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The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Think you can land a plane in an emergency? Pilots explain why you can’t.

Aviation experts say it’s only happening in your Hollywood dreams

(Washington Post illustration; iStock)

Picture this: You are on a flight when you learn that the pilots have fallen ill and can no longer fly the plane. A voice comes over the public address system, asking for a volunteer to help land the aircraft. You have no experience, but you have seen “Airplane!” and “Snakes on a Plane.” Maybe you’ve frittered away hours on Microsoft Flight Simulator. You throw off your seat belt and march toward the cockpit, your cape rustling behind you.

Hold on, hero. You might want to return to your seat for this reality check.

“There is a zero percent chance of someone pulling that off,” said Patrick Smith, a commercial air pilot and founder of the Ask the Pilot blog. “Do people think they can perform transplant surgery? No. Then why do they think they can land a plane?”

The clinical name for this type of baseless bravado is the Dunning-Kruger effect. It could be used to explain the results of a YouGov poll conducted in January. Out of 20,063 adults surveyed in the United States, nearly a third said they were “somewhat confident” or “very confident” that they could safely land a passenger airplane in an emergency, relying only on the assistance of air traffic control.

Almost half of the men who responded were confident they could do it, compared with 20 percent of the women.

Last year, a study from the University of Waikato in New Zealand used a similar scenario to examine overconfidence.

The researchers asked 780 subjects whether they could land a small commuter plane “without dying” or “as well as a pilot could” if the crew member became incapacitated and they were the only other person onboard. Participants with a valid pilot’s license or who had previously flown or landed a plane were excluded from the study.

Researchers showed some volunteers a nearly four-minute video of pilots landing a plane. The view from behind the flight deck obscured their hands. A veteran Air New Zealand pilot dismissed the video as “100 percent useless” as an instructional tool — which was the point. Other participants did not watch the quasi-tutorial.

A Southwest pilot ‘fainted.’ Then an off-duty pilot stepped in to help.

Members of both groups claimed they could safely land the plane, but the people who watched the video were more confident in both categories than the people who did not see it. Men were also more self-assured than women “in every condition.”

“Although our video was not intended to be instructional in any way, the fact that we chose a highly specialized task with which people had no prior learning makes it reasonable to speculate that people might have developed incomplete or insufficient ideas about how to land a plane,” the researchers concluded.

Alas, ego is not a license to fly.

“I think they would have a very difficult time,” said Brett D. Venhuizen, chair of the aviation department at the John D. Odegard School of Aerospace Sciences at the University of North Dakota. “There are a lot of challenges for somebody who has no flight experience, ranging from entering the flight deck to figuring out how to talk to air traffic control, maneuver the airplane and navigate to the airport they plan to land at.”

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John J. Nance, a veteran airline captain and TV network aviation analyst, said the likelihood of a neophyte successfully helming a plane is “possible, but not probable. A lot of things have to fall into place.”

For starters, the passenger must gain entry to the cockpit, which, since the 9/11 terrorist attacks, has become a fortress against intruders. Once inside, you will have to adjust the seat so that you can reach the rudder pedals. If you accidentally switch off the autopilot, “then you’re really in trouble,” he said.

The next challenge is locating the headset, if it’s not cradling the downed pilot’s head. Once it’s found, you will have to contact air traffic control for help. Nance said one of the biggest rookie mistakes is not releasing the button after speaking.

“I can’t talk to you if you’re holding the button,” he said.

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Locating the correct radio frequency can be difficult. Your prospects will brighten if you remember the emergency frequency: 121.5. Assuming you can figure out the radio dial, of course, and the microphone is set to transmit on the correct one. Smith said the primary role of air traffic controllers is to guide pilots toward airports; they are typically not qualified to marshal a step-by-step descent. However, they may be able to track down someone who can, as was the case in 2009.

That year, a pilot died on a King Air flight from Florida to Mississippi. Passenger Doug White had a private pilot certificate and hours of flight time in a single-engine Cessna. Unfortunately, he was not familiar with the two-engine turboprop carrying his family of four. Air traffic controllers located a flight instructor and pilot with King Air experience, who guided White from 11,000 feet to wheels down at Fort Myers Airport in Florida.

“You may not have a controller who has knowledge about your aircraft,” Nance said. “There’s a lot of risk to finding the right person.”

Once the plane is stabilized, the challenges will only multiply. You can’t stay airborne forever, especially as the fuel supply starts to dwindle. Earth is calling. To land, you will need to configure the aircraft for touching down, adjust the altitude and power settings, and deploy the flaps, slats and landing gear — all without crumbling like a Biscoff cookie.

“Even if you did everything perfectly, you’re approaching the runway at speeds in excess of 160 miles per hour and you’re dropping down at over 1,000 feet per minute,” said Michael McCormick, an assistant professor of air traffic management at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Florida. “You would have to have nerves of steel in order to be able to continue on an approach like that. The ground comes up very quickly. The runway comes up very quickly.”

In recent history, no jetliner has simultaneously lost the capabilities of both pilots. “Two crew members incapacitated? I’ve never heard of that happening,” Venhuizen said. Equally encouraging: Pilots are often in the cabin for personal or professional reasons.

“The reality is so many pilots deadhead on flights,” Nance said.

Becoming an airline pilot requires years of training (upward of five) and hundreds of hours of flying (at least 1,500). Students must acquire a private pilot certificate, an instrument flight rating, a commercial pilot certificate, a multi-engine rating and a flight instructor certificate. The final step is the type rating, which a pilot earns for a specific aircraft model. Unlike with rental cars, pilots can’t slip behind any yoke and fly off.

“There is no easy shortcut path through that process,” McCormick said.

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The idea of an unqualified passenger landing a plane is not a complete figment of Hollywood action-adventure-reptilian fiction. In May, a Florida man was returning home from a fishing trip in the Bahamas when the pilot of a single-engine Cessna 208 fell ill. With the guidance of an air traffic controller and flight instructor, Darren Harrison safely touched down at Palm Beach International Airport.

McCormick said the chances of landing a smaller aircraft are much higher than a large jetliner, which flies twice as fast. “The larger the aircraft and the faster the aircraft, the less probable it becomes,” he said.

To anyone who claims they can land a plane without experience, in an imaginary or real scenario, Venhuizen issued this challenge: “They should go give it a shot some time in a simulator.”