Accidental Pilots

If you became incapacitated, would your passenger know how to get the plane back on the ground? Heres what you can do to improve the odds.


An Aviation Safety Staff Report

Its the stuff of Hollywood legend-the flight crew somehow becomes incapacitated-Who had the fish?-and a passenger takes over and safely lands the airplane, gets the girl and becomes a hero. If its a slow season at the theatre, he even gets to do a sequel. Of course, the likelihood of any of this occurring aboard a scheduled passenger flight is way down in the noise level. But, we can dream.

Unfortunately, pilot incapacitation can and does happen aboard personal airplanes. Reasons can include a sudden health emergency, carbon monoxide poisoning or an in-flight injury, among others. When it does happen, the outcome is often unfavorable.

One example of the exception to this rule occurred on November 30, 2000. A Mooney M20C departed Lynchburg, Va., headed for Murray, Ky., with a Private pilot at the controls and a passenger aboard who had earned a pilot certificate at some point but had not flown for 25 years. During the flight, the pilot lost consciousness. The passenger managed to get the Mooney to the airport at Prestonsburg, Ky., and woke up the pilot, who managed to safely land the airplane, although he remembered little about the approach and landing. Carbon monoxide got the blame for the pilot losing consciousness-both the pilot and passenger were tested and it was later determined they had toxic levels of the colorless, odorless gas in their blood.

While this episode doesnt really match our scenario-the passenger had earned a certificate before-it does prove our theory: In the crunch, some flight training is better than none. Taking it one step further, pilots who routinely fly with the same non-rated passengers should take a few moments before and during each flight to brief their charges on how the aircraft operates and familiarize them with the location of important controls and what they do. Doing so not only helps the passengers understand whats going on-and they may enjoy it more as a result-their increased familiarity can help reduce your workload. In the unlikely event something bad happens, that little bit of training can save their bacon. And yours.

Of course, just like anything else involving aviation, it helps to have a plan. Our plan is based on the three basic elements of any flight: aviating, communicating and navigating.

Keeping the airplane under control is not only the greatest challenge for an accidental pilot but its also the most important. If the airplane goes out of control, the chances increase dramatically that its occupants will not survive. This has been proven time and time again no matter if the loss of control is caused by weather, a mechanical failure or a health issue. So … how do we go about training a passenger to keep the airplane under control and stay reasonably calm throughout the ordeal?

The first thing a passenger needs to know is that, even in turbulence, the airplane will fly quite nicely by itself. In fact, its designed that way. Think about it: The only control inputs a pilot really needs to make when in cruise flight are minor adjustments required to maintain altitude and heading. In the kind of emergency were talking about, minor heading and altitude excursions simply dont matter-the important thing is to not hit the ground out of control.

Once our reluctant pilot agrees that the airplane knows how to fly better than he or she does, the next step is acceptance that fighting it is not going to help. Instead-and just like your primary CFI tried to teach you early on-gentle control pressures are really all thats needed to keep the shiny side up. If you can achieve that kind of understanding early on in your efforts to prepare a potential accidental pilot, youre way ahead of the game.

Letting the airplane fly itself is fine, as long as its headed in the right direction. Since its likely that your accidental pilot will need to change both heading and altitude, youll need to explore turns, climbs and descents. Turns should be easy; its just like driving a car if theres a yoke involved.

Except for toe-mounted brakes, wed suggest ignoring the rudder pedals in our accidental-pilot training. Trying to convince a neophyte of the need to make coordinated turns is probably a waste of time. On the other extreme, misapplying rudder-especially at low airspeeds and low altitudes-can induce a spin or otherwise interfere with Job One: getting the airplane close to the runway and in a position from which some kind of landing can be made. Better to just leave the rudder alone.

Climbs and descents should be easy, especially presuming the accidental pilot takes over in cruise flight. To descend, reduce power. To climb-like when aborting an approach or trying to avoid an obstacle-add power, perhaps with some back pressure on the yoke or stick. But you know all this.

Rather than focus on using the flight instruments for establishing and changing the airplanes attitude, get your accidental pilot accustomed to looking out the windows and using the sight picture to control the airplane. Obviously, this presumes the accidental pilot has taken over in visual conditions; trying to teach a non-pilot to handle instrument conditions is well beyond the scope of this article.

Some basic knowledge of how to manipulate the power controls is also necessary, so our accidental pilot can reduce power and slow the airplane for landing. We dont need to get technical here-forget trying to explain lean-of-peak mixtures, overboosting, shock cooling or synchronizing the props.

Keep it simple and focus on the need to push forward for more power and pull back for less. It wouldnt hurt to explain how to switch tanks and how to turn off the fuel once the airplane has come to a stop. Throw in pulling the mixture to idle cut-off and switching off the magnetos-again, once the airplane has come to a stop-and youve covered the critical controls.

At the end of the day-and the end of the flight-the only challenge left is to land. Yes, that can be the biggest challenge of them all, but only if someone wants to use the airplane again. As with an engine failure, a landing-gear problem or other in-flight emergency, the main objective here is to get the airplane on the ground under control and in a fashion that minimizes any sudden stops.

This basically means aiming for a nice, long runway free of obstructions, managing power and airspeed, pointing the nose at the runway and flattening out the descent. This is actually a lot easier than many pretend, especially since no one is looking for perfection. Again, in a real, life-or-death situation, the passenger should only worry about being able to walk away-the airplane is the insurance companys problem.

To demonstrate the minimal skills necessary and give your potential accidental pilot some practice, pick a calm, clear day and a quiet airport at which no one will mind a few low approaches. Set up the airplane as you would for a low-power cruise configuration or as you would to enter and fly the initial downwind leg. In other words, maybe 60% power, with the gear and flaps up. Have your accidental pilot fly a normal pattern, using only the yoke/stick to aim the airplane at the runway. Leave all the other controls alone and just fly the pattern, making low approaches. This practice allows your passenger to get a feel for the airplane, understand the sight picture of a runway getting large in the windshield and overcome any fear of flying close to the ground. Do the low approaches until they get passable, then manage the power while your charge puts the airplane over the runway in a position from which a normal landing can be made. Eventually-and it wont take that long-he or she will get good enough that an actual landing can be made.

Of course, your accidental pilot should know how to lower the landing gear and make any other critical configuration changes necessary to land. Importantly, however, the landing gear is both optional and expendable. Ideally, it would be extended, if for no other reasons than to hold out the possibility of making a normal landing and absorbing energy in the likely event the landing is anything but normal. Deploying it will also help to slow the airplane, making any sudden stop less dangerous.

Aviating is definitely the hard part for any accidental pilot. A little familiarity with both the controls and making an approach to land will go a long way toward a successful outcome if this ever happens for real.

This portion of our plan could be either the most fun or the most frustrating for your passengers. The fun part can come from showing someone how to use the communications radios to solicit and obtain information. On the other hand, anyone who suffers from stage fright might be very reluctant to speak over an open communications frequency, especially given the sometimes-gruff tactics controllers use. But, once you explain how to use two very easy-to-remember words, theyll likely overcome their reluctance. Those words, of course, are Mayday and Emergency.

While theres not much a controller or Unicom operator can do physically to help a non-pilot fly an airplane, words of encouragement and support can go a long way to help keep him or her calm during the emergency. Of course, providing a vector to a nearby airport, vectoring another airplane to the area as a pathfinder or keeping other traffic away from you are all good things.

Other passengers can be both a help and a hindrance in this kind of an emergency. They can help by looking out the windows and finding landmarks, etc. (more below), but thay can also become a major distraction to our accidental pilot. Passengers should always be briefed on when they can talk, ask questions, etc., but should also know when its important to keep quiet. Our accidental pilot may need to forcefully ask other passengers to help, but to do it quietly.

Explain to your passenger how to tune your radios and where the push-to-talk switches are. Dont forget the audio panel. Point out that the frequency youve been using is a good place to start transmitting and asking for help. Lastly, be sure to brief your accidental pilot on what and where the transponder is, how it is used, how to enter a code and how to press the ident button. Explain the 7700 code, too.

The simplest form of navigating a personal airplane is the same as one uses when driving a car-look out the window and point the vehicle where you want it to go. Of course, this is called pilotage, and is the navigational method that will make the most sense to an accidental pilot.

Point out what your home base airport looks like from a few miles out, the landmarks available to help get better oriented and how the runways are aligned. Demonstrate the nearby physical features he or she can use to fly a straight-in approach to the runway and actually fly that path when traffic allows.

If other passengers are aboard, they can help. Our accidental pilot should enlist them to help look for landmarks, airports and, perhaps, other airplanes coming to assist. Just as mentioned above, however, they need to focus on helping and, often, that means staying quiet.

No matter what kind of plane you fly or how you navigate, some knowledge of the compass and/or directional gyro is going to be invaluable to your accidental pilot. If a controller asks him or her to fly in one direction or another, not knowing how to comply would be a bad thing. Be sure to identify the directional gyro for your passenger and explain how it is used to get from Point A to Point B.

Again, trying to train an accidental pilot to fly in IMC or use your sophisticated nav gear to shoot an approach is well beyond the scope of this article. Just as with all elements of our plan, the key is to keep things simple: Dont overly complicate the things your passenger needs to remember by bringing in ILSs, ADFs, VOR/DME and the like. Similarly, learning to use many GPS navigators can be difficult, even for experienced pilots. If youre going to teach your passenger how to use the GPS, concentrate on how to find the nearest airport. If the airplane is equipped with a GPS-driven moving map, so much the better. Again, keep it simple.

Depending on how much time you have, how complex an airplane is involved and where you normally fly with your accidental passenger, you may want to explore a few other aspects of trying to get the airplane on the ground in one piece. One of these is the autopilot, if you have one. Explain how it works-heading mode vs. Nav mode, for example-how to adjust it and how to shut it off. If its a two-axis device with altitude hold, explain how that feature is used.

Another nice-to-know-about item for the accidental pilot is the pitch trim control and how it can be used to reduce control pressures. Of course, an electric trim system may not be available to a right-seat passenger, so focus on the maual system. Stress that properly using the trim can greatly alleviate not only the control pressures necessary to fly the airplane but also the anxiety level your accidental pilot is sure to have.

Putting It All Together
This is where it gets fun. Theres no way you can explain all of the topics weve covered here and make sure theyll be remembered when it counts. So, the obvious thing to do is go fly and get the passenger doing a lot of the work.

Ask him or her questions; explain what youre doing and why. Think about how your flight instructor would explain and demonstrate things; thats the role youve assumed in this scenario.

Let your passenger do the flying; sit back and accept major altitude or heading excursions and let the right-seater use the radio and navigate. Hit nearest on the GPS, then direct and have him or her fly to the airport.

Finally, let your potential accidental pilot fly the pattern, manage power and at least flare the airplane over the runway, if not actually touch down. Theyll get a major kick out of it, will be a valuable co-pilot in the future and-who knows?-could be the subject of a movie someday.

Also With This Article
“Accidental Pilot Checklist”
“AOPAs Pinch Hitter Program”


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