I know that a lot of modern airline flying is highly automated. My question is, how much? When do pilots activate the autopilot - as soon as they're in the air? (For instance, when I watch Q400s climb out of YTZ banking sharply away from the city, is the pilot flying, or watching a computer?) Similarly, I'm given to understand that autopilots usually handle approaches, but do they take the plane right through to touchdown?
Finally, under what circumstances in normal flight would an autopilot be disengaged? What about things like holding patterns above an airport? Enquiring nerds want to know.
ROSWELL41 From United States of America, joined Aug 2001, 636 posts, RR: 1 Reply 1, posted (1 year 6 months 2 days 13 hours ago) and read 8625 times:
The short answer: it depends. It depends on the aircraft type, the airline SOP's, the operating environment and the individual pilot/crew. At my airline, we are permitted to hand fly the entire time the aircraft is not in RVSM airspace. The Airbus A320's autopilot is capable of engaging from 100' above the ground through rollout on landing if desired (and the airport meets certain criteria). I personally usually hand fly up to 10,000' most days and turn the autopilot off on descent or in the early stages of the approach. That is just my preference and may be altered due to crew workload at certain airports or when dealing with abnormal situations. Again, to answer your question: it depends.
Don't forget that many pilots also "pilot" the plane via updating and adjusting the flight management systems. This can also be considered "piloting" as the pilot is actively adjusting things to maximize the flight's performance. But I know some do not, and only consider "hands on" to be true piloting.
I don’t know that I am unafraid to be myself, but it is hard to be somebody else. -W. Shatner
KAUSpilot From United States of America, joined Jan 2002, 1958 posts, RR: 34 Reply 5, posted (1 year 6 months 2 days 11 hours ago) and read 8278 times:
On most airliners I would estimate that hand flying is done for about 5 minutes of every flight on average. Every airline has a different culture though, so at some it might be as much as 20 minutes and others as little as 2 minutes.
In fact on many RNAV (precision navigation) departure procedures, pilots are required to turn on the autopilot as soon as the airplane is able, usually 20 seconds or less after liftoff. These types of departures are becoming more common at the busiest airports around the world. Mandating autopilot use is deemed the best way to ensure aircraft remain precisely on track and avoid conflicting with other aircraft taking off or landing on nearby runways.
Pilots generally have some discretion on when they disconnect the autopilot during the approach and landing, but at busy airports again it is advantageous to delay autopilot disconnect until just a few minutes prior to touchdown. Disconnecting early increases workload because the non-flying pilot now has to set the flight guidance system in addition to working the radio and reading checklists. Occasionally ATC or other variables create a situation where the aircraft needs to be maneuvered aggressively; in these cases it's best to disconnect the autopilot and hand fly, but that doesn't happen too often.
The autopilot isn't completely automatic. The pilots are still "flying the plane" by programming the automation when the autopilot is on. The autopilot makes it easier for two pilot crews (no flight enginner) to operate safely, especially in an abnormal situation. ATC is changing the route, making you level off, assigning you airspeeds, etc. Until "planemaker" cuts out the middle man and has you all flying on UAV's, someone has to sit in the flight deck and program the autopilot.
The autopilot is like having a "third man" on the flight deck and it's smart to use him when you can. Sure, the flesh and blood pilots need to turn off the automation and hand fly an approach every once in awhile, but it's smarter to do that at less-busy airports and in good weather.
In the days of 3 man flight decks with flight engineers and less capable autopilots, I'm guessing hand flying was a lot more common.
cbphoto From United States of America, joined Dec 2003, 1531 posts, RR: 6 Reply 6, posted (1 year 6 months 2 days 10 hours ago) and read 8157 times:
I fly a Beech 1900 and I hand fly the plane 100% of the time, (no autopilot) so as others have discussed, it really all depends on the aircraft, airline and the operation specification of that company!
But yes, a pilot is always piloting the plane, whether it is through the autopilot or through actually manipulating the controls of the plane!
Generally speaking, that's exactly right. Whether the airplane is on autopilot or being hand-flown, the pilot is ultimately in complete control (or, in the case of an Airbus, ~70% control.) Autopilots don't do a thing unless they've been commanded to. Even CatIIIB fully automated approaches require an enormous amount of attention from the crew.
