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Could you - a normal person - land a plane in an emergency? We went to find out

It was up to three idiots to save the lives of everyone on board

Could you - a normal person - land a plane in an emergency? We went to find out
01 August 2017

It’s a staple of any disaster movie: the pilot of a giant passenger plane has been rendered incapacitated by a deadly gas, a terrorist, or, I don’t know, a slug that accidentally slid up his nose, and it’s up to a plucky have-a-go-hero to land it. 

“Has anyone ever flown a plane before?” the panicked air stewardess screeches, a pair of tweezers rummaging around inside the unconscious captain’s nostril, desperately trying to remove the slug from his nasal cavity. “We’re going down!”

But wait. A shadow rises in the distance, a hand raises triumphantly aloft.

“I once completed the first two levels of Flight Simulator II on the Atari 260,” I shout, demonstrating how capable, but also how retro I am, “I’ll fly the plane! I’ll fucking fly it! There’s a reason they call me butter fingers!”

I regret revealing my nickname, but am rushed to the cockpit regardless, where I place a pair of blood-stained headphones over my ears, and am greeted by the calm, reassuring voice of an air-traffic controller.

“Are you ready?” he asks.

“I am,” I confidently reply, “ignore the fart sounds.”

Of course, this is all hypothetical: it could, but hopefully will not, happen. In fact, there is no record of this ever occurring on a large commercial flight – previous emergencies have involved qualified pilots luckily being on board as passengers, as well as cabin crew helping to co-pilot planes to successful landing, but an average Joe like you or me? Never.

Still, what if it did happen? What if, against all odds, you had to engage in a ‘talk down landing’? The pilot is OOO, and all you’ve got is a disembodied voice at the other end of the line, giving you step-by-step instructions on how to land. Would you be able to save the lives of all on board?

To find out if we could handle the pressure and win the fight against the slugs, we went to Flight Experience London, a professional flight simulator used to train pilots, to test our mettle.

Spoiler: We achieved something that not a single person has done since the simulator opened.

Firstly, what we were dealing with was an actual, literal cockpit ripped straight from a Boeing 737 and stuck in a dark room in Putney, surrounded by realistic 3D projection screens and loaded onto giant motion simulators. It feels mighty like being in a real cockpit, if I’m honest, and I’ve actually done a whole journey in the cockpit of a Boeing 747 – from Florida to London, if you’re asking, so I’m basically an expert.

For our specific ‘incident’, we were faced with an otherwise disposed (slug up the nose) pilot and therefore an empty cockpit, and nothing else. Just a load of really confusing buttons – like, a ridiculous amount, an amount so disheartening I was pretty much ready to give up there and then. Look:


I cannot imagine the stress you’d be under were you thousands of feet up in the air. Your arse would be spouting sweat like the bottom of a water slide.

Funnily enough, that exact same thing was happening in my current situation, seeing as a cockpit filled with three panicking chickens does not lend itself well to efficient ventilation. So yeah, big moist bums all around – not a good starting point for a calm mind and steady hand.

So, obviously, our first port-of-call was to immediately start pressing all the fucking buttons and yanking on the steering wheel (I do not think it is called a steering wheel) and giggling. This, it turned out, would come back later to bite us in our trio of arses.

After we got bored of flicking the plane’s numerous proverbial beans, we decided we should probably try and find some help, somewhere – there was zero chance of landing safely if we didn’t have a dad somewhere telling us what to do.

So we rang the first phone number we could find, and lo-and-behold, it got us straight through to good ole air traffic control. We had found our lifeline. 

Our man on the ground was pretty helpful in the end – he possessed a warmly calm voice, and he took us through the steps (none of which I could possibly remember, were you to ask me now) in a collected manner. None of us panicked too much, considering the circumstances (no pilot, plane full of innocent people, drenched butts), and in actuality, you do have quite a lot of time to work out what you’re going to do. 

In fact, from first “Oh shit the pilot’s got a slug in his head” to the moment we began our descent, I reckon it took about 20 minutes, which when you think about it, is a lot of time to get in the zone. Of course, being actually in the sky probably makes things a tad different, but whatever, it’s ages.

"We've run out of peanuts"

Anyway, after a bit of sensible button-pressing, we quite capably managed to line ourselves up with the runway, and were ready to save the flipping day, thank you: I’ll take autographs and kiss your wife by baggage reclaim.

At this point, it’s probably necessary to let you know that auto-pilot is an actual, proper thing that is really really helpful when flying a plane. It basically directs the plane to exactly where you need to go – you don’t even really need to use the steering wheel (I’m just going to call it a steering wheel from now on, @ me, pilots). So really, if you just do exactly what you’re told and let the experts tell you what switches to flip and dials to turn, you should be pretty safe.

So yeah, we’d pretty much saved everyone – we came down to the ground, right on target, nice and smoothly, a chorus of 60 thankful civilians singing our praises.

“Actually, that was quite easy, wasn’t it?” we all said, in unison, in song.

But hey, haha, the plane isn’t slowing down is it. The brakes aren’t working. Nor is the steering wheel. Why do we need the steering wheel? Because we are heading off the runway and towards the nearby Holiday Inn. Haha, we can’t stop. Everyone is screaming again. Uh oh, I will not be signing autographs in baggage reclaim. WE HAVE CRASHED INTO THE HOLIDAY INN.

Whoops, we killed everybody on board. The only people to have ever done this. 

Turns out that it was because when I was ‘doing a joke’ and pressing all the buttons, I turned off the auto-pilot and so it didn’t stop us properly. So because I was ‘playing the fool’, I murdered a plane full of people, as well as a good number of Holiday Inn guests, and myself. I fucked it up, big time, because I was ‘vehemently adhering to my self-imposed stereotype of a stupid, idiotic clown-man’.

So really, I think the conclusion here, is: yes, you can land a plane in an emergency, as long as you don’t feel the constant and debilitating need to act up, even in life-or-death situations. If you can just go 20 fucking minutes without being an attention-seeking filibuster, then you might be OK. If you can think about people other than yourself and your tiring and desperate need to get a cheap laugh, then maybe you won’t horrendously murder hundreds of undeserving innocents.

Hint: This is not where a plane should be

Yeah, do it properly and you’ve got a good chance of being the epitome of an accidental hero. Congratulations, basically.

Thankfully, we were all able to attempt to land the plane again, this time with the help of a seasoned co-pilot, and I’m happy to announce – we all did it pretty much flawlessly. So really, you’re only really in the shit if both the pilot AND the co-pilot gets a slug up their nose, and also you are an infantile harlequin with a frantic need to be liked, 24/7. Any other scenario, and you should be OK. 

Thankfully though, as I said before – this has never actually happened in real life, as far as we know, so the chances of it happening when you’re flying back from Magaluf, wretchedly hungover, and it all coming down to you, sunglasses on face, sick on vest, to pilot the plane, are very low.

But in case you feel you might need to pre-empt this potential scenario, and fancy having a go on the simulator yourself (which you should, it’s great fun) then head on over to the Flight Experience London site here and book your tickets.

P.S. The Clown School is just down the road. I will be there if you need me.

(Main image: iStock)