50% Of Men Think They Could Land A Plane If Pilots Became Incapacitated

While 110 million Americans haven’t even played Microsoft’s flight simulator, apparently one third of Americans think they could take the controls of an aircraft and land it if they had to. For males the number is 50%.

Maybe everyone just remembers the miracle of Trans American flight 209.

The good news is, like on a Southwest Airlines flight from Las Vegas on Wednesday, when a pilot becomes incapacitated there may be a deadheading pilot sitting in the back who can step in. Most passengers of commercial planes aren’t ever going to find themselves in this situation in any case. I sure hope against hope that my landings in a flight simulator aren’t ever the most experience in the passenger cabin!

If you ever did find yourself in this position, you don’t want to try this on your own. Locate the headset and communicate on frequency 121.5 – it’s an emergency frequency that will be monitored, and you don’t need to know any other frequency in a pinch. Hopefully air traffic control has someone or can identify an instructor with familiarity on your aircraft to help talk you down.

Commercial aircraft will generally be able to land on auto-pilot. Someone on the ground needs to walk you through entering relevant data into the flight management system and configure autoland. And hope you’re not facing significant crosswinds. The airport needs to be able to handle autoland operations an ILS-equipped runway, you may need to divert somewhere that has this. No doubt pilots among my readers will have better advice to offer.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community InsideFlyer.com, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. I thought I read a study years ago where they took 30 private pilots and put them in a airliner simulator, almost all crashed immediately because they turned off the autopilot, I think one made it to the ground and would have survived the crash.

  2. Airliners are, from everything I have read and discussed with those who fly them, very sensitive to stall speeds on landing. I’ve a commercial license and a few hundred hours in single engine and glider aircraft. In my opinion for me to try and land a jet would be a suicide mission. Just to start with, figuring out where things are on the instrument panel while under pressure would be a terrible experience, and then you have to know what to touch and what to leave alone (and hopefully the autopilot is on or you will have no time at all–see Flight 93). But even a small plane would be very difficult without at least a few hours of instruction–I mentioned “stall speed”, look it up. Briefly, to avoid having the plane drop you have to be counter-intuitive and keep the nose reasonably level or down so that the speed stays up. (And if it does drop then pulling hard back is the worst thing to do.) Without such basic knowledge it would be like those two guys who stole a small plane in Mexico and decided to have some fun. I don’t think they climbed 100 feet before things ended very, very badly.

  3. I think the only chance most of us would have is IF we have had some small aircraft (think Cessna 172) training or private pilot license, and IF we the passenger plane we were landing was a little puddlejumper, ie, an 8-seater, twin prop. Other than that, leave it up to The Autopilot.

  4. My confidence all depends on who is on the other side of the radio giving directions. In a best case scenario, it would be as if someone was sitting next to you telling you what to press and do. All airspace would be cleared and they would get you on the longest runway. That said, I think it is still a 50/50 shot at best, in perfect weather. It’s only that high since there is so much automation

  5. The term “Hold my beer” comes to mind. Well that and George Kennedy talking down the timid female types.
    In reality maybe this study is spot on and that more men are more capable of landing a plane, heck who knows. I doubt that is true but it would have been more fun to see if they had it broken down by race as well. Like maybe 95% of Hypanic Women from Red States are confident they could land a commercial jet but only 5% of White non-Binary people who have never played video games from Blue States felt they could land a plane.

    Either way I’d take a Gen X’er of either gender with hundreds of hours of Microsoft flight simulator over Karen Black any day but I think it would help if Charlton Heston was on 121.5 at the time.

  6. I am under the impression the auto pilot takes over from take off to landing. If that’s not true the men surveyed are idiots unless they have logged flight hours.

  7. I am under the impression the auto pilot takes over from take off to landing. If that’s not true the men surveyed are lacking common sense unless they have logged flight hours.

  8. Just a minor correction: You dont need a CAT III approach to do an autoland. Airlines do autolands all the time with a CAT I approach. Thats how airlines maintain system and crew currency. Actual CAT II and III conditions are extremely rare so theres would not be much opportunity to get the planes and crew current if they couldnt do autolands with a CAT I approach. Most airports have CAT I approaches.

  9. MS Flight Sim has created a whole genre of armchair pilots. Just because you kick butt at Madden doesn’t mean you can be an emergency NFL QB. And just because you can land a big airliner on a video sim doesn’t mean you can do it IRL.

  10. One half of all men are below average. So no, they couldn’t do it, even on autopilot. But after a beer or two, they think they can.

  11. Wesley,

    Oh no no no no no……. You have to have a Cat 3/2 capable approach to continue a coupled approach to an autoland regardless if it’s VFR/Cat 1 or Cat 3 weather conditions. If you think we are out there conducting autolands for system or crew currency to any plane old “run of the mill” vanilla Cat 1 ILS you would be mistaken.

  12. I think most would be challenged to find the headset and tune it to a given frequency based on what I’ve seen over the years.

