Private Pilot Saves 747 by Rick Wagner

How do I get myself into these situations? I asked myself. As I made my way up the stairs I was thinking that I had never even been in a 747 before. Nearing the cockpit door I was stopped and told that the flight entire crew has been incapacitated and removed from the cockpit, We were about 70 miles from Minneapolis and I was the one who had to land the airplane. “Oh-boy – this should be interesting” I replied.

I walked slowly into the cockpit. It was very dark – almost black but with hundreds of instrument and panel lights softly illuminated. I sat down in the left seat and instinctively reached for the handle to slide the chair up into position. Wow, look at all these instruments and handle things, I thought. The cockpit was 5 times wider than anything I’d ever been in before.

My first actions where to inventory the panel and center console. Many of the instruments were familiar but most were not. I found the H.S.I. Airspeed, Attitude Indicator and other basic instruments laid out pretty much like in the single engine airplanes I was use to flying. As only a private pilot with an instrument rating I started thinking that I might be a little over my head about this time. I reviewed the side panels and overhead also. I didn’t see anything that I thought would be useful as it appeared to be mostly circuit breakers and a lot of switches with placards I couldn’t read due to the dimly lit cabin.

Next I thought I’d get on the radio and get some help. All I needed was some headsets, or a mike. But in the darkness my eyes had not adjusted yet to the lighting – I couldn’t find anything. I started looking for a place to plug headsets into thinking I could start from there and hopefully follow the cords back to wherever they were hiding. No luck. I was also hoping that my scan for the headsets might lead me to wherever the cockpit light switches would be at so I could get some light in here and see what all these things were labeled. No luck with that ether. Okay I thought – Ill worry about that in a minute or two, as I knew I had a couple of other things to figure out. Like where I was and how to get to the airport.

I looked for checklists – nothing. I figured the POH would be about the size of a Webster’s Dictionary and figured Id find what I needed in that about the same time the NTSB issued its final report on the impending crash – so I went back to inventorying the instruments and controls. I did find an approach plate clipped to the pilots yoke. Thank You Jesus! – I thought out loud. Now I had something in front of me that was familiar.

It was 1AM on Sunday mourning, we should be south east of Minneapolis inbound from Miami. Looking out the windows I could see a thousand stars glistening above a moon lit overcast layer below. It was beautiful I thought – hopefully not the last time I ever get to see it I reprised. The altimeter read 7000 feet and everything was holding as the auto-pilot was doing its job in the absence of the regular pilots. We were on a northwest heading – as I suspected.

“Okay” I thought, “time to start learning how to fly this thing” I tapped the auto-pilot switch on the yoke. “I don’t know if this thing knows how to land itself or not – but I’m going to have to fly it at some point or another” That may have been my first mistake. As I banked slightly left I noticed the significant climb rate I had started. Wow – guess I really don’t need much back-pressure. As I started to roll right and return to my heading I began to realize the mass and momentum of the airplane. When I over banked to the right and had turned through my course I started a hard bank left with the yoke again to correct. It was at that point I accepted that I knew nothing about flying something this heavy. Way too much left bank! I started to crank in a hard right when something told me I was making a mistake. Wings level I thought – we’d get back on heading when we get back under control. I gave the yoke a slight right turn and then returned to a neutral position. Slowly the wings role level and I ended up on a heading about 40 degrees off of my original auto-pilot controlled direction.

I’d climbed nearly 3000 feet and thought that there was significant room for improvement in altitude control. I tapped the trim down a couple of times and watched the VSI indicate a decent rate. A very gentle turn towards the north slowly rotated the DG to a heading of about 350. Close enough I decided and turned my attention towards trying to locate the auto-pilot so I could again engage its wizardry. Again no luck. What I wouldn’t do for a flashlight.

I lost the altitude I gained in my turns and returned to level flight at 7000. My roll rate problem was improving but only with a conscious effort to minimize control movement. I had to learn to wait for the airplane. I figured I weighed about 4 or 5 hundred thousand pounds – based only on the few tid-bits of information I had gleamed over my lifetime about 747’s.

