Once upon a time, pilots flew everywhere manually. Known as hand flying, these steely aviators would keep one eye on the gauges, one hand on the thrust levers and one on the yolk. This could go on for hours on end, with pilots quite literally sleeping with one eye open!
The good old days. Then, somebody invented the autopilot, and planes flew themselves. Right?
If only it were that simple! The truth is, that while the autopilot is a great tool for reducing pilot workload, the modern commercial pilot has a huge number of additional tasks that they are now completing.
Most articles covering what pilots do in the cruise — or when the autopilot is on — usually focus on the same old tired topics: Checking fuel, monitoring the instruments, avoiding weather. Those topics are of course true, but they are already well-covered, and airline pilots must do these tasks regardless of the autopilot status.
There’s a whole host of additional things pilots get up to when the autopilot is in, that don’t seem to get mentioned often. So, if you want an up-to-date, 2022 perspective of what a commercial airline pilots are likely to be doing in the cruise, this is the article for you!
Here are 5 surprising things you might not realise the pilots are doing whilst the autopilot is on.
Looking at an entirely different flight!
With the number of flights increasing, it’s no surprise to see that pilots are working more and more efficiently, typically flying several sectors in one day. As a result, while the autopilot is on, pilots will frequently be looking at a completely different flight to the one they are currently operating.
While en route to one airfield, pilots will use this time to brief themselves on the next airfield they are visiting later on in the day. Once briefed, they’ll also review the aircraft they’ll be operating later, and order fuel — all from the cruise — so that everything is ready to go when they arrive later in the day!
Here’s how it works:
- The short haul pilot flying passengers across the country on the first flight in the morning is likely to be flying back immediately after. Then, doing another two, or even four more sectors.
- Most short haul pilots now fly between 3 – 4 sectors a day, and some turboprop pilots can fly up to 8 short flights per day!
- When the autopilot is on, pilots will then use extra capacity they now have to look at the weather for their next flight — sometimes hundreds of miles away from their current destination.
- Airlines expect their pilots to also read through the next airfields notices, and look at the flight plan.
- This is so that when they land later on, they can immediately set up the plane for the next flight: all the weight and baggage, and fuel required are already calculated, and they can leave as soon as the passengers switch over.
Implementing COVID-19 rules and procedures
If you had asked what pilots do when the autopilot is on in 2019, this definitely wouldn’t feature. However, following the global Covid-19 pandemic, many more tasks were added to the ever-increasing — what do pilots do in the cruise anyway, list!
Virtually all airlines have implemented new Covid-19 procedures to mitigate risks and continue to make flying as safe as possible. As a result, when the autopilot is in, pilots now find themselves with a new set of checklists. Depending on the airline and flight route, these can include:
- Sending operations messages to the airline to confirm that nobody has any Covid-19 symptoms after the doors have closed, and cabin crew have made mandatory announcements.
- Signing — or in some cases, hand-delivering — Captain warning letters to passengers who are refusing to wear masks, or breaking Covid-19 rules onboard
- Contacting international health authorities before landing to pass on the vaccination and Covid-19 status of the aircraft crew and passengers
- Filling out vaccination paperwork to be handed to authorities upon landing — pilots and crew are not exempt from the many isolation and quarantine rules.
Navigating the busiest airspace in the world
Despite major setbacks, in the long term, the aviation industry continues to grow relentlessly. Here’s how traffic grew from the mid-1950s to 2012.
Covid-19 will obviously prove a massive setback, however by 2024 this reduction in flying due to Covid-19 is also forecast to disappear, and a relentless increase continues.
Before advanced autopilots, pilots previously focused just on operating their aircraft. Airfield arrivals and departures remained relatively straightforward, and the airspace wasn’t jam-packed! This has all changed. Modern airline pilots and air traffic controllers now need to navigate complicated arrival and departure procedures very accurately — and make continuous minor adjustments to aircraft, to keep them separated from each other.
A huge amount of an airline pilot’s job when the autopilot on is spent monitoring nearby traffic and adjusting the aircraft rates of climb and descent:
- Modern traffic avoidance systems, known as TCAS, display all the nearby aircraft to the pilots.
- This shows other aircraft height relative to their aircraft, and rates of climb and descent.
- This TCAS system is useful for avoiding traffic, but it is also very sensitive to nearby aircraft in busy airspace.
- Airline pilots must fine tune how fast they are climbing and descending when in this busy airspace to avoid setting off aircraft traffic alarms.
Flying more efficiently
In 2022, there is a considerable focus on green operations within the airline industry. Pilots play their part in many areas of the operation: from their pre-flight fuel choices, single engine taxiing, and even how efficiently they fly the approach and landing.
Flying more efficiently doesn’t stop in the cruise. With new technology available, once the autopilot is on, pilots continue to help reduce the fuel bill in 3 key ways:
One of the first things airline pilots do when the autopilot is on in the cruise is request and upload the latest wind information for all the waypoints the aircraft is scheduled to fly along. Next, pilots will log into company-specific efficiency systems. Many airlines use these clever real-time monitoring systems — that combine the aeroplanes exact weight, with the actual conditions it is experiencing — to produce optimum cruising levels.
By providing the aircraft with the most accurate and up-to-date information, pilots climb or descend, and vary the aircraft cruising speed multiple times throughout the flight. This ensures the aircraft flies in the most efficient way, burning the minimum fuel required.
It’s not all fast-paced action. One of the most important things long haul pilots do when the autopilot is on is sleep! And there’s a reason why this has become increasingly critical.
Modern aircraft continue to be able to travel further and further, unlocking exciting possibilities for direct, ultra-long flights across the globe.
- The first flights from the United Kingdom to Australia — operated by British Airways in 1935 — use to take 12 and a half days.
- At first glance, that sounds like a long time, but the journey took a staggering 29 different changes!
- Pilots would fly these trips in short sectors at a time, taking rests as required, and one rotation to Australia and back could last for three months.
- With modern aircraft operated by Qantas and known as Project Sunrise, the same journey — from London to Australia — can be done in one 19 and a half hour flight.
- Considering journey times and pre-flight planning, pilots may have left their homes nearly 24 hours before they are due to land the aircraft.
To provide somewhere for the pilots to sleep, most new long haul aircraft are fitted with something called OFCR — overhead flight crew rest. It is located in a tiny compartment in the ceiling above the forward galley. This area usually has a seat, alongside two curtained off bunk beds.
So, not long after the autopilot is in, you’ll often find one of the pilots climbing the small steps to go to sleep!
Hopefully, this article has given you a fresh insight into what pilots are doing when the autopilot is on. At a first glance, you might assume that as automation increases, pilots end up with less and less to do. In reality, pilot workload isn’t really reducing, the job is just changing.
Pilots end up doing less hand-flying. However, commercial aviation now demands more accurate flying in busy airspace, more efficient routing, and a whole additional task of management procedures, from rest to Covid-19 protocols!
In addition, the autopilot can only do so much, so the pilots need to be ready to take over at any time. (And yes, if you’re wondering, pilots can fly with the autopilot broken!)
So, there you have it, the next time you’re on a plane and the autopilot is engaged, don’t worry, the pilots are still very much in control. However, some of them may be asleep!