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I was watching Mystery Science Theater 3000 and their showing of 1970 TV movie/pilot San Fransisco International. One of the plots in the movie involves a twelve (or so) year old boy, who, alarmed about his parents' imminent separation, wanders across the tarmac, hops into the cockpit of an Aircoupe, and flees his mother by starting the plane and taking off before anyone quite knows what's happening. After he unsteadily flies it a bit (the best part of the movie is some stunt pilot making the Aircoupe swerve through the air like a drunken eagle), Bonanza's Adam Cartwright talks him through a safe landing.

Plenty of questions have been asked about the possibility of planes being landed by someone with no experience at all, and, of course, talk-down landings are a real thing, even if they're rarely done by anyone with zero experience. But I'm curious about the first part, where the kid turns a key, taxis away, and is up into the California sky without even having played Microsoft Flight Simulator.

Naturally, a civilian getting into a cockpit at SFO without being stopped seems patently absurd in the security-conscious present, but times have changed. Has anything even similar to this ever happened? And if not (if this doesn't over-broaden my question) could a layman get a plane, single-engine or otherwise, into the air without any experience?

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    $\begingroup$ Are you talking about anybody who doesn't have a pilot certificate (may be self-taught, for example), or are you talking specifically about somebody who does not have any flight experience, even simulated? $\endgroup$ – Greg Hewgill Oct 24 at 23:30
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    $\begingroup$ As suggested by an answer- "amateur" is not really the right word or phrase-- substitute "complete beginner" or similar-- elsewhere you used "layman". PS it's worth noting that the Aircoupe is designed to be a VERY forgiving aircraft. $\endgroup$ – quiet flyer Oct 25 at 3:33
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    $\begingroup$ umm, Orville and Wilbur? $\endgroup$ – mcalex Oct 25 at 7:06
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    $\begingroup$ It should be mentioned that taking off is the easy part. Planes have been known to do that without anyone at the controls, e.g. chicagotribune.com/news/ct-xpm-1997-11-24-9711240036-story.html Landing again is the hard part :-) $\endgroup$ – jamesqf Oct 25 at 17:03
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    $\begingroup$ @mcalex I thought the Wrights practiced with unpowered flight before they attempted a powered takeoff. $\endgroup$ – David K Oct 26 at 16:50

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The Aviation Safety Network has an article listing 11 airplanes that crashed after being stolen by a non-pilot. The most recent was the Horizon Air Dash 8 that was stolen by a ground service agent in August 2018.

There are more interesting stories such as:

Whether these qualify as "amateurs" is a matter of opinion. Most of them were mechanics/engineers. It would be difficult (but not impossible) for a person not familiar at all with the aircraft to get it started and manage to take off.

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    $\begingroup$ The "Barefoot Bandit" (aka Colton Moore) stole at least 2 aircraft without any formal training. $\endgroup$ – Ron Beyer Oct 25 at 1:02
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    $\begingroup$ And there’s also this Marine who had what can only be described as a great Independence Day and stole an A-4 jet from MCAS El Toro and took it for a joyride. He landed it safely and faced a fate similar the the F-86 mechanic. $\endgroup$ – Carlo Felicione Oct 25 at 2:08
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    $\begingroup$ With most of these the problem is to prepare the aircraft for the flight, which even a professional fighter pilot cannot do alone. The actual taxi and taking off will be pretty easy even if unsafe (they crashed after all...). $\endgroup$ – Vladimir F Oct 25 at 7:27
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    $\begingroup$ @CarloFelicione I think this is more important than is let on with that incident " He was an accomplished glider pilot who set world records at a very young age" $\endgroup$ – Dan Oct 25 at 14:40
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    $\begingroup$ This is the stuff I was looking for. All the way back to the 40's too! Thanks. $\endgroup$ – Exal Oct 25 at 21:35
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If you consider a disgruntled and/ or imbalanced airline employee as falling within the scope of your question, then a recent event in Washington state gives you your answer. Except that you specify no simulator practice.

"Could they" may be speculative but I suppose a flight instructor could answer whether an unpracticed novice has ever successfully taken off with no instructions and no other hand touching controls. This gives some insight as to what could be done by such a person with no one else in the cockpit.

Some planes have flown away by themselves, so maybe that's your answer.

That kid who stole several planes, did he have simulator practice before his first attempt?

Given the number of airplanes and airplane enthusiasts that have existed through the history of the world so far, the answer to your first question is almost certainly "yes".

Are you willing to consider within the scope of your question:

Ultralight airplanes? I've seen books containg instructions on how to learn to fly by making short solo hops. 2-seaters were rare or non-existent when ultralights first became popular.

Hang gliders? (Ditto from above)

Airplanes from the earliest pioneering days? (Ditto from above)

"Primary" gliders? -- a single-seat glider designed for training of novices, starting with short hops. Popular in the 1930's.

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    $\begingroup$ I clicked through on this question just to answer that "some light planes will take off without even a pilot" or equivalent -- but you already had that in your answer. Start the engine and throttle up (even just a little), release the brakes, and if the field is flat enough and wide enough, the airplane may just take off and fly around until it's out of fuel... $\endgroup$ – Zeiss Ikon Oct 25 at 14:39
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I'd say that it completely depends on the type of airplane. Given enough surface and no obstacles in front of the airplane, then most airplanes wouldn't be difficult to get off the ground if you figured out how to add power and that more speed will make you fly. On the ground, steering with your feet might be weird at first, but pretty much anyone can figure that one out pretty quick, even under the stress of stealing a plane. I'd guess the hardest part would be the torque/p-factor encountered (or increased) after liftoff and what the purpose of the pedals is when you're off the ground. A P-51 would probably lose control pretty quickly without any skill on the rudder pedals, but something like a Cessna 152 is much more docile.

That said, if this was an Ercoupe (note: I've never flown it) then that aircraft is apparently known as being an incredibly easy aircraft to operate. It doesn't have rudder pedals and on the ground steers with the control yoke, like any car that the kid would definitely have seen. The controls are simplified and resemble a steering wheel more than they resemble a modern control yoke. Starting is apparently fairly simple. It's a low-wing aircraft, so it would get off the ground pretty easily. Handling characteristics are supposedly very tame in the air.

Again, I have never flown this aircraft, but given all of that, I would say that it would be extremely possible for a complete novice, even a young, untrained kid, to get off the ground.

https://www.aopa.org/go-fly/aircraft-and-ownership/aircraft-fact-sheets/erco-ercoupe

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    $\begingroup$ In my humble opinion, flying a small plane and sailing a small boat can be really easy when the conditions are good and the equipment is operational. A kid can do it and many kids already did. Both activities can become really complex and dangerous in a matter of seconds, and problems tend to appear all at the same time. That's why there is so much theory, training and check lists involved. But with some luck, it's perfectly possible to ignore them and live to tell. $\endgroup$ – Eric Duminil Oct 27 at 10:12
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    $\begingroup$ " Both activities can become really complex and dangerous in a matter of seconds..." >> I've said it before and I'll say it again: In about 10-15 hours, I can teach (and have taught) anyone to take off and land an airplane quite safely in good conditions. But it's the thousands of hours after that where you really learn to be a pilot. $\endgroup$ – Shawn Oct 27 at 14:24
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I haven't flown for many years, but I remember my first experience was the surprise at how easy it was.

A small plane, say a Cessna 152, will practically fly itself; it feels like it wants to get off the ground.

90% of what one has to learn to take-off is running through check lists, doing safety checks, getting the weather forecast, plotting the course, and knowing radio protocol. Someone stealing a plane could simply ignore all that.

Another 5% is learning to taxi to the runway. Start the engine (much like a car), and use the foot pedals to steer. Someone stealing a plane doesn't need to worry about brakes, or permission, or right-of-way; they can just go. The only tricky part is knowing that the foot controls steer the opposite way to what one would expect (e.g. as on a soap-box go cart).

Assuming the thief can get the plane into position on the runway, it's simply a matter of giving it full power. The plane will go, and it will take off, but only if one has the confidence to give the full power right away and not to ease into it as one would with a car.

