In November 2022, X (formerly Twitter) user @ImagineAGuy tweeted, “i think all men sincerely believe they could safely land a commercial airliner in an emergency situation with only air traffic control to walk them through it.”
The post racked up 55,000 likes, but it wasn’t until recently that the idea migrated to TikTok, where users asked the men in their lives if they believed they could land a passenger plane in an emergency. The answer, more often than not? “Yes.”
A YouGov study released in January backs this up: One in three Americans believe they could safely land a passenger airplane. Among men, that percentage jumps to 46. And indeed, some average Joes have in fact recently pulled this off. Last spring, a pilot became incapacitated on a flight from the Bahamas and a passenger with no prior flying experience, Darren Harrison, stepped up. He safely landed the plane with guidance from Air Traffic Control, in what’s known as a talk-down landing. In July, a 68-year-old woman landed a Piper Meridian Turbo Prop six-seat plane in Martha’s Vineyard after the pilot suffered a medical emergency.
This is not, however, an open-and shut case of dudes (and retirement-age women) rock. In the event of an untrained passenger taking the cockpit, a passenger-jet pilot with eighteen years of experience flying planes and a job with a legacy airline tells GQ, “the most likely scenario would be a semi-controlled crash.”
“New pilots typically need about 50-60 hours of flight time to earn their initial private pilot license,” the pilot, who asked to remain anonymous, explains over email, and “the most time-consuming aspect of the process is practicing landings.”
If it ever does come down to just one guy in a cockpit in an airliner—and it’s not Idris Elba in Hijack—autopilot could likely handle most of the work, taking the aircraft all the way to touchdown and roll out. Autoland, which automates the approach, touch down, brakes and ground spoilers, is “very effective” under the right weather conditions, retired airline captain John Cox told USA Today in 2014.
But should an untrained passenger attempt a landing unassisted? “Get too slow, the wings no longer produce lift and the plane begins to fall out of the sky,” the pilot explains. “Get too fast, you’re going to have a hard time getting it on the ground and would likely run off the runway.”
“As guys, I think we’re instinctively fearless and confident we can handle most/all heavy machinery,” he continues. “Just picture the ‘hold my beer’ person at a party.”
Half of us agree the cockpit’s dashboard of flashing buttons is best left in the hands of a professional. As for the other half, well, they may think they can land a plane, but they definitely can’t unlock a cockpit.