This is one of the most common questions any commercial airline pilot receives from both passengers and friends — do you manually land the aircraft?
The answer is a resounding yes. Pilots typically always manually land an aircraft when possible.
However, I can see why it is a popular question. After all, we hear a huge amount about modern technology in aircraft replacing pilots, and plenty of articles reference aircraft ability to automatically land themselves. So if the technology is there, why don’t pilots use it?
This article will look at how often pilots land aircraft manually, and the downsides to using the auto-land capabilities fitted to most commercial aircraft.
How often do pilots land manually?
You may be surprised to learn that whenever possible, pilots typically always land airplanes manually, even though the technology exists to do it automatically.
What do we mean by “whenever possible”? Well, typically this means whenever the pilot’s visibility is good enough for them to look out of the window and manually land the aircraft safely.
Airfields have exceptionally bright lights to help guide pilots to the runway, so visibility limits are lower than you would think. While a runway may be 4 km long, a pilot can only need to see a small portion of the runway to be able to land safely.
In aviation terms, we call this CAT 1 operating minima, and it roughly translates to being able to see around half a kilometre in front of you.
Airfields can become obscured by low cloud, fog, or even smog and this obviously poses a huge challenge to landing an aircraft manually. These conditions — low visibility and light winds — are what autoland is designed for. They enable pilots to land an autoland equipped aircraft when previously they would have had to divert.
Why do pilots not use autoland?
If the technology exists, why not use it? There are several downsides to performing automatic landings, and these are the 4 main reason why pilots typically manually land the aircraft.
It causes considerable delays
Before pilots are legally allowed to perform an automatic landing, there are numerous procedures that the airfield they are landing at needs to put in place. For a plane to safely automatically land, it has to accurately follow a radio beam projected out from the landing runway into the sky.
Known as low visibility procedures, this ruleset is all about protecting this landing signal, to ensure that there is no interference between the aircraft and the runway. Any minor deviations or interference could have severe consequences.
There are many parts to implementing low visibility procedures, from turning on additional lighting to keeping vehicles further back from the runway, but the main issue is that landing aircraft are required to be spaced significantly further apart.
At busy international airfields, this additional spacing can lead to enormous delays as it reduce the number of planes that can land per hour by over 50%. Additionally, pilots are required to perform additional checks when landing manually, which can take more time but also ensures that the plane is landing safely.
Not all airfields are capable
An automatic landing system is not solely based in the aircraft. The complex system requires ground-based equipment for each individual runway, alongside a capable aircraft.
Ground-based equipment is both expensive to install and maintain, and needs frequent calibration checks to ensure that it is functioning correctly and remains within tolerances. Additionally, it is rarely used.
For these reasons, the majority of runways at many smaller airfields — and even some large international airfields — do not have instrument landing systems capable of automatic landings in bad visibility.
It’s too windy
While the autopilot is capable of handling small deviations and putting in corrective inputs to the flight control system, it has a limited amount of control, and isn’t great at controlling the aircraft in bad weather.
Furthermore, unlike experienced pilots, the autopilot system is solely reactive:
- Due to changing winds, the aircraft will deviate from the runway
- After it is a certain distance off track, the autopilot will detect this
- It will work out the control input required to bring the aircraft back on course
- Finally, it will begin to move the controls
In contrast, in windy conditions, pilots will use their intuition to anticipate gusts of wind and be proactive with their control inputs.
Coupled with the slower reaction times, and its inability to be proactive, using an autopilot for landing has much stricter wind limitations placed upon it.
As a result, when the weather is bad the wind will often be out of autoland limits, and pilots will not legally be allowed to use the autopilot to land the plane even if they wanted to!
Pilots are better at landing!
Let’s be real, the real reason pilots love to land planes manually is that it’s just plain fun. However, not only is it a chance to showcase our skills and expertise, typically, pilots are able to produce better results than the autopilot. (Plus, there’s nothing quite like the feeling of smoothly touching down on the runway after a long flight!)
Why is this? Well, when the conditions allow, pilots will take advantage of the nice weather and aim for a smooth touchdown. In contrast, the autopilot is designed solely to produce repeatable, safe landings, up to its weather limitations.
It turns out, safe, and smooth are two very different things! In defence of the robots, occasionally the autopilot will produce a smooth landing. But, typically, most passengers will notice the difference and wonder why the plane landed with such a thud!
In short, pilots typically always land planes manually. If you’ve taken a flight recently, there is more than a 99% chance the pilots were at the controls rather than the autopilot. The autopilot system is a great system for use in the cruise — it helps pilots manage their workload and is used on every flight. But the full autoland capabilities of this system are rarely used.
There are several reasons pilots typically don’t use autoland, but primarily it is because to use the automatic landing system requires activating additional procedures at the airport and leaving more space between aircraft.
These additional procedures severely reduce the number of planes an hour that can land. And at busy international airports, when pilots need to autoland due to bad visibility, giant delays build up and many flights have to be cancelled.
In addition, currently, pilots have the edge over technology. Pilots typically produce smoother landings, and are capable of landing in worse weather conditions.
Finally, landing using the autoland system, requires additional expensive ground equipment fitted to each runway — a cost many airports choose not to pay.