There is another question about airliners and if someone not qualified could land them. My question is about the steps I should take to stay alive in a small GA plane.

Let say a friend of mine invites me aboard a small aircraft (like Cessna 172 or equivalent).
At some point my pilot friend passes out for some reason. What should I do considering the following:

  • I'm not a pilot.
  • I'm seated in the co-pilot seat.
  • I spent hundreds of hours on Flight Simulator (a few years ago).
  • I've been initiated to fly a small aircraft (1 session covering the very basics), but no take-off/landing exercises.
  • The weather is good.
  • Aircraft is in good condition.
  • The tank is full.
  • Area has ATC and I know how to operate the radio.

This is my guess:

  1. Hold the plane's level and heading
  2. Slap my friend to try to wake him up
  3. Send "Mayday" asking for assistance and technical guidance
  4. Try to follow ATC instructions as well as I can

Does this look good? What should be done differently?

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    $\begingroup$ possible duplicate of Can a passenger realistically replace suddenly incapacitated pilots? $\endgroup$
    – Simon
    Commented Sep 3, 2015 at 9:52
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    $\begingroup$ Very true, and on reflection and your edit, I've retracted my VTC. $\endgroup$
    – Simon
    Commented Sep 3, 2015 at 10:38
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    $\begingroup$ By the title of the question, I was going to say "First: Get out of stack exchange!" $\endgroup$
    – Malavos
    Commented Sep 3, 2015 at 12:31
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    $\begingroup$ @Malavos On my checklist it was: 1. Take a selfie 2.Post it on Facebook 3.Go to SE 4.Aviate :') $\endgroup$
    – Quentin H
    Commented Sep 3, 2015 at 12:36
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    $\begingroup$ First, check that you yourself are OK, and not experiencing symptoms of hypoxia due to altitude or an exhaust leak. That's a whole different kind of emergency. $\endgroup$ Commented Sep 3, 2015 at 17:35

9 Answers 9


Best case scenario: You're straight and level, on frequency with some form of human being, there's no immediate danger and you have the know-how to transmit. In that case, that human will provide you with everything they possibly can to help you. Most important thing for you to do is keep the aircraft away from clouds, away from terrain and not panic. You'll probably be in an aircraft that is more-or-less easy to fly in this situation. Most GA aircraft are quite stable and will not be a beast to control.

Once talking to ATC they will tell you to set your transponder to a number. You should find somewhere a 4-digit readout with a knob below/above each digit. Set the number indicated to help ATC identify you easily.

Otherwise, look around you for big landmarks (Mountains, Lakes, even a large Church/Cathedral) as one of the first things ATC will want to do is work out where you are.

That's best case; let's look at some alternatives.

You're out of range of the tuned frequency on the radio, or there is no response:

Tune 121.5MHz, this is the emergency frequency. Someone will be monitoring this channel and be able to give you further advice - if nothing else a local ATC channel to tune. Failing this see if your pilot has a chart handy, he may have drawn his intended route on it - look along that route for anything that looks like a frequency to tune into the radio.

Aircraft is climbing, or descending:

Get the aircraft into safe, level flight. Remember controls work in the opposite sense to what you might expect (probably not if you've ever played any flight simulator). If the engine is roaring reduce power slightly. If you appear to be losing altitude with the nose on the horizon increase power slightly. Do everything with tiny incremental changes. Try not to fiddle too much with controls, only what is necessary.

Aircraft is heading directly for a cloud/out to the sea/towards a heavily built up area/a big airport:

Turn 180 degrees - don't try to turn too quickly, it should take roughly 30 seconds to 1 minute to complete this turn.

