What to Do If Your Pilot Passes Out in Flight

It doesn’t happen only in the movies. Knowing how to respond can save your life.

Darren Harrison of Lakeland, Florida, was relaxing in the cabin of a single-engine Cessna 208 Grand Caravan with his bare feet up on a table, heading home in May 2022 after a fishing trip in the Bahamas. Suddenly, the 64-year-old pilot, Ken Allen, announced, "Guys, I gotta tell you, I don't feel right. I've got a headache, and everything is fuzzy." A moment later, he passed out and the airplane was in a descent, heading toward the water. 

Having flown before in small jets while asking the pilots lots of questions, Harrison, 39, knew he had only minutes to level out the aircraft. "I remembered that if I yanked the stick too hard, at the speed we were going, the wings would rip off the plane or the motor would stall," he later told news outlets (though this would, in fact, have caused an aerodynamic stall that wouldn't have affected the engine). "So, I slowly, gently pulled the stick back and a moment later thought, 'Wow! We're going up.'"

After moving the pilot from his seat and putting on a headset, Harrison located a compass that showed he was heading south instead of north, and he turned the airplane around toward Florida. It took him about 20 minutes to figure out how to radio the nearest control tower to report what was going on and ask for help.

At Palm Beach International Airport, air traffic controller Robert Morgan was on a break and reading a book when he was paged to return to the tower. He also works as a flight instructor and was familiar with the Cessna 208. With step-by-step instructions from Morgan, Harrison managed to land without a scratch on the airplane or himself, the other passenger, or the incapacitated pilot. At that point, he broke down sobbing, saying a prayer of thanks for the safe landing that allowed him to return home to his wife, who was six months pregnant. The pilot later underwent successful emergency heart surgery to repair a tear in his aorta.   

How often does a passenger have to land an airplane after a pilot collapses? Quite rarely. Still, emergencies happen and, since 2000, there have been at least six times when inexperienced passengers have had to land a small aircraft. These include a July 2023 incident when a 68-year-old woman managed to crash-land a single-engine 2006 Piper Meridian on Martha’s Vineyard in Massachusetts. If you’re ever in a similar situation, your odds of surviving will increase if you can remember to do a few basic tasks.

Take a Deep Breath

First, while it may be easier said than done, it’s important to take a deep breath and keep your wits about you. There will be plenty of time to lose your composure after you’ve safely landed. Meanwhile, once you contact an air traffic controller, the folks there will guide you every step of the way. 

Jack Tunstill is a senior certified flight instructor for St. Pete Air and has had his pilot’s license since 1978. He is also chairman of the Albert Whitted Airport Advisory Committee in St. Petersburg, Florida, which helps to support the operation of about 244 flights per day, 78 percent of which involve single-engine aircraft. Tunstill offers the following advice if your pilot becomes incapacitated:

1.     Move the pilot out of his or her seat. There might also be a copilot’s seat, and you can reach all the controls from there as well. 

2.     Put on the pilot’s headset and fasten your seatbelt. If you are above 12,000 feet, put on the pilot’s oxygen mask (located behind the pilot’s seat).

3.     Level off the airplane by gently pulling the yoke (to aim the nose up) or pushing forward on the yoke (to aim the nose down). The yoke looks like a steering wheel. 

4.     If the autopilot is turned on, keep it on.

5.     Find the “push to talk” button (PTT) on the top of the yoke to contact the nearest control tower. Release the button to receive a message back (like using a walkie-talkie). 

6.     On the control panel, you’ll see your airplane’s tail number, which starts with an “N.” Press the PTT button, say, “Mayday, Mayday,” and provide the tail number. Tell whoever responds that the pilot is unconscious and that you have no experience flying an airplane. 

7.     The controller or, hopefully, a pilot on the radio will ask you for readings on the control panel regarding altitude (see altimeter gauge), fuel level, compass direction, airspeed, etc. All should be clearly labeled.

8.     When instructed, find the handle to the right of the yoke that says “flaps” and pull down to deploy the airplane’s flaps.

9.     When instructed, lower the landing gear by pulling out and down on the handle marked “landing gear.” You will see three green lights when this has been accomplished.

10.  The controller or pilot will then give you step-by-step instructions on how to land. The throttle is between the pilot and copilot seats and will be used to control the speed of the airplane when you get ready to land. Follow all instructions to head straight onto the designated runway. The controller or pilot will tell you if you are coming in too fast or too slow.   

Fire trucks and ambulances will be near the runway waiting for your arrival. Larger airports have their own fire departments, while smaller ones use nearby services. 

Once you’re safely on the ground give thanks, kiss the tarmac, and shake hands with all the people who helped you land. Who knows, maybe you’ll even want to sign up for flying lessons. 

Garmin Autoland

Garmin Autoland Can Get You Down Safely

If your airplane has Garmin Autoland installed, you are in luck, as this technology will land the airplane for you. Before takeoff, the pilot should show you where to press the activation button to engage Autoland in case anything happens to him or her. The good news is that the system can also sense when something is wrong and start the process by itself. Autoland will automatically communicate its routing to air traffic control and the passengers and will select the optimal airport for landing considering runway length, distance, fuel range, and other factors. The system is now available on select G1000 NXi and G3000 flight deck–equipped aircraft, including 2020 or later models of the Piper M600 SLS, the Cirrus Vision Jet, and the Daher TBM 940 and 960, and is available for retrofit to the King Air 200.   


Depressurization Accidents

Depressurization due to a lack of oxygen at high altitudes presents particular challenges. Oxygen masks should automatically deploy if the cabin pressure exceeds a certain threshold, and the pilot will immediately lower the altitude to less than 12,000 feet. “However, sometimes there is a slow, insidious leak and the pilot and passengers could all pass out at the same time from hypoxia,” says flight instructor Jack Tunstill. “If you notice the pilot has collapsed and the oxygen masks have deployed, take a big breath from your mask, rush to the cockpit, put the pilot’s mask on yourself, and lower the altitude to less than 12,000 feet. You may have only a short time to accomplish this.” 

Many business aircraft and even high-performance single-engine turboprops include an Emergency Descent Mode system. This will monitor cabin pressure altitude, and if the system detects an unsafe cabin pressure it will warn the pilot and begin a countdown. If there is no response to cancel the warning or take control of the aircraft, the system will direct the autopilot to take the airplane down to a minimum safe altitude. It will then level off at the lower altitude, providing the pilot an opportunity to resume flying the aircraft. 

Suzanne Driscoll has written about business topics for the Boston Globe, Entrepreneur.com, Shoe Retailing TodayFamily Business, MyBankTracker.com, and Oppenheimer Funds. She lives with her family in St. Petersburg, Florida.