It’s like moving a mountain – and then having to stop it.

Again I scanned the controls for items I would need for the instrument approach. Still hoping I would find something that would allow me communication with someone on the ground who could at least say a prayer if not offer a greatly accelerated course on flying this monster. Luckily I recognized the lighted numbers on the center console as a navigation radio.

According to the approach plate it was set to the Farmington VOR. I turned the OBS on the H.S.I. to get a centered needle and noted I was on a TO heading and not to far off of course for a interception. It was at that time I noticed a rolling counter near the top of the panel and summated that it must be the DME as it was counting down rather quickly. Having found those two items my hopes of saving the airplane grew considerably. I had the basic instruments located and some navigation equipment. Good to go – I said out loud. Knowing that for all practical purposes I was only going to bring the wreckage closer to the emergency vehicles.

With a airspeed of over 300 knots I knew I would have to slow down at some point and that would cause a change in the trim of the airplane and possibly the control responses. I decided to reduce power gradually and adjust attitude with trim to compensate. I figured that if I did everything a little at a time my chances of making a big mistake were reduced. It felt pretty weird grabbing all four of the throttles in one hand and moving them ever so slowly and minutely. I scanned the panel containing the engine gages hoping I’d see something move in correlation to my retarding the throttles. As I watched four gauges lower I figured I’d found what would be in my terms the manifold pressures. A little adjusting to make them all match up again was required and I noted the asymmetrical yaw of the airplane while they were uneven.

I thought about how two weeks ago that I didn’t know what asymmetrical meant before starting to study for my commercial and multiengine ratings. – Thank you Martha King!

After a few lessons in using the electric trim on the yoke I had the airplane stabilized at just over 250 knots. Although the gages said so – I couldn’t tell any difference. Years ago my father had told me that a 747 would take off at about 150 mph. Although I’ve learned not to bet the house on Dads knowledge of many things – He did teach me to fly when I was 11 years old and that information was better than anything else I had at the time. If 150 mph would make this thing lift off the ground I figured that 250 was a good speed to work with. I could go 100 knots ether way and not put myself over the edge.

Time to start doing that pilot thing.

My attention was being drawn to the approach plate, as the solid layer of clouds below meant it was my only chance to get to the airport. My ped the oscillations by limiting my inputs and remembering the huge amount of mass that I was trying to jerk around like a Cessna 150. Big airplane – Small steps…. Small steps…

It took both hands to move the landing gear lever. At first I thought I wasn’t doing it right or that there was a lock or trick of some sort to it. But engineering is not match for brute force and I forced the lever down. The airplane shook as I felt the huge gear descend into the slipstream. Airspeed slowed and I needed to push the nose down as I started to get above GS. I decided to wait on any further power reductions.

The airspeed indicator had none of the familiar markings. Only a few white lines painted on the rim of the instrument. I figured they meant something to someone so I decided not to go below the lower one – stay below or at the center one and not go above the higher one.

Airspeed was increasing rapidly as I kept trimming for more nose down to stay on glide slope. Only when I reached for the flaps did I notice that I was thick in the soup and without ATIS I had know idea when and where I would break out of the clouds. I reached over the center console and moved the flap handle first one notch – then two. I didn’t want to get to carried away and find myself off the glide slope and have to do a go around. No, a go-around would not be acceptable I told myself. If I have to I will. But not unless I really have to.

I thought about what the controllers would be thinking about now. I looked for the transponder but once again wasn’t able to find it in the dark.

Way to fast – On the GS but pushing 280. I pulled the throttles back rather boldly but then advanced them again. More flaps I decided. I was surprised to find so many flap positions – why bother I thought. More flaps! With the flap lever about three-quarters of the way back I decided to increase power and maintain 230’ish knots. I figured a high airspeed but stable approach angle was better than a unstable one. I’ll figure out any changes I might need when I get a look at the runway.

Over controlling again! – As airspeed bleed off the roll rate changed – at least in my mind it did. Again I started to oscillate left and right. I was staying on course using the rudders a little to compensate so that I could at least stay moving in the general direction of localizer.

