Will you have the “Right Stuff” ?

by on December 5, 2008

Is There a Pilot On Board?

There have been a couple of incidents lately where a passenger with a pilot’s license has been pressed into service helping out in an airline cockpit, as in this instance. I have heard a few people comment that they sometimes thought/dreamed about what it would be like if they found themselves in that position. Most pilots probably have. Some looked forward to the challenge and some, given their level of flying experience, dreaded the thought of having the responsibility. Let’s see if we can’t give you a little ‘heads up’ on what would/should happen…

First Things First – Wind the Clock

Of course, this is a euphemism and you shouldn’t actually try to wind the clock – for a couple of reasons. One, transport category cockpits now have electric clocks and second, you probably won’t be able to find the clock anyway.  What it really means is that the first thing you should do (in almost any emergency) is to take a few slow breaths and then analyze your situation. You are almost assured of having a qualified pilot in the other seat who will tell you what you need to know and what he or she will be asking you to do. For this discussion, however, let’s assume the worst and you find that you are up there by yourself.

Second – Identify the Things You Know.

The chances are really good that the plane is highly automated and is, at that time, flying under the control of that automation. Before you spend the 10 minutes trying to figure out how to adjust your seat (the one I sit in has 8 ways of adjustment), look and see what the airplane is doing or is being directed to do.

You probably have spent some time looking at the various cockpit layouts in Flight Simulator and you can easily Google your favorite aircraft instrument panel and see how it looks. Glass cockpit displays are relatively standardized so it should be relatively easy to pick out your current altitude, heading and airspeed/mach. Navigation may be a little harder to figure out, mainly because you might not be familiar with the navigation point names.  Most of the cockpits will have the autopilot controls on the glareshield, something like this:

Typical Autopilot Control Panel

Everything on the panel is going to be labeled. A/P means autopilot, SEL means push or pull this to select it. A/T refers to the autothrottle system if the plane has one. Up is ON, down is OFF. If the button is lit, the system is engaged. LNAV and VNAV refer to Lateral (follow the course) and Vertical (hold the altitude) autopilot modes.

Third – Get Help

Now that you know what the airplane is doing (and should continue doing), you need to get some professional help from the people on the ground. There will be what appears to be a huge center console between the two seats. The forward part has the throttles and the aft part has all the different kinds of radios, the trim controls and a few other things. You should be looking for two things. One is the transponder control panel, which should look vaguely familiar, and the other is the communication radio control panel . The transponder control head will display the 4-number squawk code and will have a selector for the different modes of operation. It may may not look exactly like what you are used to seeing in the single-engine planes you have been flying, but the knob labels should look familiar. The control head probably has a couple of different labels like TA and TA/RA. Those refer to the Traffic and Resolution Advisories for the Traffic Collision Avoidance System (TCAS) that the airliners have. Rotate enough nobs on the transponder to put the emergency squawk code in the display window to alert ATC of your situation. Now we need to find some way to talk to them.

You’ll probably find a headset on or near your seat. Put it on and you should hear the currently tuned radio. The center console is usually split down the middle with duplicate equipment placed symmetrically on each side. That means Com1 on the left and Com2 on the right. Both will have flip/flop frequency capability – you tune the display on the right (standby) side of the control head and press the transfer button between the two frequencies to place the newly tuned frequency in the active frequency window. It works just like the newer radios you may be used to using.  Where I work, when we are at cruise Com2 is used to listen on the VHF emergency frequency while Com1 is tuned to the ATC frequency. How do you know what you are listening to and talking on? Look on the center console for something that looks like this, usually located near the communications radio closest to your seat. This is your radio control panel, the big brother to the audio panel at the top of the radio stack in your (non-Garmin 1000) C-172.

Typical Communications Panel

In this example there are tall buttons with arrows that determine what you are listening to. Other models may have little levers that you move. Push in and release these tall buttons and a small light indicates that the associated radio has been selected for listening. You’ll be most concerned with the buttons labeled VHF L or 1 and VHF 2 or R.  (This particular panel has a third option, but you won’t find the radio control panel on the console. The VHF C radio is set aside for the use of the datalink system.) Rotate the arrow to the desired volume. Only one of the radios can be selected for talking. In this example it’s the one with  MIC illuminated. Press the related dark square to move the microphone function to a different radio. Now you have selected the radio you want use, but how do you talk? This particular panel has a toggle switch, spring-loaded to the center position. One way is labeled INT for talking on the interphone, the other is labeled R/T. There is a whole list of things R/T could stand for here, but we’re going call it Radio Transmit, since moving the toggle to R/T means whatever you say into the microphone gets transmitted out on the radio. There is also a rocker switch on the outboard side of the control yolk or on the control stick. They, too, will be labeled, but you usually rotate up to transmit out and rotate down to use the interphone. In this example, FLT means flight interphone, the intercom used to talk to the other cockpit occupants and to the ground crew when they are plugged in outside. CAB is for the Cabin interphone, to talk to the flight attendants at their various work stations. PA is used to talk to the passengers on the aircraft PA system. HF is for long-range communications and SAT is for satellite communications. If you cannot find a headset to wear, the button labeled SPKR will route all radio communications through a speaker on your side of the cockpit.

Now, adjust your headset or the speaker volume, practice your best “professional pilot voice” and tell the person on the other end of the radio that you need help.

Flying the Plane

You will receive all sorts of help getting safely to the ground. Most modern transport-category airplanes have very reliable autopilot systems and are capable of landing the plane automatically if the proper selections are made.  Transport-category airplanes fly not that much differently than any other airplane, they’re just bigger and probably not quite as responsive. You have to plan ahead a little more and realize that it will take a little longer to do things, but that can work to your advantage. When you are sitting in the cockpit and looking out the window, you have very little feeling about how much airplane is sitting behind you.

With the help that you receive from the people on the ground, you will be successful in getting the airplane on the ground as long as you stay calm and you keep telling yourself “it’s just a big 172.”

What are the Chances?

What really are the chances that you could find yourself in this situation? It’s not likely. Studies have been done several times, especially with the long fight to get the mandatory retirement age for airline pilots raised to it’s current 65. One such report is In-flight Medical Incapacitation and Impairment of U.S. Airline Pilots: 1993 to 1998. Numbers and findings are scattered throughout the report, but the conclusions, are that:


In-flight medical events in U.S. airline pilots were very rare; resulting aircrew deaths were even more rare, and resulting aircraft accidents were extremely rare. Fortunately, in the six years and nearly 86 million flight hours covered by this study, there were no passenger fatalities caused by pilot in-flight medical events. The two aircraft accidents resulted in serious injuries to three aircrew members and minor injuries to three passengers.

If you find yourself looking out the front window of an airliner because you’ve answered the question ‘Are there any pilots on board?’ think back to this post and remember that you do have ‘The Right Stuff’.

Previous post:

Next post: