Let’s say you are flying from Berlin to New York City. For some ungodly reason, both the pilot and copilot are unconscious, perhaps after drinking a strange brew delivered to them by a sadistic villain that has a fondness for cats. The passengers are a hysterical mess, and you volunteer to land the plane. According to one pilot when interviewed, you’d have a chance, but you’d have to be on your game and likely not be cursed with having a less than very good attention span. Could you do it?
First all all, what kind of plane are you trying to land? A 640 seat Boeing 747 400 or a small six-seater? Let’s start with the small plane, and we can pretend we have Justin Bieber and co in the back, and you are the brave bodyguard, albeit with no acumen for flying planes. There would also only be one pilot.
Let’s say the plane is fine and you still have contact with air traffic control. Without that, you are all probably ‘fudged’. You tell air traffic control the situation, the pilot’s totally unconscious. You’d tell them “mayday” just so they know the gravity of the situation.
You are faced with what looks like a cornucopia of switches and buttons and knobs, and you don’t know what any of them do. Luckily for you, there are just a few very important things you need to know. That is your height, speed, and your flight profile. According to an aviation website, this is a graph which gives you a “step-by-step depiction of a maneuver or phase of flight”. It’s basically the instructions for what you have to do to land safely.
According to the pilot, obviously, don’t panic. Don’t pull the nose down and head for ground just yet. Just keep going until air traffic tells you that you are close to a place you can land. If you can see the windsock at the airport, you’ll know which way the wind is blowing, and it’s safer and easier to land into the wind. With the wind behind you, you could land too quickly and that’s where all the deathly kind of things happen.
Now you are going to have to listen to control so you know what buttons to push. Lower the plane to the end of the landing strip, bring out the first flap, and lower it about 30 to 40 degrees. This will make the wing bigger, slow you down, and improve your landing angle. You want to be hitting the runway about a third of the way down. Pull the plane up a bit so you feel you will not just go head first into the tarmac. When you are down, hit the brakes, which are located above the pedals. When you are stopped, turn off the engine. You just saved a pop star. According to the pilot, without someone explaining which button is which, you’d likely not have a chance.
So, what if it was a massive passenger plane and you are the only one on that plane with the gumption to try and land it? This question comes up a lot on aviation forums, and pilots are there to answer. First of all, you’d have to hope you could get into the cockpit.
The good news is, you probably have a much better chance at saving 500 people as you did trying to keep Bieber safe. This is because your highly advanced plane has an instrument landing system, aka ILS. One pilot said that getting to the airport and landing should be a “piece of cake” because the ILS is in control. You’d still have to tell air traffic control what’s going on, and just hope to God you don’t have to go manual because of horrible weather or unforeseen emergencies. You will need to set the ILS after speaking with those on the ground. As another pilot says, without autopilot, your chances are very, very slim, unless you have some training.
Another pilot said you’d never even get into the cockpit, because the cabin crew wouldn’t allow you to. If anything, they’d take over as some have even learned basic flying skills in their training.
The show Mythbusters actually allowed a bunch of amateurs to try and land a plane and all failed. Everyone virtually died. But when air traffic control was allowed to help, there was success. Another pilot points out something very important, and that is how to use the microphone to actually talk to those down below. You must toggle the switches until you can get through, otherwise you are doomed. He explained that you’d have to get low enough to “attach the aircraft systems to the runway landing system”, set the flight management systems for your approach, and also set the auto-brakes. You’d have to follow a lot of directions to do this, and to paraphrase him, if you needed to land without the use of autopilot, you’re definitely going to end-up on one of YouTube’s ‘World’s Worst Plane Crashes’ videos.
You might be pleased to know this has never happened in aviation history, at least in a large passenger plane. It’s happened a bunch of times since the year 2000, however, in small aircraft. Each of the instances we could find, with the aid of air traffic control, the plane was landed safely, albeit one time crash-landed and another time the plane was damaged. In each case, everyone on the plane survived. Oh, except in two cases the passed-out pilots died later in the hospital due to the reason they passed-out in the first place.
So, do you think you could land an airplane in a pinch?