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Yes, this is a question from the movies. Assume that the plane is in flight and in perfect mechanical conditions. However, all the pilots onboard are suddenly incapacitated.

Can a passenger without any previous flight experience realistically save the plane and take it to a safe landing only by remote radio help?

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    $\begingroup$ @Federico Such stories appear in the news from time to time. $\endgroup$ – David Richerby Oct 8 '14 at 7:28
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    $\begingroup$ possible duplicate of How can passengers help in the cockpit in an in-flight aviational crisis? $\endgroup$ – fooot Oct 8 '14 at 14:21
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    $\begingroup$ On a commercial passenger plane, if the pilots pass out, you can't get into the cockpit because it's locked from the inside... $\endgroup$ – Floris Oct 9 '14 at 6:43
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    $\begingroup$ Since I can not post an answer, let me add my opinion in a comment: As long as one is smart enough to locate the operations manual and contact ATC, landing a modern commercial jet on an airport with the necessary ILS equipment should be a piece of cake thanks to autoland. Even without it, landing a functional aeroplane in good weather on a long runway is not rocket science. It is very easy. The times when pilots really need their experience and earn their salary is in emergency or bad weather. I suspect that even the brightest without experience would not be able to deal with strong crosswind. $\endgroup$ – Harold Cavendish Oct 10 '14 at 22:20
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    $\begingroup$ "Even without it, landing a functional aeroplane in good weather on a long runway is not rocket science. It is very easy." Not to someone who's never done it before... I wouldn't even call it 'easy' on your first time with a CFI in the seat beside you. $\endgroup$ – reirab Nov 12 '14 at 23:10

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I guess this is a secret dream of many of you here: You sit on a scheduled flight, and hear in the PA system: "Both our pilots just passed out. Any volunteers to take over their duties?"

Won't happen.

Think of what would happen next: Panic! The volunteers won't even make it to the cockpit. All cabin crew are focussed to keep the cabin calm, so this announcement will never be made.

Instead, one of the cabin crew will take over. That is part of their duties, actually, and some airlines even give them basic training so they have a fair chance when they are in contact with someone on the ground who can talk them through all steps.


Edit: Thanks to some commenters for pointing out that the question also includes GA traffic. Yes, I did not cover this. Generally, I think a passenger should have an easier time to take over, when he/she is sitting already in the right seat. He/she could watch the pilot before and has a full set of controls available. GA planes move much more slowly, so things happen at a slower pace and much less kinetic energy is involved if the touchdown is not perfect. Much depends on the constitution of the new pilot: Some people will simply panic and not be able to follow even the best remote help. But if they keep their cool, a good landing (meaning one you can walk away from) should be possible.

I had been in the right seat of a Lancair once and the pilot turned the plane over to me on final. The Lancair was so sensitive in pitch that I porpoised the aircraft - I first had to get adjusted. So even a pilot in a new type might not be able to land it immediately when he gets to fly it first time on short final!

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    $\begingroup$ and there might well be a colleague on board who's positioning or on a staff discount ticket, and they'd know about that and quietly approach him/her :) $\endgroup$ – jwenting Oct 8 '14 at 7:34
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    $\begingroup$ Secret? My kids don't even ask me what I dream about any more. You've ruined it! Now I might have to dream about just fixing something. Tell me, do airline pilots dream about writing software perchance? $\endgroup$ – dotancohen Oct 8 '14 at 8:07
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    $\begingroup$ This answer does not seem to address the question at all. $\endgroup$ – Relaxed Oct 8 '14 at 8:39
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    $\begingroup$ @Relaxed: Do I need to spell it out? The answer is no, obviously, but not for the reason you seem to expect. $\endgroup$ – Peter Kämpf Oct 8 '14 at 8:46
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    $\begingroup$ @PeterKämpf No, you just explained that you can't imagine a situation in which a passenger would have to do it. It's probably true but the question is: What if it did happen nonetheless? It does not seem too complicated to understand… $\endgroup$ – Relaxed Oct 8 '14 at 9:01
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Actually, this theory has been tested a few times in simulators and small aircrafts with little twists here and there.

Take a look at this video: Amateur Trying to Land Airbus A320 from 2500 Altitude

Assuming you can get to the controls:

This may be possible, but I believe it is very unlikely to be successful. Based on all the videos I see online, people attempting to do it, fail a few times before they get it right. In the video (linked above), she crashed like five times before she managed it like shown in the video. Also, If you don't have autoland and sit in a big, heavy aircraft, the chances are very slim.

I really can't say yes or no to this question. There are a ton of factors that counts to decide whenever this is possible or not. For example weather, type of aircraft, weight of aircraft, self-taught experience with the airplane, and a big load of confidence (especially if you have never seen a cockpit before). If the plane has ILS systems with full Auto-landing options, I'd say your chances are better assuming you know how to program it, or get instructions from air-traffic controllers.

So all in all, you are likely to survive, but the plane may be badly damaged on touchdown.


Here are a few more interesting (not directly relevant) examples:

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    $\begingroup$ I suppose it also depends on what you define as a "safe" (successful) landing -- If you thunk the thing down blow out the tires and run off the side of the runway into a ditch but nobody is seriously hurt or killed I'd call that a success in some situations :) $\endgroup$ – voretaq7 Oct 10 '14 at 19:58
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    $\begingroup$ @voretaq7 as the old saying goes, any landing you can walk away from is a good landing. $\endgroup$ – Pedro Werneck Oct 10 '14 at 20:33
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    $\begingroup$ To be fair, I would not deem the woman fit for driving my car. If they replaced her with an engineer or perhaps a physicist – generally someone with advanced understanding of aviation and aeroplanes, I am sure the performance would be more impressive. $\endgroup$ – Harold Cavendish Oct 10 '14 at 22:12
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    $\begingroup$ @HaroldCavendish I'm an engineer who worked for a while at a USAF airframe, jet engine, and rocket motor wind tunnel testing facility. Suffice it to say that I'm reasonably familiar with aerodynamics. There's no way on Earth I'd have been able to land a heavy jet in real life on the first try with no real training. Landing a Piper Cherokee is hard enough when you've never done it before, even with a CFI sitting in the right seat. Even with the flying experience I have now, I'd be demanding to get someone on the radio who could tell me how to set up the autoland. $\endgroup$ – reirab Nov 12 '14 at 23:24
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    $\begingroup$ "self-taught experience with the airplane" If we're talking about passenger jets, I can't say I've met many people with self-taught experience in a passenger jet. That's a little outside the budget of most people... And, no, FS X doesn't count for much other than maybe helping you understand how to use the radios to call for help and understand how to read the instruments. "or get instructions from air-traffic controllers." I think you'd probably want them to get you an actual captain for that type. Controllers would only know marginally more about it that you would. $\endgroup$ – reirab Nov 12 '14 at 23:30
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Mythbusters tested this. They each tried once without guidance and failed miserably. Then they had a veteran ATC assist them and they both landed successfully. So the experiment was tainted just a bit since they got a practice run, but it doesn't seem like they really learned anything from that practice run (they didn't even know what all of the controls did, and IIRC one of them didn't even manage to get the landing gear out), so for all intents and purposes they were doing it for the first time.

More importantly, after having their fun in the simulator, the show notes that all modern commercial jets are equipped with autoland, so all the passenger would need to do is program it, with instructions from ATC. ATC may even be able to program it remotely on current aircraft.


For the case of a small aircraft without such fancy equipment, the answer is still yes. There's a saying in aviation: "A good landing is one where you can walk away. A great landing is one where you can use the plane again." If you lower your expectations about what a "landing" entails, it's not too hard to land a small prop plane. They can travel surprisingly slowly and don't require much runway length (so you could burn half the runway just trying to get lined up and level and still be fine). Depending on the conditions, a better option might be to leave the landing gear up and skid it into an empty field. With ATC guidance, this is really not too hard.

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    $\begingroup$ Yeah. To land a plane you really need only one skill--being able to operate the radio. Talkdowns usually work. I've even heard of a course for spouses of GA pilots that's basic familiarization plus emphasis on the radio. While someone having to take the controls on a big bird is AFIAK unheard of GA pilots do occasionally suffer strokes or heart attacks. $\endgroup$ – Loren Pechtel Oct 9 '14 at 3:22
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    $\begingroup$ and of course the "ATC" was expecting the situation, and no doubt everyone had practiced. They're special effect guys in Hollywood after all. $\endgroup$ – jwenting Oct 9 '14 at 12:10
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    $\begingroup$ I don't know I'd be happy knowing that some dude on the ground miles away from the plane can configure the autopilot on my plane without a connection. I mean, if ATC can do it through radio, what is stopping a terrorist or other person with malicious intent from doing it? $\endgroup$ – Nzall Jun 2 '15 at 9:36
  • $\begingroup$ @Nzall In fairness, even being able to remotely program autoland with no chance of a pilot override would at worst lead to a landing at an unintended autoland-capable airport. Annoying for the people involved both in the aircraft and on the ground, yes. Certainly costly for the airline. But a really big deal? Probably not. Pilots are already supposed to monitor the flight continuously in case the autopilot disengages for some reason, and it would be hard to make the autopilot do anything truly dangerous in the short amount of time before the pilots would disengage it and take over control. $\endgroup$ – a CVn Dec 20 '17 at 16:25
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    $\begingroup$ ATC or the airline can uplink clearances and to a certain extent routes, respectively, but button-pressing is required on board to make the aircraft fly what’s uplinked. Therefore, the full remote takeover doesn’t work. $\endgroup$ – Cpt Reynolds Jun 30 '18 at 10:46
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For a completely untrained person it would be hard and would take hours of practice, so a lot would depend how much fuel the plane had.