Yes, it would be a lot easier and smoother if the flaps and trim are properly adjusted, but a small plane, with only the pilot aboard, will still take off, even if ungracefully.

Once it lifts off the ground, the only control needed is the "steering wheel", which again works just like in a car, but one can also pull or push on it to make the plane point down or up. This is trivial to operate with almost no practice, so long as it is always done gently.

So yes, someone with no experience could get a plane into the air. How long it would stay there before they over-reacted or panicked is a different question. If they climb too fast, they'll stall and fall down. If they're going too slowly when they turn, they'll enter a spin and fall down. If they don't have complete confidence, they'll react badly to anything that happens, and fall down.

The movie acrobatics won't happen. Flying like that requires real skill and experience. If the pilot loses control, the plane will simply fall down.

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If I take the question title at face value, then my answer is yes, it is possible to take off.

As an untrained civilian, I've had the opportunity to hop into a few military flight simulators; and given sufficient runway, simply applying max MIL thrust in a modern fighter will have you lifting off (eventually) without too much effort if you can identify the throttle, without using flaps. (I'm completely ignoring the security considerations of sneaking into a military base and stealing a fighter. Not to mention, starting the engine without the ground cart.)

The same could almost apply for rotary wings, except for the complicated relation between the 3 controls. Simply pulling the collective 'killed' me until I realised the stick and pedals had to be coordinated as well.

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  • $\begingroup$ Isn't a fighter one of the easiest planes to crash? A complete novice should probably try a Cessna instead. $\endgroup$ – Eric Duminil Oct 27 at 10:02
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    $\begingroup$ @EricDuminil I have no real flying experience, so I wouldn't know. But it didn't seem too difficult to keep the fighters from crashing (in the sim anyway). Didn't try landing them, but OP's question was about taking off anyway =P $\endgroup$ – aerobot Oct 27 at 16:06
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Yes, I did on my first (and only) flight lesson which I was gifted for my birthday. The instructor let me take full control on take-off (he was hands-off from his controls) and I performed the landing myself. Both from/to the main runway at Bournemouth International. I was definitely an amateur and only 13 at the time!

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    $\begingroup$ You might mention whether or not the instructorcwas giving you verbal instructions. $\endgroup$ – quiet flyer Oct 25 at 13:00
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    $\begingroup$ Indeed, it had occurred to me that all pilots flew with no in-plane experience once. $\endgroup$ – Exal Oct 25 at 21:43
  • $\begingroup$ @Exal: I am reminded of a quote from Wing Commander The Lord Flashheart - "Flash by name, Flash by nature!" - but due to the family-oriented nature of this site I shall avoid quoting it entirely. According to him, though, flying involves "...getting inside her..." - your aircraft, or "kite" - "...five times a day, take her to heaven and back". RIP Rik Mayall. Flasheart may have been an arrogant, racist, vain, self-absorbed boor of a character, but despite that we should also keep in mind that he had bad qualities, too. :-) $\endgroup$ – Bob Jarvis - Reinstate Monica Oct 26 at 5:18
  • $\begingroup$ Well said man, RIP ! $\endgroup$ – Fattie Oct 28 at 12:42
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As an addendum on that MST3K episode, has it happened before? Yes on numerous occasions as the previous posts stated. Some of these ad hoc flights ended safely, some didn’t.

As to whether someone could have stolen a GA aircraft from an FBO at KSFO, yes it’s quite feasible if the owner was careless and left it unlocked with the keys in it. Ramps were quite accessible to the general public back in those days, and nobody asked a whole lot of questions. So yes that’s realistic.

I would fetch a guest that a person with quite a bit of time in desktop flight simulators could probably acquire start up taxi and fly a light aircraft fairly easily, if only to save their hide. Landing may be a little tricky for them.

Next, could an airplane take off on a parking apron or taxiway? A small one, like the Aircoupe there in the MST3K episode, yes. Such and airplane would only need about 1000 ft or so of ground roll and a takeoff speed of 50 kts or so, so that’s realistic, even more so with someone who knew their way around an airplane at the controls.

