Mayday! Mayday! How to Land a Plane in an Emergency

by schaefer on September 16, 2008 · 85 comments

in Manly Skills, Survival

Image by Martin Hartland

We’ve all had the thought cross our mind while flying, “What if the pilot(s) somehow became incapacitated and I had to land this thing? What would I do?” Or maybe more timely for today’s world, “What if a terrorist takes over the plane and I have to save the day by knocking him out with a Chuck Norris-style thump to the head?”

You’re a hero, boo-yah! But, if the pilot’s unconscious, you may have to get the plane on the ground. Relax, it’s not as hard as it looks and if you follow a few simple steps you’ll be on the ground safely and in one piece for your press conference and hero shots.

Maintain Aircraft Control (Straight and Level)

When you first arrive in the cockpit take the left seat if possible, this is generally where the Captain or Aircraft Commander sits and often has easier access to some of the instruments you’ll need to fly. However, the majority of dual seat aircraft can be flown from either side.

As soon as you sit down take a deep breath and look outside to see if the aircraft is in a dive (you see more ground in the windscreen than sky), climb, turn, etc. If it appears to be straight and level then don’t touch the flight controls, the autopilot is most likely on and there’s no need to interfere. If, however, the airplane is racing towards the ground or in a steep turn, then you need to use the stick or yoke (pilot speak for steering wheel) to bring it back to wings level flight. Just like in the video games, you pull back on the yoke to make it climb, push forward to make it descend, and turn it right or left to turn.

If you are in the clouds and can’t tell the attitude of the aircraft, then it will be necessary to use the attitude indicator, also referred to as the artificial horizon. This is an instrument that gives a representation of the aircraft in relation to the ground and sky. If you’re on a jet of some sort, chances are high that it will be displayed on the screen directly in front of you. The “w” shape in the middle represents the wings of the aircraft, the brown represents ground and the blue represents sky. So if you see half brown, half blue it means you are in level flight which is what you want. If you see anything else, then make corrections with the stick as necessary to line up the wings of the aircraft with the horizon line.

Make a Radio Call

After you have the aircraft under control, the next step is to contact Air Traffic Control (ATC) over the radio to explain the situation and ask for help. The majority of aircrafts have a radio mic switch on the yoke on the back where your index finger would rest when you grasped it normally. The problem is that the autopilot disconnect switch is often placed on the yoke as well and without proper knowledge of the autopilot system, an inadvertent disconnect of the autopilot could result in a major disaster. A safer alternative is using the hand-held radio normally mounted to the left of the pilot’s seat just below the side window. Use it just like you would use a CB radio, push to talk and release to listen.

Try making a call on the radio frequency currently selected and see if you get a response. Say “Mayday” and state who you are and what has happened. Don’t worry about radio etiquette, it’s an emergency so just use plain English and tell them you don’t know what you’re doing and need some help, but don’t sound too panicked. You’re a man after all and completely in control of the situation.

After talking, remember to release the mic button to listen. If no one responds, try changing the VHF radio frequency to 121.5 MHz (this is known as “Guard” and is monitored by everyone). The radio unit will normally be located on the center pedestal in between the pilot’s and co-pilot’s seats or directly in front of you on the center panel.

Do What They Tell You

Just like in the movies, what happens next is various agencies will be notified of your emergency and they will find someone who is an expert for your plane to walk you through getting it on the ground. They will know the cockpit layout and be able to tell you where a button or switch is located and what you need to do with it. They will also be working in conjunction with ATC to navigate you to an airport where you will be able to land. As long as you follow their instructions to the letter everything should turn out just fine. You may not have the prettiest landing, but you’ll survive.

Get It on the Ground

The reality is that many of today’s jets are fully-automated and have the capability to land themselves or at least get you lined up on the runway center line on a proper glide path so that you can take over at 50-100 feet off the ground. All you will have to manually do is:

  • Flare (pull up slightly on the stick just prior to touchdown so the main gear hit first)
  • Fly the nosewheel to the ground (push the stick forward until the front touches down)
  • Pull the throttles all the way back
  • Step on the brakes which are located on the tops of the rudder pedals down by your feet.
  • If you find yourself veering off the runway then lightly step on the rudder pedals to steer yourself back to centerline.

You’ve landed! It’s incredible; you’re now the hero of the day, congratulations! Now before you go patting yourself on the back in your imaginary scenario, here are a few additional things to consider:

Notes, Warnings, Cautions

  • Getting the landing gear down before landing is obviously a key part of the process, but has been forgotten by countless pilots. The gear handle is almost always located just to the right of the center console on the front instrument panel, basically just above the left knee of the co-pilot if he were sitting there.
  • In order to slow the aircraft to land you must employ various drag devices such as slats (normally only in very large aircraft) and flaps. These allow the airplane to maintain lift at slower airspeeds and allow you to keep the attitude level during a descent. These are generally found right next to the throttles.
  • Slats, flaps, and landing gear all have a max speed at which they can be deployed. It’s not the end of the world if you overspeed them in an emergency situation, but it should be avoided. If you aren’t in communication with someone that can help, look on the dash for a placard with the speeds, or a card with TOLD (takeoff and landing data).
  • If you can find the airspeed indicator make sure that you keep it within the green arc while flying. Just like anything in life, green is good, yellow means caution and red means dead. If you get too slow you will lose lift and stall the aircraft (trust me, this is bad and if you’re not a pilot, you probably won’t make it).
  • If you’re flying a commercial jet like a 737, a good rule of thumb is to keep it flying at about 200 knots if you don’t have flaps or gear extended, and 130 knots once you do and are making the approach to land. A smaller plane like a Cessna is stable on approach at speeds closer to 70 knots. Of course, if you’re talking to ATC ask them how fast you should go and they’ll hopefully be able to tell you.

