Operating Airliners Versus Single-Engine Private Planes

Q: What sort of qualitative and quantitative differences are at hand when operating an airliner versus a typical single-engine private plane? One often hears amazement that the WTC attacks were carried out by pilots with such limited experience.

It depends what you mean by ‘operate.’ Certain individuals showed us — and not to this pilot’s surprise — that basic flying skills, transferable from light Cessna to jet-powered widebody, are enough to drive an already-airborne 767 on-target into a skyscraper. But landing that airplane, operating its various systems or navigating it across great distances, would be a different story.

The importance of a hands-on ‘feel’ for flying (and yes, some pilots are better than others in the innate talent department) versus that of the acquired knowledge of the vastly technical workings of airplanes, is something we can debate, but a certain proficiency in both is required. Climbing, descending, and turning are nothing a student pilot couldn’t handle at the helm of a Boeing, but at the same time one glance at its computerized flight deck is a serious dose of technological intimidation. You’ll notice certain similarities even to a World War 1 biplane — all of them overwhelmed by some pretty complex instrumentation. A working knowledge of all those buttons, dials, and keypads becomes more crucial with the breadth of the task at hand. Is the weather less than perfect? Are we handling a problem? Are we landing? Managing a flight (and ‘managing’ is such the right word) is so much more than hands-on flying. Messing with gravity is the easy part.

Could a private pilot land an airliner in good weather? Maybe. It depends. But he or she would have no idea how to handle the various onboard systems. Could somebody with no flying experience do either of these things? Never.

This Q&A is part of a collection that originally appeared on Salon.com. Patrick Smith, 38, is an erstwhile airline pilot, retired punk rocker and air travel columnist. His book, Ask the Pilot (Riverhead) was voted “Best Travel Book of 2004” by Amazon.com. Patrick has traveled to more than 55 countries and always asks for a window seat. He lives near Boston.