“Being an airliner pilot? That’s so boring, the autopilot does 90 percent of the work anyway nowadays”! There are quite some people that would argue like that, amongst them, for example, Michael O’ Leary, who happens to be Ryanair’s Chief Executive Officer. This gentlemen said, that “nowadays (the pilots) just sit back, press a button and put (the plane) on autopilot.They then read newspapers or just do nothing”. Well, is that true? Lets’ find out what the autopilot is capable of – and what not.
Autopilot – A Brief History!
Before we dive in, let’s talk about history first. Like so many aviation achievements, the autopilot also found its beginnings in the maritime world. The invention of the gyrocompass made possible to easily maintain a chosen course for the conquerors of the seven seas.
A little later, in 1914, such a system finally arrived in aircraft, too. After all, this very first autopilot in a “Curtiss C-2” could already maintain horizontal flight without any input from the pilot whatsoever. For this, four gyros were directly connected to the control surfaces and calibrated to their zero position. This development took rapid speed and eventually developed a once very simple system to a rather complex technical companion for pilots, as we know it today.
The Autopilot Does Not Work Without the Pilot’s Inputs
The modern autopilot is, frankly speaking, one of many small components that make an aircraft’s operation possible. What it can do, for example, is to adhere to the three-dimensional flight path specified in the Flight Management System (FMS), or to adjust the pitch of the plane in a manner, so that it retains the selected altitude. The so-called “Auto Thrust System” (or “Auto Throttle System”, ATS) also helps with this, by automatically adjusting the engine thrust according to the plane’s attitude to maintain a preselected speed.
Of course, the autopilot does not react on its own. It needs clear instructions from the crew which flight path is to be flown and on what speed is to be maintained. There are two possibilities for this. It either gets its information from the FMS and keeps the flight speeds, heights and directions defined therein, or the pilot intervenes manually and chooses his/her own desired heading, a new altitude, or a special climb rate or rate of descent. This can become necessary due to ATC instructions that deviate from the predefined values set in the FMS.
The panel, on which a pilot can manipulate the heading, altitude, and more manually is called mode control panel (MCP) on Boeings and flight control unit (FCU) on Airbus planes. On the below picture, you can see the MCP of a Boeing 777-300ER, while the captain selects a new heading.
The Autopilot – A Relief for the Crew!
You may know it from longer rides in your car. After some time, you become really tired without a cruise control, since you have to adjust the speed and direction constantly, while also keep your focus on the road and the traffic surrounding you. Well, it’s quite similar for pilots!
During long and monotonous flight phases, the autopilot greatly facilitates the pilots’ work. They do not have to “steer” the plane manually during cruise. On the other hand, the pilots are then required elsewhere since they must constantly monitor the systems and the flight path and watch over every important parameter.
In addition to that, the autopilot has its limits. For instance, the autopilot of most modern commercial aircraft can land automatically, but only up to a certain wind speed. These limits are always specified in the respective operating manual. In addition, for a so-called “auto-landing” not only the aircraft must be equipped accordingly. The airport does also needs the corresponding infrastructure!
Autopilot – Would Fully Automated Flights Be Possible?
Hell yes! Theoretically, a fully automatic flight including take-off and landing would be possible. Military aircraft such as the X-47B, which is currently in flight testing, show this. However, this technology has not yet found its way into civil aviation. In addition to technical hurdles, there are also quite some legislative obstacles. The legislators did not come up with a unified solution on how to deal with the still very young civil drone technology (they don’t even know how to prevent an airport shutting down due to a person flying around the field with a personal small drone, but that’s another story).
Human Errors vs. Technical Flaws
Among other things, this raises the question of whether unmanned passenger aircraft are wanted at all. Passenger surveys suggest that more than a third of the questioned persons would never board a pilotless plane.
On the other hand, ex Airbus CEO Thomas Enders claimed in 2017, that some 90 per cent of all aviation accidents are caused by human error. The European manufacturer consequently drives the development of pilotless planes. Lufthansa’s CEO, Carsten Spohr, opposes this statement and argues that pilots are still indispensable today. He claimed that while cars could just stop at the side of the road if there’s a problem, planes could not simply do so and hence require highly qualified pilots.
My two cents on this matter are, that one should not only take statistics on accidents caused by human error into account. A very interesting question is: How often did pilots prevent a potential disaster caused by flawed technology?
A perfect example for this was a Lufthansa flight in 2024. Near Bilbao, the Airbus A321 unexpectedly began to dive. Rapidly! While doing so, it lost 4,000ft in altitude. The crew was able to recover the plane and to land safely. But what happened? The Aviation Herald concluded:
The Aviation Herald learned that the loss of altitude had been caused by two angle of attack sensors having frozen in their positions during climb at an angle, that caused the fly by wire protection to assume, the aircraft entered a stall while it climbed through FL310. The Alpha Protection activated forcing the aircraft to pitch down, which could not be corrected even by full back stick input. The crew eventually disconnected the related Air Data Units and was able to recover the aircraft.
One could argue, that people on the ground could intervene, if a drone goes nuts. Well, this would be possible, in theory. But what if the person on the ground cannot gain access to the plane for whatever reason? Well, the future of automated flights remains exciting. What about you? Would you ever board a pilotless plane? Comment below. I hope, that you enjoyed my little article on the autopilot. If so, feel free to subscribe to my newsletter to keep updated on future posts.
In the meantime, you can always crawl my other articles, of course.
- One Day in the life of a Lufthansa Boeing 747 pilot
- My planespotting-guide
- My aviation knowledge section
Have a great day,