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The pilot(s) has been taken out somehow, and only you can land this plane. The thing is that even if you know how to fly a plane, you don't have training with how to fly this type of plane. So someone has to walk you through working all the complicated machinery and instruments, and hopefully you can glean enough from what they are telling you to land the plane safely.

Seems ridiculous, right? I mean, just a few simple instructions and you can learn how to land a plane? Please!

Wait. Myth Busters tried it out, and Jamie and Adam both pulled it off. Who knew?[1]

And it was still a cliché long before they tried it out. And even if it's actually possible, the contrivances to get the hero into this situation tend to stretch the Willing Suspension of Disbelief.

Plus the basics of flying a plane that's already in the air are very, very easy - in fact, planes pretty much fly themselves (at least in most situations). The hard part about flying is doing it 15 hours in a row in bad weather with a sky full of other planes, with air traffic control constantly yelling at you and your crew mishandling the complex avionics. Start-up of a contemporary jet involves roughly 30 minutes of systems checking and button mashing. And of course you'll have to land the plane >100 times a year without a scratch. So there, that explains the 1500 flight hours requirement for the Airline Transport Pilot License.

Compare Falling Into the Cockpit.

Contrast Captain Crash.

Examples of Crash-Course Landing include:


Anime & Manga

  • A variation in Pokémon had Max and Gym Leader Tate taking instructions from Tate's father to land a rocket ship.
  • The Detective Conan Non-Serial Movie Magician of the Silver Sky features a particularly intricate (or contrived) example: after poison incapacitates its pilots and a lightning strike disables the autopilot and radio, high school girls Ran and Sonoko must manually land an airliner (that is also missing one engine and almost out of fuel) on an unlit pier. Fortunately they have help from high school detective Shinichi Kudo (in the person of Conan disguising his voice, calling them from an intercom phone to talk them through the procedure) and flamboyant thief Kaitou Kid (who manipulates the dozens of police cars chasing him into forming up as makeshift runway lights).

Comic Books

  • Mad Magazine recently parodied this in a segment for "obsolete movie clichés" where a flight attendant has to activate the automated emergency landing sequence, which doesn't require her to do much at all.
  • Subverted in Y: The Last Man when airline stewardess Beth II tries to land the aircraft after the male pilots die in the Gendercide. The plane crashes, killing all but three of the passengers. She later realises that the automatic landing system had already been set and if she'd just left the controls alone they would likely have landed safely.
  • An issue of the Barbie comic featured Barbie having to land the space shuttle like this. The comic justified with the claim that because Barbie already knew how to fly planes, flying the shuttle was easy to learn in a matter of moments.

Film

  • Ted Striker did this in both Zero Hour! and Airplane! Ted was a pilot, but he was shell-shocked and had bad eyes in the former, and in the latter he was entirely unused to a multi-engine jumbo jet (see Runway Zero-Eight in literature below).
    • And he has this drinking problem. *SPLASH*
    • The theme of food poisoning from eating fish was inspired by the 1971 movie Terror in the Sky.
  • This almost happens in Airport 1975, when the chief stewardess ends up flying a 747 after a mid-air collision. Almost, because George Kennedy and the U.S. Air Force managed to drop Charlton Heston into the airliner's cockpit so he could land it instead.
  • Can overlap with I Know Mortal Kombat, if the civilian plays piloting games obsessively, a la Snakes on a Plane.
    • This trope is Lampshaded in the movie when the stewardess says "I can't believe I'm saying this" before the trope's calling card "Is there anyone who can fly a plane" line.
  • Turbulence
    • Turbulence lacked some of that "learning how to fly on-the-fly" magic that graced Airplane!, because the 747's controls were entirely automatic. The stewardess flight attendant basically pressed the "Fly me to Los Angeles" button, and the "Land me" button.
  • Subverted in Executive Decision. The Big Bad shoots up the cockpit, killing the pilots, and taking out the radio. So the heroes have to flip through a manual to learn how to land. Yes, that's much more sensible.
    • Well, no comment on figuring out how to land from a manual, but there would be a manual up there, with emergency procedures and such. It could be of some help, at least for "Okay, we need to keep the plane going at least THIS fast" and such.
      • Particularly given that the hero in question was (almost) a (small-craft) pilot.
      • At least partially plausible. Commercial aircraft are required to have manuals and checklists available for the crew to reference. Hell, the checklists are so centrally important to the operation of the aircraft (they came into being after a Boeing test plane crashed because someone missed a step while landing) that the pilots almost have a checklist for dropping a deuce. The heros would have to know about the checklist, where to find it, and of course what to do with the information in it (if you don't know what "Kts" means, you're hosed.)
      • Which the hero and the flight attendant together could figure out easily enough, he with the basic flight training could understand much of the terminology, and she who works on the plane probably at some point noticed where the pilots keep all the manuals. Presumably on the only bookshelf in the cockpit.
  • In the movie It's A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, Ding and Benjy are forced to make one of these landings after their pilot falls unconscious after drinking too much while flying.
  • The 1986 movie Panic in the Skies involves Kate Jackson and Ed Marinaro having land the plane after the pilots are dead. The Air Force decides whether to shoot the plane down to avoid from crashing into the city.
  • The Doris Day movie Julie.