There are courses which are aimed at non-pilots who regularly fly in the right hand seat. Here's some interesting reading:


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    $\begingroup$ All answers were very good. I accept this one since it's the closest to what the question was about: what should I do. Thank you all guys! And wow 4000 views in less than 24 hours ! $\endgroup$
    – Quentin H
    Commented Sep 4, 2015 at 10:38
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    $\begingroup$ controls work in the opposite sense. What do you mean by this? $\endgroup$
    – Simon
    Commented Sep 5, 2015 at 7:52
  • $\begingroup$ @Simon pushing forward makes the aircraft go down, pulling back makes it go up. Unless you're flying upside down ;) $\endgroup$ Commented Sep 6, 2015 at 12:56
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    $\begingroup$ @WayneWerner But that's the "normal sense". I still don't get the point about opposite sense. $\endgroup$
    – Simon
    Commented Sep 6, 2015 at 14:00
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    $\begingroup$ @Simon - to anyone who has ever flown a flight sim (or even a space game!) it's normal sense. But for people who have never experienced either, pushing forwards [on a joystick/yoke] is akin to "up" and pulling towards is "down". It's perhaps a bit of a moot point, I think most people would work it out pretty darn quickly. $\endgroup$
    – Jamiec
    Commented Sep 7, 2015 at 9:00

This has happened before and it usually ends ok, the most important thing is to keep calm. One suggestion I would have is instead of flying straight and level I would fly a box over the current location while you speak to ATC. This will keep you in range of the ATC station you are talking to and keep you out of trouble. If you fly straight and level the terrain may come up to meet you, you could fly out to sea, or you could blunder into O'Hare's airspace with all the fun that would ensue. Try to maintain the same altitude as if you are at cruise the mixture should be set for that altitude.

A few things to add to your list:

  • You need to apply carburetor heat about every 15 minutes unless the aircraft is fuel injected. If you don't do this your carb could ice up and you could lose power. This is done by pulling the carb heat knob (or lever, depending on the AC) for 20 seconds or so and then pushing it back in
  • Fuel management: depending on the aircraft you may need to switch tanks. A C172 (and most high-wing airplanes) is generally set to both tanks in which case it's not an issue but in low-wing airplanes you will need to regularly switch tanks (say every half an hour) to keep the fuel balanced, otherwise you could run out of fuel in a tank and down you go with a full tank in the other wing. On a PA-28 the fuel selector is by the pilot's left knee which would make things interesting. Make sure you don't accidentally switch the fuel off!
  • Slapping someone isn't the best way to wake them up, pinch their earlobe as hard as you can with as much fingernail as possible, or push a pen into it. It's very painful, if anything will wake him/her that's it
  • 14
    $\begingroup$ Yes you should definitely declare an emergency. You are in trouble and need immediate assistance. $\endgroup$
    – kevin
    Commented Sep 3, 2015 at 10:34
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    $\begingroup$ And there is a medical emergency with one of the occupants of the plane. Suddenly passing out can mean a heart attack. $\endgroup$ Commented Sep 3, 2015 at 10:51
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    $\begingroup$ On the mayday point, Im struggling to think of a more emergency situation than "Aircraft has no lucid qualified pilot at the controls" $\endgroup$
    – Jamiec
    Commented Sep 3, 2015 at 13:11
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    $\begingroup$ 'Carb heat' as the first point? Makes no sense if there is no engine trouble. And every 15 minutes? That's not in any POH of any plane I've ever flown. $\endgroup$
    – rbp
    Commented Sep 3, 2015 at 14:08
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    $\begingroup$ I also think asking a non-pilot to fly a box (or even a circle) is pushing it. Too much to concentrate on, just keeping level in a simple turn is hard enough. Get it wrong (apply too much up elevator) and you'll stall - good luck knowing what to do then without training. $\endgroup$
    – Jamiec
    Commented Sep 3, 2015 at 14:52

Just thought I'd add an answer about "aviate", "navigate", "communicate" which is discussed somewhat in the comments and is a big part of what you should do.

It's simply a matter of dealing with the most important things in order.

Aviate - fly the aircraft (keep it flying) - if you fail to do this, it will almost certainly kill you.

Navigate - fly where you want to go. In this case, do as little as you have to to avoid obstacles, terrain and clouds. Don't worry about bimbling into controlled airspace - someone else will take care of it. Don't try to be clever and fly circuits or boxes or whatever. Without at least a few hours proper training, trying to navigate could well lead to you forgetting or failing to aviate. Not navigating away from clouds, obstacles etc is the second most likely thing to kill you.