  13. Sounds to me that 50% of men are seriously deluded.
    I have a Private license and even with that I seriously doubt that I could land heavy iron without killing all aboard. I MIGHT be able to land something like a Cessna Caravan with lots of coaching, but I wouldn’t get on being able to use the airplane again.
    Those who think that they can have probably never seen the cockpit of an airliner, much less flown one.
    And Microsoft Flight Simulator doesn’t count.

  14. I stayed at a Holiday Inn Express last night. I can land a 777 with my eyes closed.

  15. You’re visiting the operating room in a hospital. Terrorists take over, barricade the doors, and tie up the surgeons. Could you finish up the kidney transplant or cataract surgery? No.

    Same thing with landing the plane.

    If you were given a few hours course, the outcome could be a little better but that is not possible with an airliner in flight.

    By the way, optometrists, who do not go to medical school are trying to convince state legislatures to have the right to do surgery despite being woefully unqualified. They don’t even have the expertise of a 3rd year medical student.

  16. I saw airplane! Last night at a holiday inn express after playing flight sim for a few hours…..380 is easy to land! Hold my beer!

  17. I’m with @ GreggB57. I’m a 40+ year international flight attendant, a private pilot with pilots in my family. No way could I land my 777 or 787. All the guys that took the survey must have had too many beers that day.

  18. I have never flown a plane or used a flight simulator (MSFT or otherwise), but I suspect I could be talked down by an expert in an emergency. Though, it’s a damn good thing he doesn’t know how much I hate his guts! I may bend their precious airplane, but I’ll get it down.

  19. Even Ted Stryker, an experienced pilot, struggled.

    Love the Holiday Inn Express comment above…. Classic

  20. @derek as both a surgeon and a private pilot and glider pilot I think I am qualified to respond to your comment.

    A kidney transplant… no since there is very difficult fine micro suturing involved (particularly with the vessel anastomoses) down a deep hole. And you can’t bodge it as then they will slowly bleed from the anastomosis. Talking someone through doing an Appendicectomy (yes this is the correct word before Americans made their own word) on the other hand, with radio and visual feed would probably be doable. Not saying it wouldn’t be high risk or there wouldn’t be some collateral tissue along the way but certainly possible.

    Comparing a kidney transplant to landing a plane is not a fair comparison. Giving someone a few hours training on a plane they might be able to land and giving someone a few hours training on renal transplants won’t change anything.

    I do believe that some people (especially those with light aircraft/glider flying experience or even simulator experience) would be able to land a wide body or narrow body with contact with ATC and a pilot to explain the different controls and steps to take. For those who have never flown it would be more of a gamble but maybe after an hour or 2 getting familiar with controlling the aircraft and then being talked down, it might be possible. We’re not talking about a perfect landing here… just getting the plane down and nobody dying. Doesn’t matter if it ends up with a broken landing gear 200m off the end of the runway in the grass.

    As a glider pilot I would feel fairly confident. I understand the physics of flying and have experience with and a good understanding of the controls. Would only take a short while to get familiar with the sluggish response of an airliner. If I knew how to adjust trim, flaps, know the stall speed etc and then had a commercial pilot instructor talk me through the process step by step, I would feel fairly confident that I could land it.

    As a side note.. @derek I hope optometrists never get allowed to do surgery. What a joke. Are we going to have podiatrists saying they should be doing fem-pop bypasses next?..

  21. Aeroflot simulated the situation where FA needed to land A320 some time ago
    (Sorry, in Russian only)

    Also read about Darron Harrison landing Cessna (arguably, not same thing as proper commercial airliner).

    While clearly outcome is not guaranteed, should it be needed, it’s all not doomed

  22. I think everyone who travels by air…passengers and crew..should pray the situation never presents itself on their flight

  23. “No doubt pilots among my readers will have better advice to offer.”

    PILOTS?!? Why go to THOSE overpaid patsies for advice?!? Ask any of the 46% of confident American men for their ideas. A much better source, for sure!

  24. As George Carlin said, “ Think of how stupid the average person is, and realize half of them are stupider than that.”

  25. Maybe we should put more women in charge of the world. They seem more connected to reality.

    Crash landing a small single engine Cessna in perfect weather might succeed for a non pilot, but you have no chance of anything big. At best you could crash at a major airport were the fire crews could wet the smoldering remains

  26. No… Just no. I fly airliners (Airbus specifically) for a living and let me just say this- when a student goes up on their first flight lesson, they absolutely SUCK. every single person does. Why? Because it’s unnatural and unfamiliar to you. Do you learn? YES.

    I am so sick of these stories about how “they think they could do it”. Sure, could they put the plane down? not without a ton of automation.

    Will it be to a landing like a professional? Hell no.

    Landing a small skyhawk is completely different than an airbus or jet.

  27. I’ll be honest, and I don’t mean this is the manner of overstating abilities, I think I could. Not because of male “machoism” or whatever, but I would think that the atc and autopilot could do a good enough of a job to help me get it down. Maybe I overestimate the autopilots ability. Manually landing, no. But in the question, as it was stated, I would have chosen somewhat confident due to the reason above. I hope to never find out the answer.

  28. Nobody caught on that date this was “published”? April Fools! Obviously a joke…

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