{ 84 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Mike September 16, 2008 at 7:47 pm

Printing this out and placing it in my carry-on.

2 Kate McKay September 16, 2008 at 7:52 pm

What a super cool post Cameron! So much more informative than how to buckle my safety belt and where my flotation device is located.

Two quick questions I’m curious about:

-If when you initially get into the cockpit you find that the attitude is off kilter and then you correct it, do you then press the autopilot button to keep it that way?
-How do you know where to land? What should you look for?

3 Yura September 16, 2008 at 7:56 pm

While not my primary necessity at the moment, the post did give me a relief. Thank you :)

4 Ryan September 16, 2008 at 8:37 pm

Sweet article

5 Thadeus September 16, 2008 at 10:09 pm

Fantastic article. Will print it out and keep it in my usual carry on bag. Might even laminate it so it doesn’t get messed up.

6 Cameron Schaefer September 16, 2008 at 10:23 pm


Answers to your questions:
-If when you initially get into the cockpit you find that the attitude is off kilter and then you correct it, do you then press the autopilot button to keep it that way?

Technically the answer is yes, although I say it cautiously. Even experienced pilots often make errors when setting up the autopilot. However, that said, in most jets if you can find the autopilot (and auto-throttles if it has them) switch(es) and you turn it on, it will automatically hold the current altitude. In an emergency situation this would be great. Just make sure that your airspeed isn’t rapidly bleeding off once you engage the autopilot – the throttles may have gone to idle if you were in a descent.

As far as location, in most large jets they are in front of you in the center of the front instrument panel between the two pilots – about eye-level.

-How do you know where to land? What should you look for?

Look for the longest runway available if you can find an airport. If not, look for the flattest stretch of land you can find. Crop fields can often work depending on how smooth they are. Either way, just think of what it will feel like to hit the ground going 150 mph and choose accordingly (think long, flat and hard).

Best case scenario you are talking to ATC and they guide you to a suitable landing area.

7 Shatt September 17, 2008 at 12:16 am

If the aircraft *is* in a steep turn, just yanking back the yoke will exacerbate the turn and could lead to a stall. You need to level the wings before you pull back on the yoke. You also forgot to talk about the rudder pedals, those are important for keeping the aircraft properly balanced during level flight and during turns.

To expand more on autopilot, the majority of commercial airliner autopilots have a “autoland” setting where the autopilot will do everything for you during landing, including the flare, throttle control and braking.

8 web design company September 17, 2008 at 3:31 am

how to land a plane…if you have to

9 Ian B September 17, 2008 at 4:23 am

Great article. I hope I never need to use, but I am keeping a copy.

err. You did leave out the part where C. Heston comes in the front window.

10 Bob Iger September 17, 2008 at 4:47 am

Great article! I’ll keep a copy in my wallet, you never know. I knew about most of these procedures, except for the emergency radio frequency.

11 AK September 17, 2008 at 6:32 am

Luckily there will almost never be an occasion for an untrained passenger to have to take the controls of a commercial aircraft, and chances are there will be 1) other commercially and/or air transport trained pilots on board, or 2) at the very least, a private pilot or two. You folks here saying you’ll print out a copy of this and carry it with you on the plane? Keep living the dream I guess…

Now, if you have friends or relatives who are pilots of small aircraft and you find yourself in the passenger seat of one of those, there is an actual chance (albeit still extremely rare) that your pilot-friend could end up incapacitated. And, really, if it’s just the two of you in a small plane, what other choice will you have?

This is a good write up, but if you want more concise, illustrative, and more or less FAA-approved lesson for safely guiding you and your unfortunate friend to safety, I highly suggest people spend the time taking the AOPA Air Safety Foundation’s Pinch-Hitter ® interactive safety course:

You will have to register, but it’s worth it. Just not that, as the disclaimer reads, it is not a learn-to-fly course. But I have known a number of people who have been inspired to learn how to fly after taking the course. Give it a shot!

12 AK September 17, 2008 at 6:38 am

I should clarify that “more or less FAA-approved” does not mean that the FAA actually approves or sanctions untrained passengers flying aircraft in the event of an emergency, or that they’ve even reviewed the course. The ASF as a whole, however, is an FAA-approved safety program that allows pilots to satisfy biennial flight review requirements by taking and passing a variety of interactive courses. I just meant it to speak to the reliability of the ASF as a source of flight safety instruction.

13 Tony September 17, 2008 at 6:46 am

AK said:
“Luckily there will almost never be an occasion for an untrained passenger to have to take the controls of a commercial aircraft, and chances are there will be 1) other commercially and/or air transport trained pilots on board, or 2) at the very least, a private pilot or two.”

I believe Todd Beamer would beg to differ.

