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Errr… Ahhh… Ahem. Can Any Of You Passengers Fly An Airplane?

When people find out I’m a pilot, some invariably ask, “Could you land a jetliner if something happened to the pilot?”  I’ll answer that shortly.

You might think that such a sitation never arises.  But it does.  Claire McBride sent me this article just a few minutes ago, Pilot sought help of passengers to land jet, from yesterday’s Irish Times.

In February 2002, Ronald Crews, a Cape Air pilot, suffered a low blood-sugar episode in the middle of a 15-minute evening flight from Martha’s Vineyard to Hyannis.  I should mention that there is only one pilot on Cape Air flights.  According to the Cape Cod Times,

Crews ignored a flashing red light and beeping alarm on board the twin-engine Cessna he was flying. Soon, the plane jerked side to side and up and down, according to court papers. When Crews passed Hyannis pointed toward the open ocean, the four panicked passengers asked him where he was going.

One of the four others on board was Melanie Oswalt, a Cape Air security supervisor who, as a pilot-in-training, had just 48 hours of flying experience. She called Cape Air on her cell phone but lost the signal. She moved to the co-pilot’s chair to help, but Crews pushed her aside, court papers said.

Oswalt told the three businessmen on board that she was a student pilot and the only way they could land safely was to restrain Crews, who was incoherent, and fly to Provincetown Airport. Two male passengers grabbed Crews’ neck and arms, subduing the pilot, court papers said.

The Provincetown Airport was closed, and no one was on the ground to assist Oswalt. The Cessna’s landing gear hadn’t lowered. Still, she skidded the plane down safely on its belly on a grassy strip next to the runway. 

…In U.S. District Court in Boston, Crews was sentenced to 16 months in prison and two years supervised release for lying to the government about the diabetes that caused his in-flight collapse, according to federal prosecutors.

I fly Cape Air regularly from Martha’s Vineyard to Boston.  I always tell the other passengers that I’m a pilot and would like to sit in the co-pilot’s seat.  Needless to say, they are delighted with that idea.  Could I land that plane?  Sure.  But that’s no Boeing 747-400. 

On a related subject, did you know that in July 1983 a Boeing 767-200 jet, Air Canada Flight 143, ran completely out of fuel at 41,000 feet?   The crew was able to glide the aircraft safely to an emergency landing at Gimli Industrial Park Airport, a former airbase at Gimli, Manitoba. 

None of the 61 passengers were seriously hurt during the landing.

Before September 11, I would ask for and almost always be given permission to sit in the jump seat on the flight deck during flights and landings.  JFK and Auckland, NZ were my favorites.  There were never any emergencies on any of the flights where I would have been the first passenger on line to take over the controls. 

So, could I land a large, commercial jetliner?  I am very confident that if I had very competent coaching and guidance from air traffic control I could.  Without that?  It’s highly likely that a significant amount of metal would get bent. 

People always ask me if I’ve had any “scary moments” flying my plane.  Yes I have.  If you want me to write about one or two of those, leave a comment.

More to read on the subject of civilians landing commercial airplanes: Ask the pilot

Photo of the Gimli Glider, bent metal and all: Wikipedia


2 Responses

  1. Dave, what in interesting and somewhat ‘terrifying’ story for the nervous flyer that I am. With some trepidation I would love to hear about your ‘scary moments’. It would also be interesting to know your motivation in becoming a pilot as well, was it a career thing or just for the pleasure?

  2. Hi Dave – I always think about that possibilty, and while I would quickly defer to someone with more recent training and exeperience, I think to with a good coach I could land most planes — at least the odds for a safe landing would improve 🙂 I’m sure you’d do a much better job!

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