Communicate - tell someone about it. Not doing this won't kill you but could stop you getting help with one and two not killing you.

Mayday on the frequency already tuned. Use the mnemonic "Rest In Peace Louis Hoy" if you can remember it. R for reason, I for intent. P for position, L for level (altitude), H for heading. If you can't handle it, a simple "mayday" will start the ball rolling. If all you say is the word "mayday" or "emergency", if anyone hears you, they will reply "station calling, say again" or "station calling, pass your message" or similar. This just means they got it, but don't know who you are. The conversation has started, let the person you're talking to do the work and ask questions as needed.

If no-one replies, and you can remember the frequency, tune 121.5 - the international distress frequency for VHF. Someone will hear that and quite likely be able to triangulate your position. Tuning the transponder to 7700 will also get a lot of attention.

Do not communicate, even if someone is calling you, if it takes your attention away from aviating and navigating. If you can, a simple "standby" in response will tell the caller all they need to know.

Sadly far too many people have died because they failed to follow this simple advice which has been proven over many, many years and 10s of thousands of urgent situations.

Remember. In the ongoing battle between the Earth and aircraft arriving in other than controlled conditions, the Earth has yet to lose.

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    $\begingroup$ the Earth has yet to lose - Love it :) $\endgroup$ Commented Sep 6, 2015 at 12:59
  • $\begingroup$ "the Earth has yet to lose" I'm going to +1 just for that... $\endgroup$
    – dalearn
    Commented Jul 29, 2017 at 23:20
  • $\begingroup$ @WayneWerner: I'm just going to leave this here. youtu.be/ioDGzYsgCfM?t=123 $\endgroup$
    – Joshua
    Commented Dec 17, 2017 at 20:45

Step 1 not mentioned so far: keep the unconscious pilot from slumping forward into the controls. Their body pushing the yoke in would be a bad thing at this juncture. Cinch up on the shoulder harness and hang the flight bag strap or something similar on the pilot's forehead, with the bag hanging behind the seat.

Then do all the other things in the excellent answers here.

Many years ago I had my wife take a one-day course on exactly this scenario, called the Non-Pilot Pinch Hitters course. I don't know if it's still offered anywhere, but I found that AOPA has a flash version online. It is most important to familiarize your flying companion ahead of time (assuming it's not a dog) with the radio and how to keep the wings level.

Here is the checklist from the AOPA course:

pinch hitter checklist

  • $\begingroup$ Even the dog could benefit from familiarising themselves beforehand, if they're this dog. $\endgroup$
    – Vikki
    Commented Jun 6, 2019 at 2:41

Here's my guess as a non pilot.

You'd probably have to ask your friend in advance how exactly to do 3. I suspect doing 1 and 3 simultaneous will be taxing for anyone who hasn't flown a real aircraft.

You might want to know how to set the transponder (if present) and what code it should "squawk".

If the pilot passed out immediately after take-off before reaching cruise altitude, you might not want to maintain that flight level - there might be trees or hills ahead.

I think the pilot's order of priorities is aviate, navigate, communicate.

  • $\begingroup$ Sounds wise ;) Let see what pilots have to add! $\endgroup$
    – Quentin H
    Commented Sep 3, 2015 at 9:42
  • $\begingroup$ Yes, I read about that aviate, navigate, communicate. But here it will be more like aviate, cry for help, navigate... Since I'm not supposed to know where to go ahah $\endgroup$
    – Quentin H
    Commented Sep 3, 2015 at 9:43
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    $\begingroup$ Navigate does not mean "where am I supposed to go" in this situation. Aviate - keep the plane flying; navigate - keep it flying where you need it to go - e.g. away from obstacles, towards a clear area etc; communicate - tell someone about it. Many have died because they did not do it in that order. $\endgroup$
    – Simon
    Commented Sep 3, 2015 at 9:51
  • $\begingroup$ Regarding number 3, if you know how to do it in a flight sim, you probably know how to do it in a real airplane. It's not that hard. If the pilot already had the appropriate frequency tuned, it's literally as easy as just pressing the little button on the yoke in most light GA planes. Changing transponder codes is also as easy in real life as it is in a sim. You're right, though, that 1 can be a challenge at first if you've never done it in a real airplane before (assuming no auto-pilot.) $\endgroup$
    – reirab
    Commented Sep 3, 2015 at 18:30

The feel of the controls is one of the things that you will really have to get your head round really quickly if this is the first time you have touched them.

You don't move the controls you just apply a little bit of pressure, unlike a flight sim which has a totally unrealistic feel on the controls, and this alters with the airspeed of the aircraft. You have to be able to handle the aircraft quite precisely to be able to safely land, whereas most people even with flight sim experience take quite a few hours of instruction to be safe enough to go solo.

I read about a crash in the UK where the pilot was incapacitated and the passenger had been shown how to bail out. He couldn't get the hood open because it was heavy and the aircraft hit the ground with him clawing at the hood. All he needed to do was pull the stick back and he would have had more time.

I would say, feeling the controls, just try to get the aircraft level and under control and at a constant speed, will be more difficult than you think it might be, and also to stay calm so you can think and relate to what air traffic are saying. This is a lot easier said than done given that you are just about to die if you do something wrong.

Just a small thing like not already talking to air traffic and not knowing the emergency frequency (or not knowing where the transmit button is) could panic you and ruin your whole day, or pulling the mixture back instead of the throttle. There are loads of things that could go wrong in real life even though you can fly the sim through a keyboard.

On the other hand if you can reach the ground under control at the correct (slowest safe) speed - about 1.2 - 1.3 times the stall speed, you don't need to speak to anyone or do anything else, the chances are you could live, especially if you reach the ground on an airport where there are emergency services to extract you from the aircraft. But then, you might know the stall speed in the sim, how do you really know it in the real aircraft you are in at the time? None of this is as easy as you think!

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    $\begingroup$ Just thinking Quentin Hayot. If you really want to know how YOU would react in this situation, why not go to your local airport and book a half hour trial lesson? I am sure that most flying instructors would love to try this with you. Tell them what you would like to do and you want no comments or guidance whatsoever from the instructor at any point, and that you will have the de-brief after the flight rather than before. If you are flying safely, the instructor will let you land the plane. You won't be as scared as if it really happened, but I'd be very interested to hear how you get on :-) $\endgroup$ Commented Sep 3, 2015 at 19:26
  • $\begingroup$ That's a cracking suggestion! We could have a community whip round for it. I'd contribute to hear that experience. $\endgroup$
    – Simon
    Commented Sep 3, 2015 at 19:32
  • $\begingroup$ I'll contribute too. I landed a full motion 737 simulator recently in a similar scenario and its the best thing I ever did, because there are plenty of more senior pilots saying a private pilot couldn't land an airliner safely. I was so pleased a) I booked it and b) that I lived... $\endgroup$ Commented Sep 3, 2015 at 19:38
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    $\begingroup$ So just to re-iterate my idea - tell your instructor to pretend he is air traffic, call for help, ask him what speed to fly etc etc, and tell him to pretend he is not there so he can't use his eyes only his ears, apart from to save both your lives that is... Exciting! $\endgroup$ Commented Sep 3, 2015 at 19:44
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    $\begingroup$ @QuentinHayot There is nothing crazy about it. It could be done in a completely safe manner. People are given the controls with no previous experience on every first lesson. $\endgroup$
    – Simon
    Commented Sep 6, 2015 at 6:37

Having spent a lot of time on flight simulator, and having done an intro lesson, is a big factor in your favor, because you know how to steer, ascend, descend, and especially trim for speed. What you may not know is how to work the radio, how to tune to 121.5 and how to press the talk button (and most importantly, release it). Then the only other thing that might be new to you is landing. So if they guide you to a long, wide strip, aligned with the wind, all you have to do is "ride the slide", and pull the throttle when you get to the ground.