In theory it is possible, as long as you have a long runway, because you can land it on a really shallow glide slope, which takes a lot of potential problems out the equation. As long as the guy has it lined up right, configured correctly and is going the right speed, the plane will more or less land itself. It's just a question of how many times he has to go around before he lines it up right.

Don't forget the Barefoot Bandit who stole a bunch of planes and "landed" them multiple times successfully using only the information in the operator's manual. Not pretty landings, but, hey, he landed and walked away each time.

------------------- ** FOLLOW UP **

I asked a senior pilot/instructor/examiner at American about this. He said the following:

(1) Stewards are not trained to take over in the event of such an emergency

(2) On many flights there are pilots flying in a jump seat or making a transit and these could take over if they are present.

(3) In the unlikely event that the crew was incapacitated and there was no other regular pilot on board, the flight attendants would ask among the passengers if anyone has a pilot's license. In this situation the disadvantages of "inducing panic" would be irrelevant compared to the value of having an experienced pilot flying the plane.

(4) If an untrained person had to fly the plane, it could probably be done successfully in most cases using the automatic features of modern commercial carriers.

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    $\begingroup$ +1 for the follow up. I'd much rather have a passenger with a pilot's license flying the aircraft than an FA. Most FAs know exactly nothing about flying an airplane other than what the flight deck looks like. $\endgroup$ – reirab Nov 12 '14 at 23:35
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    $\begingroup$ This is my theory - a GA pilot should have at least a chance of crashing the aircraft softly enough that most on board survive... which sounds bad, until you remember that the alternative is probably a massive crash. The really interesting one would be a non-pilot with Flight Simulator experience $\endgroup$ – Jon Story Dec 4 '14 at 9:46
  • $\begingroup$ Auto landing, ok, but how about braking? Does the auto pilot brake as well? I suppose perfect landing does not suffice, if you end up going 200 km/h on land and not knowing how to stop. $\endgroup$ – Tero Lahtinen Apr 4 '18 at 18:29
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    $\begingroup$ @Tero Lahinen Planes have auto-brakes but like everything else they need to be configured in order to work. Eg. if the runway is wet/day etc. $\endgroup$ – Benjamin Goodacre Nov 5 '18 at 2:36
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OP is asking if it’s POSSIBLE, not if it’s likely.

To answer your question YES it’s possible. Actually it would be fairly “easy,” if you were talking on the radio to someone from that airline, who knows the aircraft type, layout, and systems.

  • First you would need to be able to talk to a controller.
  • In order to do this, you would need to know that you can’t just start talking into the microphone. When you do this and the aircraft has a interphone lock switch, you would likely hear your own voice, and so you would think the air traffic controller (ATC) would be able to hear you. This is false as you have to “toggle” the switch. My aircraft type (747) has 3 such switches: one next to the radio, one on the steering column, and one on the hand microphone. The two on the radios and steering column have two settings, one is for the interphone and one is for the radio. So you would have to switch it in the right way as well.
  • Once you actually talk to ATC, you would possibly be connected to someone from the airline who knows the exact layout of the panels, as each airline can order different configurations and extra options etc. Most of the primary flight displays are usually the same, but there are minor differences.
  • They would talk you through setting up the aircraft for a fully automated landing. This would include:
    • descending and navigating to a location where you could “attach the aircraft systems to the runway landing system” — intercept heading for an ILS (instrument landing system) approach
    • setting up the autopilot and FMS (flight management systems) for that approach
    • set the autobrakes etc.
  • This would require a lot of patience and time, but I do think it is possible, once the aircraft has landed it would automatically brake to a full stop and keep rollout guidance (stay on the runway).
  • If any extra abnormality occurs it would be highly unlikely the person would be able to solve that
  • I think the most important factor here is time, patience and the ability for the passenger to listen and not panic. Time = fuel, so that’s always of the utmost importance.
  • Given it happens more than 100 NM (nautical miles) away from the airport you would land on you would have to switch multiple times from ATC centers. Just hope you would be able to do that and get in contact with the new center. So let’s hope we’re all wise enough to have you talk on 121.5 (international emergency frequency) and stay there.

