The True Story Of How A Passenger Made An Emergency Landing With No Flying Experience

It's a trope in TV and movies that was played up to particularly comedic effect in the 1980 spoof comedy "Airplane!" The pilot is incapacitated, and a passenger is called on to land the plane. In fact, it's only happened once – at least, with a commercial aircraft with paying passengers on board — according to Today I Found Out, and it ended horribly, with a crash that killed all 121 people on board, including the pilot.

When it comes to private aircraft, however, it happens from time to time. For example, in 2009, as Naples News reported, the pilot of a charter plane had a medical emergency, and a passenger — who was a pilot, but not of this particular type of aircraft — took the controls. He reportedly told the other passengers, which included his wife, to sit back and pray. Fortunately, with the help of controllers on the ground, he safely landed the plane.

In May 2022, South Florida was again the scene of a passenger taking over the controls of an aircraft, and again, thanks to keeping his cool and with the help of the ground crew, was able to safely land.

'I don't know how to stop this thing'

On May 10, 2022, as WBPF reported, an unidentified man on board a Cessna 208 (pictured above) got on the radio and notified Air Traffic Control at Fort Pierce that he had a rather serious problem.

"My pilot has gone incoherent. I have no idea how to fly the airplane," he said, adding that even if he did get it onto the ground, he didn't know where the brakes were.

When controllers asked his position, about all he was able to give them was "the coast of Florida," later noting that he couldn't figure out how to work the navigation screen.

The ground crew told him to maintain his wings at the current level, and to hang tight, while they tried to locate him. Eventually they realized where he was, and decided that it was best to try to land him at Palm Beach International Airport, which, being an international airport, has longer runways. "A really big target," as a ground crew member would later say, via CNN.

With the help of a crew on the ground, including Air Traffic Controller Robert Morgan, the pilot brought the plane safely to the ground. In fact, he nailed it, with Morgan saying he'd give him a 10 out of 10.

Fortunately, everyone walked away from the incident alive and well, and there was no damage to the aircraft.

How Hard Is It To Land A Private Airplane?

So, how hard is it for someone who knows nothing about flying an aircraft to safely put it on the ground? There are several answers to that question, but we'll start with the shortest one: A modern (built at least in 2019) private plane, with the right equipment, can land itself, via auto pilot, as TechCrunch explains. So why even bother going to flight school if your plane can fly and land itself? Because the Federal Aviation Administration says you have to, that's why. That, and planes are machines, and machines can fail, and a human needs to be on board should things go wrong. And of course, there's communication with the ground and other matters that can't be handled by a machine.

Otherwise, learning to land a private craft, such as at a flight school, generally takes about 20 hours of onboard training, according to CNN, to say nothing of classroom instruction. Of course, that's based on the assumption that you'll be doing it yourself and not with the help of a ground crew telling you which gauges to look at, which controls to manipulate, and when.

Nevertheless, as the Palm Beach incident of May 2022 demonstrates, passengers can land small, private craft with the help of ground control, and they've done so successfully more than once.

Could A Passenger Land A Commercial Jet?

Putting aside, for the moment, the fact that dozens of things would have to go wrong, both in the air and on the ground, for a passenger to even see the inside of the cockpit, there are two answers to this question.

Modern passenger jets, like (some) modern private aircraft, have autopilot, which can land the plane with ease, but again, there are multiple good reasons to have humans at the controls.

However, if an almost-impossible series of compounding errors resulted in a passenger having to land a commercial jet, well ... it could probably be done. In an episode of "Mythbusters," the team put Adam Savage in a machine that simulates being in a cockpit — complete with real-time motion effects — and loaded up a few landing scenarios. A real air traffic controller played the role of having to talk the pilot down, and Savage pulled it off. Co-host Jamie Hyneman also took a crack at it, to the same result. 

The hosts deemed the idea that a passenger could be talked through landing a commercial jet "Plausible." Again, however, it bears noting that there's no precedent for a passenger ever being put into the controls of a passenger jet (save for the one tragedy), there's no need anyway, and, this was a computer program — not an actual aircraft landing.