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Tom, Dick or Harry?

You are bound to have seen movies where a gung-ho passenger leaps into action to safely land a wayward aircraft. But can just about anyone takeover the controls and guide a plane to terra firma with no prior training? Capt. Lim Khoy Hing sets matters straight.

Images: Inmagine

Would anyone be able to fly an aircraft should both pilots be incapacitated at the same time?

     This is among the common questions asked by gamers and serious flight simulator enthusiasts who enjoy playing Microsoft Flight Simulators on the Boeing or Airbus virtual planes. They frequently wonder whether their ‘experience’ flying these ‘planes’ on computers would equip them to land a real airliner safely should the captain and co-pilot become incapacitated due to food poisoning, for instance.

     To answer the question, most airlines have a general policy of not serving certain foods, especially seafood, to the pilots to prevent total crew incapacitation. Also, they must not eat the same food at the same time in order to prevent both from falling sick simultaneously. So, the possibility of that happening is quite remote to begin with.

Who to the rescue?

In this month’s article, I will try to answer the hypothetical question of who might have a better chance of saving a plane should both the pilots come down with food poisoning. Movie plots involving airplanes sometimes show an ordinary passenger or cabin crew with no flying experience easily helping to land a plane safely, perhaps with the assistance of someone over the radio from the control tower.

     In 2005, on board the Helios Boeing 737 in Greece, both the pilots lost consciousness due to a problem with the pressurization system that they had failed to recognise. The ill-fated flight crashed because nobody knew how take over the flight controls. The computers on board actually flew the aircraft for about three hours until it ran out of fuel.

     So, what’s the real deal should this unfortunate scenario happen?

Long haul flights have two sets of crew (four pilots) on board.

A hypothetical scenario

This is a hypothetical scenario with four passengers onboard a flight that suddenly loses its pilots. Tom is a passenger who has absolutely no clue about flying; Dick, a newly qualified single-engine pilot with little flying experience; Harry, a computer geek who plays Flight Simulators for hours on end; and Marvel, an off-duty fully, qualified typerated pilot who happens to be on board. Let’s see how these four chaps perform when an emergency occurs in the cockpit.

     The first thing anyone would need to do before taking over is to remove the incapacitated pilots from their seats. This would involve strength and skill, as the seat belts needs to be removed and the pilots extricated from their seats properly so as not to accidentally hit any controls. Once that is done, the question of who is the most suitable candidate to take over becomes pertinent.

Tom – A passenger with no flying experience

Unlike a car, a commercial airliner is not an easy machine to handle for anyone without flying experience.

     First of all, Tom needs to get inside the cockpit and then talk to someone over the radio. He would need to know how to operate the radio on a Boeing or Airbus plane or even which frequency to dial. This would probably be beyond the grasp of someone with no flying experience.

     Without communication with an expert, Tom would not even know where to begin. Hence, I believe Tom would have extreme difficulty to successfully land the jet plane.

Dick – A private pilot license holder with little flying experience

On the Helios Airways disaster, the two pilots were incapacitated due to loss of cabin pressure and consequently, suffered from lack of oxygen. However, one flight attendant was still alive as he still had some oxygen from a portable bottle. He did have some piloting experience like Dick but he couldn’t get through the locked cockpit door in time.

     Had the flight attendant been able to get into the cockpit earlier, there might have been a possibility that he could have landed the aircraft using the automation and with help from the ground.

     The cause of this crash was the flight crew’s failure to set the pressurisation switch correctly after maintenance. This caused the plane to remain unpressurised until the cruise, which is similar to staying on top of Mount Everest without any oxygen!

     If Dick is able to access the cockpit and communicate with the control tower in time, he might be able to land the plane safely.

Harry – The computer geek

A computer geek like Harry may have a better chance provided he is used to flying a similar type of plane on his desktop simulator. This requires the auto pilot to still be engaged, and the runway to be equipped with an Instrument Landing System. It is also imperative that he is able to talk to another pilot on the radio. Unless these three basic requirements are met, Harry would have some difficulty in bringing the plane home safely.

     The trick for him is to communicate the predicament on the radio and to keep the auto pilot on.

     While it’s possible to control the aircraft by pressing push buttons and turning knobs easily with instructions given over the radio, flying manually by grabbing the sensitive side stick of an Airbus requires a lot of practice and skill.

     As such, if Harry were to ‘hand fly’ the plane, it would be a very difficult endeavour. Even professional pilots have to go through training in a full flight simulator to ensure they continue to fly a plane safely. However, a large airliner like an Airbus A380 can be landed safely using the auto landing system with guidance from the ground.

     Given the right conditions such as good weather, a perfect aircraft and Harry being already familiar with the aircraft’s systems, as well as continuous assistance from a qualified pilot or instructor, he might be able to pull it off, if he keeps his cool.

