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Could a NON-PILOT land an airliner?

There are probably a fair number of people who like to imagine that if they were on board a jetliner and the flight crew became incapacitated, then they could jump up and save the day. ‘After all,’ they think, ‘I’m good at Microsoft Flight Simulator and, well, how hard can it be?’ The answer, it turns out, is extremely hard, according to those in the know – actual airline pilots. ( More...

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Daniel Van Hoy 21
7 helpful hints for non-pilot landing of a commercial aircraft

If aircraft is flying straight and level:
1. Find the radio (between the seats)
2. Set to 121.5MHz and call MAYDAY with flight number. If conversations can be heard on the existing frequency (119.5MHz or whatever), make your call there first.
3. Explain situation to controller.
4. Pray that your aircraft has full-auto capability. Wait for instructions on how to set up the flight management system for a full-auto landing at the nearest appropriate airport. Report fuel onboard and anything else asked for by controller.
5. Stay on the radio and keep communicating until landing.
6. Sit back, relax and enjoy the ride, you'll soon be a hero!
7. Start planning for the windfall from the movie.
Mike Risney 6
" Flight crew, could you have a couple of those shots of Crown Royal waiting when we stop?"
I've had very little flight training in a 172, but yes, I could land an airliner. I doubt any of us would survive, but I could land it somewhere.
Mike Risney 2
Like the honest reply !!
Iain Girling 11
Clearly it would only occur in a dire emergency. Given that scenario it would depend on how many of the automated systems were still functioning properly and the ability of the “non pilot” to understand instructions from a qualified pilot. Rather unlikely set of circumstances I suspect.
sparkie624 4
I agree... When I was in A&P school and having a basic understanding of flight and some student flight training, we did an experiment. Without help in a full 727 simulator (many years ago) was able to setup and approach and successfully land. Admittedly, I did land a little hard, bust not enough to damage the a/c, but even at that, everyone would have walked off the plane!
James Simms 11
I would think given that situation & a successful landing w/no injuries; damage to the aircraft would be the least concern.

