Let’s begin with this: Airplane accidents and incidents, whether in a relatively small plane like a four-seater or in giant airliners, are incredibly-rare events and, despite the common fiction, people do not typically die in airplane accidents.
According to the National Transportation Safety Board’s latest, 2015 Civil Aviation Accident Statistics (the latest combined data available), across the country, there were 1282 accidents in civil (non-military) aviation, and, in these, there were 406 fatalities.
Compare this to automobile accidents during the same year. According to NHTSA (the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration), in 2015 there were 35,485 highway traffic deaths out of 6,300,000 police-reported crashes.
Despite these low numbers, any accident or airborne incident certainly would catch the passenger’s attention, and there are some things a passenger may be able to do in an attempt to minimize any adverse consequences in a small plane setting.
These helping behaviors fall into two primary categories:
- Helping the pilot directly
- Helping the situation independent of what the pilot is doing
There is also the super-unlikely situation that a pilot may become incapacitated, and we will discuss that below, too.
Keep in mind that many small plane “emergencies” are actually pretty minor. An “emergency” could be as minimal as getting low on fuel. This may simply require the pilot to land at a closer airport than planned, or maybe on a road. Emergencies do not all result in an airplane heading downward toward the earth, and lots of them give the small plane pilot tons of time to handle them.
Helping the Small Plane Pilot Directly
Although this might sound counterintuitive, the very best thing a passenger can do if the pilot is facing a possible accident or incident is to stay out of the pilot’s way. The small plane pilot has been highly-trained to take care of emergencies. In fact, during the latter phases of small plane pilot training, practicing response to emergencies is often the primary component of the training. After all, the pilot has already learned “normal” procedures and must now become proficient in handling procedures structured to ameliorate any problems in flight.
Many pilots use “flows,” where every move made in the face of an apparent emergency or problem is already well-rehearsed. All professional pilots use these. A loud, freaking-out passenger would interfere with these flows.
The emergency-handling training that pilots receive virtually never involves dealing with the unknown, variable complexity of interacting with a passenger. That’s especially true for a “small plane” where a passenger could be sitting right next to the pilot. The last thing a passenger should do would be to distract the pilot from using his or her learned responses to potential emergencies. If you’re the passenger, give your pilot space: stay quiet and out of the way, but remain aware of any requests your small plane pilot may make of you.
Level I of Pilot Requests: The Diversionary Request
Pilots flying small planes are of course aware that their passengers might be frightened and may begin to act out their fears to the detriment of the situation.
Unfortunately, this state of affairs is not limited to real emergencies. There are truly numerous small plane situations where a passenger may become alarmed, but his or her alarm would be totally unjustified. For example, when an airplane is on final approach to a runway, the winds may require a landing technique where the airplane is not aimed directly at that runway. It looks to a passenger like the pilot is flying away from the airport instead of landing, and that can be scary.
In another example, the passenger hears strange-sounding horns, klaxons, or electronic beeps in the cockpit and interprets them to be indicators of something wrong. In G1000 airplane systems, for example, when an autopilot is disconnected, there are ominous-sounding tone doublets that can really frighten an nescient passenger.
Some pilots learn a way to help keep passengers calm and essentially out of their way if the airplane is descending, as it would do if the engine quits. The pilot will show the passenger the altimeter (the instrument that shows altitude above sea level) and have the passenger call out each loss of 100 feet (or 1,000 feet, or whatever) of altitude. “Three thousand feet. Two thousand feet,” and so on. This keeps the passenger busy, lets him or her feeling like they are contributing to the safe conduct of the airplane, and generally calms the entire cockpit.
This is a diversionary request because it diverts the passenger’s energy and attention away from the pilot’s actual duties, and that’s a good thing.
Level II of Pilot Requests: Real Requests
The pilot may well benefit from the help of a passenger. Regardless of how appropriate or odd a pilot’s request may be, if you can, follow it exactly.
For example, a pilot may ask you to keep an eye out for traffic (other airplanes flying in the vicinity). If you have been asked to do this scan, point out traffic by giving the approximate “clock time” and altitude of the traffic you see.