14 TC September 17, 2008 at 6:46 am

To all those folks saying they should carry a copy of this with them next time they step onto a commercial flight, just take a moment to imagine how it may look to a security official!

15 Dave Dragon September 17, 2008 at 7:27 am

I learned to fly years ago, bot fixed & rotor wing aircraft. I even built several Experimental and Ultralight craft.

Landing a plane in todays systems with todays technology is a breeze, even the giant airliners.

Great post!

Ride it like you stole it

16 Garry, Ontario ,Canada September 17, 2008 at 7:55 am

Mythbusters on the Discovery Channel did a segment on this – Adam and Jamie were put in a commercial simulator and were ‘talked through’ a safer landing by an aircraft controller. Without the controller….both splatted short of the runway.

17 Garry, Ontario ,Canada September 17, 2008 at 7:56 am

oops! Typo. I meant a safe (not safer) landing.

18 AK September 17, 2008 at 8:43 am

Tony said:
“I believe Todd Beamer would beg to differ.”

Todd Beamer didn’t take the controls of the aircraft and guide it to a safe landing. He may have never even stepped near the cockpit. A hero, yes, but irrelevant here.

19 Tony September 17, 2008 at 8:47 am


My point is that whether he actually made it to the cockpit or not, if he had made it, he would have been well served having already thought about what to do. The point is that while it seems wildly unlikely that such a scenario would arise, there is always a chance that it could.

20 b September 17, 2008 at 8:55 am

If you get randomly searched during pre-boarding and this article is found on your person, you’re probably not flying that day, prep for a cavity search and your name will be put on that dreaded list.
If the plane is in trouble and up you get with your saved passage on how to land a plane, move towards the cockpit, and I’m on that same flight? I’m probably going to kill you.
If the trained pilot can’t do it, then we’re dead cause neither can you.

21 Patrick Smith September 17, 2008 at 9:13 am

Not this again.

“Landing a plane in todays systems with todays technology is a breeze, even the giant airliners.”

Yeah sure it is. The myths of cockpit automation.

Perhaps a nonpilot could pull off the actual touchdown itself, under some careful tuteledge, but the idea of somebody guiding a jet to a safe landing, totally on his or her own, is utterly nonsensical.

I have written articles debunking this assinine notion. Here are a couple…


22 Joseph September 17, 2008 at 10:12 am

As a licensed private pilot, I believe a person with no aviation knowledge could successfully get an airliner on the ground given that 1) the jet is on autopilot when the passenger takes over and 2) the passenger gets into contact with ATC immediately. If the jet is not on autopilot when the passenger takes over, the jet most likely will be at an unusual attitude. In this case, I don’t believe an unknowledgeable person would be able to recover the airplane. The problem would be over stressing the aircraft. Given the above scenario where the plane is in a dive, pulling back on the yoke would probably rip the wings off. I’m making this assumption because the airplane would probably be way overspeed in a dive, and the passenger would probably pull back too hard. Airliner yokes are very sensitive, and only small movements are needed.

With that said, if you do find yourself in a situation like this do the following: Once you get in the seat immediately look for the attitude indicator (blue and orange representation on the computer screen in front of you). If the plane is not level, CAREFULLY apply pressure to the yoke in the appropriate direction to bring the plane to level. Next check how fast you are going and carefully adjust power to keep enough airspeed (200kts sounds good). After this you should be in a much more safe situation. Next hit the mike button and ask ATC what to do next. Remember to constantly scan your attitude indicator and speed and make adjustments where needed.

Congratulations, you are a pilot and can officially wear aviators now.

23 Mephisto September 17, 2008 at 3:11 pm

Lolz. As a “licensed private pilot” you haven’t even learned how to START a jet engine, let alone fly a jet plane.

If you ever find yourself in this ridiculously impossible situation, sit in the back and get drunk before you crash, because you WILL screw it up by messing with it.

The forces required on the flight controls are subtle at jet speeds, and most will over control, which will result in wild oscillations, at best.

24 Rodney Hampton September 17, 2008 at 5:12 pm

Please don’t let my snarky one liner below detract from your article. It was cool.

Now only if someone can write one entitled, “How to Bring the US Economy in for a Soft Landing.”

25 Mike M. September 17, 2008 at 6:04 pm

A couple of points.

First, Guard is 243.0 MHz. I’m not sure if 121.5 is monitored any more. A commercial aircraft will have both UHF and VHF radios.

Second, look for the transponder…it’s a 4-digit code. Squawk 7700…that’s the distress code. This will get ATC’s immediate attention, and get you immediate help.

Third, once you gently and smoothly get the airplane straight & level, find out if there are any pilots among the passengers. More flight time is a Good Thing.

26 Stian September 18, 2008 at 3:27 am

Ok, some thoughts on this post:

1. What makes you an expert on flying a plane, and how do I know if this is sufficient information to be able to land a plane?

2. Is it really a good idea to encourage people to kick a terrorists ass? I mean, shit, incompetent people who THINK they’re competent do stupid decisions that makes the situation worse than it already is. In the event of a terrorist hijacking you should presume that it is a well-planned execution, and that they have complete control of everything – are you sure you are able to compete against that? Unless the terrorists explicitly say «We are going to fucking murder every single one of you, in 5…4…» (which eliminates any kind of peaceful ending), I would suggest sitting down and shutting the fuck up.

