20
$\begingroup$

As per subject has anyone flown an airliner (737, A319 etc etc or bigger) solo? (meaning only 1 pilot alone with no passengers?) Tried to google search but did not find any reference. Question applies to any of modern airliners era with and without flight engineer.

$\endgroup$
  • $\begingroup$ You can try, but perhaps with expect questionable results if untrained and understaffed ;) $\endgroup$ – Thunderstrike Jun 14 '15 at 17:26
  • $\begingroup$ @MikeFoxtrot - To be fair, there is some indication that the pilot in that instance was coerced and perhaps was struggling against his captor at various stages. It might explain the outcome... $\endgroup$ – Jay Carr Jun 14 '15 at 19:43
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ For a trained pilot, in most aircraft, it would be as easy as it would be illegal. Other than a nosewheel steering wheel or tiller, it is uncommon to have any vital control that can't be accessed from both seats. Not to say the solo pilot wouldn't be busy at times & wouldn't have his hands full if something failed, but as a matter of just getting from "A to B" it's not just possible to do solo, in many airplanes it would be pretty easy. Just thoroughly illegal, and accepting a lot of added risk if anything unusual happened. $\endgroup$ – Ralph J Jun 14 '15 at 20:09
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ @RalphJ Which is good, because pilots can get incapacitated, and so (in emergencies) a pilot may have to land the plane solo. $\endgroup$ – cpast Jun 14 '15 at 21:04
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ It doesn't really meet your criteria, but I can't help but think of long oceanic legs in 747 freighters at night that the other pilot and the flight engineer were soundly asleep in their seats, and I was the only conscious person on the aircraft for an hour or more, often more. Some f.e.s would even leave their seat in favor of one of the first class seats still remaining on the upper deck or an installed bunk. $\endgroup$ – Terry Aug 15 '18 at 21:20
20
$\begingroup$

In normal operations there are regulations against this sort of thing (as Dave has said). But there have been a few emergencies where the First Office or the Captain have become incapacitated (due to medical emergencies), and the remaining pilot has declined to ask if there is another pilot on board to help fly the plane.

Here is an example from 2011 of a Ryanair flight having this occur**, I have heard of others but can't find references. So, admittedly, that may be the only actual occurrence.

So, to finally answer your questions: Very rarely, in an emergency situation, there can be a single pilot on a commercial airliner. Granted, there were passengers on board, so I'm not sure it fits your narrow definition of "solo", but it's about as close as it's going to get.


For completeness (though I don't think it counts), there have been a few instances of a single pilot stealing a commercial jetliner.

For example this 727. There were actually two people involved, one was a mechanic, the other had a private pilots license (hence the pilot was "soloing"). The aircraft has not been seen since...so it's assumed it ended badly, and, for the record, it's also assumed the pilot was coerced (if indeed he was even flying the plane).

There are a couple more incidents, namely this Antonov-26, which was stolen by a mechanic, circled for an hour, then crashed. And also this ATR-42-320, which was actually stolen by a Captain form Air Botswana. He circled the airport for a couple of hours demanding to speak to everyone from his girlfriend, to his boss to the President of Botswana. They were actually arranging to have him speak with the president when he crashed his plane into two other Air Botswana ATR-42-320s that were parked on the ground. He was the only one killed.

Again, though, I'm not sure if these fit the criteria you are looking for. But in that last one, at very least, he was the only person on board the aircraft, it was a commercial aircraft and he was in fact a Captain.

But to say all this an irregularity would be an extreme understatement...


** For clarification: The reason I state this is the only example I could find is because it's the only one where I could find a report where it was specifically stated the remaining pilot had no help. To quote from the report:

Once the initial Cabin Crew assistance was complete, the Captain indicated that he did not need assistance in operating the aircraft, although this was suggested in the operator’s procedures for pilot incapacitation. The First Officer took no further part in the operation of the aircraft. No inquiries as to the possible presence on board the aircraft of either medically trained personnel or qualified pilots were made.

All other examples I saw either specifically stated that a new co-pilot was found, or they skipped that detail entirely.

All of that being said, I somehow doubt this is the only case, it's just the only one I could explicitly verify.

$\endgroup$
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ These are accidents. They are technically valid even though to be honest I wanted to know if there were any purposely done flights but that were not with a bad "target" or intent such as the ones you described. (maybe NASA or other sort of tests) in any case very good answer. $\endgroup$ – Fabrizio Mazzoni Jun 14 '15 at 19:37
  • $\begingroup$ @FabrizioMazzoni - I recognize this, and I noted it in the answer, but I figured that it would help to answer the title question, just incase someone stumbles in here wondering about any sort of commercial plane being flown solo for any reason. $\endgroup$ – Jay Carr Jun 14 '15 at 19:38
  • $\begingroup$ Absolutely agree with you. That's why I even up voted the answer! $\endgroup$ – Fabrizio Mazzoni Jun 14 '15 at 19:43
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ @FabrizioMazzoni Oh, thanks! Always happy to be of some sort of tangential use ;) (it's what I'm good for.) $\endgroup$ – Jay Carr Jun 14 '15 at 19:44
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ This article lists several events in which a flight crew member was incapacitated. Surprisingly, in all but one of them, there was another pilot on board (granted, this was often a reserve pilot for the same airline, or, in cases of long-haul flights, a reserve pilot.) In two of the cases, the person who ended up helping out was a flight attendant who also had a pilot certificate. The case listed here where 1 pilot continued by himself was a 2010 Qatar Airways flight from Manila to Doha in an A330. $\endgroup$ – reirab Jun 14 '15 at 21:16
10
$\begingroup$

One more example of a single pilot for at least part of the flight: Discovery Channel did a special that involved actually crashing a jetliner. I do not recall the crew configuration at takeoff but I do recall that the bailout was handled in two stages, the pilot only going once everyone else was away. The plane was being flown by remote control once he abandoned the controls.

