Ask the pilot

Can someone with no flight training safely land an airliner? Plus: Pilotless planes, overpaid pilots and other aviation myths.

By Patrick Smith

Published December 21, 2007 12:11PM (EST)

Truth be told, I've never had cable TV, but the Discovery Channel's "MythBusters" series has always struck me as a fun and useful idea for a program. A sort of of the airwaves, it seeks to prove or dispel various urban legends and generally wacky propositions -- for example, can a person really become stuck to an airplane toilet seat by flushing it during flight?

With commercial aviation as rich as it is with mysteries and misconceptions, it's perhaps no surprise that plane-related topics are among the show's most frequent. Most recently, hosts Adam Savage and Jamie Hyneman attempted to find out if people with no flight training, namely themselves, could safely land an airliner. Their answer turned out to be yes, probably.

The correct answer, of course, is no, absolutely not. But who am I to quibble?

"MythBusters" sets things up in a NASA simulator stripped down to represent a "generic commercial airliner," which is to say, a rather unrealistic one. A seasoned pilot, stationed in an imaginary control tower, carefully instructs the hosts via radio. On the first try, they crash. The second time, they make it.

But all they do, essentially, is land a make-believe airplane in a contrived, tightly controlled experiment. It was not, I'm sorry to say, realistic.

Now, to be fair, the question of whether a nonpilot could land an actual jetliner depends somewhat on the meaning of "land." Are we talking from just a few hundred feet over the ground, in ideal weather, with the plane stabilized and pointed toward the runway? Or are we talking about the whole, full-blown arrival, from cruising altitude to touchdown, requiring all sorts of maneuvering, programming and configuring?

You've got a fighting chance with the former, provided there's a certified pilot sitting next to you, telling you exactly what to do, how to do it and when. The touchdown will be rough at best, but with a little luck you won't become a cartwheeling fireball. Last summer, a friend of mine, a private pilot with about 300 Cessna hours in his logbook, had the opportunity to attempt a landing in a full-motion Boeing 767 simulator. I sat in the captain's seat and kept my mouth shut while an instructor, stationed behind us, talked him through the approach. He more or less crashed, freezing the simulator after a hard bounce and slamming the plane's tail against the runway.

But the scenario most people envision is the one where, droning along at cruise altitude, the crew suddenly becomes incapacitated, and only the heroics of a brave passenger, who has perhaps a little desktop simulator experience under his belt, can save the day. He'll strap himself in, and with the smooth coaching of an unseen voice over the radio, try to bring down the plane.

The chance of success: approximately zero percent. I reckon our hero would be highly fortunate just to locate a microphone switch and figure out how to communicate. Keeping the plane upright would in some ways be the easiest part. It's the small stuff that presents the greatest challenge: working the radios, dialing in changes to the FMS (flight management system) and autoflight panels, changing speeds and altitudes. Dictating such tasks from afar would difficult enough. For the hapless passenger pressed into duty, getting them right would be even more challenging.

Never mind a layperson. What about a pilot? How would a pilot qualified on, say, a Boeing 737 fare at the controls of an Airbus A340 -- a make and model he or she had never operated before? I reckon things would turn out fine, but it wouldn't necessarily be easy. Airplane types are very different, which is one reason it takes several weeks of training when transitioning from one model to another.

Most disappointing, "MythBusters" tells us that the hosts could have made it much easier on themselves had they simply taken advantage of their plane's automation. Once again we're fed the oft-repeated baloney about how landing a modern aircraft requires not much more than punching a few buttons and sitting back.

Man, had I known it was that easy, all those months I spent in training would have been a lot less stressful. Ironic how a television program whose purpose is to cut through the crap and set the record straight not only manages to get it wrong but in the process perpetuates the widespread misunderstanding of what cockpit automation really is and how it works.

This gets back to our discussion on the prospect of pilotless planes. To repeat what I said last August: An automated flight deck makes a pilot's job easier the way high-tech medical equipment helps a surgeon. It's all very advanced and expensive and ultimately engineered to keep your customers safe and alive. But to understand how this equipment works, and to have any idea how to operate it properly, ... well, you still need to be a doctor, or a pilot, first.

