Do Pilots actually fly the Airplane?

or Does the autopilot actually fly?When will planes go autonomous? and a myriad of similar automation questions

My favorite one has to be this one:

My friend is a cabin attendant and she told me that pilots spend more than 95% of their time just chatting, doing Sudoku, etc.. She thinks it is only a matter of time before pilots will fly from home or the office. Or at least one of them will. What do you think?

Cabin Attendant Friend

This is another question-set that is buried in misunderstandings and hyperbole. While pilots use automation extensively, it does not mean that the pilots are sitting there doing nothing. Nowhere near that.

The autopilot was not envisaged to replace the pilots. On the contrary, it was thought that the pilots’ jobs is so complex, that we can delegate the mundane, the routine and the repetitive tasks to the autopilot. The autopilot is great at flying the aircraft level for hours on end, or to adjust the speed to match a target set by the pilots.

Try to program the autopilot to avoid a thunderstorm and you will realize the technology is still years away at least.

The autopilot uses data from flight management computers that the pilots setup in the beginning of the flight to “fly” the aircraft. Throughout the flight, pilots are feeding inputs to the autopilot and are continuously engaged in making sure the correct outputs are being delivered by the autopilot

The auto-flight system doesn’t fly the airplane, the pilots fly the aircraft through the auto-flight system.

For example, an autopilot can land the aircraft down to zero visibility, but to get the aircraft off the runway and move it to the parking position what is called taxi is still completely manual. This is on daily, normal operation and this is just one example of many functions that are still not touched by automation. Another important function that is still fully manual is the takeoff.

Airbus attempted this year to show us new technology, around takeoff, while it still disclaims almost every new technology with the the below quote or something similar that emphasizes the role of pilots

For autonomous technologies to improve flight operations and overall aircraft performance, pilots will remain at the heart of operations. Autonomous technologies are paramount to supporting pilots, enabling them to focus less on aircraft operation and more on strategic decision-making and mission management.


This is just an example of normal daily operations that still have the pilot doing all the grunt work.

The design of all systems in the aircraft is built around redundancy, which is basically saying that you have two or more from everything so that one failure doesn’t cause the aircraft to be in unsafe condition. However, when multiple failures occur, the aircraft will leave to the pilot to deal with the situation.

A Russian Captain landed his aircraft in a cornfield when he lost both engines, this complex decision-making cannot be referred to a machine in the foreseeable future. This is the same as what Sully did with his fateful flight. Lets forget for a second that this became his cashcow and he wrote books, gave speeches and speaks at events for $50,000. What he did that day is not reproducible by machines.

Manufacturers of aircraft are experts at risk management, they design systems that perform exceptionally well and when they won’t or can’t, it is the pilots’ responsibility to manage it

For example on this B747 Jumbo jet seen doing a crosswind landing, the aircraft is certified to do an autopilot landing up-to 25 knots of crosswind. In the video below , it is safe to assume that this well above the autopilot limits and one of the pilots is doing the landing.

To conclude, pilots are there doing there jobs and will continue to be there for the near-to-mid future. The pilot community found value in technology, the same way your job is easier done because of computers or the internet. However, this doesn’t mean their job is transferable to computers, or at least they are at not at the top of the at-risk careers.

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