This did not happen in the USA, as others have said it would be illegal. Mexico allowed it with restrictions, though.

$\endgroup$
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ "as others have said it would be illegal" -- and I should think the US would take an even dimmer view of 0 pilots than they would of 1. $\endgroup$ – Steve Jessop Jun 15 '15 at 12:24
  • $\begingroup$ @SteveJessop The US routinely permits zero pilots--unmanned rocket launches. That being said, I do not think the safety arrangements they had were adequate. Since he only bailed once the plane was already aimed for impact I don't think the risk was high but I think it should have had a flight termination system and a lot more range on the control radio. $\endgroup$ – Loren Pechtel Jun 16 '15 at 0:11
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ This was shown in the UK on Channel 4 and more details can be found here: channel4.com/programmes/the-plane-crash $\endgroup$ – Matthew Steeples Oct 3 '15 at 14:48
  • $\begingroup$ As it was a test flight it would be legal with the right waivers and classifications. $\endgroup$ – jwenting Aug 16 '18 at 4:48
  • $\begingroup$ OMG that documentary was terrible $\endgroup$ – rupps Sep 16 '18 at 23:03
7
$\begingroup$

Airplanes are certified to be operated with a particular amount of crew. From a regulation standpoint there are jets certified for single pilot operations but they tend to be on the smaller size (Citation Mustang comes to mind). That being said I cant say that these planes have never been flown in a single pilot situation.

This EU EASA document states that the minimum crew for a 737 is two

  1. Minimum Flight Crew: Two (2): Pilot and Co-pilot, for all types of flight

The US type cert for the 737 says

Minimum Crew for All Flights: 2 (Pilot and Copilot)

which applies to all the following 737 models

DATA PERTINENT TO MODELS 737 Original Series -100, -200, -200C and 737 Classic Series -300, -400, -500:

So you could not do it in any kind of regular situation. It is possible that some of the planes were test flown with only a single pilot but I dont know for sure.

$\endgroup$
  • $\begingroup$ what about airshows? $\endgroup$ – anshabhi Jun 14 '15 at 17:23
  • 5
    $\begingroup$ @anshabhi at airshows you want maximum safety, so a full crew and maybe even an extra pilot as a backup. $\endgroup$ – jwenting Jun 14 '15 at 18:04
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ This is not an answer. The question is whether it has been done, not whether it was legal (assuming it has been done). $\endgroup$ – Ross Millikan Jun 15 '15 at 3:50
  • $\begingroup$ In the US part 25 aircraft (anything heavier than 12,500 lbs that isn't filed as a commuter-type) are assumed to be certified for dual-pilot operations. I'm not sure if the FAA has ever made exceptions to this rule. This would be the superficial reason why only smaller aircraft like GA aircraft are single-pilot certified. $\endgroup$ – Cody P Aug 25 '16 at 14:31
2
$\begingroup$

There has been a televised test crash of a Boeing 727 that took place in Mexico.

The airplane took off from General Rodolfo Sánchez Taboada International Airport in Mexicali, with the flight crew and a small group of passengers, as well as a number of crash dummies, and with a chase plane following close behind. As the flight progressed towards the Sonoran Desert of Baja California in Mexico, its occupants parachuted to safety. Slocum was the last one to leave the jet, four minutes before impact. Shanle then flew the jetliner by remote control, from the chase plane.

This started out fully manned, but ended with the pilot being the last to leave the craft, after handing control over to a remote operator in the chase plane.


There was a precursor to this flight: a crash of a Boeing 720 (courtesy of Peter Kampf from the comments), conducted by NASA in 1984.

However, this likely does not fall into the criteria of your question, since the documentation seems to indicate that the entire flight was remote controlled. Or at the very least does not explicitly state solo piloting.

$\endgroup$
  • $\begingroup$ Yes I do remember that one. Brilliant documentary. $\endgroup$ – Fabrizio Mazzoni Jun 15 '15 at 15:08
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ You might want to add the original crash test done by NASA in 1987 with a Boeing 720.. $\endgroup$ – Peter Kämpf Jun 15 '15 at 20:57
  • $\begingroup$ @PeterKämpf Done. However it may not be relevant to the question, since it seems to indicate that it was remotely piloted from the start. $\endgroup$ – Obsidian Phoenix Jun 15 '15 at 21:04
  • $\begingroup$ Oh - I didn't know that. Then your 727 crash is really more relevant. $\endgroup$ – Peter Kämpf Jun 16 '15 at 10:00
  • $\begingroup$ This procedure has been used as far back as WW2, when the USAAF and RAF tested it as a means to turn obsolete bombers into flying bombs. They'd take off with a minimal crew, the crew would bail out over friendly territory, and from then on the aircraft would be steered onto its target by radio control from another aircraft. I guess they didn't trust the radio controls they had to handle takeoff :) $\endgroup$ – jwenting Aug 16 '18 at 4:50
1
$\begingroup$

In summer 2018, 29-year-old Richard Russell, an airline ground agent, stole a Q400 twin-engine turboprop (which at least USA Today calls an "airliner"), flew it solo, and pulled off some impressive maneuvers before crashing the plane, in an apparent suicide.

$\endgroup$
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Why wouldn't a Horizon Air Q400 be considered an airliner? $\endgroup$ – rclocher3 Aug 15 '18 at 23:20
  • $\begingroup$ @rclocher3 the original question mentioned "737 or larger" $\endgroup$ – jwenting Aug 16 '18 at 4:51

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.