3. The odds of being on an airline flight which results in at least one fatality (for any reason), among the best 25 airlines (not sure if they are the worlds best, or US’ best), is 1 to 6.06 million. The odds of being killed on a single airline flight (again, among the 25 best airlines) is 1 to 10.46 million (source:

So – even if the pilot dies, there’s still be a co-pilot. And chances are that there’s even one passenger (or more) that is a pilot (of some sort), or at least more qualified than you to land the airplane. In other words: The odds of a passenger ever needing to land an airplane are -very- slim.

27 Brett September 18, 2008 at 6:18 am


1. Cameron Schaefer, the author of this post, is an Air Force pilot who flies C-17′s for a living.

2. If a terrorist has hijacked your plane, what exactly are the chances of it ending peacefully?

3. This is supposed to be fun/interesting. Lighten up.

28 Jason Young September 18, 2008 at 11:36 am

This is a great piece of info. My one question is that part about “Fly the nosewheel to the ground (push the stick forward until the front touches down)”.

I was instructed in a single engine plane to hold back on the controls and let the nose wheel come down on its own. It helps the plane slow down faster on the roll out. Maybe this is different in larger planes?

29 Cameron Schaefer September 18, 2008 at 2:28 pm

@ Jason,

I’m not 100% on all of the differences aerodynamically between big jet and small plane, but I know in the C-17 we fly the nosewheel to the ground (gently, obvsiouly we don’t shove the stick forward) partly for directional control when we extend the thrust reversers and also so it doesn’t slam down on it’s own when the wings eventually lose lift.

You’re right though, I was also taught in smaller planes that you could keep the nosewheel off the ground for some aero-braking. I guess maybe the big difference is large jets often have thrust reversers so aero-braking isn’t needed.

I will ask this question to some of the guys more experienced then me and see what they say and try to get back to you again tonight.

30 Dave September 18, 2008 at 4:20 pm

I’d totally buzz the tower. I’d be like, “BEEEEEEEERRRRRRRRRRRRROOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWW!” and everybody woud duck and the windows would break but I’d upull up at the last second. That would be cool.

31 Dave September 18, 2008 at 4:22 pm

And then I’d be all cool and stuff and I’d get the hottest chick on the place to come up where I’m sitting and I’d be like, “Hey, baby…” and she’d swoon and stuff because she’d be in the COCKpit. Yeah. Sweetness.

32 Nolan September 18, 2008 at 5:43 pm

Flying the nosewheel down is what all large A/C pilots do. The smooth landing should come prior to that anyway, so visibility gets to be very important. Also, if you are screwing around keeping the nose up while losing airspeed, the plane will get more “sloppy” and be increasingly more difficult to keep your wings level (especially in a crosswind) and you are essentially wasting runway that you could be stopping on. Aerobraking becomes ineffective pretty fast when on the ground, especially without reverse thrust, meaning you still have to figure out a way to stop your 100k+ pound aircraft on “X” amount of pavement. Flying a large A/C is vastly different from the Piper Cubs and 152s most private aviators fly on takeoff and landing, but once you are in the air, an airplane is an airplane is an airplane.

As for the guard thing, I am pretty sure 121.3 is still monitored, as many aircraft don’t have UHF, especially the little guys.

In regards to resetting the transponder, no one who has never flown a jet will have the extra brain cells to figure out how to change it, as it is probably a function buried in the Flight Management System. If you are in that situation, the last thing you want to do is be looking inside for something that won’t stop you from dying. You eyes should be on airspeed and making sure houses aren’t getting bigger.

33 Nolan September 18, 2008 at 6:01 pm

Oh, and watch out for over using the rudder in a big plane. It will kill you pretty fast since that bad boy is about 20 feet tall and it can easily roll you into the ground with a hydraulically assisted rudder due to it’s sensitivity and your lack of experience. And yes, rudders do cause roll, especially when they are big.

34 Stian September 19, 2008 at 2:48 am

@ Brett:

1. Ok, would be worth mentioning in the post that it was written by someone who knows their stuff.
2. If you can’t believe in peaceful and (true) democratic resolutions, there will never be an end to wars.
3. I realize that it was supposed to be a fun and interesting post. Sorry, but the American anti-terror “cowboyism” and DIY-attitude just makes me tip over the scales at times.

35 Kris September 19, 2008 at 4:01 am

Great article, however I think that everyone forgot something here. If the pilots are knocked out how is anyone going to get into the cockpit? It is locked from the inside!

36 dayton September 19, 2008 at 10:53 am

Stian –

That very attitude is what kept the 9/11 victims in the first three planes calmly in their seats – lambs being led to slaughter. “Be quiet and calm and this will all be over soon.” Well, it was over soon. The only good thing that came from the terrrorist attacks is that it took hijacking off the list of available tactics. No one will ever believe that the plane will land and resolution be negotiated as it was in the 70′s and 80′s. We will all just assume we are going to die. For my part, I choose to die fighting than being lamb led to slaughter by some fanatic.

For the record, once an act has begun and reacted upon, it’s called counter-terrorism. Anti-terrorism is what you practice to prevent these things from ever happening.

So, you can sit back and count on the humanity of butchers and think joy-joy thoughts until you enter the groung or building at near the speed of sound. Good luck with that. As for me and my American cowboyism, I’m going to kill someone – then I know I have a chance at a peaceful resolution.

