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Suppose I am a passenger in a small, non-commercial plane (e.g. at most 8 seats), and the pilot suddenly dies or is otherwise incapacitated mid-flight. Suppose further that nobody else on the plane knows the first thing about flying, or that I were the only other person on the plane. I understand the basic physics of flying, and have been in airplane cockpits before for a ride, but never piloted one. Cockpits are an intimidating bank of switches and dials, and I imagine I'd have very little time to acquaint myself with them experimentally in an emergency.

What minimalistic, general information should I know in an emergency situation to try to land a small plane?

I'm looking for perhaps 5–10 fast-and-simple rules-of-thumb that would be useful in a life-or-death situation, yet easy to remember.

A great answer might include 2–3 sentence answers for things such as:

  • Where might I expect to find certain, key controls?
  • How could I contact air traffic control?
  • What kind of terrain should I aim for, if possible?
  • What rate of descent is too dangerous?
  • How to deploy landing gear? (What might this button look like?!)
  • How to control the aircraft speed, and how slow is too slow?
  • How might I determine a good angle of attack?
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    $\begingroup$ Similar question (but not necessarily a duplicate): Pilot passed out in a small GA plane. What can a passenger do? $\endgroup$ – Terran Swett Jan 3 at 23:25
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    $\begingroup$ Welcome to aviation.SE! As Tanner said, we have a very similar question already; it would probably be helpful if you could add something about how your question is different, otherwise people may vote to close yours as a duplicate. $\endgroup$ – Pondlife Jan 4 at 3:07
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    $\begingroup$ Thanks to @TannerSwett for pointing that out — it's definitely close! Whereas that question was intended for somebody familiar with planes (e.g. "initiated to fly a plane" and "100s of hours on flight sims"), my question is intended for somebody with essentially zero experience with planes: I don't know how to turn an engine on/off, or how to operate the radio. I expect that the answer for these questions would be different based on the different levels of familiarity with aircraft. I'm also interested what people would consider most immediately important. $\endgroup$ – jvriesem Jan 4 at 4:15
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    $\begingroup$ @jvriesem You have to assume some familiarity and knowledge, not least because there is no single standardised cockpit layout when it comes to knobs and switches. Many knobs and switches have labels, but they are very abbreviated or technical. Unlike cars where you have almost (but not entirely) identical controls laid out relative to the driver which are sufficient for complete control; the only familiar controls in the pilot's seat that are (almost) always in the same position are the yoke, throttle and pedals, but those alone are not sufficient if you hope to land in one piece. $\endgroup$ – aerobot Jan 4 at 7:22
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    $\begingroup$ You may find this question relevant: Why are the cockpit controls of airplanes so complicated? $\endgroup$ – aerobot Jan 4 at 7:24
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I would say talk some to the pilot before departure. If the pilot tells you anything that contradicts any of this, forget this and go with what the pilot tells you! They know the airplane far better than any stranger you'll find on the Internet.

Ask them to point out the important controls; throttle, yoke or stick, elevator trim, and how to change the frequency on the radio and transmit, will probably get you pretty far. The transponder IDENT button and flaps selector may also be useful, but especially flaps will require a bit of care. Elevator trim generally isn't critical, but it is very nice to have.

Ask them to point out the important instruments; airspeed indicator, altimeter, vertical speed indicator, compass, and fuel gauges, will again probably get you pretty far. Those will tell you where you are relative to the ground or to sea level (altimeter), where you're going (compass), how fast you're going (airspeed, vertical speed), and how much longer you can go (fuel gauges).

The exact control layout varies by aircraft, both type and (specific) airframe. However, the instruments typically look very similar.

In an emergency like what you describe, most of what's in the cockpit is entirely superfluous! If you don't know what it is, and the pilot doesn't discuss it when asked what's important, it's probably pretty much safe to just ignore, as long as you don't touch it. I actually disagree with mmathis' answer that the attitude indicator is important; there are many aircraft that don't even have one. Most of GA is flown in what's known as VMC, or Visual Meteorological Conditions, under VFR, or Visual Flight Regulations. Basically, that's the same as in a car; you're (the pilot is) looking out the window, using terrain features below to navigate and the horizon in front to keep the plane level. VFR flight in good weather is not rocket science!

Even landing a functional airplane in good weather on a wide, long runway isn't rocket science.

The hard part of flying is handling the bad situations: equipment malfunctions, strong crosswinds on landing, poor weather conditions aloft (including IMC, or Instrument Meteorological Conditions), etc. Or when ATC asks you to do something like land and hold short thus reducing the runway length by half, then vacate the runway quickly before that 747 on your tail touches down...