Airplanes, whether they be C172s or A380s, are not Ronco Showtimes. You can't just "set it and forget it."
thenoflyzone From Canada, joined Jan 2001, 2098 posts, RR: 11 Reply 8, posted (1 year 6 months 2 days 10 hours ago) and read 8115 times:
Quoting mayor (Reply 2): Remember the cockpit of the future.......only one pilot and a dog.......the pilot is there to scan the instruments and the dog is there to keep the pilot from touching anything.......
The pilot is also there to feed the dog !
Quoting azjubilee (Reply 4): A pilot is always piloting the aircraft by "hand flying" or by flying the airplane via the autopilot.
Quoting N766UA (Reply 7): Even CatIIIB fully automated approaches require an enormous amount of attention from the crew.
Depends what your definition of piloting is.
The OP clearly associates the word ''piloting'' with ''hand flying'' the plane, not just "paying attention".
So therefore the answer is not "always". Far less than that, unfortunately. less than 5% of the time on modern commercial jetliners.
Quoting cbphoto (Reply 6): I fly a Beech 1900 and I hand fly the plane 100% of the time,
JV (Bearskin Airlines) also hand fly their SW4's 100% of the time. They have 16 or so of them, and only 1 or 2 have an autopilot (that works, anyways !), which they dont even use. Some of the best pilots transiting my airspace, that's for sure.
[Edited 2012-06-13 17:47:17]
us Air Traffic Controllers have a good record, we haven't left one up there yet !!
aviateur From United States of America, joined Apr 2004, 1350 posts, RR: 12 Reply 9, posted (1 year 6 months 2 days 10 hours ago) and read 8042 times:
Ah, one of my favorite topics.
How much do commercial pilots actually pilot? It depends what you mean by "pilot," but he short and most accurate answer is, FOR THE ENTIRE BLOODY FLIGHT!
Below is excerpted from the new edition of my book.........
We are told that modern commerical airplanes can essentially fly themselves. How true is this, and is the concept of remotely operated, pilotless planes really viable?
Nothing gets me sputtering more than the myths and exaggerations about cockpit automation — this pervasive idea that modern aircraft are flown by computer, with pilots on hand merely as a backup in case of trouble. The press and pundits repeat this garbage constantly, and millions of people actually believe it. In some not-too-distant future, we’re told, pilots will be engineered out of the picture altogether.
This is so laughably far from reality that it’s hard to get my arms around it and begin to explain how, yet it amazes me how often this contention turns up — in magazines, on television, in the science section of the papers. Perhaps people are so gullible because they simply don’t know better. Flying is mysterious and information is hard to come by. If the “experts” say automatic planes are possible, then why not?
But one thing you’ll notice is how these experts tend to be academics — professors, researchers, etc. — rather than pilots. Many of these people, however intelligent and however valuable their work might be, are highly unfamiliar with the day-to-day operational aspects of flying planes. Pilots too are part of the problem. “Aw, shucks, this plane practically lands itself,” one of us might say. We’re often our own worst enemies, enamored of gadgetry and, in our attempts to explain complicated procedures to the layperson, given to dumbing down. We wind up painting a caricature of what flying is really like, in the process undercutting the value of our profession.
Essentially, high-tech cockpit equipment assists pilots in the way that high-tech medical equipment assists physicians and surgeons. It has vastly improved their capabilities, but it by no means diminishes the experience and skill required to perform at that level, and has not come remotely close to rendering them redundant. A plane can fly itself about as much as the modern operating room can perform an operation by itself.
“Talk about medical progress, and people think about technology,” wrote the surgeon and author Atul Gawande in a 2011 issue of The New Yorker. “But the capabilities of doctors matter every bit as much as the technology. This is true of all professions. What ultimately makes the difference is how well people use technology.”
And what do terms like “automatic” and “autopilot” mean anyway? The autopilot is a tool, along with many other tools available to the crew. You still need to tell it what to do, how to do it, and when to do it. I prefer the term autoflight system. It’s a collection of several different functions controlling speed, thrust, and both horizontal and vertical navigation – together or separately, and all of it requiring regular crew inputs in order work properly. On the jet I fly, I can set up an “automatic” climb or descent any of about six different ways, depending what’s needed in a given situation.