Since you like people to qualify themselves – I am a former US Army paratrooper and ranger. I am also a trained anti-terrorism advisor, firearms and tactics expert and certified law enforcement instructor. Woe be it on the bastard that tries to hijack my plane.

37 Echo September 20, 2008 at 2:46 am

Yeah! You tell him Dayton!
You have just gained 50 man-points! (Stian loses 2. . .)

38 Jan September 20, 2008 at 10:05 am

And you know this!! How?? I have yet to show this to my hubby….he will know if it passes the smell test. :) Not being a pilot I do,however, know that landing and take off…are the two most thrilling…and yet very dangerous portions of a flight. But…hey if you have no pilot…doing better than nothing! :)

39 Tiffany September 24, 2008 at 12:59 pm

I believe that the answer to Rodney Hampton’s question, “How to Bring the US Economy in for a Soft Landing.”

Was already answered in the post above by Mephisto, “If you ever find yourself in this ridiculously impossible situation, sit in the back and get drunk before you crash, because you WILL screw it up by messing with it.”


40 bb September 25, 2008 at 6:20 am

I’m a flaming liberal peace nut, but I’m not going to “sit down and shut up” if I’m on a plane that’s hijacked. I think we learned or lesson about that. Most of us. I’m not trained for anything, but I’m going to cause havoc before I get shot, and if enough people do there will probably be a smaller body count in the end.

I love the suggestions that people are stupid for educating themselves and preparing for emergencies because they are unlikely to happen. That’s someone I want to be around. Not really, that’s what they call sarcasm.


41 Sprint100 September 25, 2008 at 6:14 pm

An average joe with little or no experience behind the yoke? BAH-HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA

Microsoft Flight Sim is your experience! BAH-HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA

As mentioned this article is lighthearted, so don’t go on your next flight thinking you stayed at the Holiday Inn and now your are capable.

42 Sean September 25, 2008 at 7:08 pm

I fly professionaly. I don’t believe in the history of commercial aviation there has ever been an instance where both pilots were incapacitated and a non pilot passenger had to take the reins and “bring her on in.” Though of course in Hollywood it has happened. :)

While this article certainly can’t hurt, with so many variables to consider in such a situation, I believe there would a strong chance it would end in disaster. Even in the Mythbusters scenario, where they flew a SIM, they both crashed the plane the first time and then as they became familiar with the cockpit layout and the basics of how things worked, they were able to be “talked” down. Even then it was in a simulator without the real stress of a true emergency and in benign weather conditions. IF you had a plane with the autoland feature and if the situation was already stable when you stepped into the flightdeck you might stand a chance, if you were able to contact ATC (Controller) and figure out how to configure the plane to actually do the autoland. It is much more than a one step procedure.

When switching from one large plane to another that they have not flown before, even experienced pilots need time and training to adapt and safely fly a plane. Each one has differences in the cockpit layout, flight charachteristics, control pressures, sounds, systems, the picture out the window while landng or on the takeoff roll, etc.

Untrained person landing a transport category aircraft? Possible perhaps, but not without a lot of things working in his/her favor. Including some divine help.

43 ted striker September 25, 2008 at 9:37 pm

I fly for a major international airline. While some of this info is good, it is not enough to get you down in this situation. The best one could hope for is that there is another pilot on board either commuting or deadheading.

As for the frequency debate, civilian aircraft do not use UHF. Yes, 121.5 is always monitored and that is why ELT’s transmit on that frequency. It is not only monitored by ATC but by most other airliners in their #2 radio. We have HF radios for those parts of the world that do not have reliable VHF capability and/or over the water out of VHF range. In some parts of the world now we use something called CPDLC and ADS which uses GPS and SATCOM to transmit position reports etc. to ATC.

Keeping the nose off the ground is very useful in light aircraft but not in an airliner. We want to get the nose on the ground quickly to aid in braking and steering.

Finally, the rudder debate. In small aircraft you will want to possibly use the rudder. An airliner won’t require it because is has something called a yaw damper. If the aircraft has autoland capability the autopilot will make crosswind corrections as well up to the limititations by using three independent autopilot computers. The only time you need to tough the rudder in most airliners is if you lose an engine.

I’ve spent years doing this and have flown several aircraft types up to my current one, the 747-400. I still constantly train to do it right and get checked every six months in the sim. If you had an autoland capable airplane and had someone tell you how to program the FMS (computer) then you might have a shot. For all the automation it is still “garbage in, garbage out”, meaning that YOU will have to program the computer to do what you want it to do. If you program the wrong data you’ll still crash. It doesn’t just “fly itself” as has been suggested.

44 Stian's mom September 26, 2008 at 1:27 am

Stian sounds like a douche.

45 John September 26, 2008 at 6:04 am

if ANYONE not trained attempts to do this, prepare to crash and burn. Without proper training, you have no idea how to bring an airliner in for a landing – not even the most remotest of chances.
Don’t kid yourselves.

46 Chris September 26, 2008 at 11:26 am


If only this article would have been around back in 1997 I could have saved $50,000 on pilot training…..

