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Autopilot: do planes fly themselves?

by Chris Hammond BALPA Representative and Former Pilot

When you tell someone you are a pilot, it is often only a matter of time before you hear one of the most annoying and incorrect comments: “Planes fly themselves these days don’t they?” It’s an aggravating and stubbornly common myth that aircraft are super-automated machines with pilots merely there as back up in case of trouble. 

It is not helped by the media. Headlines often talk about the coming of pilotless planes or quote that planes these days land themselves. And the cliché film idea of a pilot pressing the auto pilot button and an inflatable pilot popping up doesn’t help either! But to think that the aircraft of today can function without a pilot is to grossly misunderstand what a pilot actually does. 

Contrary to the common belief, flying still involves tremendous amounts of input from the crew. I try to explain it to those who ask with the simple comment: “I’ve got an automatic car, but it won’t drive itself to Edinburgh, will it?” 

The cockpit of today does have lots of computers that automate tasks. But these systems only do what we tell them to do. Pilots still have to fill in the blanks and tell the computers when, where and how to perform tasks. Yes, things have changed. Our hands may no longer have to be steering the plane directly, as would have been the case in the 1930s, but pilots still control the plane and have to input commands one way or another.

Switching to auto pilot is not as easy a pressing an ’on/off’ switch. On the aircraft I fly, you can set up the ‘automatic’ climb or descent in numerous different ways, depending on what’s needed. 

And the assumption that pilots always use autoland to bring the plane down safely is simply incorrect. The vast majority of touchdowns are handled manually by the pilot. 

Statistic: fewer than 1% of landings are performed automatically. 

Yes, many commercial aircraft are capable of automatic landings – or ’autolands‘ in pilot speak, but in practice they are relatively rare. Setting up and managing an autoland is not simple. There are pages and pages of manuals dedicated to it and all pilots must understand this and practice this set up in the simulator annually. In a lot of respects, automatic landings are more work-intensive than those performed by hand. 

Automatic landings depend just as much on the equipment at airfields as the equipment on aircraft. By far the majority of places around the world either don’t have it or don’t need it. It’s only of use in foggy-type situations, and Air Traffic Control prefer not to have to use it as it requires greater aircraft spacing, and slows down flow rates. 

And when it comes to take-off, many people are surprised tom hear that there is no such thing as an auto take-off! A full 100% of take-offs in commercial aviation are manual. 

During the cruise when the computers may, to the uninitiated observer, be ‘flying’ the plane, pilots still have to monitor the aircraft and command the autopilot where appropriate. When things go wrong the pilots need to recognise it and correct the problem. 

Even with the plethora of technology to assist modern pilots, people would be surprised at how busy a cockpit can become. There are periods of very high workload, to the point where both pilots can become task-saturated.

Yes, pilots use a different set of skills to fly the plane today than they would of in times gone by. But it’s wrong to say that the job is less important, or less demanding, than the old one.

What I am opposed to, is the incorrect assertion that planes fly at the flick of a switch and the distorted depictions of what my colleagues and I actually do for a living.