If you’ve ever been inside the cockpit of an aircraft, you were probably very impressed with the sheer number of buttons, switches, meters and levers. But are they really all necessary? Planes mostly fly on autopilot, right? What do human pilots even do once their electronic colleague takes over the controls?
Manual versus automatic
Pilots don’t just sit there twiddling their thumbs: take-off and landing are almost always done manually. Also, autopilot is not as fully automatic as you might think. That’s because the on-board computer requires much more input than just a point of departure and a final destination, like your sat nav. The pilot enters all the information from the flight plan, including flight path, intended altitude and information about wind speed and direction. Based on this information, the plane’s autopilot can calculate which course, altitude and speed to maintain.
Flying as safely and efficiently as possible
Now we know: there’s more to the job than meets the eye. But once the plane is airborne autopilot takes over, ensuring the rest of the flight is smooth and efficient. Autopilot is especially useful during long-haul flights, like cruise control on the motorway.
Keep your eyes on the skies
Does that mean that pilots can just sit back and relax, read the paper or have a chat with their co-pilot? Absolutely not. There’s always plenty to do during a flight, such as staying in touch with Air Traffic Control, who give updates on weather conditions and other air traffic in the area and any necessary changes to the route from the flight plan. In these and other situations, the pilot needs to enter the changed data into the computer so the plane’s autopilot knows what to do. Pilots also regularly check all of the equipment during a flight, to make sure everything works as it should and to determine if the measurements performed by the plane’s instruments reflect reality.
Maintaining a routine
Pilots are always ready to take back the controls and fly the plane manually if necessary. Certain conditions, such as strong wind from multiple sides, can also be too much for the autopilot to handle. Last but not least, pilots regularly fly manually so they don’t lose their touch and to help maintain a routine.