As they say, any landing you can walk away from is a good landing.
bdarnell 12
They also say take-offs are optional, but landings are mandatory.
sparkie624 15
As a friend of mine says on A/C... In aviation, we have a 100% perfect record on a/c... Every a/c that goes up has come back down. We have never gotten one stuck up there... They have all made it back to the Ground... :)
Cal Keegan 13
"The only thing hard about flying is the ground." -- Charles Kingsford Smith
AWAAlum 1
A cute little saying, but from what I've learned reading the article and most of everyone's opinions here, I'd have to say Mr Chas K Smith disagrees.
Guy Goodine 3
And any landing in which you can use the a/c again is a GREAT landing.
Scott Moore 10
When one engine went out, the guy next to me says how far can we go on one engine? I said all the way to the scene of the crash. We will beat the first responders there by 30 minutes. - Ron White
Edward Dexter 6
Hah, no way, I can't even land a small airliner in the MS sim without a fatal impact, things happen too fast in a jet for me to manage. Too many flight controls in a big puppy, and who knows where they are? Throttles and flaps sure, but all the other stuff, no way. You need to know instinctively. I honor the skill and dedication of commercial pilots to stay up on all of this, especially the software changes that come down the pike.
matt jensen 4
In the old days of prop planes and turboprops, it is/was possible - in fact many have done it. In the advent of multi engine jets - fly by wire and joy sticks - not so much. Playing a MS computer simulator is WAY different than actually flying in 200 ton jet. And, yet even some experienced right seaters don't do such a good job either. Practice, practice, practice -
Ken McIntyre 2
I figure that the chances of a safe landing with novices at the helm are about nil.
sparkie624 4
Nil is better than No One at the help. - Ref: Helios Airways Flight 522
Ken McIntyre 2
Good point!
sparkie624 -1
Ugh.. I just saw my typo..... I meant to say, "No One At The Helm" - I wish GB could give us the ability to edit :) - Hint Hint FA!
30west 1
Proof reading before you hit the enter key usually will keep you straight.
Karl Beckman 2
Same thought also applies to flight plans, of course.
AWAAlum 1
And then there's spell check, which would likely catch the fact that proofreading is one word.
30west 1
You are correct.
craigbell1941 4
I saw this in a movie once. The Flight Crew ate the fish for dinner and passed out so the panicky, desperate, whacked out flight attendant had to take the yoke and yada, yada, yada, Hollywood ending.
bbabis 4
What hasn't been thrown in is weather. CAVU would certainly help, anything worse probably not. A pax familiar with the automation through a sim may have a decent chance. Otherwise, hitting the red button and doing it the old fashion way may be best.
I don't wonder nearly as much about whether a passenger could land an airliner -- more relevant and of concern to me is....IS THERE NO ONE WRITING ARTICLES SUCH AS THIS...WHO CAN WRITE A PROPER AND LEGIBLE SENTENCE ANYMORE?!? Damn...if you can't even handle THAT, forget even driving a car, let alone landing an airliner!!
art thompson 7
Remind me if one of you "gamers" grab the controls...
Were all going to die..
sparkie624 3
I agree.... It is harder than it looks. Flying FS-X is a lot different from really flying an airliner! A real Sim (and I mean the ones that airliners train crews in) give you a much better chance... But the heat of the moment of a real situation is a lot different. That is why when we have a new captain they are called "Low Min's Captain" meaning that they have different IFR approach standards vs a seasoned captain.
744pnf 2
... when we have a new captain they are called "Low Min's Captain"
At my airline we were called 'HI-MINS CAPTAIN' until we had 100 hours in type.
sparkie624 0
Different Name, Same Meaning, Same Hours I believe, but I am on the Maintenance Side of things, so I do not keep up with that.. LOL, I have enough regs to keep up with...
alex hidveghy 1
Hi mins is the correct term meaning you ADD on a couple of hundred feet and one or two miles to the basic mins . Until he’s over 100 hours in type with that airline. Then he reverts to the lower limits.
I haven’t flown 121 in about 8 years so yes, terms and things in general change. Have about 6 type ratings from turboprop all the way up to B747 classic and over1000 hours on all of them....
paul gilpin 6
is anyone named stryker on board.
we need you in the cockpit.
what is it.
it's a small room at the front of the plane, but that's not important now.
this aircraft has multiple engines. that's a whole different type of flying altogether.


ground: flight 209 you are cleared for departure.
ohver: roger.
roger: huh?
ground: your departure frequency is 123.9.
ohver: roger.
roger: huh?
victor: request vector? over.
ohver: huh?
ground: flight 209 cleared for vector 324.
roger: we have clearance clarence.
ohver: roger roger.
ohver: what's our vector victor?
Dave Leib 0
Love your comment.
It's my favorite movie too.
So how do you enter a locked cockpit? ?
Stefan Sobol 4
It is possible for the FA's to open the door using a code number. If the pilot's do not deny the entry, the door will open. However, if the crew were to become incapacitated somehow, the FA's might not notice until it is too late.
Jesse Carroll 2
Best question ever on this squawk !
Frank Lewis 3
I got a buddy that has 30,000 hours in C-130 and boeing aircraft, he is retired now 9 years from his latest assignment which was nearly 6000 hours in a 777 and he said to me, hell I am not sure I could do it anymore.
Jim Mitchell 5
Flight simmers are NOT gamers.
I have to agree with Jim here. There is a big difference from gamers to simmers. Although in all fairness we are NOT capable of landing an airliner and by all means not trained to do so. We are more knowledgeable about the terms and the layouts of flight decks than your usual passenger. We can speak in proper terms and understand more terms given to us by ATC. We are not gamers. Some of us take the simulation to a different level. Jim thanks for bringing that up.
Les Wilson 1
Someone who plays FlightSim a lot will have a better chance of getting the plane on the ground than someone who has no flight experience at all. Doesn't mean the plane will land without a scratch... and it probably won't be the smoothest landing... but you have a better chance than no chance at all. So long as the plane is in good mechanical condition with enough fuel to spend time getting accustomed to the aircraft and to find a runway with a lot of room to land - you will have better odds than a cockpit with two incapacitated pilots - or someone who has no idea what to do. It's probable the landing may not be a good one and you're looking at a total loss with fatalities. But it's still a fighting chance.
I am reminded of a saying: Flying a plane is one of the greatest thrills a person can experience, second only to landing it.

I got my first airplane flight when I was 12 years old, in a Ryan Navion. The pilot, a colleague of my Dad, knew of my avid interest in aviation, and let me take the controls. I couldn't see over the top of the instrument panel, but was able to make some shallow turns just by reference to the instruments. I had read plenty of books from the library and knew enough about what the instruments indicated to maintain straight-and-level flight and turn the airplane. It wasn't until our pilot told me we needed to return to the airport and I asked "What heading?" and commenced a coordinated turn to that heading that he (and my Dad) realized what I was doing. They were mightily impressed.

I am now 71 and still not a licensed pilot, although I did complete some dual instruction while in college and am still an avid aviation enthusiast. I am confident that, if necessary, I could land an airliner with the help of aircraft systems and guidance from the ground.
30west 8
Michael, I always thought that flying was the second greatest thrill a person could experience.
AWAAlum 3
Let's hope you don't have to find out.
cparrott73 5
I'm not a licensed pilot, but I have spent a whole lot of time flying some pretty realistic aircraft in PC flight simulators. And yes, I fully understand that the real thing is a much different, more sensory-overwhelming experience with a lot of information to process and little to no time available to stop and think it all through.

Two things I would do right away to give myself a fighting chance, if I ever found myself in that situation:

- Squawk 7700 on the transponder.

- Tune COM1 to 121.5 and issue a "Mayday" alert, and hope someone listening at the other end can help talk me down safely.

But if the "Average Joe" doesn't even know what a transponder is, or how to tune the radios, then he is pretty well doomed in this scenario.
Ken Hurne 2
But that is what the "pause" key is for right? Or maybe slew mode??
Les Wilson 1
The order of operations is to aviate, navigate and communicate. Get the aircraft flying straight and level. If you can turn on the auto pilot to maintain altitude and heading - that frees up workload to get on the radio and issue a "mayday" to get further assistance. If you have fuel, then you have time. Time is your friend so long as you can keep the aircraft in the air.
Mark Richards 2
Why has the crew has been put out of business? Sudden decompression with failed crew O2? Cockpit windows cave in? This detail must be considered in the scenario.

