Who's Really Flying Your Plane?

by Terry Ward 
Posted Sep 21st 2010 05:28 PMUpdated Sep 29th 2010 05:24 PM




Aircraft are some of the most sophisticated machines in the world, with computers systems so advanced that the planes could seemingly fly themselves (Ryanair's always colorful CEO even suggested eliminating co-pilots). So just how much of what goes on during a commercial flight is automated by a computer?

Perhaps more than you think.

When Things Go Wrong

Passengers aboard a British Airways flight from London to Hong Kong got a serious fright when an automated voice over the public address system said this: "This is an emergency announcement. We may shortly need to make an emergency landing on water."

There was no emergency though-the pilot had simply pushed the wrong button in the cockpit. Flight attendants immediately rushed through the aisles to assure panicked passengers that there was no Captain Sully-type situation at hand.

Our mystery pilot has had his own experiences with the computer having a mind of its own:

"Every once in a while there will be a situation where I have to take the plane off autopilot. It's not foolproof. For instance, there are a lot of holding patterns in the air space around New York. Let's say I'm headed due north and air traffic control wants us to make a turn east, but due to traffic they say to turn west and go all the way around to get there. I've had it where the autopilot will want to take the shortest way (in this case, east). If you're not paying attention the autopilot will automatically go the quickest way.

"Another time we were at 31,000 feet and the autopilot told the airplane to initiate a climb. I caught it within 200 feet or so and realized it was screwing up. I turned the autopilot off, and we had to descend below a certain altitude since we were no longer flying on autopilot."
When Autopilot is in Use

"About 75 to 80 percent of a flight is done using the autopilot, in conjunction with the flight management system," says Kevin Hiatt, Executive Vice President of the Flight Safety Foundation in Alexandria, Virginia, and a former pilot for Delta Air Lines. The flight management system (FMS) automates many in-flight tasks, taking much of the workload off pilots.

"Autopilot keeps the heading and altitude steady," explains Hiatt, "Along with the autopilot, there are auto-throttles connected to the FMS. Certain performance numbers are put into the flight management computer, and by engaging all those at the same time, the airplane can descend, climb, and cruise more efficiently."

And while hand flying-pilot speak for when the airplane's controls are actually being manipulated by the pilot-still takes place during takeoffs and good-weather landings, it's the autopilot that's flying the plane for the bulk of the flights.

Airlines have their own rules as to when autopilot can switched on, but it's usually around an altitude of 1,000 feet. This is standard operating procedure on airlines across the board, whether pilots are flying a 777 or regional jet. That's definitely a good thing says Karen Kahn, a longtime captain with one of the major U.S. legacy carriers, since autopilot provides passengers with a smoother ride. "An airplane is much more touchy when it's not on autopilot," says Kahn, "It needs continual corrections." And you can feel the difference. "It's as if you were balancing on a ball and continually having to stay balanced as opposed to having something fixed to hold onto," she says.

Autopilot systems on commercial airlines have redundancies, with at least one, often two backup autopilots in case one fails. But there are critical moments when pilots must fly the airplane by hand.

"During the overwhelming majority of takeoffs, you have to hand fly the aircraft," explains Hiatt. Pilots engage autopilot at some point during the climb and, on a normal flight, only switch it off when it's time to land. If weather conditions are bad, with very limited visibility, a pilot can keep the autopilot on throughout the landing (keeping it on until after the brakes have been applied and the airplane is slowing to a stop).

"The pilot will use the auto flight system all the way through the descent phase up until approach, and then we say 'click it off,' which means we disengage autopilot," says Hiatt, "When you hear the landing gear come down, that's when the pilot generally starts to hand fly the aircraft."

And while problems with autopilot are rare, things do fail from time to time, according to Hiatt. "PA systems have problems, call buttons stick, computers can fail to a non-active mode," he says. And that, says Hiatt, is when those cornerstone "stick and rudder skills" come into play.

"A lot of people think that because they have Flight Simulator on their computer at home, there's nothing to flying," says Hiatt, "But you have to know what to do when the computer decides it doesn't want to go along."

What Pilots May Really Be Up To

In addition to providing a smoother ride for passengers by eliminating the need for constant manual corrections, Hiatt says autopilot makes flights safer, too.

"Pilots can multitask on other things related to the flight," he says, "They can also be more aware of the air traffic in the area, navigation and provide a much more economical and smoother flight."

Autopilot would also seem to free up a lot of time in the cockpit for pilots to, say, read a newspaper or watch a DVD on their laptop. And while nearly all airlines forbid such leisure activities in the cockpit (the only reading normally allowed in the cockpits is that of checklists and help manuals), one captain for a major U.S. airline-who prefers to remain anonymous-says the rules are regularly bent.

"Officially, we're not supposed to read [in the cockpit while flying]. But do I do it? Yeah," he says, "During a two hour flight, for about an hour and a half (when the plane is on autopilot) there's a whole lot of nothing going on. Hopefully I get along with the co-pilot and we have stuff to talk to about. But you run out of things to talk about. I'm in a hotel every night and they deliver a newspaper to my door, and if I'm sitting there on a two hour flight, I'm sorry, I know you're not supposed to, but I pull out the paper and read."