Captain Marvel – The off duty pilot

It really is quite unlikely that both pilots are incapacitated simultaneously during a flight (apart from the Helios disaster). However, there have been cases where a single pilot was disabled due to a heart attack in a light aircraft and a passenger was able to land the plane safely with instructions from another qualified pilot on the radio. This isn’t an issue on long haul flights as most airlines have two sets of crew (four pilots) on board.

     On short haul flights where there is only a Captain and a First Officer, the two-pilot incapacitation issue, though remote, would probably pose some problems.

     Therefore, the off-duty pilot would be the better person to safely land the plane should this very unlikely event ever happen.


As you can see, if Captain Marvel was not on board the plane, my bet would be on Harry or Dick to bring the plane down. So, if you are an avid flight simulator player, the time spent playing the game would not go to waste if such a situation should ever happen while you are on board an aircraft.


Captain Lim Khoy Hing is a former AirAsia Airbus A320 and AirAsia X A330/A340 pilot who also used to fly the Boeing 777. He has logged a total of more than 25,500 flying hours and is now a Simulator Flight Instructor with Air Asia X. In his spare time, he shares his opinion on aviation issues with others. For more air travel and aviation stories,check out his website, ‘Just About Flying’ at www.askcaptainlim.com.

  • http://www.facebook.com/abongprovata Shahinul Islam Polash

    its awesome!

  • http://www.facebook.com/simonlwc Simon Liew

    I am a flight simulator game pilot. Flow with Cessna 172 and Boeing 737-300 most of the time. Have more than 7 years flying experience ^^

    • http://www.airasia.com/travel360 Travel 3Sixty

      Wow! You’ve got a good chance of doing well in the cockpit, Simon. Keep it up and keep following Capt Lim’s column. :-)

  • http://www.facebook.com/jer.marsh Jeremy Marsh

    I’ve always been interested in aircraft and flying. My parents have worked for commercial airlines around the country ever since I can remember. My dad used to take me to work with him when he was a gate agent, even onto the tarmac when he was at smaller airports. Of course this was all pre-9/11…
    I’ve been playing flight sim since I was a kid and finally started flight lessons for my PPL. I chose health care as a career path, mainly due to the bad job market for new pilots but also because I’m afraid of turbulence. Haha but I’m slowly getting over that the more I’m in the left seat.

    My question for you: would a reasonable flight crew let a pax into the flight deck these days, in the unlikely event of dual pilot incapacitation? (of course I’d be more of an asset as a nurse tending to the crew). What about to “lend a hand” if one pilot were ill? Or would the choose the cabin crew before any ‘average Joe’ with a few hours in a Cessna?

    • Capt Lim

      Hi Jeremy,

      My article Tom, Dick or Harry was based on a hypothetical case of both pilots being incapacitated. This event is so remote that if it ever were to happen, the purser would still follow the laid down procedures for a single pilot incapacitation case. He would page for the assistance of a pilot
      then a doctor, failing which an experienced nurse (like you) might be useful to “lend a hand”. It would be at his or her discretion to look for a pilot or the best medical assistant as he/she would require proof that this kind soul is either a doctor or a nurse.

      In the case of both pilots being incapacitated (remember, the plane would continue to fly on the auto-pilot!) then it would be a very serious event. In this scenario, the purser would have to look for anyone who is a pilot or someone with some flying experience to assist. He has to be very discreet so as not to cause any alarm when requesting for such assistance!

      Obviously if a qualified pilot is not on board then he would choose someone with a technical background or an ‘average Joe’ with some hours on a Cessna like you rather than one who has absolutely no knowledge about flying.

      Incidentally, I have a response from a friend of mine who is a doctor on how he would handle this emergency – see this article in my website ‘Could an ordinary passenger safely land a commercial jet plane?’ here.

      Captain Lim

  • http://www.facebook.com/toby.masson Toby Masson

    What this article overlooks is the fact that most international flights operate with the door to the cockpit locked from the inside as an anti-terrorist measure. If both pilots become incapacitated, it becomes impossible to enter the cockpit, so the issue of whether or not a civilian could fly the plane remains purely academic.

    • Captain Lim

      You are right. On most International flights the cockpit door is always locked from the inside.

      The article is based on a hypothetical scenario as to who is
      more capable of landing the plane safely in the event of total crew incapacitation on condition that one of them could get into the cockpit.

      ⬇ Drag and drop your images here to upload them.


      • John

        Although, some aircraft have an emergency cockpit door release button on the outside. When pressed, the door opens after 30 seconds. An alarm will sound in the cockpit, allowing the pilots to cancel it and ‘hard lock’ the door if they are still alive.