Pilot Dead? Here’s How to Survive

Founder’s Note: During our days in Alaska, we spent countless hours in the right-hand seat of a half-century-old floatplane.

We often discussed what we’d do if the guy in the left seat suddenly croaked.

Everybody who has flown has thought about it.

That’s why we’re touting our Connections this morning and bringing you a must-read essay.

When Joe reached out to us offering to 1) give readers a shot in his simulator and 2) write an essay on the basics of landing a plane in an emergency, the choice was simple.

We feel obligated to share his Know-How.

Everybody needs to know how to land a plane. Not only is it just plain fun to know… but it could save your life.


– Andy

Imagine it’s a beautiful spring day and you’re flying in a four-seat Cessna, enjoying the expanse of clear blue sky broken only by fluffy white clouds, when suddenly your pilot clenches his chest and slumps over, unconscious.

All is quiet, save the hum of the engine, and that’s when you realize… “I’m alone!”

If you are not a certified pilot, this could be a terrifying thought.

Don’t panic, you can do this.

In full disclosure, I can never describe how to land a plane in a short e-letter article, emergency situation or not. But here are a few things to do to increase your chances of a successful outcome.

First of all, take a deep breath to calm yourself.

Now take care of the pilot. Move his hands and arms away from the controls, and tighten his seat belt and shoulder harness.

Your best help will come from the air traffic controllers (ATC) or other pilots on the same frequency, so you will have to talk on the radio.

Most light aircraft are equipped with headsets allowing conversation between the pilot and passengers. The headsets also allow conversation with ATC when you push the PTT (Push to Talk) button. Unlike a telephone, you must push the button to talk and release it to listen.

Press the PTT button and just start talking.

Don’t worry about pilot jargon; this might confuse whoever is listening into thinking you know more than you do. It’s as simple as “This is (your name). The pilot is sick. I need help.” Then release the button to hear their response.

If there’s no response, try again. If you still don’t hear anyone and you have definitely released the PTT button, you will need to change the radio to 121.5, the emergency frequency.

Telling you what the radio looks like, where it’s located or how to change the frequency is impossible due to the various configurations of instrument panels. This is where I tell you that the best advice is to always ask how to use the radio before takeoff.

The response to your call will most likely come from ATC or another nearby aircraft. They will offer assistance, which will include basic instructions on how to use the aircraft controls in order to land the airplane, the direction in which you need to fly to get to the nearest suitable airport and safe altitudes.

Remember – when this emergency began, the airplane was most likely under control, flying straight and level. All aircraft have built-in stability and will tend to fly just fine with no input.

However, landing will require you to manipulate the controls.


Landing is just flying the airplane slowly to the runway. It does not have to be pretty – any landing you walk away from is a success.

So as to better prepare you, let’s talk about those controls, starting with the yoke (the thing that resembles a sawed-off steering wheel). It has two functions.

First, turning the yoke left or right will cause the airplane to bank, or lean, left or right, resulting in a turn in that direction. Left bank, left turn, etc.

It’s the same idea with the degree of your turn, i.e., small bank, small turn.

To keep the airplane flying straight ahead, simply keep the wings level.

The yoke also moves forward and backward, which controls the pitch of the airplane. Pulling back on the yoke, toward you, causes the nose of the airplane to pitch up and the airplane to climb (increasing altitude). Pushing forward on the yoke, away from you, causes the nose of the airplane to pitch down, resulting in a descent (decreasing altitude).

There is an indicator on the instrument panel – called the Attitude Indicator – that will help you know if you are level or not. It is sometimes called the Artificial Horizon because it mimics the view out the windshield.

The gauge has a miniature set of wings and a picture of the horizon. The top is blue (for the sky), and the bottom is brown (for the ground).

It should be located directly at the top of the instrument panel in front of the pilot’s seat.

To the left of that instrument is the Airspeed Indicator. It has a green zone that represents the normal operating speed range. Each plane’s range will be different.

To the right of the Attitude Indicator, you will see the Altimeter. This indicates the height of the aircraft above sea level, not above ground level.

The last control we will discuss is the throttle.

It controls engine power and, therefore, air speed under normal flight conditions. It is usually located between the two front seats at the bottom of the instrument panel. It’s typically black and could be labeled “Throttle.”

Pushing the throttle in, or away from you, increases power, and pulling it toward you reduces power.


Besides giving you directions to the nearest appropriate airport, ATC will assist you with the recommended airspeed and altitude needed as you descend and turn the airplane to line up with the runway.

The landing procedure will involve slowing down and descending by using the flight controls we’ve discussed above. You will use the yoke to pitch down to start the descent and reduce the power to slow the airplane.

Once you are lined up with the runway, several miles out from touchdown, you will be constantly adjusting bank, pitch and power to maneuver the airplane.

If your aircraft has fixed landing gear, you can skip this next part.

If it has retractable landing gear, look for a switch with a tire on it at the bottom of the instrument panel located between the two seats, and move it to the down position.

Now use the yoke to line up the aircraft with the landing runway.

When you pick your target landing spot, which should be at the beginning of the runway, keep it in a fixed spot on the windshield.

If it seems to be moving higher on the windshield, you are too low. Pitch up and add a little power.

If it is moving down in the windshield, you are getting too high. Pitch down and reduce power.

Once you’re about 10 feet above the runway, slowly reduce throttle to idle by pulling back all the way.

At the same time, maintain a slight pitch-up attitude, and the airplane will touch down.

Once on the ground, you will steer with your feet using the rudder pedals – push right, go right. Push left, go left. Brakes are applied by pressing on the top part of both rudder pedals.

ATC will describe how to shut off the engine and will have called emergency equipment.

While I hope you find this information helpful, it is only a bare-bones run-through to help acquaint you with the procedures and instruments to help in an emergency. If you are interested in learning more, contact your local flight instructor and see what classes are available for non-pilot emergency landings.

[Editor’s Note: Joe Rajacic is one of our loyal subscribers and a retired airline 747 captain. Along with his partners, he started Advanced Aviation Training in Reno, Nevada, to help more people get interested in aviation. Next time your vacation takes you to Reno, contact Joe at www.flywithaat.com.]

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