This is a good question and your guesses make sense. I’m not a pilot but here is what I’d do (if the plane is small like you say):

A non pilot would definitely be overwhelmed by the controls and buttons and all their meanings. But if you have had some training you could manage. First thing to do would be to establish communications with ATC and explain to them that you are a non pilot who is now in charge. For this you’ll have to put on the pilot’s headset and use the mic button. Say something like “MAYDAY MAYDAY our pilot has passed out”, anyone hearing this would definitely assist (training on a simulator is a plus in this situation.) Gaining a little altitude to get good a good reception is also a good idea.

You could also try dialing 121.5 (aircraft emergency frequency ) and call for some help.

The aircraft emergency frequency (also known as guard) is a frequency used on the aircraft band reserved for emergency communications for aircraft in distress. The frequencies are 121.5 MHz for civilian, also known as International Air Distress (IAD) or VHF Guard, and 243.0 MHz for military use, also known as Military Air Distress (MAD) or UHF Guard. (Wikipedia)

But remember it all happens very fast I'm sure. If the person flying doesn’t screw up completely like touch down at 120 kt or stalling etc. landing would be survivable with minimum injuries to everyone.

Also take the help of five C's that have been devised for the pilots in distress:

In order to circumvent the effects of panic, the five C’s of aviation have been devised. The five C’s are: Confess, climb, conserve fuel, communicate and comply. (Source)

You can try keeping the aircraft clear of terrain, obstructions and densely populated area. Even if you couldn’t reach the ATC flying towards an open terrain or open water is the next best option (God forbid!).

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ If you're at cruise altitude, there's probably no reason to gain any altitude. You'll be able to hear people from a rather long way away at any reasonable cruise altitude. You're probably safest at your current altitude if you don't see terrain or a cloud directly in front of you. As far as touching down at 120 kt is concerned, that would actually be really hard to do in most light GA planes (at least if you define "touching down" as "touching down on the main gear.") You will gain altitude very quickly if you raise the nose at 120 KIAS in most light GA planes. $\endgroup$
    – reirab
    Commented Sep 3, 2015 at 18:45
  • $\begingroup$ Well unless you're as dumb as I would have been until about last year and try to plant the nose wheel on the runway. $\endgroup$
    – Joshua
    Commented May 23, 2017 at 22:19
  • $\begingroup$ @Joshua In fairness, if you're willing to confess your ignorance (which you already did, in a way, when you declared an emergency and said that you aren't a pilot), someone might even tell you up front without prompting to keep the nose a little high when you come in to land. A still-reasonable but somewhat nose-high attitude on landing (except for a taildragger) is probably better than setting the nose wheel onto the runway before the main wheels make contact. Once all of the wheels are on the ground, even if you don't even go straight, it's usually not a disaster (compared to crashing). $\endgroup$
    – user
    Commented Dec 13, 2017 at 13:08
  1. As much as possible, keep your hands off of the controls. A properly trimmed airplane will maintain straight and level flight. A human likely will not.

  2. Tune the radio to 121.5 and call mayday. 121.5 will be monitored everywhere there is any ATC activity.

  3. Follow the instructions of ATC.

  4. Use the trim and throttle to descend. During landing, the elevator (pull back and push forward on the wheel) controls airspeed, the throttle controls altitude. Trim the airplane and use the throttle to control descent. More/less trim may be required.

  • $\begingroup$ A properly trimmed airplane won't necessarily stay straight. Keeping the wings level with the horizon is a good idea and not all that hard to do, even for the untrained and especially not for someone with a lot of flight sim experience (as the question states.) If you keep the wings level, though, then a properly trimmed plane will indeed maintain roughly the same altitude. If you let the wings start banking, you'll starting descending slowly, too. $\endgroup$
    – reirab
    Commented Sep 3, 2015 at 18:53
  • $\begingroup$ Only if the problem happens in straight and level flight! $\endgroup$
    – Simon
    Commented Sep 3, 2015 at 19:28

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