was, if less than technically accurate, useful in demonstrating the difficulty any civilian would have of pulling off even the simplest maneuver.

As noted in Cecil’s list, a few years ago, here in New England, after the lone pilot of a Cape Air commuter plane became ill, a passenger took over and performed a safe landing. The TV news had a field day with that one, though the passenger was a licensed private pilot and the aircraft was only a ten-seat Cessna. Otherwise, there has never been a case where a passenger needed to be drafted for cockpit duty. I guess that means either it never will happen, or it is destined to happen soon, depending how cynical you are about statistics.

Patrick Smith

Still, if this kind of scenario were to happen in real life, and the passenger managed to get the radio working, then the ATC would have to take the situation seriously and try to find the best solution. It’s not like they would literally say “the chance of success in this scenario is zero,” and sign off. I seriously wonder what could be done to increase the probability of survival. For one thing, let’s not forget that, even in cases of commercial airliners being virtually uncontrollable and crashing into a mountain or into the sea, there have been crashes with survivors. As long as the plane maintains somewhat level flight and isn’t going too fast and doesn’t stall, it seems like there is a real chance of there being some survivors. So can this be achieved with help from ATC?

There are instances of a small plane such as a Cessna or Aeronca landing itself with no functioning pilot at all. A personal friend of mine claims his engine failed on his first solo while on final. He panicked and froze, doing nothing at all, but the plane simply landed and rolled to a stop. I know of a pilot who built a fast homebuilt airplane. When he took it up for his first flight he was unable to land it after several attempts. Attempts to talk him down were no help. Finally the plane landed and coasted to a stop on the runway. The pilot was dead of a heart attack.

A few years ago a pilot started a small plane by cranking the prop by hand. The plane jumped the chocks and started moving before the pilot could get in. It took off, flew for a few miles, and landed relatively unharmed.

It is common practice for private pilots to teach their non-flying spouses how to land a plane in an emergency. There are even videos for sale on how to do this.

Getting to larger craft, the Air Force has put navigators and other non-pilot flying officers in Link Trainers and let them have a little practice with emergency landings of twin engine jets. Nearly everyone manages a survivable landing on their first try.

Personally, I think it would be more difficult for someone to land a large twin turboprop such as a King Air than a Boeing 767. The Boeing has a friendlier layout and autoland. The King Air is a complex mass of dials and gauges and everything looks strange.

It does not take a lot of intelligence or skill to perform most of the basic flying functions on an airplane. I have seen eight year olds do it. All it takes is the ability to read a few gauges and a willingness to follow instructions.

The real problem, for those private pilots who fantasize about being called upon to save the lives of hundreds of people by landing a big jet in an emergency, is not flying the plane. It is the thing that caused the emergency in the first place. Anything that would take out both pilots is likely to have damaged the airplane to the point of making it very difficult, if not impossible, to fly.

AskThePilot, isn’t going from cruising altitude to final approach the easy part, though? The way I see it, as long as there’s still a few hundred feet of air between you and the ground, you’re fine-- It’s not until you’re actually attempting to make contact that you need to worry about that contact being gentle.

I’m not a pilot, but according to things I’ve read that were written by pilots, it can be awfully easy to drop more than a few hundred feet without even realizing it. If you go into a spin, at least in a small plane, that’s apparently the fastest way down to the ground, and it’s hard for a non-pilot to pull out. I’ve read of accidents where a student or even a full-fledged but inexperienced pilot crashed because he went into a spin–even a few thousand feet up–and couldn’t pull out.

If you’re 30,000 feet up, you can survive several mistakes that would end up killing you if you were just 1,000 feet up.

Indeed. Commercial jets have a pilot and co-pilot specifically for the redundancy factor, as well as the complexity of all the flight activities allowing a second set of hands/eyes. So one pilot or co-pilot becoming incapacitated still leaves one trained pilot to land. Drafting a second person to ride second seat is certainly helpful, especially if they have any clue what to do in that seat, but that’s not quite the same thing as having both the pilot and co-pilot incapacitated, and needing an emergency fill in.

I misunderstood this line for a second. They made a “we need to land now rather than proceed on our scheduled flight” landing, not an “OH CRAP WE’RE APPROACHING THE GROUND FAST” landing.

Clarification (Cecil got it right): the first attempt for each of Jamie and Adam was without coaching. They were placed in the simulator and told to land just reacting to information on the screen, to their best ability. The second attempt for each of Jamie and Adam involved coaching from the “tower”, and both successfully landed, although Adam IIRC landed a bit hard.

There is admittedly an open question of how much familiarity gained by the first attempt helped the second attempt independently from the tower guidance, which cannot be completely answered, but I think it reasonable to conclude that the bulk of the improvement came from the instructions helping them know what to pay attention to and when to do certain things. I think myself I would need a few attempts to get familiar with the system response if I did not have coaching. It’s a matter of figuring things out by yourself rather than having someone pointing out all the beginner errors before you make them.