One evening I was sitting in economy class when our jet came in for unusually smooth landing. “Nice job, autopilot!” yelled some knucklehead behind me. Amusing, maybe, but wrong. It was a fully manual touchdown, as the vast majority of touchdowns are. Yes, it’s true that most jetliners are certified for automatic landings, called “autolands” in pilot-speak. But in practice they are very rare. Fewer than one percent of landings are performed automatically, and the fine print of setting up and managing one of these landings is something I could talk about all day. If it were as easy as pressing a button I wouldn’t need to practice them twice a year in the simulator or need to review those tabbed, highlighted pages in my manuals.
Practice? Yes, because in most respects automatic landings are more complicated, and more work-intensive, than those performed by hand. The technology is there if you need it — for that foggy arrival in Buenos Aires with the visibility sitting at zero — but it’s anything but simple and anything but routine.
A flight is a very organic thing -- complex, fluid, always changing -- in which decision-making is constant and critical. For all of its scripted protocols, checklists and SOP, hundreds if not thousands of subjective inputs are made by the crew, from deviating around a cumulus buildup (how far, how high, how long), to troubleshooting a mechanical issue to handling an onboard medical problem. Emergencies are another thing entirely. I'm talking about the run-of-the-mill situations that arise every single day, on every single flight, often to the point of task-saturation. You’d be surprised how busy the cockpit can become.
Patrick Smith is an airline pilot, air travel columnist and author
swafa From United States of America, joined Mar 2012, 24 posts, RR: 0 Reply 12, posted (1 year 6 months 2 days 9 hours ago) and read 7884 times:
Wow...looks like a bit of a sore subject for some. Pilots like for people to think that they're actually working up there (kidding....or am I, insert evil laugh). It seems to me that the thread starter wants to know when the auto pilot is engaged and when it's disengaged during any given flight. The answers that suggest that it depends on the airline are right as far as I'm aware. I have heard that under certain circumstances(i.e. Heavy turbulence) the autopilot will disengage on it's own. Could any pilots shed some light on this?
OB1504 From United States of America, joined Jul 2004, 3151 posts, RR: 7 Reply 15, posted (1 year 6 months 2 days 9 hours ago) and read 7757 times:
Quoting N766UA (Reply 13): Seems to me, however, that any idiot can manipulate a control stick or yoke. Aviating is far more than just moving control surfaces.
Most student pilots get the hang of flying a light aircraft after only a few flights. The rest of the training is spent on the "non-flying" aspects of flying, from planning to navigating and (most importantly) what to do when the sh*t hits the fan.
ThirtyEcho From United States of America, joined Dec 2001, 1638 posts, RR: 1 Reply 22, posted (1 year 6 months 2 days 7 hours ago) and read 7455 times:
When you set the cruise control on your car, you are no longer the driver? All that cruise control does is hold your speed within plus or minus two MPH, a tedious job in hours and hours down the Interstate and one that would fatigue you immensely if you had to always do it manually.
Similarly, I often fly with only HDG (Heading) engaged, since holding a very precise heading diverts me from other tasks and is equivalently fatiguing. Altitude hold often only requires careful trimming, and altitude is a minimally demanding task, but I will use altitude hold on some trips or at the higher levels. At no point, no matter what I have programmed the autopilot to do, am I not flying the airplane.
KAUSpilot From United States of America, joined Jan 2002, 1958 posts, RR: 34 Reply 23, posted (1 year 6 months 2 days 6 hours ago) and read 7385 times:
Quoting swafa (Reply 12): I have heard that under certain circumstances(i.e. Heavy turbulence) the autopilot will disengage on it's own. Could any pilots shed some light on this?
First off, everything I say only applies to my experience in the industry;
Yes, I've had this happen a few times during moderate or severe turbulence, although it is rare because obviously we do our best to avoid these areas in the first place.
It's also possible, but rare, for the autopilot to simply fail due to an internal fault of some sort. I've had this happen a few times at random points during the flight on the EMB-145. I've also had FMC's fail which is probably worse, I'd rather go without the autopilot than the FMC, to be honest. Obviously neither situation is an emergency and can be deferred for further flights while deactived if necessary.
As I said, in these cases the autopilot can be "deferred", which means the pilots will need to hand fly the entire flight. However, the flight will be range limited because it will be restricted to low altitudes (prohibited from entering RVSM airspace (FL290-FL410)). A functioning autopilot is required to enter and cruise in RVSM airspace.
Luckily the aircraft I fly now has 3 autopilots so it would be incredibly rare for all 3 to fail simultaneously.
