I confess that in 1901 I said to my brother Orville that man would not fly for fifty years. Two years later we ourselves made flights.
You learn to know a pilot in a storm.
How could you land a commercial airliner if the pilot was ill? 'With difficulty', is the short answer. Some years ago several Private Pilot Licence pilots in America, with experience on light aircraft, were put into simulators with just this scenario. Two of them couldn’t even find the switches to move the electric seats to get at the controls, one of them couldn’t work the radio to speak to someone who could help and the other accidently disengaged the autopilot and speared the aircraft into the ground.
Thankfully there are measures in place to avoid the situation. All commercial flights must have two pilots, while extra long-haul flights have three. Pilots and co-pilots must choose different meals from the in-flight menu to avoid food poisoning. Commercial pilots can fly up to the age of 65 but if one pilot is over 60, they are subject to bi-annual health checks and the other pilot must be younger than 60.
If it did happen, your only real chance would be if it occurred mid-flight while autopilot was engaged. Your first obstacle would be getting into the cockpit, because these have been locked as a security measure since 9/11. Once there, you’d want to try to send a mayday call using the handheld VHF radio. Below the radio is a transponder, a device which identifies you on radar tracking systems; set this to 7700, the code for 'general emergency' (if you were being hijacked you’d set 7500). If someone picked up your radio call, you’ll be transferred to the emergency frequency and connected to someone familiar with that model of aeroplane’s control panel.
Even with an ‘autoland’ system, which most modern commercial airliners are fitted with, landing would be far from simple. Whilst you would not have to physically fly the plane, you would have to carefully follow instructions to correctly programme the Flight Management Computer which controls the autopilot along the vertical and horizontal profiles, inputting speed settings, selecting the flaps when the speed requires it and selecting the landing gear down at the appropriate point. One safety expert likened the process to setting a really difficult video recorder based on instructions down the phone.
Once on the final approach with the aircraft in the landing configuration (landing flap and gear down), the autoland would take care of the actual landing and the autobrakes would bring the aircraft to a full stop.
The commercial pilot the Elves spoke to gave a complete novice’s chances as one in 10 on a good day and with autoland. Without autoland, your chances would drop to one in 100 at best. Commercial pilots only really use autoland (available since the 1960s) in foggy conditions. It cannot be used in excessive winds, and the system brings its own problem: it’s so accurate that it always lands the aircraft on the exact same spot on the runway, so regular use would wear out a patch of tarmac on that spot.
The shortest scheduled flight in the world covers the hop between the Orkney islands of Westray and Papa Westray, in an eight-seater Islander aircraft operated by Loganair. It normally takes under two minutes, though the record is 58 seconds from take-off to touchdown. The distance covered is shorter than the main runway at Edinburgh Airport. Tickets are quite expensive (£39 return) but you get a certificate and a miniature bottle of Highland Park whisky.
The Autopilot was debuted in France in 1914 by its American inventor Lawrence Sperry (1892-1923). During the first demonstration Sperry and his assistant Emil Cachin delighted the crowds on their first pass by maintaining their course with their hands off the controls, waving in the air. On their next pass, Sperry kept his hands off the controls while Cachin climbed out seven feet onto the wing. On the third and final pass, Sperry climbed out on to the other wing opposite Cachin, with the plane (a Curtiss C-2) keeping a steady course all the while. The crowd went nuts.
Early aviation was full of such daredevils. Frederick Alexander Lindemann (1886-1957) was a German-born physicist who worked at the Royal Aircraft Factory in Farnborough during the First World War. While there he developed a theory about how to pull a small aircraft out of a tailspin. He then learned to fly specifically to test this theory, which luckily proved to be correct. He had to lie about his terrible eyesight to be allowed to fly. Ground staff at the time suspected Lindemann was a German spy on account of his surname and so refused to put enough fuel in his aeroplane to allow him to cross the Channel.