Literature

  • Robert Munsch wrote a children's book where a girl accidentally takes off in a plane, and the air traffic controller coaches her down.
  • In Blind Flight by Hilary Milton, a blind girl is successfully talked through landing a small plane after the pilot is knocked out from a bird strike.
    • Blind Flight should not be confused with Flying Blind by Frank E. Peretti, which also involves a blinded kid having to pilot a plane (in this case, blinded due to smacking his head due to a near miss with a bigger plane, which knocks out the adult pilot.)
    • Would be possible with someone who knew the controls or provided extremely good communication skills.
    • Has recently happened in England: a pilot went up (alone) in his small plane, and suffered a stroke which caused him to go blind. Following instructions from the control tower and another plane which took off to fly side-by-side with the first one and provide direction, he managed to land safely.
  • Runway Zero-Eight by Arthur Hailey, who also wrote Airport, is perhaps the originator of this trope. The pilot and copilot of a four-engine airliner are rendered unconscious by food poisoning. A former RAF fighter pilot, who hasn't flown for 10 years and has never flown a multi-engine airplane, has to be talked through landing the airliner. Zero Hour! (1957) is based on Runway Zero-Eight and Airplane! is a spoof of Zero Hour!.

Live Action TV

  • The A-Team: In an episode, the team takes over a plane from the bad guys, only to have Murdock blinded. Hannibal and Face land the plane, with Murdoch giving instructions.
  • Bugs did this in an early episode where a disgruntled computer scientist was hacking into an autopilot system he designed in order to get them to pay him royalties on the system.
  • Cheers subverts this; Sam and Diane go up in a three person plane, and the pilot, a massive prankster, fakes a fainting spell, whereupon they are forced to get air-traffic control to walk them through it; the radio shorts out just as the Air Traffic Controller says "This is very important; whatever you do, don't-".
  • Chuck did this with a helicopter.
  • Desperate Housewives: Subverted. When the pilot of a small plane has a heart attack and dies while flying, his wife (the only passenger) can't find a safe place to land, so she crash-lands the plane onto Wisteria Lane, killing herself and several people on the ground.
  • The Hardy Boys Nancy Drew Mysteries: The Strange Fate of Flight 608 has all three jet pilots knocked out by some weird drug...leaving Frank and Joe Hardy to fly the plane. In a hurricane. In the middle of the Bermuda Triangle. Without any radio help, and the one semi-conscious pilot falls asleep mid-instruction. Guess who manages to crash-land in the middle of the ocean?
  • Hero at 30,000 feet: The Derren Brown special leads up to the subject (with a major fear of flying) being put on an airplane and told that the pilot had passed out. After volunteering to land the plane, he was put into a trance during which the plane was landed normally, and he was moved to a flight simulator. He landed the plane in the simulator successfully.
  • The Incredible Hulk: An episode had David being the one who had to land the plane, while supressing his Hulk Out from the pressure of doing it.
  • Leverage had a variation. The team creates a fake emergency at an airport and the air traffic controllers divert all the planes before evacuating. Hardison is the only one left in the control tower when he realizes that one plane could not divert and has to land. With no real controllers left in the building Hardison has to try and give the flight crew landing instructions. In an Eureka Moment he loads up a copy of Microsoft Flight Simulator and simply reads back to the pilots the instructions the simulator gives him for the landing scenario for that particular airport.
  • Magnum, P.I. did it, referencing several movies where it had occurred. Higgins is the one talking him in and, unfortunately, fails to tell him how to stop the plane once it is on the runway; causing him to crash after he's landed.
  • Mighty Morphin Power Rangers: In a first season episode, the villains, in a rare moment of brilliance, attempted to kill Kimberly by sneaking her uncle a sleeping potion just before he took her, Bulk, and Skull up in his airplane (the two bullies also sipped the potion). The presence of civilians meant she couldn't simply teleport away, and so this trope was brought in to save the day.
  • Myth Busters: As mentioned, they proved this trope is plausible. They just can't call it confirmed because there is no actual recorded incident of it in Real Life, and it was done in a simulation (which they did fail without help though).
  • QI: Mentioned on an episode, in which they refer to a study that showed that only one in ten American pilots of private planes could safely land a commercial airliner in simulation.