Two miles, 1340 MSL. (700 AGL) RUNWAY! Dead ahead! – Bad choice of words. I reached for the flap lever again and although I was making a decent attempt at GS up to this point I started over trimming without realizing I was holding the switch on the yoke back with my other hand. Needing two hands – I pushed harder and harder on the yoke to keep the nose down before I realized my mistake and reversed the switch. The large trim wheel on the side of the center console spun and spun and spun. As soon as I could hold the attitude I wanted with one hand again I let go and with my right hand and swung at the flap handle flipping it to its lowest position. The drag of full flaps was too much – airspeed started to drop. Again I gripped the throttles and pushed them several inches forward. Still rocking back a forth – less now than before, I knew that my chance to land the airplane safely was coming up soon. Real soon.

With the VASI lights showing me a little lower than I would have liked I decided not to pull the power back as I approached the runway. I could see all the cars on the freeway and thought about how ignorantly we all drive by the airport runways never thinking that something as big as a skyscraper might fall out of the sky on top of us.

Suddenly and surprisingly a electronic voice started screaming at me “PULL UP! – PULL UP!” The VASI’s had started to glow red and a quick look at the airspeed confirmed that I had allowed the nose to drop while looking at the cars on the freeway. I started to pull back on the yoke – thinking I would need to start breaking the descent soon anyway’s I hauled it back pretty good. Trimming the elevator as I went I tried to imagine how high I would be sitting on the ground and that flaring to low would be a typical thing for a novice (novice?) pilot to do. As the descent reduced the electronic CFI in the instrument panel shut-up and I thought about how interesting of a device it was.

I looked down the runway – as far as I could – and decided that as I was well aligned and my roll control had improved – that I would make the final commitment to land. This was it. Pulling back on the throttles I raised the nose to flair.. A quick glance at the airspeed showed me about 160 just as the right mains touched down and then the left. The cockpit shook with vibration of the wheels and slowly the nose dropped to the ground. I was approaching the halfway point of the 10,000 foot runway when the nose wheel hit the ground and now all I had to do was stop this mountain of metal. I braked as hard as I could – I’m sure my seat raised out of the seat as I stood on the peddles. Interestingly I expected to hear skidding but only rumbling of the gear on the runway.

The force of the heavy breaking and occasional differential braking for correction to keep me on the runway was significant. Everything in the cockpit was shaking and rattling now. The runway end was approaching and I was still moving along rather quickly. I pushed on the brakes as hard as I possibly could and held them, all the way to the numbers on the end of the runway. With just 200 feet or so of runway ahead of me I was able to release most of the brake pressure and roll to a comfortable stop. On the runway. In one piece.

The many people who had gathered around behind me in the cockpit began to clap and cheer my landing safely and saving the plane. Then the white cockpit lights came on and the windows turned gray as they had stopped the program running on the 747-200 simulator I was sitting in.

Sweating – I sat there thinking ” I did it”. It may not have been the real thing, but it will be as close as I ever come to being able to fly a large jet like that.

No longer will I have to wakeup in the middle of the night – just before the landing.

(This is a true story. I had made the arrangements to simulate the flight scenario as told in advance with the operators of the full motion flight simulator. To be fair – I did not consult with any pilots or prepare at all for the flight. It was a simulation as best I could re-create it to be as close to real as possible.)

I want to thank Mr. J. Mac MacClellan, Editor in chief of Flying Magazine who wrote an article about a year ago regarding Private Pilots and there ability to assist in jet aircraft emergencies. Although I found some of his comments to be somewhat true – like being able to find the radios and such – I most respectfully disagree with his concept that a Private Pilot would not be useful in the cockpit. Although if not for Mr. J. Mac MacClellan’s article I doubt seriously if I would have gone on to pursue the opportunity to test myself in the simulator and accomplish what is in my mind – one of the greatest challenges in my life. So thank you J. Mac MacClellan. Your wrong – and I will never forget it.

Rick Wagner