According to a recent YouGov poll, about a third of Americans are either very confident or somewhat confident they could safely land a commercial aircraft in an emergency, relying only on the assistance of air traffic control. (About 50% of men said they’d suddenly become ace pilots in an emergency, compared to one in five women—read into that whatever you’d like.) Clearly, this is a batshit notion, on par with thinking you could punch out a lion. Look at the photo of a 747 cockpit above, and think about which button you’d hit first. Wrong (CRASH)
Yes, despite the unearned confidence of American men, almost all of y’all would crash, at least according to an experiment run by The Washington Post. The paper put six test subjects with varying degrees of flight experience into a simulator with a cockpit identical to an Airbus A320, then left them alone to try to land it. Of the three untrained pilots, only one was able to avoid killing everyone onboard, but even that success involved a super rough landing and a commercial airplane rolling off the runway. And none of these tests were conducted in an actual emergency situation, where adrenaline and panic would be as important a factor as not knowing how an airplane works.
The test subjects with flight experience did better, as you’d expect. Even experience with real flight in a small airplane helps a lot, if only because you’d know how the radio worked.
How to crash an airplane
First the good news: You’re almost definitely not going to end up in a situation where you are the one being counted on to land the plane. A pilot becoming incapacitated during a commercial flight is incredibly rare, and there’s a second pilot onboard to take over if that did happen. It’s a nerve-wracking experience for the second pilot, but it’s not likely to be deadly. As far as I can tell, both pilots going down, and requiring someone else to fly the plane is a situation so unlikely it has only happened once (in real life; it has happened countless times in movies for some reason). In 2005, both pilots of Boeing 737 fell unconscious mid-flight, leaving a heroic flight attendant (who happened to be a student pilot) in charge of the aircraft. There were no survivors.
For fun, though let’s say, somehow, you are the last hope of the passengers on your Spirit Airlines flight to Cancun. Make no mistake, you’re not going to succeed at saving the day, but at least your failure will be more admirable if you keep a few things in mind.
What to keep in mind while you’re trying not to crash a jet airliner
The first thing to do if both the pilot and co-pilot are incapacitated is to not volunteer to land the plane. Even a flight attendant is likely to be a better choice of the pilot than you, even if you’ve played 100s of hours of flight simulator games on your PC. So spend your energy asking other passengers if they’ve ever piloted an airplane of any kind. In The Washington Post’s test run, the people who had any kind of real-life flight experience did well, even the guy who only flew small planes recreationally. There just is no substitute for hands-on experience.
But if you are really the last hope, keep these tips in mind:
- Don’t panic. Don’t start stabbing randomly at buttons and screaming. Instead, assess the situation calmly and take a deep breath. You’re not going to fall out of the sky right away if the plane is just cruising because the autopilot is probably engaged. Speaking of—
- Do not disengage the autopilot. An amateur’s first instinct might be to grab the control stick. Do not do this. Do not press the red button. Moving the stick turns off the system controlling the airplane. Keeping the autopilot on will allow the aircraft to fly until it runs out of fuel, giving you precious time to pray. Modern jets’ autopilot systems can land planes with no pilot input, but only if you know how they work. It’s not like there’s a button that says “land plane.”
- Put on the headset/find the radio: One of the subjects in the Washington Post’s article did not think of this, and I probably wouldn’t have either, but using the headset or the hand radio is vital to talk to air traffic control, and that’s your only (very slim) chance of survival.
- Follow instructions carefully. Air traffic control will walk you through the steps to land the plane, a process called a talk-down aircraft landing. Listen to all instructions carefully and follow along as best you can. This is ultimately not going to help you land the plane, but it will make the air traffic controllers feel that they did all they could to help you before your death.
Seriously, you will not be able to land the airplane
Even if you calmly find the radio while not disengaging the autopilot, you are not going to be able to land the plane. According to Patrick Smith, a commercial airline pilot and creator of Ask the Pilot blog, “A non-pilot wouldn’t have the slightest idea how to even work the communications radios, let alone fly and land the jet.”
Even if the plane was already configured for landing and lined up with the runway, you’re still probably going to die. According to Smith, even in this ideal scenario, “The odds are still very much against you.”
“Where, exactly, is the plane from the runway in terms of altitude, distance, and speed?” Smith asks (and I do not know) “How accurate are this person’s seat-of-the-pants interpretations of what the plane is doing? Much of it, too, would come down to luck.”
Has a passenger ever successfully landed a plane?
While no passenger or non-experienced pilot has ever successfully landed a commercial plane, occasionally someone without experience manages to land a smaller plane.
In 2019, a student taking his first flying lesson managed to safely land a plane after his instructor collapsed. In 2013, a 77-year-old man who had never flown before landed a plane. Just last year, air traffic controllers guided a no-experience passenger safely to earth after she radioed them with a distress call. But smaller planes are way easier to fly than jets, and these are the rare success stories. The stories of novice pilot failure have headlines like “Four Dead in Cessna Crash,” and those happen all the time.