February 22, 2024

Could you land a plane? A surprising number of people think they can: ScienceAlert

Picture this: You’re sitting comfortably in your seat as you drive toward your vacation destination, when the voice of a flight attendant breaks the silence:

‘Ladies and gentlemen, both pilots are incapacitated. Are there any passengers who can land this plane with the help of air traffic control?’

If you think you can handle it, you’re not alone. Survey results released in January indicate that about a third of adult Americans believe they can safely land a passenger plane under air traffic control guidance. Among male respondents, the confidence level rose to almost 50 percent.

Can someone easily guide everyone to a smooth landing without prior training?

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We’ve all heard stories of passengers saving the day when the pilot became unresponsive. Last year, for example, Darren Harrison managed to land a twin-engine plane in Florida after the pilot fainted under the guidance of an air traffic controller who also happened to be a flight instructor.

However, such incidents usually occur in small, simple aircraft. Flying a much larger and heavier commercial aircraft is a whole different ballgame.

You can’t always rely on autopilot

A pilot spends about 90 percent of his time monitoring autopilot systems and making sure everything is working as intended. The remaining 10 percent is spent on managing issues, taxiing, takeoff and landing.

Takeoff and landing are perhaps the most difficult tasks pilots perform, and are always performed manually. Only in very rare cases, and on a handful of aircraft models, can a pilot use autopilot to land the plane for him. This is the exception and not the rule.

To take off, the plane must build up speed until the wings can generate enough lift to pull it into the air. The pilot must pay close attention to multiple instruments and external signals while keeping the aircraft centered on the runway until it reaches takeoff speed.

Once in the air, they must work with air traffic control, follow a specific path, retract the landing gear and maintain a precise speed and direction as they attempt to climb.

Landing is even more complicated and requires precise control over the aircraft’s direction and descent rate.

To land successfully, a pilot must maintain an appropriate speed while managing equipment and flap configuration, adhering to air traffic rules, communicating with air traffic control and completing a number of paper and digital checklists.

As the plane approaches the runway, they must accurately estimate altitude, reduce power and adjust descent rate so they can land on the correct section of the runway.

On the ground, they will use the brakes and reverse thrust to bring the plane to a complete stop before the runway ends. This all happens in just a few minutes.

Both take-off and landing are far too fast, technical and concentration-intensive for an untrained person. They also require a set of skills that can only be acquired through extensive training, such as understanding the information presented on different meters, and the ability to coordinate the hands and feet in a certain way.

Training a pilot

The road from student to commercial pilot is a long one. Normally it starts with a recreational license, followed by a private license and then a commercial license (which allows them to fly professionally).

Even before stepping into a cockpit, the student must study aerodynamics, air laws and flight rules, meteorology, human factors, navigation, aircraft systems, and performance and flight planning. They should also spend time getting to know the specific aircraft they will be flying.

Once the basics are mastered, an instructor takes them for training. Most of this training is conducted in small, lightweight aircraft – with a simulator briefly introduced towards the end.

During a lesson, each maneuver or action is demonstrated by the instructor before the student attempts it. In critical situations, their attempt can be adjusted, corrected or even terminated prematurely.

The first ten to fifteen lessons focus on takeoff, landing, basic in-flight control, and emergency management. When students are ready, they may “go solo,” completing an entire flight alone. This is a great milestone.

After years of experience, they are ready to switch to a commercial aircraft. At this point they may be able to take off and land fairly well, but they will still undergo extensive training specific to the aircraft they are flying, including hours of advanced theory, dozens of simulator sessions, and hundreds of hours of real aircraft training (most of which is done with passengers on board).

So if you’ve never learned the basics of flying, your chances of successfully landing a passenger plane with the help of air traffic control are almost zero.

Yet flying is a skill like any other

Aviation training has been democratized by the advent of advanced computers, virtual reality and flight simulation games such as Flight Simulator and Microsoft’s X-Plane.

Anyone can now put together a desktop flight simulator for a few thousand dollars. Ideally, such a setup should also include the basic physical controls of a cockpit, such as a control yoke, throttle quadrant, and pedals.

Flight simulators provide an immersive environment in which professional pilots, students and aviation enthusiasts can develop their skills. So if you really think you can take on a pro, consider trying one.

At the end of the trip you almost certainly won’t be able to land a real passenger plane, but at least you will gain an appreciation for the tremendous skills that pilots possess.

Guido Carim Junior, Senior Lecturer in Aeronautics, Griffith University; Chris Campbell, Adjunct Senior Lecturer, Griffith University; Elvira Marques, Aeronautics PhD candidate, Griffith University; Nnenna Ike, Research Assistant, Griffith Aviation, Griffith University, and Tim Ryley, Professor and Head of Griffith Aviation, Griffith University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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