February 11, 2015

From the Flight Deck: What is ‘autopilot’?

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From-the-Flight-Deck-blogFrom the Flight Deck features insights from the core of our private jet aviation family – our pilots! This edition, take flight with Ari Sarmento, Jet Linx System Chief Pilot.

What is “autopilot”?

I prefer the term “automated flight system” instead of “autopilot” because we’re actually talking about a collection of subsystems that help control various aspects of a flight: heading, altitude, course, speed, engine power, etc. Different components are used at different times, and can be used together or separately. There is a particular system called “autopilot” which actually frees the pilot from having his or her hands physically on the controls. However, this does not mean the airplane is in control of the flight!

One of the most stubborn aviation myths is that when using autopilot, a pilot sits back while the plane flies itself from City A to City B. A plane cannot fly itself any more than an operating room, with all of its advanced technical equipment, can perform an organ transplant without direction and input from medical staff. Yes, the equipment makes things easier, but the operation itself is controlled by well-trained personnel. Autopilot allows for pilot-directed flight though automation.

There are times when a “hands on” approach is preferable to use of automated systems. More than 99 percent of landings are performed manually. There is such a thing as an “autoland,” where the crew establishes an auto approach and – to put it coarsely – the airplane will land “hands off.” This procedure is only performed in extreme low-visibility conditions, and the airplane, pilot, and airport must be certified.

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