Seems pretty simple…good luck to everyone who just got their “wings”

Canadian Airline Transport Pilot

47 Mangel September 26, 2008 at 1:28 pm

very, very interesting post … thanks

48 falk September 26, 2008 at 2:51 pm

@shatt you’re mostly right about leveling the wings first. If the aircraft is in a dive, definitely level the wings before pulling up. If the aircraft is in a climb and losing airspeed, getting the nose down takes priority. However, if someone reading this can’t remember all the steps when the time comes, the thing to remember would be: level the wings first.

I would ignore the rudder pedals. So a few passengers spill their drinks in back. Big deal. They probably chugged them down anyway when they found out that the pilot was incapacitated.

49 BOVICE September 27, 2008 at 11:22 am

….you forgot the part about making it through the 8inch thick kevlar door into the flightdeck.

50 Yeah OK September 29, 2008 at 9:59 pm


51 Jomark Osabel September 30, 2008 at 6:16 am

A nice guide but definitely need more than will power for an ordinary guy to land a behemoth plane.

52 Ric Locke September 30, 2008 at 10:46 am

Number One: the several pilots and others who have commented are correct. You will almost certainly fail at this, and if someone (anyone) who has any experience at all is available you should yield to them.

Number Two: Stian, Yeah OK, and their ilk can go to Hell. If you are in fact the only one available, go for it. The chance of your succeeding may be very small, but it is not (quite) zero. People who die trying get cooler spots in the Pit than the ones who decide to relax and enjoy their last moments, and the relax-it’s-inevitable brigade is better off than the useless free-riding f*s who declare it somebody else’s problem.


53 Fiedler September 30, 2008 at 1:07 pm

The author doesn’t know a kite from an airplane. How in the world is anyone supposed to heed advise from an unauthorized source?

As it has been said before, your chance to make a successful landing are NIL, ZIP, ZERO, NADA.

Happy Wet Dreams!

54 Yeah OK September 30, 2008 at 10:02 pm

WELL i would just push the red land airplane button that all these apparently simple aircraft must have on board!! if the author here thinks a passenger with zero experience can safely land a high tech aircraft whose pilots require years of training and expereince to fly i want what he is smoking it is not a car, and the pretty flight attendant is more than qualified to fly any aircraft if hollywood had taught us anything anybody who actually belives this article should not be aloud to procreate

55 Pete D October 1, 2008 at 4:32 pm

From a flight instructor’s point of view: any good instructor can talk a newbie through a step by step landing in a small, light aircraft. Why? Because they are simple, and much easier to maneuver… and light. I hate to say it, but as computerized as larger aircraft may be, hand flying them requires a bit more knowledge of control because of their sheer size and speed; which a newbie in a jet will not have. Instead of a step by step guide on how to manually fly the aircraft down, why not produce a step by step guide describing how to set-up the FMC or FMGS (all flight management systems) so the aircraft can autoland itself?


Oh and by the way, laminating and attaching these instructions to your carry-on won’t get your far past security.

56 Timbo October 1, 2008 at 6:19 pm

Lighten up, some of you fine folks! Come on admit it….the thought of having to land a plane has crossed your mind, even if just in your imagination. Great post!

57 Timbo October 1, 2008 at 6:20 pm

I also agree that attempting to carry this advice past TSA is a BAD idea!

58 ted striker October 1, 2008 at 9:23 pm

Yes….I think of landing the plane every time I do it. Some here are speaking from ACTUAL experience.

59 Pete D October 2, 2008 at 2:54 am

speaking from actual experience? Umm… when’s the last news story that popped up about Joe Blo landing a jetliner?

60 Fiedler October 2, 2008 at 6:41 am

“Pete D”: Has the thought that real-life (and I don’t mean private) pilots may be commenting on this nonsense ever crossed your mind? Ted Striker refers to the ACTUAL experience of people who fly airplanes for a living ;)

Just another point to prove how farfetched this all is: ALL Airline aircraft are flown by a crew of TWO. Just think: what are the chances of both pilots becoming incapacitated? The remaining pilot is capable of landing the aircraft without the “help” (ha ha ha) of internet joe.

Again, Happy WET dreams!

61 Chase October 2, 2008 at 7:13 am

“Ted Striker refers to the ACTUAL experience of people who fly airplanes for a living”

As opposed to the author of the post, who flies airplanes for a living?

62 Chase October 2, 2008 at 7:17 am

Just clicked on your link Fielder…..good luck selling fish for a million bucks! Hahaha! Happy wet dreams indeed!

63 Jim A. October 2, 2008 at 11:28 am

n.b. the landing gear control is always shaped like a wheel. That might make it easier to find.

64 Dad October 2, 2008 at 12:23 pm

Pilots: Nobody here is trying to take your job. It’s an interesting piece meant to entertain. Sheesh!

65 ted striker October 2, 2008 at 10:59 pm

I don’t know who the author is or where to even find his credentials. I don’t frequent this site so feel free to give me the authors name. The author states facts but that still isn’t going to be enough. Also, the green arc on the airspeed indicator is fine in a light aircraft. Airliners don’t have it because that speed range changes with weight and altitude.

For the guy that wondered about the actual experience thing, read my first post.

