Can you land a plane in an emergency situation?

This is a terrible scenario: The pilot of your flight has been incapacitated.

Oliver Thansan
Oliver Thansan
01 July 2022 Friday 15:15
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Can you land a plane in an emergency situation?

This is a terrible scenario: The pilot of your flight has been incapacitated. Someone must get into their seat to land the plane. It's possible.

Yes, Darren Harrison. In May, the pilot on his flight from the Bahamas to Fort Pierce, Florida, "went incoherent," leaving the Cessna 208 single-engine aircraft without anyone at the controls. Harrison was able to land the plane at Palm Beach International Airport almost flawlessly with the help of Robert Morgan, a certified flight instructor as well as an air traffic controller.

This is the latest in a string of similar "talk-down" landings in which a passenger safely landed a plane with assistance from someone on the ground or in another aircraft.

2019 was the year Max Sylvester, a flight student, landed his first plane in Western Australia after the pilot lost consciousness. John Wildey, a pensioner who had been in the air force, but not as an instructor, successfully brought an aircraft to the ground in northeast England in 2013. He did this in darkness and after several unsuccessful attempts. In 2012, Helen Collins, an 80-year old widow with some piloting experience, successfully landed her husband's plane in Wisconsin.

These events all had one thing in common: Cessna planes.

Because they are small and easy to handle, they are a top choice for flight schools.

They only require one pilot, while larger planes may need two or more (or more in the case long-haul commercial flights that use crew rotation). The other takes over if one of the pilots becomes incapacitated. A Boeing 777 was safely landed in 2009 after one pilot died mid-transatlantic flight. The remaining two pilots took over the controls.

This is a chilling precedent

Douglas Moss, a former United Airlines pilot and FAA certified flight instructor, says that while it can be difficult to land an aircraft without experience, it is possible with certain conditions. The events below prove this.

A motivated person who is aware that they are in a critical situation. A radio flight instructor can help them navigate each step. Finally, a natural ability to control a mechanical device.

Moss states that Moss's abilities include being able "to quickly adapt to and understanding the relationships between the plane’s flight control devices (such as the throttle and rudder controls) and their aerodynamic responses." He warns that if one of these conditions is not met, it could lead to serious problems.

However, larger planes, such as airliners can make it difficult to achieve the ideal situation. Patrick Smith is an airline pilot who flew Boeing 767 aircraft. He is also the author of "Ask The Pilot", a blog and book about aviation.

Smith believes that someone with no experience flying would not be able to take control of a commercial passenger airplane at high altitude.

He says, "A non-pilot would not know how to fly or land the jet and operate the radios."

Although no passenger has ever been able to land an airliner, it is a good sign that nobody has had to.

The closest example of this was a real-life incident that occurred several years ago in Greece. A flight attendant who was also a student pilot took control of a 737 after all the passengers and crew were left incapacitated by a pressurization problem. Smith refers to Helios Airways Flight 522 in 2005, where all 121 passengers were killed.

Andreas Prodromou was the flight attendant. He had managed to remain conscious using a portable oxygen container, but was only able to access the cockpit minutes before the engines exploded.

An even better scenario is one where the plane is ready for landing and aligned with the runway.

Smith states that although the odds are still stacked against you, the outcomes would differ from person to person and plane to airplane.

"Where exactly is the plane relative to the runway in terms altitude, distance, speed? How accurate is this person's seat of the pants interpretation of what the plane does? It all comes down to luck.

Can confidence be a help?

How about flight simulator programs such as Microsoft Flight Simulator. Smith suggests that they could help you gain an advantage.

"A skilled enough hobbyist could possibly save the day. Even the most sophisticated hobby sims can't be fully realistic. The devil is in details. There are sequences, switches and system quirks you can't see, but that could make a huge difference in the scenarios you're discussing.

Anyone looking for ways to plan ahead can find plenty of information on the internet about how to land a plane. This includes an entry titled "How To Land an Airplane In An Emergency" by popular how-to guide wikiHow as well as detailed videos tutorials. Although it's difficult to know if these will increase your chances of landing, they can certainly boost your confidence.

The University of Waikato, New Zealand has conducted a psychological study that shows that people feel more prepared to perform an emergency landing in a mountainous area by simply watching a YouTube video of two pilots.

Kayla Jordan, one the study's authors, said that even though they knew landing a plane is difficult, those who watched the video were 28.6% more confident than people who did not.

Jordan says this is because novices who learn a little bit about a difficult task quickly increase their confidence in their performance, which Jordan calls the Dunning-Kruger Effect.

This confidence bias was found to be more prevalent in women than men, according to the study.

Jordan says that regardless of whether the men watched the video, they were more confident than the women in landing the plane. This finding is consistent with previous research that shows men are more confident in their abilities and knowledge than women, even when they're competing in running or diving.

Patrick Smith says there is an easy way to test this confidence and determine if a novice can land an airliner. He recommends using a professional flight simulator. This simulator is what airlines use to train their pilots.

He says, "Stick someone in an authentic, full-motion airline simulation at 35,000ft, with no assistance, and see what happens." It won't look pretty.

Credit for top image: ERIC PIERMONT/AFP via Getty Images