Technically, airplanes can fly themselves by using their autopilot systems.
Autopilot is most often used while a plane is in the air, with pilots normally taking off and landing planes manually.
Autopilot systems are useful because they reduce the burden of managing a plane for the flight crew.
But, autopilot systems don’t mean that pilots can fully relax.
In fact, pilots are required to remain fully attentive when the autopilot is on.
This requirement is to ensure that a flight is operating normally.
Table of Contents
- 1 Do Planes Fly Themselves?
- 2 Autopilot is Extensively Used
- 3 How Autopilot Works
- 4 Plane Type and Autopilot Systems
- 5 What Pilots Do When Autopilot is Flying the Plane
- 6 Planes May Soon Be Able to Fly Without Pilots
Do Planes Fly Themselves?
The plane’s autopilot system can only turn on after the plane is at least 400-1,000 feet in the air.
So, the pilot completely controls the plane during takeoff.
Pilots are only able to engage autopilot after reaching an altitude of 1,000 feet, when the plane reaches cruising speed.
During cruising, pilots engage autopilot after reaching an altitude of 28,000-29,000 feet to meet Reduced Vertical Separation Minima (RVSM).
At this altitude, planes are able to safely fly with over 1,000 feet of vertical spacing between them.
Related: How High Do Planes Fly?
Commercial planes can land themselves using autopilot systems.
Pilots can have the autopilot land the plane itself while only monitoring the aircraft’s systems.
But, fewer than 1% of all commercial flight landings are made using autopilot because most pilots report that manually landing planes is easier.
Autopilot is Extensively Used
Autopilot is used for 90% of a typical commercial flight.
For simplicity, we can divide a commercial flight into 3 phases: takeoff, cruising, and landing.
Pilots don’t use autopilots during takeoff, since they’re required to make split-second decisions if there is an emergency or obstructions on the runway.
Autopilot is often engaged when cruising above 29,000 feet.
While autopilot can be engaged during landing, most pilots prefer not to use it.
So, autopilot is activated mostly during cruising and is not used during takeoffs or landings.
How Autopilot Works
A pilot inputs what action they want from the autopilot, such as heading in a specific direction, into the autopilot system.
A plane’s autopilot system works by sensing signals to the flight control system.
For example, if the pilot wants to head to a specific direction, they will enter the navigational directions.
The most sophisticated autopilot systems even have automatic navigational courses, where a pilot programs a GPS to maintain a particular course.
The system would then make the necessary turns to reach the destination.
Related: How Do Airplanes Stay in the Air?
Plane Type and Autopilot Systems
Different types of planes have different autopilot systems.
Small planes can have autopilot systems that range from simple wing levelers to GPS-integrated systems.
Most small planes have comparatively simple autopilot systems when compared with commercial planes.
Virtually all private jets have sophisticated autopilot systems.
For instance, the Dassault Falcon 900LX has the advanced Automatic Flight Control System (AFCS) which manages altitude, pitch, thrust, and yaw controls.
Autopilot is a mandatory feature in commercial airliners, with all airliners legally required to have autopilot systems
The autopilot system alleviates the workload for the flight crew and pilots.
Virtually all military planes also have autopilot systems.
Some large military aircraft like the Lockheed C-5 and Boeing KC-135 Stratotanker have some of the most advanced autopilots that rival civilian planes.
Fighter jets like the F-16 and F-15 also have autopilot systems that reduce the workload for pilots.
The autopilots of fighter pilots also have auto-landing and auto-throttle abilities for naval carrier landings.
What Pilots Do When Autopilot is Flying the Plane
Pilots are required to remain at the control systems and monitor the aircraft’s navigation at all times, including when autopilot is engaged.
Pilots are not allowed to relax or perform recreational activities when they are on-duty – so pilots are unable to rest when the autopilot is on.
Pilots remain on duty when the autopilot is on to take control of the control systems in case there are any issues.
Planes May Soon Be Able to Fly Without Pilots
In the future, planes will potentially be able to fly themselves without pilots.
Engineers speculate that advanced AI autopilot systems may completely replace pilots in the future.
Currently, engineers prioritize designing planes that can be flown by a single pilot, so pilotless planes are not a priority.
Yet, it might become possible for engineers to develop completely pilotless airplanes in the distant future.
Planes can fly themselves with autopilot while cruising and landing, but they’re most often used during cruising.
Pilots don’t use the autopilot system during takeoff for safety and security reasons, and they prefer landing manually, which is why most don’t use the system for landing, either.
Instead, autopilot is mostly used during cruising.
Autopilot systems work by pilots inputting navigational data that the plane then follows, and the most advanced autopilot systems can even chart courses on a GPA.
Pilots stay fully awake and at work during autopilot to make sure the systems are operating optimally.
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.