66 Capt. Nesbitt October 3, 2008 at 5:31 am

Hi to everyone,

I saw some interesting posts explaining how to land an airplane using the autopilot (obviously, those were written by people who know about flying). It’s very important to mention that NOT ALL of the airliners/airplanes are autoland capable. Also you need to know (to everyone who think they can land safely after reading this post), not just the airplane need to be equipped & capable to make an autoland, BUT the AIRPORT need to be equipped with minimum an ILS CAT II and/or ILS CAT III to execute a SAFE AUTOLAND. BTW, we (pilots) need to be trained & CERTIFIED to do this procedure. As you see, IS NOT THAT EASY!

67 Cameron Schaefer October 3, 2008 at 7:29 am

@ Ted Striker, Fielder and everyone else wondering about my experience,

I currently fly C-17′s for the Air Force as Brett mentioned earlier in the comments. I have 30 hours in Diamond DA-20 AND approx 200 hours in T-6 Texan (single-engine) and T-1 Jayhawk (Beech 400A, a twin engine jet).

I also have my instrument rating, my single and multi-engine land, a Beech 400 rating, as well as a commercial pilot’s license.

Now, having said that, I acknowledge that I have no experience flying commercial jets. However, Boeing makes the C-17 (a large 4 engine tactical airlift plane) and in looking at cockpit pictures of other Boeing commercial jets it appears as though they’ve set them up very similarly, especially the AFCS panel.

For everyone blasting this article as far-fetched, unrealistic, etc. You are right. The chances of an untrained pilot ever being behind the controls of a commercial jet are worse than even winning the lottery or getting struck by lightening.

And yes, unless there was a controller and plane expert to give detailed step-by-step instructions, a non-pilot would crash unless a miracle happened. That’s not the point, this post was supposed to be for fun, providing the reader with some interesting facts about flying and landing a jet.

I tried to provide some overarching generalities so there will no doubt be circumstances where these steps don’t apply. Like the green arc for airspeed. Obviously this won’t be found in a 777, but if you find yourself in a small plane it will provide you with some help.

If you’re taking this article completely seriously and analyzing each point and detail you are missing the point. Just like magazines publish entertaining articles like how to ride a bull, or golf like Tiger Woods, this post was meant simply to give a glimpse into some of the procedures for landing a jet in an emergency.

Lighten up a little.

68 ted striker October 3, 2008 at 8:53 pm

I think most of the responses including mine are responding to people stating that they are going to carry this with them. At that point it is important to inform them that the article is not going to cut it but it could be a good start. People take this stuff seriously sometimes so if it is intended to be lighthearted then you should state that in the article. Due to your position as an Air Force pilot reader may tend to think this is all there is to it.

69 Jack October 8, 2008 at 4:01 pm

same here

70 Barry October 10, 2008 at 9:16 am

The FAA conducted a study of this scenario in simulators and found that less than 20 percent of actual licensed pilots (presumably mostly private pilots) were able to land an airliner without fatalities. But this was quite some time back, probably before autoland technology. Also, the study was a bit sqewed toward failure because the simulated ATC offered no help except what was requested. Read about it here:

One bit of useful information is that the button that allows you to transmit over the communication radio will often be labelled “PTT.” This label will be meaningless to most people, but it stands for “push to talk.” Considering that this button is possibly the single most important thing in the entire airplane in such a situation, it would be nice if they actually labelled it “push to talk” instead of PTT so someone could actually find it.

Being able to land an airplane is such a cool and interesting man skill that for those interested in it, it could be a fun thing to take a flying lesson at the local airport. A single lesson is not all that expensive and you don’t have to go on to get your license or anything. Just spend an hour flying around with an instructor gaining some basic understanding of control and handling. Just tell them that you want some “pinch-hitter” training and they will probably be more than glad to run you through the basics.

71 ed October 26, 2008 at 2:40 pm

For all of you putting these instructions to memory, or indicating you will print them out and place in a carry-on, I think I have more useful advice.

Printout a copy of the Hail Mary prayer (or easily commit to memory).

In the event you find yourself aboard a pilotless aircraft recite the prayer repeatedly until the aircraft lands.

72 JB October 29, 2008 at 5:12 pm

I was in a restaurant yesterday and overheard an “expert” talk a 16 year old girl down in a private jet. The expert was extraordinarily calm, eating a hamburger while he did it. If I hadn’t seen and heard this myself, I wouldn’t believe it. I have been googling looking for the news story but have found nothing.

73 Abe January 2, 2009 at 7:09 am

Great post, interesting replies :)) The red auto landing button sounds like a great start. It is unfortunate that flying technology is still so outdated .. while cruise missiles are able to pinpoint their landings, etc.

It would have been wonderful if planes and cars could drive themselves. Then we could all, including retired pilots, have had that drink in the back and “terrorists” would not have had the option to take over the controls.

But please don’t let washing machine engineers automate the vehicles :) We will just end up with three cryptic buttons, a ridiculous knob and eventual angry attendants.

However, figure out the statistics for yourself, who are creating the most terror ? , holistically, the rude airport personnel or the small bunch of political extremists ?

74 Pichet June 9, 2009 at 5:12 am

Great article! Keep in mind to also deploy spoilers upon landing and reverse thrust…unless you want to run past the end of the runway into a ditch.

