Could You, An Untrained Pilot, Land a Plane in the Event of an Emergency?

The short answer? No. The long answer? Also no.

Could You, an Untrained Pilot, Land a Plane in the Event of an Emergency?
Could You, an Untrained Pilot, Land a Plane in the Event of an Emergency?

We’ve all seen more than our share of action movies that involve some iteration of what is effectively the same scene (the most recent being in No Time To Die). The protagonist jumps into the cockpit of any nearby, readily available plane, throws it in gear and only then, as an afterthought, thinks to ask their companion, “Have you ever flown one of these things before?” to which the companion always, without exception, replies “Nope!” It’s perhaps left you with a false sense of confidence in yourself, or at the very least, your fellow passengers.

A new report from Mental Floss sought to get to the bottom of this bit of played-out Hollywood magic, confirming my suspicions, and probably yours, too: being able land a plane with no prior training is nigh impossible. In fact, it’s nearly impossible that anyone would be put in that position in the first place, largely in part because of all of the contingencies in place.

According to the report, in every scenario, there is a co-pilot — or first office — trained to perform all the same duties as the captain should something happen to the them mid-flight. For longer flights, there’s often a relief crew on board, too. Frankly, the likelihood of a passenger needing to take the reins is close to zero.

But, for argument’s sake, let’s posit that you were, in fact, in a position where you had no choice but to take the reins. Experts say the prognosis isn’t good then, either.

“This person would have to be talked from 35,000 feet all the way to the point where an automatic approach could commence, complete with any number of turns, descents, decelerations, and configuration changes (appropriately setting the flaps, slats, and landing gear),” airline pilot and author Patrick Smith told The Points Guy back in 2019. “I reckon it would be about as easy as dictating brain surgery over the telephone to somebody who has never held a scalpel.”

“People’s presumptions about how modern planes are flown, and what airline pilots actually do, has long frustrated me,” Smith told Mental Floss in a more recent interview, cementing his views on the topic. “People have a vastly — vastly! — exaggerated idea of what cockpit automation actually does, and how pilots interact with that automation, and assume this would be a lot easier than it actually would be.”

“A non-pilot wouldn’t have the slightest idea even how to work the communications radios, let alone fly and land the jet,” Smith added. “There is a zero-percent chance of a successful outcome in this scenario.”

So … there you have it. Unless you have previous experience flying a plane, you won’t be able to step in for the captain in an emergency situation, nor will you ever be called on to do so. Sorry to be the bearer of good or bad news, depending on how vicariously you watch action movies.


Join America's Fastest Growing Spirits Newsletter THE SPILL. Unlock all the reviews, recipes and revelry — and get 15% off award-winning La Tierra de Acre Mezcal.