If the pilot of a single-pilot aircraft carrying passengers (not an airliner) attempts to commit a murder-suicide by crashing the plane, is it legal for a passenger, who is not a pilot, to use force to restrain the pilot, hijack the plane, and (attempt to) land it?

If the pilot is "successful" in causing the crash, but everyone survives, with what crimes could he be charged? What if the passenger(s) die? What if someone on the ground dies?

Assume that it is obvious that the pilot's intent is to cause a fatal accident, and there is clear evidence of everything that happened in the plane.

I'm interested in answers from any country.

  • Can a non-pilot ever land a plane? Also, I guess whoever thinks they can do it won't really care of the legal consequences as the only other alternative is to crash dead.
    – Greendrake
    Mar 2 at 2:13
  • 1
    @Greendrake it's happened several times: en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Talk-down_aircraft_landing . Also, "non-pilot" doesn't necessarily mean "no flight training"; the passenger could have received flight training but not obtained a pilot certificate. It's fairly common for people who often fly as passengers with private pilots to take flying lessons that focus on landing, so they can land the plane if their friend is incapacitated.
    – user49309
    Mar 2 at 2:17
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    @Greendrake, it's also important to bear in mind that for a pilot under normal circumstances, "landing" means keeping the equipment in good order. Non-pilots can rarely achieve this standard. For the non-pilot in an emergency, however, the criteria is merely to return to Earth without perishing, even if the plane is written off or destroyed in the process.
    – Steve
    Mar 2 at 21:30
  • This is basically what happened to the 4th 911 plane that got hijacked and crashed in a field in Shanksville Pennsylvania. All the people who died in that crash were considered heroes though.
    – Neil Meyer
    Mar 3 at 13:43
  • @NeilMeyer in that case, the passengers were taking control from the terrorist hijackers. In this question, the person trying to crash the plane is the authorized pilot in command.
    – Someone
    Mar 3 at 21:33

2 Answers 2


Taking control of an aircraft from a pilot in command without their consent would normally be an offence under s. 7.3(1) and 7.41 of the Aeronautics Act (but I'm doubtful that the act of the passenger in your scenario is "endangering the safety" of the aircraft) and possibly s. 76 of the Criminal Code (I'm also doubtful that the mens rea is met in the specific scenario you describe). Restraining the pilot would be at least plain assault (Criminal Code, s. 265).

Regardless, in your scenario, the otherwise illegal acts of the passenger would most likely be justified by self-defence (in response to force or threat of force) or the defence of necessity (no reasonable legal alternative to avoid imminent peril).

Possible offences for the pilot: murder, attempted murder, manslaughter, criminal negligence causing bodily harm, criminal negligence causing death. Oddly, the offence of "endangering the safety of an aircraft" (Criminal Code, s. 77) does not seem to apply here.

  • Does Canada also have the offence of "endangering the safety of an aircraft"? If so, maybe this charge could be piled on the pilot as well.
    – Rick
    Mar 2 at 7:52
  • Could the attempted act of murder-suicide also be an act of terrorism atop?
    – Trish
    Mar 2 at 8:33
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    If the pilot does crash, then it is endangering the safety of an aircraft. "on board an aircraft in flight" the pilot is definitely on board an aircraft in flight; "commits an act of violence" crashing on purpose is definitely an act of violence; "against a person" it's against whoever else is on the plane, and anyone on the ground who is injured or killed; "that is likely to endanger the safety of the aircraft" crashing obviously endangers the safety of the aircraft.
    – Someone
    Mar 2 at 18:47
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    Crashing also "causes damage to an aircraft in service that renders the aircraft incapable of flight or that is likely to endanger the safety of the aircraft in flight."
    – Someone
    Mar 2 at 18:47
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    It looks like the pilot could also be considered to be guilty of hijacking. "Every one who, unlawfully, by force... exercises control of an aircraft with intent... to cause any person on board the aircraft to be transported against his will to any place other than the next scheduled place of landing of the aircraft... is guilty of an indictable offence and liable to imprisonment for life." There is no exception for the pilot in command.
    – Someone
    Mar 2 at 18:53

, under the Federal government's Special Maritime and Territorial Jurisdiction

The pilot is guilty of, at least, common-law assault. (I cannot find a Federal definition of assault, so AFAIK that means the common-law definition is used.) Assault is "the wrong act of causing someone to reasonably fear imminent harm." (Please correct this if there is a Federal definition of assault, but I'm sure the pilot's actions are still in violation of any such definition.)

"Murder is the unlawful killing of a human being with malice aforethought," according to 18 USC § 1111(a). Because the pilot's intent is to commit murder, he is guilty of assault with intent to commit murder, and can be sentenced to up to 20 years in prison under 18 USC § 113(a)(1).

If the pilot does kill someone, this is murder. Because it is "willful, deliberate, malicious, and premeditated," it is first degree murder under 18 USC § 1111(a). In Special Maritime and Territorial Jurisdiction, the pilot can be sentenced to death or to life in prison under 18 USC § 1111(b).

The pilot's actions may be aircraft piracy. According to 49 USC § 46502(a)(1)(A), "'aircraft piracy' means seizing or exercising control of an aircraft in the special aircraft jurisdiction of the United States by force, violence, threat of force or violence, or any form of intimidation, and with wrongful intent." The pilot is exercising control of the aircraft, is doing so with wrongful intent, is likely using force in order to prevent the passenger from taking control. According to 49 USC § 46502(a)(2), the pilot is subject to imprisonment for at least 20 years if everyone survives, or death or life imprisonment if anyone dies.

  • The federal assault statute is 18 USC 113, though it does not define "assault". Section 113 applies in the special maritime and territorial jurisdiction of the US, which would only include aircraft over international waters (18 USC 7 (5)). However 49 USC 46506 extends this to the special aircraft jurisdiction, which includes all US aircraft, all aircraft within the US, and all aircraft flying to or from the US. Mar 3 at 1:51

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