75 Alice June 20, 2009 at 10:01 pm

thank u!
im paranoid about these things;D
its going strait into my carry on!=)

76 Jack November 20, 2009 at 5:51 am

Is it just me, or am I getting a perception that flamers here think that Brett is trying to give a crash coarse on landing an aircraft? Because what I see is a survival guide for this particular scenario that entails good information that might actually help someone. The point that most of you have so haphazardly missed, is that this info is ment to get you on the ground in one piece. Perhaps by keeping the plane stable, which for the most part is kid stuff, and then guiding the plane down in such a way that it doesnt impload into a firery ball of death, you could save everyone on that plane, including yourself. And reach deep into your minds and try and think of the last time you read an artical about this particular survival situation. I guess the people that doubt this information usefull, or even just worthy of a read, would be the same people that would doubt their own selves and panic in this situation while I, at the least, try and land the damn thing.

77 Russ March 8, 2010 at 2:36 am

Even the negative comments were interesting. If the aircraft were in distress and there was no one else even remotely qualified and willing to make an attempt to control the aircraft, I, a non pilot would at least make the attempt. Would I survive the attempt? Probably not and then again I wouldn’t ever know unless I at least gave it a try. There could be all sorts of reasons why I couldn’t successfully land a commercial aircraft including armed terrorist still active, but I believe that I would have a moral reason to at least make the attempt if possible lacking anyone else better qualified than myself. I am at least as intellegent and maybe more so as those ragheads that were able to accurately flew the aircraft into the twin towers were.

78 Pile It November 21, 2012 at 10:23 pm

An out-of-practice private pilot named Doug White did land the twin turboprop King Air he was on when the single pilot died shortly after takeoff on April 12, 2009. It wasn’t exactly a 747, and the guy wasn’t a complete newbie to aviation, but this did require some manly skills. Here’s the true story from CBS:

(AOPA has an excellent article on this called “Pinch Hitting a King Air” but as far as I know the story is in the password protected department)

79 Joe12pack December 27, 2012 at 1:21 pm

This is one of those things that either you figure out or you die. If you don’t have a sufficient sense of orientation (roll, pitch, yaw), then assume the position and kiss your ass goodbye. If you do, sit down and fly the plane. And don’t forget the flaps when you land.

80 jasy987 December 28, 2012 at 6:52 pm

What if the cockpit door is locked, as most post 9/11 procedures are likely to state?

81 Rob M February 13, 2013 at 4:54 pm

Another good piiece of advice, if you get stuck is look for the QRH handbook, usually located by the seats. It tells you all the basics, and has a landing checklist to help so you dont forget anything.

82 Eric B March 18, 2013 at 1:21 am

Technology is a great thing, and I would pray the advances would give us an advantage if this situation occured. But if I heard that the pilot was dead and I was relying on a random banker or mechanic to land my aircraft I’d start quickly making peace. For an example of what happens when non pilots try to land look up the story of Archibald Mathies or Walter Truemper.

83 Tristan April 9, 2013 at 4:09 pm

How I would have written this guide:

If the aircraft is pitched down greater than 20 degrees pull power to idle, level the wings (before doing anything else), and pull up.

If the aircraft is pitched up greater than 20 degrees, push the throttles full forward and push the yoke forward to bring the aircraft level to the horizon. (both can be done at the same time)

Keep the aircraft level, don’t do anything with the autopilot, it’s a lot more complicated than just a “button” and if you don’t know what you’re doing it’ll hurt a lot more than it helps. If turning the autopilot off is necessary, it can be turned off by pressing the button labeled “AP”, or simply overpowering it with the control stick/yoke (this will turn it off automatically). Though it may be better to just leave it on if it is already on.

The pilot has or had a headset on, put it on yourself, place the mic as close to your mouth as you can get it. The here tells you to switch to the emergency frequency 121.5, but all commercial airliners are flying IFR, so generally speaking whatever is already put in will do if you can’t change the frequency. The tail number of the aircraft may be placarded inside of the cockpit. If you know the tail number, start with that, give as much information as you can as quickly as possible. ATC will give you directions, and/or put you in touch with someone who is an expert or instructor for the specific type of aircraft you are in.

Things to keep in mind:

Pitch for airspeed, power for altitude. If you want to climb, increase power. If you want to descent, decrease power. If you’re going too fast, bring the nose up, if you’re going too slow, pitch down.

Jet engines take a while to respond to changes in power, this is especially important when landing.

If a landing is not going well, increase power to full, climb, and advise ATC that you are “going around”.

Going into specifics about landing is pointless, procedures are complicated and different for different aircraft and different situations.

To the people who say that “you’ll crash and burn”. There have been studies done by sticking completely untrained people into a simulator and giving them instructions, and it is possible for an untrained person to land an airliner, but at the same time, there’s no way a guide on the internet is going to be able to effectively teach you how to do it.

That said the scenario where you would need to is unlikely, as there’s a good chance there’s a relief crew (on larger aircraft/longer flights), an airline pilot that is deadheading, or at least a private pilot that’s traveling with you.

84 David Smith January 6, 2014 at 2:49 pm

This is a great article for entertainment, but not very good for a real situation. I’m an experienced private pilot with some commercial jet simulator experience and I doubt I could get the aircraft lined up with a runway without help let alone land.

That said, the chances that both pilots would become incapacitated and there be no other trained pilots on board, is quite unlikely so don’t worry too much.

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