Think of the nose of the small plane as 12:00; the right wing as 3:00, the tail as 6:00, and he left wing as 9:00. Note that this clock is not oriented up/down; it is lying flat, in the same horizontal orientation as the airplane itself.
For altitude, just say whether the airplane you see is the same altitude as your airplane, substantially higher (just say, “high”), or substantially lower (just say, “low”).
So if you see another airplane near the upper right corner of the windscreen, you may say, “Traffic [or “Airplane”], 1:00 high.”
There is also a chance that the small plane pilot may ask you to change a setting, often of an aviation radio situated on the front panel of the cockpit. Be aware that some round dials are double-dials, with one of smaller diameter in the center of the round switch, with a larger-diameter one on the outside, like a ring. If you’re trying to change a number, you may need one or both of these knobs to get the job done.
Here’s the one number you really should memorize if you’ll be a passenger in a private airplane: 121.5 (same as 121.50). It’s the emergency frequency, and you may be asked to put that into the COMM (communications) radio in an emergency. You might even ask your pilot how to do that before ever leaving the ground. It’s kind of fun unless, of course, you’re heading downward and don’t want to go there.
The Incapacitated Pilot: What to Do as a Passenger
It’s so, so rare, but it can happen that a small plane pilot becomes incapacitated and, yes, you might need to take over flying the airplane. If it does occur, often the outcome is fine. If you make a call on the radio for help, you will be very likely to find someone who can give you enough instructions to make an inelegant but sufficiently-safe landing to save everybody. It’s not as hard as you might imagine.
As a passenger, watch the small plane pilot communicate on the radio. Making a call out always involves pushing some kind of button to transmit. That button may be on the “yoke” (like the steering wheel), or it might be on a separate microphone situated near where the pilot and you can reach it. You’ll want to know where that button is, and where you should speak. If you have your own headset and know where the button is, just press that button when you have to speak, then LET GO OF THE BUTTON to hear replies. If you’re using a separate microphone, still push to talk and LET GO to listen.
Above you saw that 121.5 is the emergency frequency. However, you are even more likely to catch someone to help you by just pushing, talking, and letting go. Your small plane pilot was already speaking with someone, so that frequency, even though it’s not 121.5, will probably get an answer. Only use 121.5 if you cannot get anyone on the frequency the pilot was already using.
What to Say
The most basic broadcast you can make would be something like this:
Mayday mayday mayday. I need help. I am in a small plane and I am not a pilot. My pilot can’t fly. I need instructions to land.
That will get anyone’s attention. Even if you forget the “Mayday,” you’ll get help if anyone at all is on the frequency. “On the frequency” means that the radio they’re listening to is set to the same numbers you have dialed in on your airplane.
If you can give any more useful information, like about where you are, or how high you are, or where you left and where you are going, it will all help.
If you get into contact with Air Traffic Control (ATC) themselves, they may ask you if you can set the Transponder. On many airplanes, you’ll see a radio with just four digits in its window. That is likely the airplane’s Transponder, and if you can move the dials in response to ATC’s instructions, it helps them find you on their radar. You do NOT have to set the transponder to get rescued or to land; it’s just a nice enhancement of the protocol to get back safely.
Flying Companion Seminars
This has been an overview of how small plane passengers may help pilots who are having a problem. It’s great that you are reading it; that, alone, enhances your own competence and survivability. But aviation has lots of Flying Companion Seminars put on by the FAA, the 99s (International Organization of Licensed Women Pilots), AOPA (Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association), and other great groups. Just Google Flying Companion Seminars and you should be able to find an upcoming seminar. If you attend one of these, you’ll be in fantastic shape. Coincidentally, you’ll learn lots more about handing not only emergency situations but “normal” ones, too. That will add to your joy of flying, I promise!
Ready to soar in your aviation career?
Mr. Matthew A. Johnston has over 23 years of experience serving various roles in education and is currently serving as the President of California Aeronautical University. He maintains memberships and is a supporting participant with several aviation promoting and advocacy associations including University Aviation Association (UAA), Regional Airline Association (RAA), AOPA, NBAA, and EAA with the Young Eagles program. He is proud of his collaboration with airlines, aviation businesses and individual aviation professionals who are working with him to develop California Aeronautical University as a leader in educating aviation professionals.