The first thing you'd probably want to do is to make sure the pilot isn't slumped over any controls. Tighten their harness to keep them from falling forward and interfering with the instruments or controls. This may involve moving their arms or even legs. Don't hesitate to do so if needed. The plane isn't going to immediately fall out of the sky.

Where might I expect to find certain, key controls?

Most if not all will likely be either in front of the pilot, or in the center of the instrument panel (assuming a side-by-side seat configuration). With the exception of big planes, controls and instruments in front of the right-hand seat will likely be more for monitoring the health of the airplane than for actively flying it. Radios and navigation equipment may also be located on the right hand side.

How could I contact air traffic control?

Locate the radio (usually labelled COM or COM1, possibly VHF/VHF1, but this may differ depending on the type of radio installed and the type of aircraft you're in). It will normally have two frequency readouts, one "active" and one "standby" (or similar).

If the pilot was already talking to ATC, just press the transmit button and speak into the microphone. Speak clearly, speak slowly (but not overly so; about 100 words per minute is good), say "mayday" a few times followed by the call sign of the aircraft you're in if you know it, let go of the button and see if someone responds. If not, try again once or twice. If still no response, set the radio to a frequency of 121.5 (MHz), set that frequency as active, and make the same transmission again. Exactly how to do this will depend on the specific radio; the pilot can show you before departure how to change the frequency.

121.5 MHz is the international emergency frequency and is monitored by ATC at all times. It is also monitored by aircraft able to do so. You will be able to reach someone on 121.5. Worst case it'll only be another aircraft, but they can relay to ATC.

As soon as you reach somebody, tell them that you are not a pilot nor a student pilot. This information is critical for them to best help you. You could say something like "I am not a pilot. Negative flight experience.". ("Negative" here means "no", not "below zero".)

Don't worry about what exactly to say. Just try to speak normally and describe the situation. ATC will ask for any details they need to help you, or for clarification if they need it. If you don't speak the local language, it's safe to say that all air traffic controllers internationally speak English. Don't make overly long transmissions; I'd say more than 20 seconds or so at a time is on the long side.

Once ATC knows about your situation, they will do everything they can to direct any other aircraft out of your way, as well as help you out in any other way they are able to. Don't hesitate to ask them for anything you feel that you need which they might be able to provide, including your position or the direction in which you should be flying.

What kind of terrain should I aim for, if possible?

A runway.

No, seriously. It's always easier to set down an aircraft on a clearly visible runway than to do an outfield, or even a soft field, landing.

Failing that, any large, flat terrain clear of obstacles will do for landing in a pinch. Beware of ditches, fences and power lines! Especially if you're attempting to land somewhere that is not an airport, always make sure to tell ATC what you're doing so that they can direct emergency services your way.

What rate of descent is too dangerous?

While still in the air, that isn't a major concern. While headed for a runway, there really are only two important things to keep in mind. First, don't fly into terrain. Second, don't hit the runway too hard and too fast. If you're unsure, it's better to level off, or even "go around" by adding full power, climbing to altitude, and making a wide half-circle for another attempt. (Again, I'm assuming here that there are no problems with the airplane.)

If the runway is equipped with PAPI (precision approach path indicator) lights, that's a big help, as you can just descend at a rate that keeps two lights red and two lights white. If more than two lights are white then you increase your rate of descent; if more than two lights are red then you level off.

The only part where the rate of descent is going to make a lot of difference is during the last few dozen meters or less above the runway. This is where you flare (raise the nose of the aircraft). The flare serves several purposes: (a) it reduces your speed from flying speed to below flying speed; (b) it ensures that the main wheels touch down before the nose wheel; (c) it arrests the descent, and (d) it transitions the airplane from flying in the air to rolling on the ground. A really well executed flare can transition the airplane from flying to rolling almost imperceptably, but the odds of a complete novice managing that seem near zero.

If you raise the nose too much during the flare the airplane will start climbing during the flare while losing speed. If you're too high at the top of the flare, the airplane will drop hard onto (hopefully) the runway below. If you're too low at the top of the flare, you won't have time to arrest the descent (resulting in a hard landing) or the nose wheel may contact the runway before the main wheels. If the nose wheel touches down first, there's a very high probability of losing control.

How to deploy landing gear? (What might this button look like?!)

Have the pilot point it out to you. Most small aircraft don't have retractable landing gears, so this may or may not even be an issue.

If the airplane you're flying does have retractable landing gear, note that (a) you can't deploy it while flying too fast (there should be a plaque next to the control indicating maximum speed at which it can be deployed), and (b) once deployed, it will increase the drag of the airplane, so you'll need more engine power to maintain speed or rate of descent.

How to control the aircraft speed, and how slow is too slow?

Engine power is controlled by the throttle. Speed is controlled by a combination of engine power and pitch.

There is no single number for "too slow", even for a specific airplane, but assuming you're flying gently, not doing any abrupt maneuvers, it should be good enough to keep the airspeed well within the green arc on the airspeed indicator. When coming in to land, keep the airspeed near the faster end of the combination of the green and white arcs. This won't be exact by any means, but it should be good enough that you won't seriously risk breaking anything important.

Assuming a fixed power setting, the airplane will fly slower when you raise the nose, and faster when you lower the nose.

Assuming a fixed pitch and starting at level flight, the airplane will (eventually) climb when given more power, and descend when given less power.

Hence the saying "power for altitude, pitch for speed". Especially during landing, this is the opposite of what is likely to feel natural! It certainly took me a number of times to internalize that if you're too low on the final approach to the runway, the last thing you want to do is raise the nose! (I knew it intellectually, but it's quite another thing to actually internalize so that the correct response becomes second nature.)

How might I determine a good angle of attack?

Don't.

Just fly level. As long as you are well above the surrounding terrain, just keep half an eye on the vertical speed indicator, keep it right around zero until you've found a landing site, and you're basically golden.

Angle of attack is important, but not for the kind of flying a passenger might do following pilot incapacitation.

Anything else?

No, you didn't actually ask this one, but it bears saying: Probably the most important maneuevering you might do in such a situation is to stay well away from clouds. There's a number of hazards involved with clouds, and the easiest thing to do is to just steer clear of them. For one, mountains have been known to hide out in clouds...

Also, never forget to fly the airplane first and foremost. Keep it in the air, and keep it away from terrain. Everything else can wait. If ATC asks something, you can always just tell them to "stand by". Just let them know when you're able to talk to them again.


So, to summarize:

  • Talk to the pilot. Five minutes before start-up or departure to look over the cockpit can make this a lot easier.
  • If something like this happens, then immediately tighten the pilot's harness, or otherwise make sure that they won't interfere with instruments or controls.
  • The airplane isn't going to immediately fall out of the sky. You do have time to breathe.
  • Don't worry about all the extra stuff in the cockpit. It's probably safe to ignore in the situation you're in.
  • Landing a functional airplane on a large runway in good weather isn't rocket science.
  • The most important instruments and controls will likely be in front of the pilot's seat.
  • Saying "mayday" on 121.5 MHz will get you attention from air traffic control, as well as other aircraft in the area. Once you have their attention, they will do whatever they can to help you. Tell ATC up front that you're not a pilot.
  • Aim for a runway, if at all possible. If you can't, then aim for flat, open, unobstructed terrain.
  • Don't worry too much about the particulars. Fly level and stay away from terrain.
  • Add power if you need to climb; reduce power if you need to descend. Push the yoke or stick forward to go faster; pull it toward you to go slower.
  • Keep the airspeed indicator well within the green arc.
  • Avoid clouds. They are not your friend.
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    $\begingroup$ Great answer, but I'd say things are in wrong answer. Rule is "aviate, navigate, communicate, in that order". Reading your answer top to bottom, it appears that the guy should first trying to figure out how to manage the radio, instead of first maintaining correct plane attitude. $\endgroup$ – kebs Jan 6 at 12:04
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    $\begingroup$ @kebs You have a point. My idea was to answer the specific questions posed by the OP in the order they were posed. $\endgroup$ – a CVn Jan 6 at 17:46
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ATC has successfully talked down folks with zero experience in GA planes, and if there's one thing you need to learn, it's how to call ATC so they can give you that help. Any pilot would be happy to teach you this, and it should only take a few minutes while you're sitting in the plane before departure. Anything you know beyond that will make ATC's help a lot easier to understand and get you safely on the ground that much faster, but that's the bare minimum.

My recommendation is a "discovery flight" at a nearby flight school; that will teach you far more of the basic skills you'd need to survive than days of looking for tips online. Flight sim time would save money if you're interested in becoming a pilot, but otherwise I wouldn't bother; you need to actually sit in a real plane, touch real buttons and knobs and levers, and feel how a real plane reacts--with someone at your side explaining the key points along the way. I learned every one of the things on your list and more, plus made my first landing, in that one hour lesson.

