Nearly half of men think they can safely land a plane in an emergency, survey finds

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CHARLOTTE (WJZY) – It’s the formula for a box office thriller: The airplane’s pilots become incapacitated, and flight attendants ask passengers if anyone can land the plane.

It’s a dramatic scenario on the big screen. But what about in real life? Can the average person, with no previous flight training, land a plane?  

Quite a few people, according to a poll by YouGov, think it’s doable. A survey published in January shows about one-third of adult Americans think they can safely land an airliner with the help of air traffic control.

And the confidence rate climbed to nearly 50% among male respondents. But is this realistic?

MayCay Beeler, a veteran pilot, FAA flight instructor, and the chief transportation correspondent for Nexstar’s WJZY, gives her thoughts.

“It depends. With the guidance of the right air traffic controller, the likelihood of landing safely enough is possible,” Beeler says. “It may not be pretty, and may result in some damage to the aircraft, but it can be done. But a lot of things have to go right.” 

This uncommon scenario pops up in the news from time to time, usually in a small plane. Last year, a passenger landed a single-engine aircraft in Florida after his pilot passed out. He managed a successful landing with the help of a flight instructor/air traffic controller, who talked him down over the radio.

“But first, the passenger had to don a headset and locate the mic button in able to talk over the radio with ATC,” Beeler explains.

“So being familiar with basic aircraft switches and gauges is key. Knowing where things are. Properly reading and monitoring airspeed, attitude, and altitude instrumentation can make the difference between life and death. The ability to stay calm and follow instructions from ATC is crucial. Having at-home flight simulator experience is a huge bonus since this provides familiarization with a cockpit,” Beeler adds.

How to land a plane from an expert

“It’s not rocket science. Assuming the engine is running when the pilot becomes incapacitated, and the throttle is set to maintain flight, a properly trimmed airplane will fly itself,” Beeler says. “It is inherently stable. It wants to fly.” 

The plane should stay level, she adds, until the yoke is pulled or pushed, to make the aircraft ascend or descend.

“Turning is as simple as gently moving the wheel or stick left or right. But things get complicated setting up for the landing,” Beeler emphasizes.

“It is imperative to know how to deploy the flaps. They help the plane come down while slowing down,” she says. The landing gear, too, must be deployed — and the pilot needs to know how to extend the landing gear with the proper handle.

Once over the runway, the pilot needs to maintain a “specified airspeed, flying the plane in a gentle descent to about garage-door height above the runway, letting the plane settle down a few more feet, then pulling the power off while leveling the plane. Allowing the main wheels to touch first, with the nose last, should get you safely on the ground.”

Pilots in training, Beeler says, usually practice hundreds of times just to become confident at getting it right.

“And it takes years to become a commercial pilot,” says Beeler. “For an untrained person to land an aircraft safely, it’s all about following instructions if ATC is available.”

Want to be better prepared for this unlikely scenario?

Beeler suggests heading to your local flight school to take a Discovery or Introductory Flight. And at-home flight simulator software is a great way to fly from the comfort of your living room.

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