Could a Novice Land a Jumbo Jet?

Have you ever seen the movie Airport 1975? It was a disaster movie set on a 747 that had suffered a midair collision. The pilots were dead, leaving only a flight attendant to try to keep the plane in the air. Could an untrained person fly a jetliner? Popular Science asked Dale Wright of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association:

Assuming you remain composed, the biggest factor in a successful landing is whether or not the plane is equipped with an auto-land system to control the throttles and, as its name suggests, land the plane. Not all large commercial aircraft have auto-land, however, and without it, you would be forced to disconnect autopilot to land. At that point, says Chris Dancy, a spokesman for the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, the most likely mistake an amateur would make would be to fly too low, or too slow, which could lead to an aerodynamic stall, in which the airflow around the wing is no longer smooth enough to keep the plane in the air.

Even if the plane has autoland, setting down a 400-ton jet is still an enormous task. After activating the system, you’d have to engage the wing flaps and the landing gear and continually input new speed settings as the plane descended. But if you can dial in all the right numbers (aided by your pal in the control tower), once the plane is about three miles from touching down, the auto-land system kicks in and does the rest of the work, letting you sit back and enjoy the view.

Without auto-land, on touching down you would have to hit the brakes, which are controlled by way of a complicated foot pedal system, and reverse the thrust of the engines (if the runway is short) to stop the plane, Wright says. He guesses that a novice has a “less than 1 percent chance of landing and keeping [the plane] on the runway and not hurting anybody. And that's on a good day."


Link | Image: Universal Pictures

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As a former regional airline pilot I feel that there are a few points that should be made. First every pilot that sits in the front of a jet can certainly land the plane manually. I can't speak to the systems of a Jumbo Jet but can tell you that the smaller jets are not equipped with an autoland system. Every landing is done by hand.
Second, the article makes it sound much more difficult than it actually is. Putting the landing gear down involves nothing more than moving a lever. Same with putting the flaps down. Disconnecting the autopilot is simply a matter of pushing one bright red button right on the yoke. Thrust reversers would probably not be nessecary as in an emergency situation ATC would send you to the longest runway in the area (which in a jet can be a pretty big area). Airports such as DFW and JFK have runways nearly 2 1/2 miles long. As far as using the brakes is concerned, it is not difficult at all; just push on the top of the pedals the same amount on each side. The hardest part would probably be steering the plane to keep it straight once on the ground.
Jets are extremely durable and capable of taking a very hard landing. I feel that with a qualified air traffic controller as well as a qualified pilot on the radio a novice would have a much better chance than 1% of landing the plane.
This of course leaves out a few important facts. First, nearly any large commercial flight will have a qualified pilot somewhere in back who is either dead heading, commuting, or traveling for pleasure. Secondly, as a previous poster commented the cockpit door is always locked from the inside during flight and is supposedly impenetrable so if both the pilots became incapcitated inside the cockpit then there would be nothing that could be done.

One other bit of food for though: the first time that I actually saw the plane that I was trained on was when I showed up to fly it at DFW with passengers on board. All the training up to that point was done in a full motion simulator which I think is a testament to the quality of training that takes place at an airline.
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As a commercial pilot, I've gotta chime in here. First, anyone sitting in the front of a large jet can fly it, land it, etc.. without any "auto" assistance. You don't just train in a simulator (although you do a lot of sim time). That's not to say that heavy jets don't have lots of computers helping with flight management, but anyone with an ATP (the license required for that kind of work) can fly the aircraft by looking out the windows and using the controls.
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The presence of "auto-land" is moot on public carriers that land in the USA, as the cockpit doors are locked from the inside and armored. If everyone in the cockpit is incapacitated, who will open the door to let you in?

Anyway, my understanding of this is that the above "how to" isn't quite right:
You have to hope that the settings programmed into the autopilot will intercept the glidepath for landing.
When you get the signal that you have intercepted the landing beacon, hitting the "Auto-land" button should take care of direction, descent, flaps etc. It is even set up to hit the brakes and thrust reverser once the wheels hit tarmac.
Also, my understanding is that pilots routinely land "by hand". I wonder if above commenters are confusing the "fly-by-wire" control interface with auto-pilot and auto-land?
I've driven a Pontiac Vibe that did not have any physical cable or hydraulic connection between the "go" pedal and the actual gubbins that control fuel-air mixture in to the cylinders. I did not get any sense that the car was driving for me.
Likewise, some aircraft controls are electronic sensors in the joystick controlling motors rather than power-assisted hydraulics or systems of cables, guides, and pulleys. The movement of the controls still controls the flying of the aircraft.
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