As for being talked down to a safe landing, yes it has been done successfully in the past, though Parnell Roberts’ flying advice in the movie is complete BS. Nor would someone maintain a close formation flight and attempt a formation landing with a neophyte at the controls of one of the aircraft. Another pilot would give chase at a distance and follow behind during the landing.

So the sequence shown in the movie is somewhat realistic, though it is Hollywood and designed for entertainment.

“See those people down there? Those are the people you’ve disappointed, Davy.”

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  • $\begingroup$ Not exactly what I was asking for, but an interesting add-on. $\endgroup$ – Exal Oct 25 at 21:38
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A few years ago in Danbury, CT, an untrained man stole a single engine plane and flew it south to Westchester County Airport, a mid-sized airport just north of NYC He landed it successfully and was pomptly arrested. He was also drunk.

As for taking off at an airport like SFO without clearance, the only thing preventing that is fear of death.

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It all depends on what the individual knows about flying in general and the aircraft type specifically.

There are stories of ground crew getting airborne, but although unlicensed/unqualified, they typically have familiarity with the type, and may even have operational experience starting/taxiing (e.g. the F-86 incident cited by fooot).

An individual having absolutely no familiarity with conventional aircraft controls or those specific to a given aircraft may have difficulty starting the engine and therefore not get very far.

It's quite easy to find information about aircraft specifics and flying in general without requiring any contact with a flight training establishment. One could learn from such materials the basic principles of flight, how to start a given aircraft, taxi it, and perform a take-off. However, absent of prior hands-on experience, things could start to go wrong as early as the take-off roll. Even though some airplanes are easy to fly and even "want to fly", a strong crosswind can easily ruin your day if you're not prepared for it - something that comes with at least a little experience. Some aircraft have handling issues around take-off; they can "get away" from a pilot lacking appropriate training and experience.

It's not hard to imagine that someone having only read the appropriate materials could, under favorable conditions, get an airplane airborne. What happens next is another matter.

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Anyone who isn't employed as a pilot is by definition an amateur.

A very large number of people who fall in that category is either a pilot license holder or is (or has in the past) trained to become one.

All of those people can take off in an aircraft. And especially in the past many people did take off in aircraft without ever having had any training at all. They taught themselves to fly the hard way, by trying and see what worked. Of course a lot of those early pioneers ended up killing themselves in the process.

Now, if you're limiting your question to specific types or categories of aircraft you will limit that group further, as specific aircraft types may require knowledge that most of those people lack for how to prepare them for flight. Many may even require external equipment for them to be able to be started at all, meaning even a qualified pilot won't be able to do so without outside assistance.

But you didn't limit your question.

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    $\begingroup$ I disagree with the first sentence. I wouldn't call private pilots amateurs. Maybe "Anyone who doesn't hold a license that permits takeoff" or something would fit better? $\endgroup$ – geisterfurz007 Stop this chaos Oct 25 at 10:27
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    $\begingroup$ @geisterfurz007 the first sentence is a statement of fact. There's nothing to agree or disagree with. The definition of amateur is someone who does something but doesn't get paid for it. A professional is someone who does something and gets paid for it, because it's their job, or profession (hence professional ) $\endgroup$ – Aaron F Oct 25 at 11:16
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    $\begingroup$ -1 if I could. This answer is word smithing amateur. OP also says a civilian getting into a cockpit at SFO..., but I'm sure most commercial pilots are civilians. He also uses the words layman, kid and zero experience. He is clearly talking about someone not trained to fly a plane, not the technical definition of the word amateur. $\endgroup$ – user1717828 Oct 25 at 12:09
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    $\begingroup$ @geisterfurz007: That sentence is literally the definition of "amateur". It seems that your native language is German, and in fact, in that language, the definition is exactly identical. $\endgroup$ – Jörg W Mittag Oct 25 at 13:13
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    $\begingroup$ -1. What you say is technically correct, but it's pretty obvious that the question doesn't mean that. $\endgroup$ – DJClayworth Oct 25 at 13:35

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