Also, if this happens over, for instance, the ocean you might be talking on HF, very bad radio quality and most probably not the radio which is selected at that time, so getting in contact with ATC might prove difficult.

As for getting into the cockpit, with a bit of ingenuity or help that should be fairly straightforward, even with all the new cockpit doors etc.

If you’re smart, you would call the airline with a credit card phone from the cabin first if absolutely no one including stewardesses, who don’t know how to operate the radios etc., knows what to do.

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    $\begingroup$ "you would call the airline with a credit card phone from the cabin first" "You don't know me; I'm aboard your flight from London to New York and both our cockpit crew just passed out and nobody but me knows what to do. Please transfer me immediately to someone who can help us." Somehow I can't quite see the person at the switchboard (that is assuming that you can get to a human being in a reasonable amount of time in the first place, as opposed to a touch-tone menu) quite believing that... it's probably going to take some precious time just to convince them that you are telling the truth. $\endgroup$ – a CVn Sep 4 '15 at 8:51
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Somebody calm and with radio communication could land an airliner.

They would need to be able to use the Mode Control Panel, possibly the FMS, perform an ILS capture (likely controlled entirely by the STAR in the FMS), autobrake settings and be able to control flap settings and gear.

If in the cruise, the flight management computer (FMC) could fly from TOD down to a long final with ILS capture, flap retraction, drop the gear and maximum autobrakes using flight level change (FLCH) and speed control.

All this could be explained over the radio.

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enter image description here

I came across this story of a husband and wife enjoying a flight on a GA plane, when the husband died of a heart attack. The wife sought help on the radio, a flight instructor heard it, jumped in a plane and went looking for her. She could walk away from the landing.

So the answer is a definite Yes, it has happened.

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When I first read the question, I thought, "sure, if you're an ex-USAF pilot like I am, not a problem" (every time I fly on an airline, that fantasy occurs to me lol). But then I saw that the question was caveated with "no previous flight experience". Oh well :)

I think the odds would be 50-50 at best whether someone with absolutely no flight experience could land a modern jet airliner without crashing, even with the absolute best radio instructions possible. Maybe even worse odds than that.

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  • $\begingroup$ Are autoland system that poor or difficult to operate? $\endgroup$ – Taemyr Oct 10 '14 at 8:45
  • $\begingroup$ @Taemyr Poor? No; they're quite good at what they're designed to do. Difficult to operate? Yes. In addition to knowing how to program it, you also have to know what to program it to do, which a non-pilot would have very little chance of knowing. $\endgroup$ – reirab Apr 26 '16 at 19:33
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Let's assume physical access to the cockpit is not an obstacle (flight attendant or someone has duplicate key or access code; a crowbar can be obtained; or otherwise a brute force way to get in can be devised.)

I'm going to say the answer to the question is as follows:

If a passenger has never flown a plane or played with a flight simulator, then there's a very slim chance they will successfully land the plane. There has to be some kind of working knowledge of how aircraft work. This knowledge is crucial and simply can't be imparted by someone trying to talk them through it over the radio. (Can a non-technical passenger even figure out how to use the radio and establish communication with a control tower? Probably not. )

However, if a passenger has played with flight simulators, the probability of success rises greatly. In other words, now it's actually in the "tens of percent" (10%, 20%, 30%) versus hundredths of percentile (0.001%). That's because flight simulators are pretty accurate representations of real flying, and in order to use a flight simulator successfully, you actually have to first learn the fundamentals of how airplanes work (gliding, stalling, dealing with wind, how to line up for the runway, etc).

And if a passenger has piloted some sort of real aircraft, then it increases the chances a bit more, although probably not a huge amount compared to the simulator-only case. At this point, it is a matter of the passenger learning where the minimum essential controls are, how to take the plane off autopilot if that's what's needed. Knowing which are the essential controls and ignoring the rest of the control panel. And knowing how to navigate to the nearest airstrip. Assuming this information can be imparted by someone (control tower people over the radio), then I would say there's a 95% chance of making it to the airstrip and maybe a 50% chance of successful landing. As someone else mentioned, the touchdown is the crucial moment. Someone who has landed a single engine prop isn't going to know how a 737 feels.

