What happens if the pilots are unable to fly the aircraft mid-air?

Hi there again!! Are you a strong-hearted person? Are you an adrenaline junkie? Can you keep calm in situations of extreme life-threatening emergencies? Can you take extreme situations under your control and do you respond well to emergencies?

Ask the above questions to yourself before reading any further. If, for any question, your answer is NO, don’t do anything when the time calls, that I am going to tell you in this blog and let a more courageous person take over, but still read it. The information I am going to provide in this blog isn’t known to the majority of people, but I believe everyone should be aware of it. It can save your life, your loved ones, and your co-passengers.

So, you are planning to go on a family vacation, a solo trip, a business trip, or just moving. You have booked your flight or flight plan is prepared for your private jet. You are excited. You pack your bags, get on a cab to the airport, board the aircraft, aircraft takes off, climbs to 35000 feet, and then a very unfortunate and highly unlikely thing happens; your pilots are in no situation to fly and land the aircraft safely. Maybe cockpit pressure has gone down and low on oxygen, maybe pilots fall sick, maybe a hijack attempt and hijackers have hurt the pilots enough that they are unable to fly. What will come to your mind? The aircraft is going to crash soon and you’ll be dead along with every soul on board?

NO!!! I am going to tell you that you can avoid the disaster by taking the situation into your hand. You can get into the cockpit, get on the PIC’s (Pilot in Command) chair (the chair on your left), disengage the autopilot, fly the aircraft, and land it safely at the nearest airport, in the worst-case, land it on a highway or in a river or lake (water landing — yes, this is a thing). How do you do that? Read further!!

Let’s think of a situation when the pilots have passed out. Immediately call the Flight Attendant. With their help remove the pilots from their seats and get on it immediately. Hold the Yoke or the Control Stick. Don’t try to move it. If the autopilot is engaged, moving the Yoke continuously for 3 seconds will disable the autopilot and you’ll have all control over the movements of the aircraft and you don’t want that. So, hold the Yoke but don’t try to move it. Then immediately ask the FA to ask the passengers if there is anyone who knows how to fly an aircraft. If you are lucky and there is another pilot traveling as a passenger onboard, call them and immediately vacate the cockpit for them. You could still play the co-pilot but let them do most of the things.

If there is no other pilot on board, handle the situation yourself. If you answered YES to all the questions I asked above, you are the perfect person to save the day.

The good news here is that the plane will most 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 it, and every aircraft cockpit is going to be different. Also, the cockpits are very complex. So, it’s not like you would know exactly where to look to find the controls or things you need. The aircraft example I am going to use here is a Boeing 747.

Now, the first thing you will have to do is put on the pilot’s headset. Ask the FA to find the pilot’s audio controls. They probably know better where to find it, if not, find it yourself. There will be three of these: Pilot, Co-Pilot, and Observer. The one closest you to is the pilot. Make sure VHF-1 is selected in the Mic Selector button group. Otherwise, you might just be talking to your passengers instead of ATC (Air Traffic Control).

Set the frequency to 121.5 MHz. This is the Aircraft Emergency Frequency aka Main Civil Voice Frequency and is monitored by most ATC towers, FSS (Flight Service Station), national ATC centers, military air defense, and other flight and emergency services, as well as by many commercial aircrafts flying nearby. So, just hold down the push-to-talk button on the Yoke and tell the ATC your situation. Now if the situation and time permits, the ATC is probably going to test you if you are a perfect choice to fly the aircraft. In better words, they are going to make you familiar with the sensitivity of the Yoke and the aircraft controls. They may ask you to turn or tilt the aircraft to the left or right. Do that without any worry. They may again ask to perform a few more maneuvers. They will also try to tell you all the different controls which you are going to need to land the aircraft safely. By this time they may also ask Air Force pilots to immediately take off and reach towards you so they can also guide you. After a few minutes if you see Air Force fighter jets flying alongside you, don’t panic. They are there to help you. Now that the ATC has made you familiar with the controls, they will probably give you headings and altitude to fly. These can be dialed into the autopilot’s Mode Control Panel (MCP), which you can find at the very top of the dashboard, near the glare shield. A glare shield is a screen attached to the cockpit canopy to reduce glare effects.

