Most modern planes have an autoland system that enables a plane to land automatically.

But, most pilots prefer to manually land a plane because they are more comfortable with having more control over a plane during such an important part of a flight.

Most pilots also only use autoland when there’s low to zero outside visibility. And pilots are also legally restricted on how often and when they can use autoland.

Autoland works by using ILS systems to chart a landing path and land the plane.

Most pilots engage the autopilot soon after take off. Then, they use autopilot for cruising, and manually switch it off to land. 

Can Autopilot Land a Plane?

Autopilot can land a plane, though usually only in newer aircraft models. 

As a sidenote, helicopters also have autopilot, though it isn’t as commonly found in helicopters as it is in airplanes.

Small Planes

Garmin Aviation has developed an autoland feature for small aircraft, which they tested on the Cessna 400 Piper M600, among other small planes.

But, most small planes don’t have autoland features. 

Private Jets

Most small private jets don’t have autoland features, but they’re becoming more popular.

For example, Circus’s jet Vision SF50 can autoland successfully.

Larger private jets are more likely to have an autoland system. 

Commercial Airliners

Commercial airline pilots can program a plane to land automatically, though it is rarely used unless in extremely limited visibility conditions.

Military Planes

Most fighter jets cannot autoland because of their operational requirements.

But US Navy-based carrier planes have autoland, such as the F-18 that has an Automated Carrier Landing System (ACLS). 

Pilots Rarely Use Autoland

Pilots mostly depend on auto-landing during bad weather conditions, such as during low to zero visibility.

Most pilots only need autoland when there’s low to zero visibility because manually landing in such conditions is dangerous.

It’s Easier to Land Manually Than Using Autoland

Autoland is more stressful and labor-intensive for pilots compared with manual landings.

Most pilots also state that autoland landings are less comfortable than manual landings.

Aviation regulations also prohibit pilots from excessive autolands because pilots must regularly practice landings to improve their skills. 

A pilot needs accurate ILS guidance to autoland a plane, but airports with ILS equipment can have degraded signals because of nearby radio traffic.

So, most pilots won’t have the chance to frequently use autoland. 

How Autoland Works

Commercial Boeing and Airbus planes have autoland features included in their autopilot systems.

  • To use autoland, the pilot will input relevant flight data through the flight management system.
  • The autoland uses this data and multiple systems, including the ILS system, to establish the correct landing path. 
  • Autoland uses the radio altimeter to estimate the plane’s height.
  • The plane’s auto thrust will also maintain the plane’s correct speed.
  • Once the autoland system determines the plane has reached the right altitude, the autoland system initiates the flare by pitching up and reducing thrust. 

Pilots closely supervise the autoland process and will override the autoland process if the system experiences problems.

The autoland normally uses multiple, usually three, autopilot systems for safety. 

Autoland Was Invented in 1937

The US Army Air Corp completed the world’s first autoland in 1937, but commercial auto landings weren’t used until the 1960s.

At this time, British European Airways, a predecessor of modern British Airways, completed auto landings with their Hawker Siddeley HS-121 Trident short passenger plane. 

Autopilot Doesn’t Help When Taking Off

Most autopilot systems cannot help with takeoffs.

Autopilot cannot steer airplanes on the ground or taxi. Instead, pilots normally handle takeoffs and initiate autopilot for the remainder of the flight until it’s time to land.

While some planes have autoland features, no commercial planes have auto-take-off. 

A Plane Practically Flies Itself

On average, for 90% of a commercial flight, autopilot is engaged.

Pilots can engage autopilot as early as 5 seconds after lift-off or once the plane reaches above 100 feet in altitude, though the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) requires pilots to engage in autopilot at an above mean level height of 29,000 feet.

In conclusion:

  • Many modern commercial planes can perform autolands.
  • Most pilots rarely perform autolands for multiple reasons.
  • Firstly, autopilot landings are generally less comfortable than manual ones.
  • Secondly, pilots are required to improve their flying skills by consistently landing the plane themselves.
  • International regulatory authorities also place limits on how frequently pilots can autoland the plane.
  • For these reasons, most pilots only autoland during bad weather conditions when there’s limited to no outside visibility.
  • Although pilots can autoland planes, they can’t ‘auto takeoff’ them.
  • A plane’s autopilot can only fly the plane while cruising, and some modern planes’ autopilot can land the plane.
  • Most pilots engage the autopilot immediately after the plane takes off.

Helen Krasner holds a PPL(A), with 15 years experience flying fixed-wing aircraft; a PPL(H), with 13 years experience flying helicopters; and a CPL(H), Helicopter Instructor Rating, with 12 years working as a helicopter instructor.

Helen is an accomplished aviation writer with 12 years of experience, having authored several books and published numerous articles while also serving as the Editor of the BWPA (British Women Pilots Association) newsletter, with her excellent work having been recognized with her nomination of the “Aviation Journalist of the Year” award.

Helen has won the “Dawn to Dusk” International Flying Competition, along with the best all-female competitors, three times with her copilot.