What happens if a pilot dies mid-flight

A short guide to landing a light aircraft


February 11, 2017
PHOTO: AFP

Have you ever wondered what would happen if a pilot died mid-flight?

Although rare, it's not something that hasn't happened before. In 2009, a Mississipi-bound turbotop plane had to be landed by a passenger as the pilot passed away.

The issue of how to fly and land a plane when both or all pilots are incapacitated is a serious matter. A nervous passenger also asked the question on Quora and a man brilliantly responded.

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Responding to the question, “What should I do if the pilot passes out and I have to land the plane without any training?”, Bruno Gilissen said, “If no other pilot is on board when both the pilots have died then you’re going to be the hero of the day! Follow this procedure (for a commercial jet).

Don’t panic, you’re not dead! The airplane flies on autopilot and you’re going to be the hero soon. Take your time because following a procedure slowly produces  faster results often than rushing,” he added.

Gillisen continued: “Finding out how the radio works shouldn’t be hard but don’t press it yet. There’s usually a push to talk button, often on the backside of the stick, like a trigger.”

“Be careful here because there’s also one that disconnects the autopilot on the stick. Mostly the auto pilot disconnect button is red and operated by a thumb. There also might be a radio hanging “somewhere on the side”, or if in doubt, ask one of the flight attendants if they’re not dead too," he further wrote.

“Once you’ve found the radio button, he says, press it and call “Mayday, mayday, mayday.” It’s the best way to get everyone’s attention.

This is when what is called a talk-down begins -- when an unqualified person is assisted in flying an aircraft with radio instructions from either the ground or a nearby aircraft.

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“Once you talk to someone, they’ll probably try to talk you down.” Gilissen explained.  They’ll guide you to the nearest airport that has autoland capability.

“Don’t sweat! The airplane will land itself there if you operate the autopilot as you’re told. Once you put on the auto brake, it will even brake automatically and you will still get all the credit.”

However, the pilot warned that if you’re unable to find someone to talk you down, you will have to manage the autopilot yourself. “You will have to configure with flaps and gear as you slow down and this becomes more complicated,” he said.

“Flying manually is not rocket science but should be avoided. If you end up flying manually, do try to put the autopilot back on as it’s there to help and can perform a better job than the average qualified pilot often. Unfortunately, getting into autopilot modes won’t happen within two minutes nor will explaining how to perform an approach and land manually.”

Balochistan home minister's helicopter makes emergency landing

In 2013, a then-77-year-old landed a Cessna 172 with guidance on the radio from a flying instructor and an air traffic control manager, after the pilot collapsed in the cockpit, and later died.

This article originally appeared on The Guardian.

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