Yes, as "MythBusters" reminds us, jetliners can and occasionally do perform automatic landings, as they've been doing for 30-plus years. Impressive but entirely misleading, for setting up and managing these procedures is a heck of a lot more complicated than tapping a button and watching the plane steer itself to touchdown. To begin with, our theoretical nonpilot would have to be coached from 35,000 feet all the way to the point where an automatic approach could commence, complete with any number of twists, turns, descents, decelerations and configuration changes. I reckon that would be about as easy as dictating brain surgery over the telephone to somebody who has never held a scalpel.

Here's a modern cockpit. What do you think? See that rectangular panel in the center directly under the windshield stanchion, with about 50 switches and dials and readouts? That's your mode control panel -- your autopilot. Those automatic landings are controlled from there. Effectively, the autopilot is not so much a single thing as it is a system -- a collection of guidance components. There are controls for altitude and heading, others for speed and power, still others for navigation. All of this works together with the flight management system, manipulated through that pair of boxes with the big keyboards, seen near the bottom of the photo. Nowhere is there a button marked "Land now at closest airport."

Luckily there has never been a case where a passenger needed to be drafted for cockpit duty. I guess that means either it never will happen or it is destined to happen soon, depending on how cynical you are about statistics. A few years ago, here in New England, after the lone pilot of a Cape Air commuter plane became ill, a passenger took over and performed a safe landing. The papers and TV news had a field day with that one. As it happened, the passenger was a licensed private pilot, and the aircraft was a 10-seat, piston-powered Cessna 402.

A few of you might remember the film "Airport 1975." A 747 is struck near the flight deck in midair by a small propeller plane, and all three pilots are taken out. I almost hate to say it, but dangling Charlton Heston from a helicopter and dropping him through the hole in the fuselage wasn't as far-fetched a solution as it might sound. It was about the only way that jumbo jet was getting onto the ground in fewer than a billion pieces. The scene in which Karen Black, playing a flight attendant, coaxes the crippled jumbo over a mountain range was, if less than technically accurate, useful in demonstrating the difficulty any civilian would have in pulling off even the simplest maneuver. (The "Airport" series went into a dreadful tailspin after that one, following up with the preposterous 1977 installment, but '75 was, as far as cheesy disaster flicks go, pretty well done.)

Doubtless some of you are wondering how things might have turned out aboard United flight 93 back on Sept. 11, 2001, had the passengers successfully breached the cockpit (which, contrary to myth, they did not) and gained control. The end result, I fear, would have been roughly the same -- though you can't blame them for trying.

Anyway, without breaking topic, let's segue now over to, where columnist Chris Pummer has put together a list of the "Ten Most Overpaid Jobs in the U.S."

Yeah, you know where this is going. "Major airline pilots" makes the list at No. 9.

"While American and United pilots recently took pay cuts," Pummer begins, "senior captains earn as much as $250,000 a year at Delta, and their counterparts at other major airlines still earn about $150,000 to $215,000 ... for a job that technology has made almost fully automated."

I'm not sure which part of that is more egregious, the salary examples or the nonsense about automation. It's a double whammy of distorted information.

For the record, pilots at Delta suffered pay and benefit slashes on a par with those at their competitors, so I don't understand his insinuation that they are somehow in a league alone. Meanwhile, singling out the top-end salary of a few "senior captains" means almost nothing in a field of many thousands of pilots. Pummer neglects to mention that only a small fraction of them actually earn such wages and usually do so only for a short time prior to retirement. A large percentage of pilots work for many years making subpar pay in a highly unstable industry before getting the chance, later in their careers, to bring home a respectable salary.

I know, we've been through all of this before, but there's no end to allegations like Pummer's. They keep coming and coming.

