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Has a passenger ever landed a plane after the pilot was incapacitated?

Discussion in 'Off Topic [BG]' started by P. Aaron, Jan 29, 2013.

  1. P. Aaron

    P. Aaron Supporting Member

    Dear Cecil:

    I watched the film Turbulence the other day. In the movie, after a shootout on a flight transporting prisoners, a stewardess must outwit a serial killer and land the airplane herself. Has it ever happened that the pilots have been incapacitated and an airplane has been landed by a flight attendant or passenger?

    — Bjarne Martensson, Hamina, Finland

    Cecil replies:

    Well, having a little prior training seems to be extremely helpful, if not an actual prerequisite. But yes, it can be and has been done. Examples:

    In July 1985 a passenger who had flown a plane once but wasn’t certified was able to bring a Cessna safely to ground in Lansing, Michigan, after the pilot suffered a heart attack and died in midflight.
    In February 2002 a woman with just 48 hours of pilot training took the controls of a twin-engine Cessna over Cape Cod after the pilot became incoherent following an insulin reaction. Unable to reach anyone on the ground, she was able to safely crash-land the plane on the ground next to the runway, saving everyone aboard.

    In 2009 a Florida man with 130 hours of experience flying single-engine planes took the controls of a twin-engine turboprop after the pilot died early in the flight. The emergency stand-in, whose wife and daughters were also aboard, claimed later he'd had no idea how to operate the larger plane beyond working the radio, but he was successfully talked down to a safe landing.

    Last April, when her husband lost consciousness while flying a Cessna in Wisconsin, 80-year-old Helen Collins, who hadn't piloted a plane in decades, managed to contact air traffic controllers and, with coaching, crash-land the plane without major injury. (Her husband, however, didn’t survive his medical emergency.)

    OK, you say, but what about big commercial aircraft? More examples:

    In November 2008 the copilot of an Air Canada Boeing 767 suffered a mental breakdown and had to be forcibly removed from the cockpit, restrained, and sedated. No other pilots were aboard, so a flight attendant with flying experience took over the copilot’s chair for an emergency landing in Shannon, Ireland.

    In June 2010 a flight attendant with 300 hours of experience flying a Cessna sat in for an ill first officer on an American Airlines 767 landing in Chicago.

    This past November a Lufthansa Boeing 747 en route from New York to Frankfurt made an unscheduled landing at Dublin after the first officer suffered a severe migraine. News reports credited a heroic passenger with helping land the plane, in a sequence of events described in the Irish Independent’s coverage as a “miracle.” However, the helpful passenger happened to be an off-duty Boeing 767 pilot, which in my book takes the incident out of the miraculous realm.

    The common thread here is that the replacement pilots had some experience, and in the cases involving big commercial jets they weren’t solely (or even mainly) responsible for landing the plane. So the question remains whether an inexperienced passenger could be successfully talked down without a copilot on hand. Wussy answer: maybe.

    In a 2007 episode the MythBusters guys tested this possibility using a NASA simulator of a commercial airliner: in the first trial they received no help; in the second a licensed pilot gave them instructions over the radio. Left to figure it out themselves, both of the show’s hosts crashed, but with instructions each was able to land the plane without simulated fatalities.

    A considerable advantage when landing a commercial aircraft is that most big planes today have automatic landing capability, which relies on a combination of onboard electronics and signals from airport runway lights and transmitters. The system is meant to help pilots in cases of low visibility and can be used only under certain wind conditions. If those conditions prevail, the system is reasonably precise, with locational accuracy of two feet vertically and 13 feet laterally.

    The likelihood of failure during autolanding is advertised as one in 2 billion, but that’s basically what they said about the odds of the 2008 financial meltdown. In point of fact, a Turkish Airlines Boeing 737 crashed during a 2009 autolanding at Amsterdam’s Schiphol airport, killing nine and injuring 120, due to altimeter malfunction compounded by subsequent pilot error. But let’s not panic. Chances are that most large airplanes would be able to land themselves successfully with minimal input from passengers or the remaining crew, assuming the weather cooperated.

    General aviation airplanes typically aren’t equipped for autolanding, but no matter — crashes due to a conked-out pilot are rare. Reviewing U.S. records for 2010, my assistant Una found that of 472 total aviation accidents, only seven resulted from pilot incapacitation, and in only two of these was anyone else in the plane. In short, it’s highly unlikely you’re going to find yourself in this situation, and if it happens nonetheless, there’s a decent chance you’ll pull through.