There will be serious issues to handle with an airplane in dubious condition. Tough for a single-pilot under less-stressed circumstances. Sorry, but stall spin crash burn die.
Highflyer1950 2
About as much chance as winning the lottery! Picture yourself at FL360 no autopilot and keep the airspeed and altitude within 10 kts and 100’. now assume the autopilot is on, just exactly what are going to do, program the FMS to fly the autopilot with zero knowledge of how to do that? Get on the radio cause there is always a Boeing/Airbus instructor in every ATC facility? The next time you get that idea, switch it up a little and say, my buddy over there needs a heart
bypass, get me a surgeon on the phone and I’m good to go..cause I watched 10 episodes of “Code Black”....Scalpel, stat.
zuluzuluzulu 2
Being an airline aircraft mechanic during a fuel crunch in the nineties, I had to get my taxi qualifications on simulators in the middle of the night. The instructor allowed us to “fly” an MD-80 and the flying part was fairly easy. the aircraft wanted to stay in the air. The landing, on the other hand was pretty bad. I blew all four main tires and went of the side of the runway. The instructor turned off the motion part of the simulator to protect the simulator, just before touch down but the visuals made my feel everything!
Les Wilson 1
In a no-pilot / dead-pilot scenario, that kind of landing is a good landing. No one said the plane had to land without a scratch on it.
David Loh 2
I think it depends on the type of airliner plus the background of the non pilot.
As an aircraft maintenance engineer and aircraft enthusiast I know quite a bit about the aircraft systems, controls, etc. Also read widely about flying and had some FS air time. So i guess i could do it if the aircraft had full autopilot capability and the airport has full ILS operational. While occupying jump seat on many occasions from TOD to landing I've observed quite a lot. I also know how to operate flaps gears etc. In the case of non pilot who had no interest at all in flying and thinks flaps are what birds use for flying then maybe chances of a landing of any kind is probably very slim.
David Vega 2
Depends on how much training and knowledge does the non-pilot has on the aircraft in question.
bbabis 0
We are already talking about an extreamly unlikely event and then to have a non-pilot with training on that type of aircraft be onboard! Possibly you include FS and Xplane as “training.”
Ric Wernicke 2
Koreans have proved that even low time pilots cannot land an airliner in San Francisco on a sunny day.
Brian Turley 2
well we mustnt forget the ILS
another chore to add to the many with limited time available.As they say prior to the last 1000 feet all the checks etc should be completed
I think about this from time to time when I fly. If given the chance, could I get in the seat and land it? I'd like to think yes, I'd also think I'd need a new pair of Levi's when I landed. It would take a special person with nerves of steel to pull it off and as mentioned, at the least, an aviation theory. I think the nerves of steel, coupled with ability to follow orders and operate the controls smoothly are the biggest keys.
sparkie624 2
I would say it would depend on the plane... But in modern days of CAT IIIa & b a/c I would most certainly say yes... All that they would need to do is to be in communications with a certified pilot on instructor for that a/c type and simply do as said and perform an autoland... Once on the ground and stopped.... Tow them to the ram or get a qualified taxier to get it to the gate. - For Cat II and other non autoland, it would be much tougher, but not impossible with the correct guidance from a qualified person on the ground...
Ken McIntyre 4
The "Mythbusters", Adam and Jamie, were able to do it on a simulator with help from a certified instructor. So in theory, it's possible. I sure wouldn't want to be in a position to having my life depend on it!
sparkie624 1
But if I was in a situation like that, being a non-pilot I think I would having fighting chance... I would sure rather do that than someone that has no clue of the theory of lift or knowledge of avionics. Even though I would not desire to do it in real life, it is a better chance than having no one at the helm period... At least I know how to program an FMS and control an Autopilot as well as controlling the engines at full power during engine trims. - I still think being in that position I would be scared out of my you know what, but with 100+ lives at stake, it would be worth it.
Ken McIntyre 1
Yeah. That is why I said "in theory". I would put quite the set of pucker marks in the left seat if I tried this as I've only got about an hour of flight time in my entire 63 yr life (I was and am still susceptible to motion sickness). Mega difference between a simulator on the ground and a huge machine vibrating through a yoke. But, I'm pretty tough and daring. I'd give it my best effort.

