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It's a situation that often played out in the movies - the pilots are incapacitated, and the person in the cockpit is looking at all of those instruments and controls, wondering what to do with them.

How much of a chance would this person have? Assume that the person can successfully communicate with Air Traffic Control over the radio.

This is closely related to Can a passenger realistically replace suddenly incapacitated pilots?, but I want to stress that the person in cockpit would have no prior flying experience whatsoever, while the plane has well-functioning autopilot and autoland systems. Can a modern plane be landed without ever touching the throttle and control stick?

P.S. A clarification on why I assume that communication with ground should be realistic. Many commercial planes today have WiFi on board, and people, even if not voice calling, are able to actively use their social media accounts. A video from the cockpit with appropriate commentary will instantly attract many views (and, however perversely, "likes"), so the person who sent it would eventually get in contact with appropriate authorities and get necessary instructions.

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Most people will have no idea what frequency to use to talk to the ATC, since it changes by area. Assuming they have established contact, the person in the cockpit will have to be guided on every step, and execute the instructions precisely.

The term is "talkdown landing", which have been done with GA aircraft, but have never been tested with an airliner in real life.

During the Helios Flight 522, a flight attendant, who happened to be a commercial pilot (one step below airline pilot lice3se) attempted it. However, he was on the wrong frequency, out of time, and possibly suffering from hypoxia, all factors playing against him.

The TV show Mythbusters attempted a talkdown airliner landing in a simulator, and were talked down successfully, proving it's at least sometimes possible. There is a video online. Note that the show's presenters are highly technically skilled.

University of North Dakota ran another test recently. The participants had access to a radio for talkdown landing. Out of 5 people, 2 failed and 3 succeeded. The 3 that succeeded included a commercial pilot, a private pilot, and a flight sim enthusiast. The conclusion seems to be that a little bit of training, even on the wrong plane, goes a long way.

There isn't a single "land now" button, except on a few business jets (not airliners). The operator still needs to set correct heading to reach the runway, activate autoland, make sure it homes in on the localizer, extend the landing gear. The throttle is automated, except for reverse thrust, but it's an easy control compared to the switches.

Without external instructions, it's not realistic at all. Attempts to land without communication have failed in experiments above, as well as in real life. Everything's possible - there's even been a case of a plane (not an airliner) landing itself by accident - but this one is highly unlikely.

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  • $\begingroup$ Comments have been moved to chat; please do not continue the discussion here. Before posting a comment below this one, please review the purposes of comments. Comments that do not request clarification or suggest improvements usually belong as an answer, on Aviation Meta, or in Aviation Chat. Comments continuing discussion may be removed. $\endgroup$
    – Farhan
    Jun 12, 2023 at 2:12
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Is it theoretically possible? yes.

Is it likely to work? no.

This is assuming all aircraft systems are functioning normally, and for whatever reason both aircrew just dropped dead in their seats during cruise phase with the cockpit door unlocked and open and someone noticed them being dead. It also assumes the runway they're going for has a CAT III ILS system operational (many do not).

If the aircraft is one in the A320 family, until just before touchdown no input to the controls is needed except on the glareshield and MCDU from the moment you engage the autopilot shortly after takeoff. Once the aircraft reaches cruise altitude, "all" the pilots need to do if everything goes well (and it almost always does) is monitor systems, enter the arrival information into the MCDU, set the final approach altitude on the glareshield, and then when prompted press the altitude button to go into managed descent mode.

Then later they need to drop flaps and landing gear as they approach the field, and arm ground spoilers and autobrakes.

Then shortly before touchdown (as prompted) they would have to pull back the throttles, and on touchdown engage thrust reversers. On stopping (let's assume they're not going to attempt taxiing to a gate or hard stand) they'd have to shut down the engines and engage the parking brake.

They COULD be talked through this by a pilot in the tower, IF they figured out the correct frequencies to program in the COM radios (paper charts would help, let's hope the pilots managed to open their chart books to the correct pages before they died).

With most any other aircraft with less automation, it gets progressively harder and less likely to succeed. And if the death of the pilots were caused by something that's wrong with the aircraft, good luck as you now have damaged systems to manage as well as your panicky unqualified people at the controls.

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  • $\begingroup$ Thank you! That sounds that for A320 at least, getting on the radio would be the most difficult part :) $\endgroup$
    – Alexander
    Jun 6, 2023 at 17:04
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Mentour Pilot and Tom Scott both have videos showing a non-pilot (Scott) attempting just this in a B737 simulator (similar to the Mythbusters episode), with Mentour Pilot acting as ATC. In the video, they attempt two scenarios - one using the autopilot (and autoland) and one without. As you can imagine, the one not using automation failed, but the autoland did exactly what it was supposed to. The only control-input-type-things the passenger-turned-pilot did was to add flaps, put the gear down, and keep the aircraft centered on the runway after touchdown. Everything else he did was to change settings on the autopilot.

In the videos, they note that there are one or two major caveats with this experiment. A passenger on an airliner is very unlikely to even get into the cockpit in the first place, making the whole question rather moot. And, if someone were to get in (maybe a flight attendant?), figuring out how to communicate with ATC could be problematic.

In the general aviation space where cockpits aren't secured like on airliners, there is the Garmin Autoland system which will, at the press of a button, automatically land and stop the airplane. It's certified in a handful of aircraft at this time. There's also a ballistic recovery parachute, popularized by Cirrus aircraft (where it's standard); this system deploys a big parachute to bring the aircraft to the ground gently (enough that in some cases the aircraft can be repaired and re-flown!), and is activated by pulling a handle.