  2. two fingers

    two fingers Opinionated blowhard. But not mad about it. Gold Supporting Member

    Feb 7, 2005
    Eastern NC USA
    Just googled it and got 11 million results (including some not mentioned there). I would say it's more common that even the article/email suggests.
  3. Passengers seated next to the airplane emergency exits are supposedly in charge of helping the rest of the passengers in the event of an emergency.
  4. I thought it was in assisting others to leave the plane, not pilot it.
  5. 254 stringer

    254 stringer

    Apr 15, 2010
    Waco Texas
    What about that 1980 flight where an ex war pilot landed a plane after the crew got food poisoning.
  6. I just wanted to let you know. We're all counting on you.

    Airplane! - This is one of my favorite movies. :)
  7. drummer5359

    drummer5359 Gold Supporting Member

    Jan 10, 2011
    Pittsburgh PA USA
    And quit calling me Shirley...
  8. Doctor: You'd better tell the Captain we've got to land as soon as we can. This woman has to be gotten to a hospital.

    Elaine Dickinson: A hospital? What is it?

    Doctor: It's a big building with patients, but that's not important right now.
  9. Drummer5359, do you like movies about gladiators?
  10. Indiana Mike

    Indiana Mike

    Nov 18, 2005
    Im sure some have landed them and even more have crashed them
  11. Airplane ftw!
  12. Roger, Roger.
  13. Looks like I picked the wrong week to stop sniffing glue!
  14. MonetBass

    MonetBass ♪ Just listen ♫ Supporting Member

    Sep 15, 2006
    Tulsa, OK
    Glad to see I'm not the only Straight Dope fan on here. I have Cecil Adams' first three Straight Dope books, and read the new questions on his site regularly. Good stuff!
  15. Doctor: Captain, how soon can you land?

    Captain Oveur: I can't tell.

    Doctor: You can tell me. I'm a doctor.

    Captain Oveur: No. I mean I'm just not sure.

    Doctor: Well, can't you take a guess?

    Captain Oveur: Well, not for another two hours.

    Doctor: You can't take a guess for another two hours?
  16. Stewie26

    Stewie26 Supporting Member

    I am a private pilot with over 1600 hours logged. In real life, not Hollywood, it would be very difficult for someone to land a plane if they have never had any pilot training. It would be like handing your bass guitar to someone with no musical experience and asking them to play a two bar signature bassline, like "Another One Bites The Dust" by Queen.. Oh yeah, they have to get the bassline right on their first try because there is no second chance. Landing an aircraft requires learned skills that takes many hours of training to develop the muscle memory on the aircraft controls. It also requires knowledge of proper final approach speeds, engine/thrust power settings, decent rates, and the ability to interpret all the information that your instruments are giving you to make last second adjustments and corrections required for a safe landing.

    Attached Files:

  17. peabody


    Oct 31, 2002
    La Crosse, WI
    I saw Laverne and Shirley do it once in one their episodes....
  18. MatticusMania

    MatticusMania LANA! HE REMEMBERS ME!

    Sep 10, 2008
    Pomona, SoCal
    I landed a plane once. In a lake. Of fire. And there were bears all around the outside. And they had lasers. And they were hungry. For fish. Fire fish.
  19. Roger Murdock: Flight 2-0-9'er, you are cleared for take-off.

    Captain Oveur: Roger!

    Roger Murdock: Huh?

    Tower voice: L.A. departure frequency, 123 point 9'er.

    Captain Oveur: Roger!

    Roger Murdock: Huh?

    Victor Basta: Request vector, over.

    Captain Oveur: What?

    Tower voice: Flight 2-0-9'er cleared for vector 324.

    Roger Murdock: We have clearance, Clarence.

    Captain Oveur: Roger, Roger. What's our vector, Victor?

    Tower voice: Tower's radio clearance, over!

    Captain Oveur: That's Clarence Oveur. Over.

    Tower voice: Over.

    Captain Oveur: Roger.

    Roger Murdock: Huh?

    Tower voice: Roger, over!

    Roger Murdock: What?

    Captain Oveur: Huh?

    Victor Basta: Who?
  20. Scott in Dallas

    Scott in Dallas Commercial User

    Aug 16, 2005
    Dallas, north Texas
    Builder and Owner: DJ Ash Guitars
    Modern commercial jets can land themselves. It's actually required for pilots to do it every x number of landing cycles. If you fly fairly often, chances are you were on a flight that did it and didn't even know.

    It's an entirely different kind of flying.