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Can a non-pilot land a single-engine plane in an emergency? Not a big plane with hundreds of passengers and lots of computer stuff, I mean a little plane (light aircraft, propeller up front, just a few passengers).

I sometimes travel to remote areas that are only accessible by single-engine airplane (for photo-safaris and such). The planes are usually big enough for maybe 6 - 20 passengers, and rarely have a co-pilot.

On one trip a few years ago, the day after I arrived at camp, a couple arrived and told us their pilot had gotten sick mid-flight. Everything was fine, he just had a stomach bug and he recovered and landed safely and then flew back to town. But I've always wondered what would have happened if he had passed out or something.

Is it possible for a non-pilot to somehow manage to land the plane? Assuming the pilot passes out and someone jumps into the copilot seat quickly, and picks up a headset and starts frantically calling for help. Can someone on the ground coach them through a (probably crappy) landing?

For some background, most of the time I've been on these sorts of planes, they're landing on a dirt airstrip with a wind-sock and some safari guides who have chased away any animals that may have been on the airstrip. There's no refueling out there, so the planes must always have at least enough fuel for a round-trip, so theoretically you could turn around and do your crappy landing in town, which would be better equipped for emergencies.

Here are some pics I've taken over the years of the cockpits.. I can barely tell them apart lol. I've sat in the co-pilot seat a few times when seating was limited but I honestly never paid all that much attention to what switches were being flipped during takeoff and landing..

edit: Note that in my particular scenario, these flights are always during the day, so visibility should not be an issue.

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It all depends on the weather and the time of day or night.

Daytime VMC - that is, when you can see the terrain clearly?
Point the plane at some smooth terrain and slowly reduce power; bring it back up a bit if the plane starts sinking or the airspeed needle is about to exit the green area. This is oversimplified, but will usually get you down in one piece; most people get it their first time in a sim.

Nighttime VMC or over water? Call for help and look for lights.
The linked questions contain some instructions. Navigation help will be important.

IMC - that is, when you can't see anything outside?
Establish radio contact for some chance to be talked down to a landing, or pray to your deity. Instrument flight is challenging, non-intuitive, and responsible for a lot of accidents.

If this is a practical concern, some knowledge and practice can be very useful. Knowing your plane's approach and stall speeds and practicing a few glideslopes in X-plane can go a long way.

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  • $\begingroup$ Thanks @Therac, so to expand a bit - let's say I'm slowly reducing power (moving the throttle lever) and the plane is losing altitude. Ok great.. what do I do when the wheels touch down? Cut throttle entirely? Hit some sort of a button for brakes? Open the door and jump out, hoping I'm good at rolling? I forgot to mention that these flights are always during the day, they don't fly at night because the landing strips aren't lit up (among other reasons). I'll update the question with that info! $\endgroup$ Apr 16 at 20:36
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    $\begingroup$ @MikeWillis For practical use, of course get more information than that - read the plane's manual, ask the pilot, and practice in a simulator! But basically, you'd cut the throttle and push the pedals with your toes to brake. $\endgroup$
    – Therac
    Apr 16 at 20:52
  • $\begingroup$ "Instrument flight is challenging" – That's a bit of an understatement. I've heard stories of experienced VMC pilots who flew into IMC with an instructor for the first time, and it took all but thirty seconds for them to get turned upside down hurtling to the ground while swearing they were straight and level. $\endgroup$ Apr 18 at 12:35
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    $\begingroup$ TBH, I wouldn't be surprised if operating the radio was the hardest part. $\endgroup$ Apr 18 at 12:42
  • $\begingroup$ "the needle crawls to the edge of the green" What does this mean, especially for a non-pilot? $\endgroup$
    – FreeMan
    Apr 19 at 12:36
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Yes, non-pilots have successfully landed small aircraft many times. Unfortunately not every time. If you would like to be better prepared then the average passenger, get a copy of MS Flight simulator for under a $100 bucks and teach yourself to fly and land a small plane. It is not that difficult when everything is going well. It will also improve your enjoyment on such flights because you will know what the pilot is doing and why. If your pockets are a bit deeper, you can go and get a couple of introductory lessons. It really is great fun, and if the need ever arises, you would be a lot more confident having someone talk you down over the radio.

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Yes. Non pilots can and have land small aircrafts. Their was such an incident reported by CNN on May 11th, 2022 where a single-engine Cessna 208 was landed by the passengers after the pilot went incoherent mid-flight. Luckily, a off-duty air traffic controller and certified flight instructor was on the scene and able to instruct the pilot on how to land the plane.CNN news article here

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  • $\begingroup$ Coincidentally, it seems that the pictures in the question were also of a Cessna 208 Caravan. $\endgroup$
    – MaddyTEX
    Apr 19 at 13:48

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