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Home > Emergencies > Could an ordinary passenger safely land a commercial jet plane?
Could an ordinary passenger safely land a commercial jet plane?
Flying - Emergencies
Sunday, 28 October 2012 03:47

Passenger Lands Plane, Pilot Dies

Hi Captain Lim,

I'm wondering what is the chances of a passenger safely landing a jet if both pilots became incapacitated?

If we take a Boeing 777 flying from London to Mexico City, currently at 38,000 feet off the west coast of Ireland and suddenly both pilots become incapacitated. It's a pretty bleak scenario but obviously some brave passenger would volunteer to at least have a go at flying the aircraft instead of praying that it magically lands itself.

Assuming that this passenger has absolutely no flying experience (but has a basic idea of the function of a throttle/flaps etc.) and has managed to make contact with an instructor on the ground, could you outline what you think might happen next?

Thanks as always!


Hi Kilian,

I have answered this question in the Travel 3Sixty magazine under the title Tom, Dick or Harry – please read here.

However, my friend, Dr JB Lim who read the article wrote to me and tells me what he, being a non-pilot and a brave passenger, would do below:-

“Well, if I absolutely knows nothing about flying and was caught in such an emergency situation where both pilots became unconscious, I would instantly use my trained clinical skills, knowledge and training in emergency medicine to attempt to revive at least one of the pilots on board. That would be my first instinctive duty.

I would see whatever emergency medical facilities are available on board I could use to try to resuscitate the unconscious pilots. This would be my first professional duty in a medical emergency, and not try to fly the plane myself. That would be disastrous.

Should I failed to revive the pilots, the next thing I could do is to summon the so many cabin crew on board and ask them if they have any idea on how to handle the plane. At least they would know far better than me having seen a cockpit and all those instruments insides, besides flying all over the world as their jobs. They would have at least some idea about the plane.

If they are just a stupid as me, they next thing I would do is ask them where the radio is for me to communicate with the control tower, and how to use the radio, the frequency, which knob to turn, and how to use the radio?

Once I get hold of the radio, I would slowly, calmly and without panic speak to the control tower to tell them our predicament. I would ask them whether I could use the auto-pilot and how to use it to land the plane safely without me meddling with all those knobs, joystick, switches and controls.

If autopilot is not possible, or not available, the next thing I would do is to ask for clear instructions about the controls at the cockpit, listen to them slowly, and without panic follow their instructions slowly and carefully, repeating to them what I have just done.

I will try to read the instruments on altitude, remaining fuel, air pressure, direction of the plane (flight path), air speed, angle of descend, and whether or not I could see the runway. If I could land the plane, I need to know how to brake it, and how to apply the reverse trusts of the engines to reduce the speed and stop it on landing.

In the event should I managed to approach the nearest suitable airport, I would still not be foolhardy to try to land the plane straight away, since landing can be extremely stressful and difficult. I would still ask the control tower on how to circle and circle the airport first to dump (use up) the remaining fuel so as to lighten the aircraft in its final moments before the landing approach.

Circling the airport is also to buy myself time so that I can get the instructions repeated to me again and again, step-by-step, to make it absolutely sure I understand very, very clearly what I need to do before making the final approach on the runway. I shall then silently pray and keep my fingers crossed.

While circling the plane, I would rehearse the instructions with the control tower repeatedly to make sure I thoroughly understand what is required of me before I attempt to slowly lower the plane and speed.

Finally, from a safe distance with the minimal tilt to the runway during landing, lest the nose or the tail hit the runway, I shall attempt the final target on the runway. I need to be very, very calm during this final procedure in exactly the same way expected of me when dealing with a medical emergency. That would be the best I could do.

This approach applies for pilots, passenger, or any Good Samaritan anywhere when they attempt to apply first aid to stabilize a patient in a medical emergency before the arrival of an ambulance. This is good principle of practice, and it applies both ways - in emergency landing, and in emergency medicine and rescue work.

All these data I shall report to the control tower, and ask for the next, step-by-step instructions. I will keep my fingers crossed, and if all goes well, we will all be safe. That I shall try to attempt without a private flying license, or play computer games on flying.

If I failed, hopefully we will all see each other again in the next world.

But my first duty is try to save the life of the pilot.”

Dr Lim Ju Boo

PS. To check for any latest updates or postings, you can follow my new Twitter at @CaptKHLim

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All this assumes that you can get into the cockpit
Ever since the tragic events of 9/11, most commercial airlines operate all flights with the door to the cockpit locked from the inside as an anti-terrorist measure. Should both pilots become completely incapacitated, it would become impossible to enter the cockpit, so even if there was another qualified airline pilot on board there would be nothing that he/she could do to assist
Quinapalus , 03 Feb, 2013

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