How complex is autopilot? Also, 30,000 ft gives a lot more room for slow, gentle, thoughtful motions to make small changes to flight path, rather than dramatic motions for more rapid path changes. The latter is more likely to lead to error. If I found myself as the stand-in pilot being coached by radio, I’d want to use as much time and fuel as possible playing around at high altitude getting a feel for the craft without making too dramatic a motion, all under coaching. Then I’d want to maneuver into position early for the airport, or circle a bit wider than nominal to give me the extra maneuvering room for a gentle approach. Yeah, I know, asking for ideal circumstances in an emergency situation. :wink:

Courtesy of, there’s also the story of Air Force Captain Gary Foust. (Scroll down from the one about the War of 1812.)

As a certified flight instructor, I’m calling bullshit on a Cessna “simply landing and rolling to a stop” when the pilot froze at the controls. I’m sure your friend is a nice person and all. But I don’t believe it. Sorry. And if you have a cite for a plane taking off and landing harmlessly by itself I would like to see it.

You are correct that 8-year olds can perform basic flying functions on an airplane, especially simple single-engine planes. I know, because my own 8-year old does it. In cruise, at altitude, with me watching.

That’s how the child Jessica Dubroff supposedly “flew” a plane across the country - well, until Wyoming, where she and her PIC were killed in a feat of weather-related idiocy. She wasn’t “flying” anything. She was wiggling the controls harmlessly in cruise flight after the PIC took off, and before the PIC took charge again to land.

For someone who reads crash reports religiously, for me the most interesting part of this discussion is the part about ATC “talking down” a pilot. There is a vigorous debate on many aviation-related boards about the level of pilot skill required for ATC controllers.

This may surprise many readers, but most ATC personnel are not pilots at all, nor in many cases have much knowledge about airplanes or piloting skill. There have been a few accidents recently where some basic piloting skills in the control tower might have saved the pilots…not because ATC would dictate maneuvers or point out buttons to push, but rather because they might probe for different possibilities or a different outcome.

As an example, a plane crashed recently in Florida after losing power in the engine. It crashed just short of an available runway after running out of power, killing everyone on board. But in retrospect, it had plenty of opportunity and altitude to glide straight over the airport, circle down, and land.

The pilot and ATC were not on the same page regarding the seriousness of the emergency. The plane was vectored around, stepped down in altitude, and lined up for a “normal” approach and landing. It lost precious minutes, altitude and a margin of safety that ultimately cost the pilot and the passengers their lives.

But ATC was just doing its job, based on the information the pilot was providing to them. If they had been pilots, they may have pushed back a little harder on “why” the pilot was willing to accept non-emergency routings.

That AskThePilot website is great, by the way. Hadn’t seen that one before.

I am a CFI, too – both single and multi-engine, so don’t pull that on me. You can call my friend a liar, if you want. I tend to believe him. It was only a Cessna 150, after all, and he was on short final when the engine blew. And if you read the accident reports as religiously as you do, your probably remember the hand propping incident to which I am referring. But then again, it was almost 20 years ago. As for the heart attack landing, that was at Tacoma Narrows. I forget the name of the pilot, but IIRC it was a Van’s RV airplane.

I have heard “ATC” talking to pilots who ran into trouble operating the plane. No doubt you have as well. “ATC” isn’t doing the talking. They go out and get a pilot who is familiar with the plane. I really don’t care whether a traffic controller knows how to fly; i just want him to maintain traffic separation and keep me away from cumulogranite clouds. They don’t always do a good job, even at that. It is still the pilot who is in command of the airplane. Always the pilot. If ATC tells you to do something idiotic or even illegal and you do it, it is the pilot who dies or gets his license suspended.

Here is still another case of a plane landing itself without help from the pilot:

Then go out with him today, go up in the air and take a video camera or iPhone.

I’ll even spot you 1000 feet of altitude and a 2 mile final to a nice, long paved runway. Get it set up any way you would like. Power, flaps, whatever configuration you want. It’s your call.

Take both of your hands off the controls. Pan the video camera back and forth to prove you aren’t touching anything. It might be better if you got a 172, because then you can sit in the back and have your truth-telling friend in the left seat all by himself. You will be a helpless passenger watching the whole thing unfold right in front of you.

Come back and post the safe landing here. I’ll wire $1,000 to any PayPal account number you wish. I’ll even cover the cost of the rental and your CFI time, to boot.

Go get 'em tiger. I’m waiting.

Here a pilot passed out while in flight and woke up to find that his plane had run out of gas and landed safely.

Now I’m calling bull. Just because it happened once doesn’t mean it will happen every time. I would no more be willing to do that than you. However, just because it is rare doesn’t mean it is impossible. Have you checked the links that I and others have posted documenting pilotless landings?