  • Quantum Leap: Al guides Sam through piloting a plane (actually the X-1) but tells him not to bother trying to land but to just eject once he's broken the sound barrier.
  • San Francisco International Airport: The pilot movie (as seen on Mystery Science Theater 3000) has one subplot revolving a boy who steals a light airplane; Parnell Roberts' character has to talk the boy through how to land the plane. Justified by having the plane in question being "easy to fly", and the boy having a fan's knowledge of aircraft to build on.
  • The Unit: One episode had Brown and Gerhardt talking a guy down whose pilot had died on him. Apparently the man in question was former black ops, and somebody higher up had it out for him as their rescue attempt was repeatedly interfered with. First the pilot died, then somebody called the base and told them to stop helping -- which they chose to disregard -- and finally somebody jammed their radios as the guy was on approach.
  • Walker, Texas Ranger — Insert Chuck Norris Joke here.
  • Wings: It was probably inevitable that the series would utilize this, and it did. In the second season episode "Airport '90", Brian takes Helen up so she can practice flying. Sure enough, Brian falls during some turbulence and is knocked out cold, and Joe must talk Helen through the landing.


Music Videos

  • The music video for "Learn to Fly" by the Foo Fighters. The entire flight crew and most of the passengers on a flight that the Foos are on are incapacitated by coffee that had been accidentally drugged (during a guest cameo by Tenacious D at the beginning of the video), requiring the Foos to leap into action to land the plane themselves. Ironically, the Foos were not taken out by the coffee because they were drinking cocktails instead.

Video Games

  • Larry Laffer from Leisure Suit Larry successfully landed a plane by turning on the autopilot.

Webcomics

Western Animation

  • Played with at the end of Bee Movie. First she thinks she can fly a plane due to instructions from a bee, by simply following his motions. She finds this incredibly easy...until lightning strikes the plane, shutting off the autopilot which was running the entire time. Turns out, flying a plane isn't so easy. Fair enough. Then it goes into Refuge in Audacity by having a hive of bees carry the plane to the runway. Must be a pretty light plane. Oh, and as they land, they break every law of aerodynamics by having the airplane hover, move backwards, etc. around a large flower.
  • In the Family Guy episode "Death is a Bitch", Peter, taking over Death's job is forced to kill the kids from Dawson's Creek to prove people can still die. He fails to do so and accidentally killed the pilots. Actress Karen Black steps in and land the plane.
    • In another episode "Airport '07", Peter, Cleveland, and Joe plan to get Quagmire's pilot job back by boarding the plane, drugging the pilots, and Quagmire stepping in and saves the day. Quagmire missed the flight when having sex with an airport worker. He mourns at the bar and with the help from Hugh Hefner, he went to the control tower and instructs Peter to land the plane safely. In the end, Quagmire got his job back and the other three are released from prison.
  • Happened in an episode of The Flintstones when Fred is taking piloting lessons. Barney ends up with Fred when he's taking the license test. Fred got himself ejected out from his plane after a mishap from flying in restricted area and leaving Barney behind. Fred instructs Barney from the radio on landing the plane safely.
  • The Garfield and Friends episode "Skyway Robbery" also had this plot point halfway through. After Jon, Garfield, and Odie have taken off in the rundown plane that they boarded (thanks to Mr. Swindler), the plane starts to have problems after the pilot bailed out, leaving the three in the dark about how to land the plane. It was fortunate that Jon was able to contact the air control tower who starts to talk them down. However, when the air control officer tells them how to work the plane, Jon doesn't know which control to use, but when said officer begins describing the controls in a way that Garfield understands (the air control officer began using food and pasta-related terms because he was having spaghetti), Garfield was able to flawlessly land the plane back on the ground again.
  • Similarly, this was also used in the Codename: Kids Next Door episode "Operation: H.O.L.I.D.A.Y.". Lizzie is forced to take the controls of the plane after Numbuh Two and Numbuh Three both became incapacitated after inadvertently taking a bite from the pie that Lizzie was going to give to Numbuh One. Numbuh One was forced to give Lizzie instructions on how to fly and land the plane. The episode even threw in this amusingly clever Shout-Out to Airplane!:

 Numbuh One: Surely you'll realize you don't want to crash?

Lizzie: [on the radio] Who is Shirley?!?!?!

  • In Donkey Kong Country, DK, flying in Funky's biplane as part of a Zany Scheme to undo a I Owe You My Life situation, finds himself out of control when Dixie's pet crab chews away the remote control Funky was using to steer the plane on the ground. Luckily, Cranky's hologram appears to coach DK through.

 DK: I didn't know you could fly.

Cranky: I'm also one heckuva mirangue dancer. But this is no time to discuss my list of accomplishments!

Real Life

  • The closest this probably ever came to happening in Real Life was with Flight 93 during 9/11. The terrorists who had taken over the plane deliberately crashed it once it became clear that they were going to lose control to the passengers. Whether or not one of the passengers could've actually landed the plane safely is open for speculation.
  • Also, in 2005, in a strange incident, a pressurization problem apparently deprived a Greek passenger plane of oxygen. Two hours later, a military plane sent to find the aircraft saw the pilot and co-pilot unconscious, then a flight attendant (who had apparently used spare oxygen bottles to stay conscious) enter the cockpit and sit at the controls. He indicated that he could not fly the plane, the engines used up their fuel and failed within minutes, and the plane crashed. Why the flight attendant, a pilot in training, didn't try landing the plane earlier or talk over the radio doesn't even seem to have been investigated. (Not to mention why a plane who had reported problems was allowed to fly without contact for two hours.)
    • This was Helios Airways Flight 522. The aircraft failed to respond to ATC at 10:07 and the Hellenic Air Force was called by 10:24. Intercept orders were given later, as the aircraft, still on autopilot, began to deviate from its flight plan and it became clear there was more than a communications problem. The decisions of the flight attendant have never been determined, but they were possibly influenced by hypoxia and his intention not to interfere with the flight crew. At the time he entered the flight deck, the lack of fuel meant that safely controlling the aircraft (never mind landing it) was an extremely difficult challenge even for a flight crew well-experienced in this specific aircraft.
  • This has never happened in a big jumbo jet, but there was an early 1980s episode of Thats Incredible where they tell the story of a husband-and-wife who went up in his small plane. During the flight, he has a heart attack and falls unconscious. The wife, getting instructions from the aircraft control tower, successfully landed the plane.
    • A similiar (or possibly the same) incident was recounted in an issue of Reader's Digest.
  • Current autopilots are actually designed to handle landings, making this more than plausible as long as the radio is still working so the non-pilot will know what buttons to push.
    • An essay in Robert A. Heinlein's Expanded Universe even lets us know that it was possible at that time (1982) to fully automate an airline flight--it's just never happened before because people are afraid that something might go horribly wrong.
      • Heinlein had also written an Author Tract against automation of anything as complex and potentially hazardous as a garage door, stating that controls should have triple redundancy to execute and half a dozen manual overrides (though he was for giving self-aware AI's the same rights and autonomy as any other sentient being.)
    • James May (of Top Gear fame) has published a book called How to Land an A330 Airbus which in the titular chapter explains to a complete novice how to land with autopilot and radio assist at an airport equipped with landing assist. The chapter has a disclaimer saying (I paraphrase) "To be used only in the event of complete buttock-clenching emergency."

Notes

  1. Well not everyone agrees with the test, but the common knowledge was that it shouldn't have been possible even under controlled conditions.
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