FWIW, it doesn't matter if that discovery flight is in a Cessna and your emergency happens in a Mooney, or whatever. For light planes, most of the differences border on cosmetic for emergency purposes. Once you know what to look for and why, it shouldn't take much to recognize the important controls and instruments in any other light plane. Again, any pilot you're flying with should be happy to explain the differences if you don't pick them up on your own; an instructor is only needed when you're starting from zero.

If you'll be flying GA a lot, particularly in the same plane and/or with the same pilot, look into "Pinch Hitter" courses; they'll cost quite a bit more than a simple discovery flight, but they're worth every penny if you'll be flying often enough for real concerns about emergencies.

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    $\begingroup$ "ATC has successfully talked down folks with zero experience " - see bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-humber-24457031 for example. $\endgroup$ – alephzero Jan 4 at 11:58
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    $\begingroup$ I believe Mythbusters even had an episode where real ATC controllers tried to talk the hosts through landing a (simulated!) passenger jet. IIRC success was about 50%... so its not hopeless even in the "worst" case! $\endgroup$ – mbrig Jan 4 at 15:56
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That's way too complicated a question. The best thing you can do is get MS Flight Simulator and learn to fly one of the light planes on it. It even has lessons in it. You can easily learn enough to survive the real deal if that ever happened and you had access to the controls. Instructors these day frequently get new students who've spent time with FSX and are surprisingly advanced right at the start.

Other than that, the most important thing for a passenger to know is how to tune the communications radio to the emergency frequency 121.5 and how to broadcast on it. This will get you in contact with the nearest air traffic unit, wherever you are (they all monitor it) and you would be able to be talked down. It's been done a number of times.

Have your host show you how to control the plane in level flight, enough to keep in level flight and do basic turns (very easy). If you can do that, and can get ATC on the radio on your own, you'll be able to make it down. You'll be steered to a suitable airport with a nice big runway and told what to do step by step. No worries.

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    $\begingroup$ Sure, I could invest dozens or hundreds of hours in a flight sim, but I'm asking what the first things to know are for someone who doesn't want to invest that much time in learning to fly. :-) +1 for the rest of the answer, though! $\endgroup$ – jvriesem Jan 4 at 4:57
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    $\begingroup$ Flightgear is free, and in half an hour, your are able to fly/land pretty much the plane. Or at least to figure out the basics. $\endgroup$ – kebs Jan 4 at 12:06
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    $\begingroup$ But the crux of OP's question is about how to cope with differing controls. Adding yet another control scheme (keyboard and mouse) is the opposite of clarity. $\endgroup$ – Harper - Reinstate Monica Jan 4 at 17:04
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    $\begingroup$ Well a joystick is a given. Anyway, it doesn't matter about the computer controls, it's about making the "sight picture" and inputs/outputs you see in the virtual cockpit familiar. $\endgroup$ – John K Jan 4 at 18:51
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flying a plane, specially a small one requires a lot a practice, but if you find your self in this situation, and assuming is a small prop, complex twin engine aircraft (Variable prop, retractable landing gear).

Where might I expect to find certain, key controls? all the controls are in the front panel, 3 levers in the mid control panel, black for thrust, blue for prop, red for fuel, don't touch red and blue, move black, back to reduce power and forward to increase

How could I contact air traffic control? usually on the yoke is a small button (ptt) press it and talk, or by the microphone, set on the radio the frequency 121.50

What kind of terrain should I aim for, if possible? try to maintain level wings, aim for an airport

What rate of descent is too dangerous? try to maintain between 500 to 700 fpm rate of descent

How to deploy landing gear? (What might this button look like?!) depends on the aircraft, usually black rounded knob on the panel, usually on the right side, it moves up and down, look for it.

How to control the aircraft speed, and how slow is too slow? the airspeed indicator has colors, try to maintain the speed on the green band

How might I determine a good angle of attack? it depends on the speed, and configuration, but a good indication is the rate of descent and constant speed, aim for 500 fpm descent maintaining speed on the green band

safe flights

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This is a fairly broad question, as there are a lot of possible airplanes you could be flying in, all with a variety of possible avionics and flight control configurations. But, there are two main types of avionics - the so-called "six pack" of analog instruments and glass displays. Both display the same basic information, but in different ways.

The first thing you'll probably want to do is gain or maintain control of the plane. Keep it flying level, at sufficient altitude, with sufficient speed. You'll look for these 3 pieces of information in 3 analog instruments:

The attitude indicator (this one showing a nose-up attitude of ~10 degrees and wings level). Attitude indicator

The altimeter (this one showing an altitude of ~10,200 ft). Altimeter

And the airspeed indicator (this one showing an airspeed of ~92 knots). Airspeed indicator

If the plane has glass avionics, these are all combined into one Primary Flight Display (PFD) (this one showing an altitude of ~2700 ft, an airspeed of 175 knots, and a slight nose-up attitude of 4 degrees and wings level). PFD

In all cases, these instruments should be directly in front of the pilot, although there may be similar instruments in front of the copilot as well. You'd want to get your instruments showing a wings level, slight nose-up attitude, with the altitude not changing and the airspeed constant and in the green arc. If it's already doing that, no need to change anything.

If it's not in a stable configuration, your best bet is probably to add full power (throttle is typically a black lever for each engine, push it / them all the way in or all the way up for full power). The yoke controls attitude, pull back to raise the nose, left or right to bank, push in the lower the nose.

Once you have control of the plane, your next step is to contact somebody who can help you land the plane. Grab the pilot's headset and put it on. If the pilot was already talking to ATC (you hear voices through the headset), keep talking to them; there's no need to change the frequency. Most control yokes have a Push-to-talk (PTT) switch located on them somewhere, which will transmit your voice over the frequency. Wait slightly for a break in the chatter, push the PTT, and say "Mayday" or "Emergency". That should get everyone's attention, and then ATC can get additional information from you and provide help to you. If you can include your tail number with your initial "Emergency" call, all the better (the tail number is placarded somewhere in the cockpit, possibly in front of the pilot on the instrument panel, and will begin with an 'N' for US aircraft).

If there is no chatter through the headset, you should change the frequency to 121.5, the emergency frequency. There's too many possible radio configurations to go through here, but one thing to keep in mind is that most aircraft radio stacks have multiple communication radios and multiple navigation radios. Each of those likely has an active frequency and a standby frequency. When you're changing the frequency, you'll be changing the standby frequency; you'll then have to switch it to the active frequency. This is done with a little button with a double-arrow on it (<-->). Make sure you change the comm frequency - when in doubt, change the one at the top of the stack.

A discovery flight is a great way to get acquainted with a lot of these instruments and controls, as would a couple hours on a PC flight sim. You could probably also find some videos online going over the basics.

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If you think this is ever likely to occur to you, you should look into a Pinch Hitter class

https://www.aopa.org/community/flying-clubs/flying-club-newsletter/2017/august/20/safety

where you will get more in depth in addition to what's already been offered.

Pilot incapacitation is extremely rare during general aviation flights, but non-pilots may worry about it if they don’t know what to do in the event of an actual emergency. Introducing non-pilot flying companions to basic flight concepts, and how to handle emergency situations, can help calm this anxiety.

Enter the early 1960s, the AOPA developed the Pinch Hitter™ course to do just that. Through the course, non-pilots learned to navigate to an airport, talk with air traffic control, and land an airplane safely—all on their own.

Today, your flying club members can tap into two free resources designed to be used together in pinch hitter training—the AOPA Air Safety Institute (ASI) course that provides non-pilots an interactive introduction to GA aircraft along with an understanding of basic aerodynamics concepts, and ASI’s recently developed Pinch Hitter™ syllabus.

The 14-page syllabus booklet guides non-pilot flying companions, flight instructors and experienced pilots through Pinch Hitter™ training. It also expands on the knowledge that participants gained from the course, and suggests ground and flight lessons to cover aircraft orientation and scenario-based training. The latter provides hands on instruction to deal with a simulated emergency. In addition, an in-flight guide and emergency checklist complete the syllabus booklet.

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If you're in a GA plane, and the pilot just flops over dead, then you only really need two pieces of information to make your survivability acceptable.

  1. Take a deep breath. Most GA plans are built so that very little input is needed to keep them flying. It's not like a movie where you take your hand off the controls and the plane spins out of control. The pilot before dieing would have done all of the steps to keep the plane level and flying (trimming, autopilot, fule setups, etc) So just take a deep breath and calm down. Don't go touching anything. Not yet at least.

  2. How to use a radio, at least a little. Your next step would be to contact anyone that could help. Your cell probably won't work, so that means using the radio. Don't worry the pilot already did the hard part of tunning it. You just have to figure out how to talk on it. That depends, but it's usually very easy to figure out. Yell into the mic "May-Day! Our Pilot is dead!" then shut up for 45 seconds. Rinse and repeat until someone tells you what to do. The people on the other side will know what to do, and how to "talk you down". You may not have a smooth landing, but you should have a survivable one.

The important part is to stay calm, and don't touch things. Planes don't fly themselves exactly, but they are built so the default in most situations is to not crash.

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