Three things you should know if you ever have to fly a plane in an emergency, according to a real pilot

May 14, 2022

This post contains references to products from one or more of our advertisers. We may receive compensation when you click on links to those products. Terms apply to the offers listed on this page. For an explanation of our Advertising Policy, visit this page.

In Florida this week, a man who had “no idea how to fly the aeroplane” was able to safely land the aircraft after his pilot had become incapacitated. The incredible story happened off the coast of Boca Raton on Tuesday as ATC recordings show the man using near-perfect radio transmissions and asking ATC for assistance with his predicament.

In a calm and collected voice, he informed ATC that his pilot was “incoherent” and that he was maintaining 9,100ft. In response, the Air Traffic Controller asked him to keep the wings level and start a descent to 5000ft “at a very slow rate”

He was then able to tell ATC that he was “descending right now at 550 feet a minute, passing 86 40 (8,640ft)”

As the situation developed, ATC was able to locate the aircraft and guide him down to a safe touchdown at Palm Beach Airport.

Like with all serious aviation events like this, there will be a thorough investigation by the appropriate authorities to ascertain exactly what happened. As a result, it would be wrong to speculate as to how the event occurred and the details surrounding it.

However, it has no doubt got many people thinking about what exactly they would do were they faced with a similar situation. Would you be able to step up to the plate and land the aircraft safely?

Single Pilot vs Multi Pilot Operations

One of the first questions that many people will no doubt ask about this situation is “where was the copilot”?

Most people’s experience of flying will be in an airliner such as the Airbus A320 or the Boeing 787. On these large aircraft, there is a legal minimum requirement of 2 pilots. Not only does this increase safety when the workload on the flight deck increases on normal flights, but it also means that, should one pilot become incapacitated, the other pilot can safely land the aircraft.

An airliner require a minimum of 2 pilots (Image – Getty Images)

However, on smaller aircraft, the 2nd pilot isn’t always required.

The aircraft involved in this event, a Cessna Caravan, is certified to be flown by a single pilot. In fact, many business jets — that are much larger than you might expect — are certified to be flown by a single pilot.

The requirements for a 2nd pilot are complicated but, put simply, it is only when the aircraft weight passes a certain threshold that the 2nd pilot is needed.

So if you did find yourself in the unimaginable situation of having to land a plane with zero previous experience, what are the top 3 things an airline pilot would suggest you do?

Stay Calm

The limbic system found within the centre of our brains is a raw and primal system engineered to keep us safe. When our bodies sense danger, it is the limbic that reacts first and what Dr Steve Peters refers to as our ‘chimp’ in his widely acclaimed book, The Chimp Paradox.

The ‘chimp’ is an incredibly powerful force within our minds. Built for survival, it quickly assesses situations and makes fast decisions, thinking very much about the immediate short-term with very little regard for the long-term results. It’s the same force that may give you sudden anxiety when faced with making a speech in front of a large group of people or make you freeze when setting off on a steep ski run.

When Captain Chesley Sullenberger famously suffered a dual engine failure and landed his Airbus on the Hudson River, he recalled that his first two thoughts at the time were “This can’t be happening!” and “This doesn’t happen to me!”

It is the chimp that caused Captain Sullenberger to think like this, disrupting the structured pattern of thought in even the most well-trained and experienced people.

Our inner chimp affects us all, no matter how knowledgeable, skilled and experienced you are. (Todd Sumlin/Charlotte Observer/MCT via Getty Images)

When the unthinkable and unexpected happens, as humans, we all react the same way. Disbelief, panic and a refusal to accept what our eyes, ears and other senses are telling us. Our inner chimp has well and truly escaped from his cage and is causing absolute chaos in our brains.

If you were a passenger in a small aircraft and discovered that your only pilot had collapsed, I have no doubt that this is how you’d react.

So how do we control the chimp and stay calm?

In a situation of sudden high stress where the individual has no previous experience, they may not be able to effectively put the chimp back in his cage to calm him down. The best way to rationally move forward is to distract the chimp.

By taking a deep breath and slowly counting to 10, it gives the rational human part of your brain time to catch up and be able to have an effect on your actions.

As airline pilots, we are trained to do this. It is much better to take a few seconds to make a correct decision the first time around rather than to rush into making an irreversible wrong decision.

Know how to use the radio

Using a radio is a pretty straightforward process — if you know how they work. To do this, you’ll need to know where the Push To Talk (PTT) switch is and the aircraft registration which will normally be placarded somewhere within your eye line.

If your pilot has just keeled over, chances are that the radio is still tuned to the most appropriate frequency so it would be advisable not to mess about with it.

On a particular radio frequency, there is usually one Air Traffic Control Officer (ATCO) responsible for any number of aircraft. However, the key point to know is that only one station can broadcast and be heard at a time. If two stations, for example, an aircraft and the ATCO transmit at the same time, the two messages will be undecipherable.

The radio panel on the 787 Dreamliner (Image – Charlie Page/The Points Guy)

Like in any normal social situation, before making a transmission, it is important to make sure that you are not interrupting the conversation between the ATCO and another aircraft otherwise your message may not be heard. You wouldn’t walk into a busy room and just start talking to someone and it’s the same in the air.

To transmit a message, hold down the push to talk (PTT) switch. Depending on the aircraft type, there may be a number of these but on a small aircraft, it will most likely be on the control column where the tip of your index finger will sit.

So, what to say?

By starting the transmission with “Mayday, mayday, mayday”, immediately all other aircraft on the frequency should stop transmitting and you will have the sole attention of ATC. If you also include the aircraft registration with your transmission then they will know who is making the call.

When you have made your call, remember to release your finger from the PTT switch otherwise you will not be able to hear their response.

Stay well clear of any clouds

Flying along on a lovely clear day is one of the best feelings in aviation. There’s not a cloud in the sky, there’s a beautiful clear horizon as far as the eye can see and a great view of the sights on the ground.

However, flying through a clouded sky is an entirely different proposition.

All of a sudden you have no reference as to what is up and what is down. The movements of the aircraft can trick your body into thinking that the aircraft is turning or descending — and when you go to correct this, you could just make the situation worse.

If a pilot is not trained to fly in cloud (known as Instrument Flight Rules – IFR) a calm peaceful flight can very quickly turn into terror and disaster as the pilot in the audio clip below very nearly found out. (N.B. Ignore the graphics as they may not be representative of what actually happened).

It’s quite chilling to hear the absolute terror in the pilot’s voice as he flies into the cloud and becomes disorientated. He feels as if the aircraft is rolling and he’s certain that he’s going to crash. Fortunately, he is able to cage his chimp, take back control of the aircraft and fly level with the wings straight.

Had he not had any previous flying experience, I’m certain that the outcome would have been quite different.

So if you find yourself in a situation where you have taken the controls of an aircraft, it is imperative that you keep the aircraft out of cloud and always keep the horizon in view

Bottom Line

The chances of a passenger having to take control of an aircraft are so remote that when it does happen, it quite rightly makes the news. There is a reason why there are always at least two well-trained and experienced pilots at the front of an airliner.

However, if this unlikely scenario happens to you, the key is to keep calm. Take a deep breath and count to 10. Slowly. Find the PTT switch and speak to ATC whilst making sure that you always stay out of the cloud.

If you do manage to make it down safely, you should probably also buy some lottery tickets on your way home.

Good luck!

Featured photo by icholakov / Getty Images.

Editorial Disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airlines or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

Disclaimer: The responses below are not provided or commissioned by the bank advertiser. Responses have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by the bank advertiser. It is not the bank advertiser’s responsibility to ensure all posts and/or questions are answered.