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    $\begingroup$ There are also ballistic chutes. By my understanding, they are designed to "land" an aircraft well enough that the passenger and crew are likely to survive which--if the pilot is incapacitated--could probably be called a "win". $\endgroup$
    – supercat
    Jun 6, 2023 at 16:41
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    $\begingroup$ Thank you! Just a little note - I never specified that the "non-pilot" must be a passenger. In a commercial airliner scenario, that would likely be a flight attendant. $\endgroup$
    – Alexander
    Jun 6, 2023 at 17:04
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Well with a novice at the controls or not, it will be coming back to terra firma, one way or the other.

Tongue in cheek aside, depending on the A/C type, a person with no flight time or experience flying an airplane with have a tremendous struggle doing this and will probably result in a fatal accident.

With limited flight training and a skilled pilot to help talk you down, most likely a neophyte can get an airplane back to a runway and land it with minimal damage. This has happened on several occasions with general laviation aircraft, such as this case where a woman was talked down to land a Cessna 421 after her husband had a fatal heart attack at the controls. It has also happened on at least two occasions with military jet fighters, once in 1959 when a USAF mechanic became airborne in an F-86 at night, then in 1986 when a Marine mechanic took an A-4 up for an unauthorized joyride. It is reasonable to assume that an inexperienced person could, therefore, land an airliner like an A320, if they could be talked down by an experienced A320 captain and instructor pilot.

I would also argue, as in the cases above, this is only realistically possible under the following conditions.

  • PIC would have to be a very quick learner and make a lot of perceptions and insights in a very short time. And all this must be done inside an airplane, and they make terrible classrooms.
  • Airplane would have to be in working order, no damage or system malfunctions.
  • Visual Meteorological Conditions would have to prevail throughout the arrival and approach; flying an instrument approach would be an excessively tall order for a newbie.
  • Winds must be light; crosswinds with really complicate things.

But no matter how much external help they had, most likely the roundout, touchdown and rollout are going to be pretty rough, possibly with the aircraft exiting the runway.

The biggest problem is, even with the best knowledge base and people to talk them down, they still lack the kinesthetic hand-eye coordination needs to successfully fly the airplane to the runway and control it in the rollout. This coordination or lack thereof would most likely make it very difficult or impossible for a newbie to land a helicopter due to the consequential nature of making control input and the ease of entering very dangerous flight phenomenon during approach like a vortex ring state.

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  • $\begingroup$ "flying an instrument approach would be an excessively tall order for a newbie" - I presumed that with ILS Cat III, pilot (or "newbie pilot") would only need to engage autoland and respond to prompts (apart from concerns like crosswinds which may force to abort the landing), no? $\endgroup$
    – Alexander
    Jun 6, 2023 at 17:38
  • $\begingroup$ Very few airports in this country have those approaches available. $\endgroup$ Jun 6, 2023 at 17:42
  • $\begingroup$ Is there a list of airports with Category 3 ILS systems? $\endgroup$
    – Alexander
    Jun 6, 2023 at 18:05
  • $\begingroup$ In addition, those approaches require specific training and certification to fly plus ground equipment, which can handle those kinds of approaches. It would be a hell of a lot for a neophyte to handle, especially in hard IMC down to minimums. $\endgroup$ Jun 6, 2023 at 18:09
  • $\begingroup$ Is your point that, for a newbie, operating an autoland system would be more difficult than landing an airliner manually? $\endgroup$
    – Alexander
    Jun 6, 2023 at 19:02
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It's theoretically possible without an autoland system. A passenger climbs in the pilot's seat and broadcasts a call if they can figure out which button is for the mic, which will be on a center frequency, which gets the ball rolling.

Someone intimately familiar with the airliner and its autopilot system could, if the passenger was smart enough and able to cope with the pressure, instruct the person to push this, button, then that button, on the autopilot panel and the Flight Management System keyboard, move the trust levers to some position, whatever it takes and get the autopilot to navigate to a runway and intercept a final approach glide path.

It can all be done with button pushes and knob twiddles, and working the thrust levers back and forth, right down to a landing flare before they even have to touch the control wheel.

Assuming you don't have autoland, the only physical hand flying challenge is managing the thrust during the approach if there isn't an autothrottle system, and the flare and touchdown.

You have them leave the autopilot to fly the approach right down to 100 ft or so, tell them to hit the A/P disconnect button, and start to pull as the GPWS radar altitude callouts are counting "50, 40, 30...". Pull back the right amount, keep the wings level, and it will land in one piece, maybe hard, but in one piece. Then it's a matter of standing on the brakes and steering the thing like a soapbox derby car.

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    $\begingroup$ Given a long and wide runway, would people be more likely to survive an inexperienced person's attempt to flare the landing of a Boeing-style jet, or simply following a minimal-speed glide slope into the ground? I'd expect landing gear would need inspection if not replacement on a non-flared landing, but an attempt to flare the landing in a non-Airbus-style plane would seem like it would run the risk of gaining too much altitude and then stalling, resulting in a loss of control authority. $\endgroup$
    – supercat
    Jun 6, 2023 at 16:47
  • $\begingroup$ A touchdown at 500-700 fpm would cause a bounce and blow all the tires and probably do structural damage, but you'd survive it likely. $\endgroup$
    – John K
    Jun 6, 2023 at 19:04
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The Washington Post recently asked that question and put several novices through a flight simulator (https://www.washingtonpost.com/travel/2023/05/20/passengers-try-landing-plane-flight-simulator/ - there may be a paywal). As you might expect, the results were not good.

Their summary:

Based on our simulator experiment, no inexperienced traveler should ever volunteer to land a plane in an emergency. Even with a prodigious amount of guidance, which Wilson said was highly improbable in a real-life scenario, our recruits still cratered.

However, if there are no other options, remember these invaluable lessons: Never disengage the autopilot (don’t move the side stick or press the red button). Put on the headset, and hold the switch when you speak. And take five seconds to sip your proverbial tea.

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