My own story is fairly typical. I have been a professional pilot, beginning as a flight instructor, since 1987. Only once have I made more than $60,000 in a year, and often it has been substantially less. I've been through two airline bankruptcies, two furloughs and one complete company shutdown. (When changing carriers, salary is not transferable; one begins at the bottom again at probationary pay and benefits. At a major, that's about $30,000. At a regional, it's often under $20,000.) Things are better now, and assuming my current employer remains stable and solvent in the years ahead (by no means a sure thing), I will be lucky enough to enjoy a six-figure income. Will that make me "overpaid"?

To his credit, Pummer does point out that major-carrier pilots earn several times what their counterparts do at the regional airlines (idea for a follow-up column: "Ten Most Underpaid Jobs in U.S."), but he also states that senior pilots at low-fare companies like "JetBlue and Southwest make up to 40 percent less."

Well, they do and they don't. At United, for example, a captain of average seniority flying domestically on a narrow-body jet brings home less than an equivalent captain at Southwest or JetBlue. Granted, a United 747 captain, flying much larger equipment to cities in Asia and Europe, earns a good deal more, but there is no comparable position at Southwest or JetBlue.

But never mind salary figures for a moment. Let's pretend you're traveling from Paris to New York on an airline whose fares are dirt cheap, but whose pilots are compensated by voluntary passenger donations. A cup is passed around at the conclusion of each flight. How much is safe transport across the ocean worth to you?

In practice, it's worth about six bucks. Averaging the pay rates of the biggest airlines, the typical 777 captain makes about $190 an hour. Between Paris and New York, this captain will transport 250 passengers on a flight lasting eight hours. That hashes out to a contribution of just over $6 per passenger. The captain gets $6 of your $450 ticket. The first officer, as little as $3.

Now let's try a regional. A fifth-year CRJ-900 captain at Mesa Airlines (dba US Airways Express and other affiliations) earns $69 per flight hour. His plane has 80 seats. For a two-hour flight, you've given him $1.72. A new first officer at Mesa makes $19 an hour. On that same trip, he collects all of 47 cents from each customer.

For the year, that first officer's salary will be roughly $18,000. Don't let those hourly rates mislead you. Sixty-nine bucks an hour sounds pretty good, until you remember that crews are paid only for the time they actually fly, not the time spent on duty, at the airport preparing for departure, laying over in hotels, etc. A pilot might be on assignment for as many as 300 hours in a given month, but the average pay credit is in the vicinity of 75. This disparity is what spawns those foolish contentions that pilots "work" far less than the typical full-time employee.

No matter how you slice it, $190 an hour for that 777 skipper is an awful lot of money. But again, he or she represents a very small, very senior slice of all the pilots out there, and might only serve in that capacity for a year or two prior to retiring.

Insult to injury, Pummer finishes up with that "for a job that technology has made almost fully automated" bit. Pilots themselves are partly to blame for propagating the mythology of cockpit automation, so enamored we tend to be of our high-tech gizmos and sophisticated planes. But again, the knowledge, training and experience required to fly one of these "fully automated" jetliners are vastly more substantial than Pummer and many others would have you believe -- especially when there's a problem or emergency. That, more than anything, is what pilots are paid for -- not for the routine trip during which nothing out of the ordinary happens, but for the times when something goes wrong.

I would like to ask Chris Pummer just how much he knows about the nitty-gritty of flight deck technology. Could he tell us, please, more about these "fully automated" planes of which he speaks so casually, or was he just parroting the conventional wisdom, wrong as it is, that suggests pilots do little more than sit idly by as computers fly their planes? Almost invariably, the people who make these comments -- and they never stop coming -- have little actual knowledge of the subject.

I suggest Chris Pummer sit in on an airline training session before he next revisits this issue. For kicks, let's stick him in a 747 simulator and see how he handles a landing.

And finally, did anybody catch "20/20's" butcher job of an investigative report looking into whether cellphones can really interfere with onboard equipment?

Ugh. Let's save that one till after the holidays.

Patrick Smith

Patrick Smith is an airline pilot.

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