Some people are born great, and others have greatness thrust upon them. And there are few thrustings-upon more dramatic than the disaster-movie scenario of an airliner’s flight crew being stricken and a non-pilot having to take the wheel and land the plane. It's typically depicted as being as simple as getting some instructions from the tower and setting the plane down on the runway—but is that how it would really go down?
How Airlines Prepare for a Pilot Emergency
Fortunately, it’s never happened in real life, thanks to built-in redundancy: Commercial planes have a pilot and co-pilot and, on long-haul flights, sometimes a relief crew in part to ensure there will always be more capable pilots than necessary. (Co-pilot is an occasionally misunderstood term—a co-pilot, also known as a first officer, is a fully trained pilot entirely capable of performing all the duties of a captain.) For instance, in 2009, when the pilot of a 777 died midflight over the Atlantic, the safe landing of the flight was never in question due to the presence of an extremely experienced first officer and international relief officer.
Beyond making sure that there's more than one pilot on board, according to Dan Binstead, flight instructor for FTA Global, a pilot's health is rigorously checked by different agencies around the world (the FAA oversees medical certificates in the U.S., for example). There are even protocols in place at certain airlines that prevent the pilot and co-pilot from eating the same dinner in case of contamination.
A Non-Pilot's Chances
Thanks to the redundancy and rules in place, a pilotless cockpit is “extremely unlikely to ever happen,” Binstead tells Mental Floss. “But in the unlikely event it did, you’d want someone with flying experience if possible, even in small planes.”
There have been a few notable events in which a passenger with flight experience has been called on to help. In 2014, the pilot of a United Airlines flight suffered a heart attack, and the co-pilot landed the plane with help from a passenger who, as luck would have it, was an off-duty USAF pilot.
But not all planes are lucky enough to have a passenger who just so happens to be a pilot sitting in business class. And if that's the case—which, again, would likely never happen—then you might have something to worry about.
“A non-pilot wouldn’t have the slightest idea even how to work the communications radios, let alone fly and land the jet,” Patrick Smith, an airline pilot and author, tells Mental Floss via email. “There is a zero-percent chance of a successful outcome in this scenario.”
Planes Really Can't Fly Themselves
Yes, there is an autopilot function on planes that could take some of the work out of the petrified passenger's hands, but what about an autoland function? The tech company Garmin recently developed autoland technology for smaller planes—generally owner-flown—that is supposed to take complete control of the plane if they detect the pilot is unable to fly. In that scenario, the system will choose the best airport and runway to land at based on its current location, fuel state, weather, and so on, then navigate a route to that runway and land on it while avoiding terrain and obstacles and communicating with other pilots and air traffic control.
That’s all pretty incredible, but it's only suitable for certain plane models and comes with its own set of limitations. Plus, there’s a world of difference between a small owner-flown plane and an enormous commercial airliner.
“People’s presumptions about how modern planes are flown, and what airline pilots actually do, has long frustrated me,” Smith says. “People have a vastly—vastly!—exaggerated idea of what cockpit automation actually does, and how pilots interact with that automation, and assume this would be a lot easier than it actually would be.”
Smith expanded on this subject in 2019 for an article on The Points Guy, writing, “This person would have to be talked from 35,000 feet all the way to the point where an automatic approach could commence, complete with any number of turns, descents, decelerations, and configuration changes (appropriately setting the flaps, slats, and landing gear) ... I reckon it would be about as easy as dictating brain surgery over the telephone to somebody who has never held a scalpel.”
If there’s one takeaway from this piece, it should be that nobody has ever reluctantly had to land a plane they were meant to be a passenger on, and there are sensible, effective systems in place to ensure that will continue to be the case. And it’s just as well, because a pilotless flight in the real world probably wouldn't have a Hollywood ending.