What to Do if the Pilot Passes Out and You Have to Land a Plane

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So, your pilot just passed out. Well, the good news is the plane will probably have a sophisticated autopilot that can take care of most of the flying for you. The bad news is you will still probably have to land the damn thing. And since every aircraft cockpit is going to be different, it's not like you'd know exactly where to look to find the things you need.

Let's take an example aircraft – yep, you guessed it – the 737. The first thing you're going to want to do is put on the pilot's headset and find the pilot's audio controls. They'll look like this:

What to Do if the Pilot Passes Out and You Have to Land a Plane

Note that there are three of these – one for a pilot, a copilot, and an observer. The one closest to you is the pilot's. Make sure VHF-1 is selected in the MIC SELECTOR button group. Otherwise you'll just be talking to your passengers – and chances are they sure as hell won't be able to help.

Whatever frequency is dialled in will more than likely work, so just hold down the push-to-talk button on the yoke, and tell Air Traffic Control (ATC) your situation:

What to Do if the Pilot Passes Out and You Have to Land a Plane

It's labelled here as "microphone intercomm switch".

Now, ATC is probably going to give you headings and altitudes to fly. These can be dialed into the autopilot's mode control panel (MCP), which is at the very top of the dashboard, along the glareshield:

What to Do if the Pilot Passes Out and You Have to Land a Plane

First, make sure the autopilot is engaged by verifying that either the CMD A or CMD B buttons are lit. Press either one if not. To fly a heading, dial the heading into the HDG window and press the HDG SEL button to enable "heading select" lateral mode.

To climb or descend to an altitude, dial the altitude into the ALTITUDE window and select the LVL CHG button to set "level change" vertical mode. Once the aircraft captures that altitude, it should automatically activate ALT HOLD (altitude hold) mode.

ATC may also want you to slow down in preparation for landing. To control speed, select the SPEED autothrottle mode, dial the airspeed (in knots) you want to fly, and verify that the A/T ARM (autothrottle arm) switch is on. If the autothrottle is having trouble slowing the aircraft down (say, due to a descent), you can give it some assistance by deploying the speed brakes. When this handle is pulled back...

What to Do if the Pilot Passes Out and You Have to Land a Plane

...the speed brakes deploy and slow the plane down aerodynamically.

Controlling altitude, heading and airspeed should get you safely on the final approach course of a satisfactory runway at a safe approach speed, somewhere under 250 knots and at a sufficient altitude for a smooth landing.

Now comes the tricky part: landing. A good approach speed for a 737 is somewhere around 140 knots with 30° of flap – though it does vary with aircraft weight and weather conditions. One-hundred and forty should be fine in a pinch, though. The 737 cannot fly 140 knots without the flaps being lowered, however, so you will need to incrementally lower flaps as your aircraft slows down. The flap lever lets you select flap position:

What to Do if the Pilot Passes Out and You Have to Land a Plane

As you can see, it has notches from 0° down to 40° of flap. To know which speed to lower the next notch of flaps at, check the placard underneath the landing gear lever.

What to Do if the Pilot Passes Out and You Have to Land a Plane

As your plane slows to landing speed (called VREF), keep lowering those flaps until they're at 30° (or maybe even 40°—ATC will have probably found a qualified 737 pilot to talk you down by now, and s/he'll be feeding you flap settings).

Speaking of landing gear, you'll want to lower that, too. Remember to check the placard and don't lower the landing gear until you're at or below a safe gear extension speed. Push the lever down until the three green lights illuminate, then return it to the neutral position.

OK, once you've got the runway in sight, your aircraft is configured for landing, and your airspeed is under control, it's time to flip off the autopilot. Press the autopilot disengage button on the yoke and take control. This will sound an alarm which you can silence by pressing this button in front of you:

What to Do if the Pilot Passes Out and You Have to Land a Plane

You can leave the autothrottle on since you're going to want to fly 140 knots all the way down the chute, and it will help take a load off.

Use smooth and gentle corrections to fly the correct glideslope. Use bank to stay aligned with the runway. Locate the runway's PAPI lights, which look like this:

What to Do if the Pilot Passes Out and You Have to Land a Plane

Two white, two red, you're fine. If you see three or four whites, you're too high, and you should pitch down to recapture the correct glideslope. If you see three or four reds, you're getting too low and should pitch up. Maintain a good glideslope until you cross the runway threshold. Then, do the following:

1. Disengage the autothrottle by pressing the autothrottle disengage button:

What to Do if the Pilot Passes Out and You Have to Land a Plane

2. Retard the throttles to their full back position.

3. Slowly pitch the aircraft up so it lands on its rear tires.

4. Deploy speed brakes entirely, and activate the reverse thrust by pulling up on the two levers behind the throttles (pictured above).

When your airspeed drops below 80 knots, deactivate reverse thrust and begin manual braking. Do this by pressing down on both foot pedals. Airspeed will be shown in the display in front of you. It's the left number (210 knots in this photo).

What to Do if the Pilot Passes Out and You Have to Land a Plane

Use the foot brakes to bring the airplane to a complete stop. Shut down the engines by moving the fuel cutoff switches to the "cutoff" position.

What to Do if the Pilot Passes Out and You Have to Land a Plane

Stopping the engines will start a great number of alarm bells, but it's fine. You've just made it safe for emergency crew to board the aircraft and take over. Grab a beer from the galley and enjoy the ride down the emergency evacuation slide.

About a hundred million pilots will read this and have aneurysms because I instructed you to use pitch to maintain glideslope on the approach (pitch up if you're low; pitch down if you're high). All pilots are trained, on approach, to maintain altitude with throttle (more throttle if you're low, less if you're high), and to use pitch to maintain airspeed (pitch up if your speed drifts above 140, down if you get slower than 140). And this is correct. But you've got the autothrottle helping you to maintain 140 knots, and it's in control of the throttles. So the only thing left for you to control is pitch (and bank, of course).


What should I do if the pilot passes out and I (with no flight training) have to land the plane? originally appeared on Quora. You can follow Quora on Twitter, Facebook, and Google+.

This answer has been lightly edited for grammar and clarity.