The only thing would have going for me is 5 years of ground ops with an airline plus riding right seat on a bush plane numerous times into the Idaho back country. Those qualifications hardly amount to anything other than making me the first person to the scene of a monsterous divot.
sparkie624 2
I hear ya.... But I would rather leave a dirty seat behind rather them to pick me up off the runway or mountain side with a Blotter!
Ken McIntyre 1
A couple other thing. I'm pretty good with computers. And I at least have a sense of what the instruments mean in a cockpit. Not much, but a person with those skills might be able help out.
BaronG58 2
I agree Sparkie. I think it also depends on the person. Even a person who has no knowledge or training but has the backbone and confidence to step up and get in the left seat is a good start.
Frank Lewis 1
I have a buddy that has 30,000 hours of flying in C-130 and various Boeing jets. He is now retired for over 9 years and his last job flying 777 he achieved over 5000 hours and he said after such a long layoff from the cockpit he was not sure he could land a plane in the incapacitated example used here.
Barely possible, assuming the pilot(s) just dropped dead and weren't killed by large birds entering the windscreen or some other drastic compromise of the aircraft. I actually think this would be easier in older aircraft with dedicated instruments (steam gauges, if you like) that could be fairly easily identified. I'd hate to have to teach a tyro how to set up glass cockpit screens in ADDITION to how to control the plane over the radio.
Randy Brown 1
25 years ago my room mate was a DC8 first officer and later captain for Emory. He got permission for me to be in the simulator while they did their flight checks. Old full motion sims on Denver’s Stapleton airport United flight training center after DIA was open. While the captain and the check pilot were debriefing I was allowed to sit left seat with my friend coaching from the right seat. I was able to successfully land and take off multiple times. I was a 1000 hour private MEL SEL Insrument pilot. Prior to becoming a private pilot I flew and was a flight instructor for radio controlled aircraft. A non pilot with only pc sim experience would have a tough time. The more you actually know the less likely you are to look favorably on a non pilots chances. R/C flying transfers better to full scale than full scale to R/C.
webken10 1
A non-pilot, in a heavy as in 747 or thereabouts weight category, no real chance. One matter nearly no one has referenced, is most home sims have no inertial loading to sim the A/C inertia slower response times. That was a shock to me, which I had to practice to lead correctly. I have 1400 total time, half in a light King Air A 90, and some in a DC-3. Still a light and rigid wing aircraft, by real standards. Do a real sim with the motion and response slowness of a high inertia heavy, and I'd rather be elsewhere. Not a doubt I could handle such landing well, with minimal damage, if any. I had just enough real sim practice to know how to lead a 747.

The inertia difference from light aircraft is amazing. And it will put you behind the flying landing curve every time, unless you get it down pat with practice. And that assumes all main systems reasonably functional.
webken10 1
Short of my comment, Dan Hoy below has by far the best practical size up of reality, if the individual has some smarts, serious smarts.
Ray Fencl 1
I would request that a fresh pair of skivvies be available upon landing.
There's a fun way to try it out, if you have a full-scale public flight simulator in your area. For example, in Anaheim, CA, FlightDeck ( has a fixed-base simulator of a Boeing 737-800. The screen is high-fidelity 180 degree wrap around and the cockpit is an exact replica. "Fixed-base" means the cockpit does not physically move like the pro simulators, so no "seat of the pants" feedback. Nevertheless, it's a hoot, and pilots have given it good reviews. While they have several standard packages of training and short flights, the folks there love what they do and would probably be willing to set up a scenario where you would sit down in the pilot seat with no training and with the simulator in a stable flight scenario and then coach you down to a landing by "radio".
Richard Loven 1
There is some luck involved. In Sioux City they had luck. The Captain was an old calm Pilot. Most would still be reading the emergency checklist to see what they were suppose to do and when they didn’t find it they had already spiraled into the ground.
James Simms 1
‘Course, if you had an auto pilot, all would be saved 😜
TWA55 1
Auto landing system
Marc Collins 1
I could make a pinpoint landing - right at the site of the crash...
Jesse Carroll 1
Every landing is nothing more than a "controlled" crash! Just some of them are better than others! Objective is " if everybody can walk away" from the site, good landing!
Ken Hurne 1
Part of the issue with this is there are two different types of non-pilots who have experience with PC sims. Those who get on there to mess around and make fools of themselves (think of the kids airforceproud95 encounters on youtube), and those who are serious simmers. With the first group you'd probably stand less of a chance of surviving than you would with someone who had never seen a cockpit before in their life. The second group might give you a fighting chance if talked down by someone on the radio.

