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How to land a plane

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(CNN) -- It's every air passenger's worst nightmare: "The pilot has had a heart attack. Does anyone know how to land a plane?" Here's how to be the hero of the hour.

Don't panic: You've been watching too many disaster movies. The good news is that nowadays most commercial aircraft can land themselves anyway -- and frequently do. "The majority of current day aircraft have an auto-land facility," said Carolyn Evans of the British Airline Pilots Association. "If for instance the captain of the aircraft was incapacitated most company procedures require that the co-pilot put the plane down in auto-land mode. Certainly in poor weather a lack of visibility would dictate that an auto-landing be performed." Don't expect to find a big red button though. "The auto-land system varies from plane to plane," says Evans.

The "Airplane" scenario: Okay, so that's the dull answer. But let's assume -- for the sake of spinning this out for a few more paragraphs -- that you've stumbled into your own spoof disaster movie. The crew of your airplane have been mysteriously stricken with food poisoning and only you -- a veteran navy pilot who hates flying and has an aversion to being called "Shirley" -- can bring the plane safely to earth. Your first move should be to scream in the ear of an air traffic controller via the pilot's headset in order to convey an appropriate sense of urgency. Hopefully somebody will be on hand who can talk you through the tricky stuff and clear everything out of the skies within 100 miles as you wobble nervously towards the runway. If there's no response, tune the radio to the emergency frequency -- 121.5 MHz -- and keep screaming.

Direction: Basic steering is done with the "yoke." This works like a steering wheel except with the added excitement of potentially tilting the plane into an unrecoverable nosedive. Try not to let this put you off as your hands shake nervously on the controls -- these things tend to be a little over-sensitive. Nudge it a few inches left or right to steer and push forward or pull back to dip or raise the nose, keeping it just below the horizon. The big red dial in the middle of the instrument panel is the altitude reading. Your job is to get that from 35,000 feet to zero without spilling a drop of the champagne that has presumably been flowing freely in first class to calm nerves since they heard they had a first-time flyer at the controls.

Speed: The airspeed dial is usually found on the top left of the instrument panel. From about 15 miles out from the runway you should be gradually slowing to begin your descent, first by pulling back on the throttle (the big handle to your right) and then by gently dipping the plane's flaps. With four miles to go you should have slowed to a leisurely 185 miles per hour. That's when you put the wheels down. Look for a lever with a suitable symbol. Continue descending at about 700 feet per minute, cutting the plane's speed to around 135 mph. We're assuming you're coming down on dry land. Don't bother with the wheels if you're ditching in the sea. Better to belly-flop.

The final touches: Once the runway is in sight it's simply a matter of lining up the plane and keeping the wings straight. Don't let the nose drop lower than six inches below the horizon and pull it up a few feet before you touch down for maximum smoothness. Hopefully the brakes will kick in automatically once you're back on terra firma -- leaving you time to wipe the sweat from your brow and perhaps share a life-affirming hug with a grateful air stewardess before you are borne aloft from the plane by your fellow passengers.

"I's simply a matter of lining up the plane and keeping the wings straight."

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