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An interesting question. I am fairly certain that a modern figther jet would be a lot easier to land than a typical airliner, due to not having quite as much automation.

I worked with a simulator for a fighter jet and at least one pilot thought we (the IT guys working on the sim) would be able to land the real plane if it came to that.

On the other hand, when we had random clients try landing the sim when flying it for the first time, it almost always worked when someone talked them down, standing by their side, using ILS. You don't have that luxury in a real plane: nobody can point to the controls for example. If people would have tried on their own, I think fewer than 1 in 5 would have made it. I mean with no help even from the radio, hence no glide-slope to guide the landing.

You just need to have a feeling for the touchdown, and the only way to get that is practice. Which in this case there is none! Jet airliners are also a lot less forgiving than a smaller plane due to all that inertia/weight, so to be honest I think a controlled crash is the likely best outcome.

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I would suggest to use a mobile phone to call a police - that much most of people can easily do. The police should tell the phone number to contact the airport. From there, it may be possible to receive professional instructions how use the radio on the plane, and further professional instructions that I believe should at least reduce the number of casualties. Even assuming the most hopeless scenario, even crashing in remote area away from houses is already something. Maybe it is possible to do something better in comparison to that.

I do not know, maybe at least in some cases an airport may even tell the code to unlock the door. The airport would see that legitimate pilots are no longer responding to the radio calls, the plane is not following the planned path.

Mobile phones generally work from the airplane, while it may be better slow down and descend below cruising altitude. This is probably easier than to land. Also, as noted by @DJZorrow, it may be built - in passenger phones on a plane that are more likely to work.

In general, with 200+ seats in the airliner, there is a non-zero possibility that an ATP that is (or has been) rated for the type is flying as a passenger. Because of that, I think, some attempt to recruit able passengers should be made rather than just leaving controls unattended.

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    $\begingroup$ Mobie phones are unlikely to work in the airplane as the signal from the ground antennas won't reach the altitude passenger planes normally operate at. Unless you have an on-board phone, a satellite phone or if the plane is flying lower than normal. $\endgroup$ – Alexander Johansen Oct 9 '14 at 11:35
  • $\begingroup$ Have you looked into the reference provided? $\endgroup$ – h22 Oct 9 '14 at 11:44
  • $\begingroup$ Indeed I did :) $\endgroup$ – Alexander Johansen Oct 9 '14 at 13:24
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In October 2013, England, 77 year old complete novice John Wildey took over control after his friend pilot of a Cessna 172 lost consciousness, and successfully landed the plane.

https://www.flyingmag.com/technique/accidents/passenger-lands-cessna-172-skyhawk-after-pilot-incapacitated

If a 77 year old could do it, it gives us hope.

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I'm not an expert on this myself, however a former colleague of mine had to do with optimizing the ergonomics of the workplace of German national flight control and they told him that today, the autopilot can fully control an aircraft, including take-off and landing. So all you need to do is basically dial in the coordinates of the airport. And this can be explained over radio. So in case you can operate the radio, you'd probably have quite a good chance of getting that thing down. After that, you could basically get back to your seat and wait until you're down.

The people at flight control were actually pretty humorous and were kidding like: "Why do we even need pilots if these things can fly on their own?" - "Psst! Not too loud! Actually we don't need pilots. ;-)"

Of course that's not true and in case a big aircraft were to come down with autopilot, it would definitely be a rough landing, they'd probably clear the entire airport just in case and the aircraft may even take a bit of damage, but in > 95 % of all cases, all passengers would get down unharmed.

At least that's what I heard. Like I said I have no clue myself, so it may be complete bullsh*t. And of course it's gonna be a lot different for smaller machines (sports planes) which don't have this kind of equipment and will probably be a lot harder to successfully land.

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  • $\begingroup$ Regarding the second-to-last paragraph: Hundreds (at least) of airliners autoland every day. It's definitely not a rough landing and the percentage that result in no passengers getting harmed is currently somewhere around 100%. I'm not familiar with any accidents in which an autoland system has landed poorly enough to injure anyone, but it's possible that it has happened at some point. Certainly, far more instances exist where a landing has resulted in injuries as a result of pilot error. $\endgroup$ – reirab Apr 26 '16 at 19:38

protected by voretaq7 Oct 10 '14 at 19:56

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