Then there is that whole other slightly not minor issue called weather...
Richard Loven 1
It’s possible. It would take two calm people one on each end. One big problem for a complete novice is starting radio communication.On the ATC end you need a capable Type Pilot, that knows all the systems. Most important is that he is very perceptive and understands and can relate to people. With the two right ones you would have a 90% Chance. Some uptight guy that takes 25 hrs to Solo a person won't work. He will spend all the time on proper Radio Procedure or explain how to fill out a NASA Report.
yatesd 1
I’m a retired Air Force civil engineer. Spent a lot of time getting hauled around in mostly C-130s with time sitting in the jump seat. Did the MS Flight Sim thing for many years. One Saturday my next door neighbor, who was an FO on DC-9s flying for Northwest and was an instructor, took me to the local airport and we rented a Cessna 172. He just told me “ok, do it for real”, which I proceeded to do. It wasn’t pretty, but I was able to successfully takeoff, fly around, some and land....with some definitive tutilage on my instructors part. Years later, I did the same in a B-1 bomber full motion sim. That also wasn’t pretty, but I didn’t ever exceed the limits of the aircraft and it’s flight envelope. So I believe I could fly an airliner if I had to, though I do have familiarity that is greater than most.
swannie 1
MuthBusters did this on an episode in a flight simulator (the real deal) and an actual ATC trainer guiding them down. I seem to recal that it did work for one of them ...
Could aircraft be set up so they could be flown as drones if no pilot is available?
I've actually been in the cockpit of a 747-400 during an, illegal at the time, hands-off landing in the 90's. Worked fine.
Everyone here seems to be talking about skills of flying / landing the plane. Whereas I doubt that with the current safety measures, it would be impossible for anyone in the cabin to actually get INTO the cockpit if all flight crew was taken out, since it's supposed to be terrorist proof and locked from the inside? So you just have to hope that the entered flight plan includes an automatic landing.
Tom Eckels 1
What are the chances a 737 with say 150 passengers has a person who has at least soloed in a small plane?
beilstwh 1
The airlines have a system called autoland that will land the plane under computer control. The downside is that the wind conditions must be very light for it to work correctly. If the plane is equipped with the equipment and it was programmed correctly it could land the plane under computer control
30west 1
Beilstwh, the maximun winds for using the autopilot for landing on the B757/B767 (from my compay's Flight Book limitations section) are: Headwind 25KTS; Crosswind 25 KTS and Tailwind 10 KTS. By no means "very light".

FYI, the other limitation on use of the A/P is that on takeoff the A/P may not be engaged below 500 feet AGL.
Very good question. Depends largely on who the non-pilot is, how the communication links are, and circumstances. I had a chance to spend about 2 hours in a 757 simulator from a friend at United. After having fun for about 20 mins, I asked the sim trainer to spend the rest of the time showing me how to fly in a crisis situation. My reason being, survival. I learned a bit about key instruments, key alarms, radio operations, and flight computer programming. I think is it not impossible to land. Very difficult, but not impossible. I am a physician, and have no doubt that if a pilot was to spend a few hours in an operating room, I could get them to close. Not pretty, not replacing a surgeon, but in survival mode could have a win.
For those knocking us Flight Simmers, perhaps no everyone is privy to the money required to get a PPL so simming is the best we can do. However that being said. I got to do the Delta Level D 737-200 Sim several times and with no actual flight training besides FSX I was able to start up from cold and dark, taxi, configure, fly, and land the aircraft well within survivable settings. I even managed a ILS approach with the ground only becoming visible at 100ft. All without using autopilot. I did crash few times when attempting out of ordinary maneuvers, and my first time flying a Level D down an ILS but learned rather quickly due ot my hours spent in FSX. I would also mention that training will prove its worth as I was told many single IRL pilots make many mistakes flying the multi-engine where as some of us simmers do not. Once again, don't knock or look down on simmers. I rather have a person with several hundred 737 sim hours than a single engine weekend warrior up in the front with a ppl. Can provide some YT links if any wish to see.
David Flores -1
Is there an iPhone app to land the plane?
Stefan Sobol 0
If the automation is working, the plane can land itself if the operator can be told how to set it up. A reasonably intelligent person should be able to do it.
Yep. If we had some ham, we could have ham and eggs. If we had some eggs.


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