The anonymous pilot said he estimates about 50 percent of the pilots he flies with also pull out casual reading material to peruse once the autopilot has been switched on.

"And on a lot of airlines, their manuals are on laptops," he says, "On red-eyes from L.A. to New York in the middle of the night, I know those pilots are watching DVDs."

He does not feel, however, that such practices compromise safety.

"Airplanes are so automated now that if something goes wrong, all kinds of bells and whistles are going to go off," he says. "Quite honestly, nowadays, we're there if something goes wrong. And things do go wrong, so we'll pull out an appropriate checklist and troubleshoot."

Filed Under: Air Travel

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Jerry Williams

Oct 27, 2009 - The pilots of the commercial jetliner that last week overshot its destination by about 150 miles have said they were using their laptops. This articles mention of laptop manuals now makes sense.

July 08 2013 at 5:27 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Capt. Kirk

Modern technology is marvellous and the automated systems are indeed safe...no problem but that cheap Irish man who bosses RYAN AIR ..what is he saying that pilots are becoming obsolete?..MORON!!..
I still love to ease back on the column..squeeze off the speed and control the flare. Computers can NEVER make a judgement or decision on a critical event. The comfort and safetyof passengers is our responsibility.
Last year, did the computer warn the Air France pilot off Brazil that the pitot wasn't functioning? ..it is still assumed based on history ..that it was a faulty pitot..but I guess we will never know.PAX will not be comforted by auto systems beeping at them...but teh captains voice ..ahh..that's reassuring.
But then,we are only professionals who enjoy what we do and fill a need...not in the business of running off to the bank every day with a bagful of cash...always seeking to maximise profits.

Tally Ho ole chaps.

November 10 2010 at 10:07 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

The flight attendant was gay. So how exactly (at YOUR determination and decision) did the sexuality of this individual cause your already miserable self, I mean flight, to be even more miserable?

Never going to be satisfied, mister perfect living in an imperfect world, asshat homophobe is what you are. Probably best that you do stay home for the rest of your life, as the real world is just going to be way to horrible for you to deal with.

November 09 2010 at 2:51 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Yes to Nope

Drew/ Nope to Nope

Please check your facts before questioning others



October 26 2010 at 11:54 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Nope to Nope

F16's in the Navy???

October 22 2010 at 9:57 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

The autopilot does reduce the workload in the cockpit and is a TOOL that the pilot's use to facilitate a safer, smoother flight. However, the autopilot is not foolproof and there are many decisions that a pilot must make throughout the flight that the autopilot cannot make. If there is weather ahead, do I go up or down, left or right to avoid it? Do I need an alternate at my arrival? Do I have enough fuel to get to my destination safely? Which runway we are going to land? Which instrument approach is most efficient for the weather conditions? There are a lot of decisions pilots make every second of the flight that the autopilot simply cannot make or is designed to make.

October 22 2010 at 9:44 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
John G

Well well, yet another article on aviation and no mention of the Aircraft Mechanics. We should be used to it. Pilots, pilots always about pilots, and oh, occasionally ATC. hmm long hours..poor working conditions....etc., etc... Okay, well I'll string up my violin while I think of all the Aircraft Mechanics working at 2 and 3 in the morning out in the middle of some tarmac with the wind blowing up their shorts and the temp below freezing while adjusting some critical component to prepare the aircraft to fly out first thing in the morning. But don't worry folks, don't worry about the Aircraft Mechanic, we're okay...because we're used to it.

October 21 2010 at 1:59 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

@ Nope. Quick question. If you're a former Navy Pilot, why were you flying an F-16? I'd imagine you'd cite your experience in a Navy Jet, and not an Air Force fighter.

October 21 2010 at 1:37 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

That's not completely true. I'm a commercial pilot (former navy pilot), and trust me. This article hits it right on the spot. Back when I flew an F-16, I actually flew. Commercial planes... not so much. We simply put in the STARS and the SIDS and the waypoints in between and the FMS automatically adjusts the heading, altitude, and the speed to give the most economical and weather friendly (wind/turbulence adjusted) route. I'd say for an transcontinental flight, this is about 30 minutes max of work for a 12 hour flight.

Take offs are manually flown, but as soon as we hit V2 speed, we turn on the autopilot. Hell, we turn on the autothrottle in the first 8 seconds of take off before hitting 80 knots!

I say this with a bit of sadness that commercial planes really do fly themselves. I miss the good old glory days of my Navy career where there was barely any autopilot and it was all me. But in a way, commercial jets are fun in their own right. Lots of sitting around and enjoying the skies. Event the traffic system is automated (TCAS), and it warns the pilot anytime an aircraft is too close by. The air traffic up at 40,000 feet will bother you maybe once an hour to let you know of station change, but that's about it...

So, you sir, should shut the f*ck up. And take it from me, a commercial airline pilot and a former Navy pilot, that this article is fairly accurate.

October 19 2010 at 2:37 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

i agree. you have to be "in the zone" when you're flying--anything less means you're putting passenfger safety--and your own-- at risk!

October 05 2010 at 12:35 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply