Fighting For Control

The left-seat pilot froze at the controls in busy airspace. The right-seater had to pry his fingers off the yoke to regain control.


was a new private pilot with about 100 hours, training for my instrument rating. A schoolmate asked if I wanted to go as a passenger to a very busy international airport to pick up a friend. He was supposedly well-trained with more hours than me, but did not feel comfortable flying into a busy airport. Having trained at a busy airport, I was comfortable and used to flying in that airspace. 

It was agreed that I was just a passenger unless needed for the short flight. Immediately after takeoff, I felt things were not right. He looked and flew with uncertainty, and his communication skills were sloppy.

Everything went bad when ATC gave us vectors and a hold for sequencing. The left-seater locked up and did not respond to ATC. We were flying the wrong direction and not holding altitude. Soon, ATC was almost frantic.

I told him to fly the airplane and I would talk to ATC. The controller knew there was a problem and I assured them we would comply. Then, I told the left-seater the headings and altitudes. He was soaked in sweat and white as a ghost.

He did not respond and would not let go of the controls. I said, “My airplane,” and tried to fly from the right seat—it was a battle. I decided I had to take control to save myself and anyone on the ground. I was able to pry his fingers off the yoke and bent them backwards until he snapped out of his fear and felt the pain. I finally had control of the airplane, complied with ATC and was able to land safely.

The lessons are plentiful. First, my flight instructor had warned me about situations where people took the controls or froze and then crashed the plane, and to never let anyone take over my plane. This was long before 9/11 and I thought it was a joke. Second, I had never flown from the right seat. Third, I almost waited too long in the hope that talking to him would fix the situation.

Finally, fly from the right seat occasionally, pay attention to every aspect of the flight and trust your gut—it’s usually spot-on.

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