Quoting randomstriker (Thread starter): Similarly, I'm given to understand that autopilots usually handle approaches, but do they take the plane right through to touchdown?
Finally, under what circumstances in normal flight would an autopilot be disengaged? What about things like holding patterns above an airport? Enquiring nerds want to know.
The autopilot only flies through touchdown during an autoland. Boeing and Airbus sized jets along with advanced business jets have this capability but most smaller regional craft do not. An autoland is only conducted if visibility is below 1800ft/500m or once every 15 days as an operational check of the system. I would estimate more than 95% of the time, the landing is manually flow for at least the last minute or two, even on the big jets. The remaining 5% or less are autolands. Again, this will vary from airline to airline.
Normally the autopilot is disengaged at some point between the last 10 and 1 minutes of the flight depending on workload. In my current airplane, I prefer to keep the autopilot on until flaps are fully deployed and the landing checklist is complete. In the ERJ I hand flew more of the approach but I'm still new to my current airplane, and the autopilot functions better in what I fly now.
Holding patterns would normally be done on autopilot in jets, simply because it's much easier to program the FMC and autopilot to fly a hold than it is to fly it off raw data and a timer. Plus, when you're holding in a transport category aircraft, it's nice to devote your attention to fuel computations and coordination for possible diversion while the autopilot takes care of the holding nuances.
wingscrubber From UK - England, joined Sep 2001, 842 posts, RR: 0 Reply 24, posted (1 year 6 months 2 days 5 hours ago) and read 7277 times:
Quoting azjubilee (Reply 4): The simple answer is: ALWAYS. A pilot is always piloting the aircraft by "hand flying" or by flying the airplane via the autopilot.
Twiddling nobs on the auto-pilot etc, is not stick-and-rudder piloting, it is systems management. When auto-pilot, auto-throttle or auto-anything is engaged you are not in direct control of the airplane, the computer is, but you are in control of the computer, so you are 'piloting' by proxy when autopilot is engaged.
Quoting thenoflyzone (Reply 8): So therefore the answer is not "always". Far less than that, unfortunately. less than 5% of the time on modern commercial jetliners.
Agreed, but without hurting anybody's feelings here, it must be stated that a modern pilot's job involves much more than just stick-and-rudder, the constant systems management, navigation and communications element is what makes pilots assert that they are 'piloting' 100% of the time, even if much of that is done with no hands on the yoke.
Quoting aviateur (Reply 9): If the “experts” say automatic planes are possible, then why not?
The 'experts' do say it's possible. Here's a controversial thing to think about which is not intended to be flamebait; if most aircraft accidents are attributed to pilot error, can you reduce accidents by engineering out the pilot? Maybe, but most folks would still prefer a human on board to monitor the computer, right? What if the airplane is so heavily automated that the 'pilot' workload is reduced to pressing one of three buttons; take-off, cruise, and land. Is he still 'piloting?'
Resident TechOps Troll
25 Starlionblue: Unless your aircraft is all rod and cable controlled with no augmentation, there is always something helping you out, whether it is hydraulics, actua
26 thenoflyzone: For a CAT III A approach, yes. CAT III B, you have touchdown and rollout on autopilot. Thenoflyzone
27 CosmicCruiser: For us the jet must do an auto land every 30 days or anytime it has been downgraded due to any number of equip failures. Sometimes the avionics guys
28 planemaker: "Today" technology has progressed to where it is not "immensely complex." And it is getting simpler... and cheaper, year after year.
29 Starlionblue: Simpler yes, but still a long way from removing the pilots. Also the question is whether today removing the pilots would enhance safety and reliabili
30 seven3seven: At Southwest Airlines we are rarely required to use the autopilot. We are not allowed to use it until 1000 feet after liftoff. I typically fly the pla
31 stratosphere: Actually the guys working for Great lakes flying the B1900 with no A/P in the rockies really earn their pay and it is far too little. But to be fair
32 planemaker: Yes, but only because of the legacy infrastructure. Not with the existing infrastructure but starting with the next all-new aircraft it could easily
33 Max Q: Not actually true. On the 757 / 767 the autopilot will perform the touchdown, lower the nose then continue to steer the Aircraft down the centreline
34 KAUSpilot: Okay, you fellows are completely misunderstanding what I meant by "through touchdown". I only phrased my answer that way because the original poster