First, to clarify, I'm not looking for nightmare stories here. I'm not curious about the fears of passengers but rather about what's actually noticeable for them. It's pretty clear that passengers not flying too often tend to be afraid during turbulence. But, I suppose, very few of them ever experienced a stall or similar.

Now, reading about crashes like the one of AF447 where a pilot only very late in the emergency situation re-enters the cockpit, I'm curious about why that is. I've never been on a plane during a stall, let alone an airliner. Don't passengers (and thus a pilot outside the cockpit) experience a stall as something very unusual, dramatic event? As another example, the crash of 4U9525 which was, as I understand it, a very "common descent": could a passenger even notice a difference between the upcoming crash and, say, an emergency landing at a close airport that the pilot just didn't have the time to explain beforehand?

Given "weird feelings" during flights, often related to turbulence which is not at all dangerous -- can a passenger "feel" the difference between those, a controlled flight into terrain, and an imminent crash?


I disagree with closing this questions as a duplicate of What things can a passenger look out for, to indicate an emergency?. I was not looking for how passengers could intercept with flight management. Let's make it more concrete with the AF447 example then:

According to Wikipedia, about half a minute after the problem of wrong speed indication occurred, the aircraft went into stall. Another three minutes later the now returned pilot realized the stall only after he was made aware of the PF pulling up the whole time. Given this example, does a stall with an A330 feel so much "normal" that even a highly experienced pilot couldn't "feel" the missing lift? Will the passengers have thought the flight was still normal at this point?

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    $\begingroup$ The issue with CFIT is that it is "controlled": eg, within normal operating limits. I expect the only clue would be a passenger looking out the window and realizing they are too low relative to the expected phase of flight (cruise). $\endgroup$
    – abelenky
    Commented May 21, 2015 at 21:06
  • $\begingroup$ I don't know if there's a good answer: you already mentioned how difficult it would be for passengers to tell the difference between something dangerous and something that's just unusual, and as this answer points out, most passengers don't know anyway. If something really 'dramatic' is happening like fire in the cabin or structural failure then of course people would know something is going wrong, but your question seems to be mainly about stalls or other loss of control incidents, where it may be unclear what's happening, even to the crew. $\endgroup$
    – Pondlife
    Commented May 21, 2015 at 21:33
  • $\begingroup$ There is an appreciable loss of lift (not stall) when the high lift system is retracted. Producing an effect similar to an stall but much lighter. $\endgroup$ Commented May 21, 2015 at 21:57
  • $\begingroup$ Can you explain more why you think this isn't a duplicate? If you want to focus on something like stalls, it would help to edit the question to make that more clear. $\endgroup$
    – fooot
    Commented May 22, 2015 at 14:39
  • $\begingroup$ I wasn't out for only stalls, that's why I didn't explicitly single them out. One problem is to know what kind of flight situations there are that could lead to imminent danger. I was hoping for an answer like "A stall feels like ... which is something all passengers would realize; a CFIT is never noticeable because ...; an airliner going into a dive ..." and so on. I could look for more examples, I guess. But maybe there aren't really that many. $\endgroup$
    – jhr
    Commented May 22, 2015 at 15:51

2 Answers 2


While it's certainly possible to come up with scenarios, either historical or suggested by imagination, where passengers would or could know that "something isn't right," the number of scenarios where "false positive" conclusions (taking as an emergency something that in fact, isn't) and "false negatives" (not knowing about something emergent actually going on) will probably be far greater.

All sorts of things can come up that will be fairly transparent to the passengers, until a pilot gets on the PA and announces that they'll be diverting to a more immediate landing: loss of a hydraulic system or navigation system, a medical emergency on board, some types of electrical malfunctions, etc etc.

On the other hand, many of the things that produce the most noticeable cues that "something isn't right" are simply turbulence... it doesn't feel right because it isn't particularly normal, but it's no emergency, just a rough ride. With a LOT of experience, one might be able to tell the difference between a jolt of turbulence (or wake turbulence) and, say, the momentary yaw associated with an engine shutdown, but who has "experience" riding through multiple engine shutdowns these days? It's too rare an event for many people to have been through more than zero, let alone two or three.

So, while some things are clearly not normal -- flames coming out of an engine, smoke in the cabin, fuel streaming out of a wing, etc, these sorts of things are really uncommon. I once asked our safety department what was the most common emergency that they saw in all the safety reporting, and the answers were #1 diverts of an ill passenger, and then #2 issues with flaps/slats not extending or retracting correctly (either actual issues, or false indications of trouble). And everything else was pretty far behind those two causes. So, if you weren't close by the medical event, your chances of knowing about it (besides the PA) are slight, and unless you really know what to look for, the chance of spotting an abnormal flap/slat configuration are pretty remote as well.

So I wouldn't assume that very many aircraft emergencies have symptoms that are immediately visible to the passengers. Some will, but many won't, and not everything that seems unusual is a sign of any looming problems.

  • $\begingroup$ Thank you for your answer! I understand many indicators of impending danger can not be seen without a very trained eye. But what about if the emergency is already about to be fatal (see my update on the question)? $\endgroup$
    – jhr
    Commented May 22, 2015 at 4:01
  • $\begingroup$ I suppose the follow-up question is more appropriate. "What are you going to do about it? $\endgroup$
    – Mike Brass
    Commented Dec 22, 2017 at 1:56

One of the survivors (a passenger) of Air Florida Flight 90 was a Private Pilot and

...Stiley, a pilot himself, said he realized that something was wrong as the plane headed down the runway. He said there was still snow and slush on the wings and he remembered wishing he could get off the plane.


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    $\begingroup$ On the other hand, the thousands of times someone thinks that and the plane isn't in trouble don't get reported on. $\endgroup$ Commented Sep 14, 2018 at 0:57

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