Now the first thing you have to do is to engage the autopilot back. You can also verify if the autopilot is engaged by checking if the CMD A or CMD B buttons are lit. Press either on if not. To fly a heading, dial the heading into the HDG window and press the HDG SEL button to enable the 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.

Now the ATC will prepare you for landing. They will again tell you all the controls required for the landing. Select the SPEED autothrottle mode to control speed, dial the airspeed (in knots) you want to fly, and check that the A/T ARM (autothrottle arm) switch is on. ATC will also tell you about the speed breaks and how to use them when they want you to slow down the aircraft.

By now you’ll have the controlling altitude, heading, and airspeed. With these, you should get safely on the final approach course of the nearest satisfactory runway at a safe approach speed. It should be under 250 knots (463 KMPH), and a sufficient altitude for a smooth landing. Just before landing, the ATC may ask you to dump most of the fuel. This is a normal procedure to make the aircraft lighter and it also reduces the chances of aircraft getting into flames or a blast if some damage happens at the time of landing.

You are now ready for landing. This is where everything could go wrong but if you follow the ATC instructions with precision, you’ll be the hero, you’ll save the day. Landing is always the tricky part. For a Boeing 747, a good approach speed is between 135 to 140 knots with flaps down to 30˚. This approach speed can vary with aircraft weight and weather conditions.

Keep looking for the runway now. Once you have got the runway in sight, tell the ATC. Your aircraft is already set for landing. Your airspeed to under control. Keep checking the flaps because you may need to adjust the flaps according to the airspeed or the wind speed. It is now time to disengage the autopilot. To do that press the autopilot disengage button on the Yoke and take complete control of the aircraft. When you disengage the autopilot, an alarm will sound. You can disable the alarm and silence it by pressing a button which should be just in front of you.

Now might be the time to lower the landing gear. Don’t lower it until told by the ATC. To do it, push the landing gear lever down until all the three green lights illuminate. Leave the autothrottle on because you need to fly at 140 knots till you touch down. Start making very smooth and gentle corrections to fly the correct glideslope. Glideslope is an instrumental landing system that sends radio waves from the runway and the aircraft intercepts it. This helps in aligning the aircraft with the runway. Locate the PAPI (precision approach path indicator) lights. You can find them on both of the sides of the starting of the runway. If you see two white lights and two red lights, you are good and aligned with the runway. If you see three or four white lights, you are too high and you should correct your altitude by pitching down to recapture the correct glideslope. If you see three or four red lights, you are going too low and you should again make corrections and pitch up.

You should maintain a good glideslope until you cross the runway threshold. Now disengage the autothrottle by pressing the autothrottle disengage button. Retard the throttles to their full-back position. Slowly pitch the aircraft up so the rear tires touch down first. As soon as the tires touch down deploy speed brakes entirely and activate the reverse thrusters. Reverse thrust levers are the four levers just behind the throttle. Throttle and the reverse thrusters can be two or four depending on the number of engines an aircraft has. In this case, we have 4 levers because a Boeing 747 has four engines. Aircraft with two engines like Boeing 737 will have two levers. When your airspeed drops below 80 knots, deactivate reverse thrust and start manual breaking. To do this, press down the foot pedals, just like in cars. But in aircraft, there will be two of them. You can see the airspeed in the display right in front of you. Use the brakes to bring the airplane to a complete stop.

Congratulations!!! You just landed the aircraft safely without any prior experience in flying. But, your job is still not finished. You’ll have to shut down the engines. If you don’t, emergency services cannot come near to the aircraft to help you. One engine of a Boeing 747 produces more power than the entire Titanic. A 747 has 4 engines, and all of them are running right now. Each engine is powerful enough to throw a loaded truck hundreds of meters away.

To shut them down, move the fuel cutoff switches to the cutoff position. When you stop the engines, many alarms will go off. But don’t worry, you are completely fine. By shutting down the engines you have made it safe for the emergency services to board the aircraft and help everyone out. FAs will now open the door and may open the emergency evacuation slides. Everyone is safe now. Thanks to you!!!!

Now what? Just accept thanks from everyone, feel like a hero, sit down, relax, grab a beer, and sip on it.

Originally published at https://www.prateekchaubey.com on April 1, 2020.

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