Although it thankfully does not happen very often, sometimes airplane pilots can become incapacitated during flights. When that happens, the best chance that aircraft has of safely landing is if there are other trained pilots among the passengers and even then the situation is quite uncertain.
Despite all odds though, Americans seem to be quite certain they would be able to safely land a passenger plane if both the pilot and co-pilot somehow became unconscious. YouGov has surveyed 20,063 adults asking how confident they were they could safely land a passenger airplane in an emergency situation relying only on the assistance of air traffic control. The results showed 32% of the participants being certain they could do that, 13% even responding with “very confident”.
Interestingly, men showed a lot more self-confidence in their ability to safely land planes despite having no training at all. 20% of the male respondents said they were “very confident” they could do it and a further 26% said they were “somewhat confident” they could do it, while among the female participants, only 7% responded with “very confident” and 13% with “somewhat confident”.
Besides gender, the survey also distinguished between political views, race, region of the country and age, the latter being the only one besides gender showing significant differences. Almost half of the people between 18 and 44 believe they could land planes, while only 21.5% of those above 45 showed the same confidence.
Regardless of what people believe, it is unfortunately extremely unlikely for a person with no flight training to land a plane, especially a passenger one. “I think they would have a very difficult time. There are a lot of challenges for somebody who has no flight experience, ranging from entering the flight deck to figuring out how to talk to air traffic control, manoeuvre the airplane and navigate to the airport they plan to land at”, Brett D. Venhuizen, chair of the aviation department at the John D. Odegard School of Aerospace Sciences at the University of North Dakota, told The Washington Post.
There have only been a few instances where passengers were able to safely land planes, all of those involving a Cessna aircraft. These are small airplanes that only require one pilot and are relatively easy and somewhat intuitive to control compared to others, which is why they are usually what flight schools use to train new pilots.
For larger planes, there are no examples of a passenger successfully landing the aircraft in an emergency situation. At the same time, these require a pilot and a co-pilot and, if one of them becomes incapacitated, the other one would normally be able to land safely by themselves. Additionally, on extra-long-haul flights, a third pilot is present in the cockpit, the three of them regularly rotating functions to ensure they are rested enough to fully concentrate on flying.