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To Autopilot, or not to Autopilot? That is the Question


To Autopilot, or not to Autopilot? That is the Question:

Autopilot is as plain as the name suggests – the autopilot flies the aircraft without the human pilots steering it “hands-on.” The autopilot system depends on a sequence of sensors in and around the aircraft that gather information such as speed, altitude, and turbulence. That data is processed by the computer, which then makes the required alterations. Principally, it can do just about everything a human pilot can do.

Before departure, the pilot will need to enter the flight path and destination into the computer, giving it a clear departure and landing position and how to get there. During that route there are points that the computer will consider, each point having its own flight speed and altitude.

The autopilot does not, however, steer the airplane on the ground. Generally, the pilot will control the take-off and then activate the autopilot to take over for the majority of the flight. In some of the newer aircraft models, the autopilot systems can even land the plane.

Aviation standards vary between countries, but in most cases, a minimum of two crew members are required to remain in the cockpit all the time. From an operators’ perspective, the pilot or the co-pilot must stay at the controls’ station to monitor the computer to ensure that everything is running smoothly. Sometimes, the autopilot can disengage itself when it comes to moments of extreme turbulence, for example, where the pilot will be notified to take over control of the plane again. But the standard procedure for several airlines is the use of automation for the most part of the flight.

The general guidance given to pilots is to allow the computer to do it as it generally does a better job than a person. Consider how challenging it becomes for a person to maintain concentration for extended periods of time while flying hands-on. Still, that guidance shouldn’t be underestimated. A pilot must still be aware of exactly what the autopilot system is or isn’t doing. For example the Asiana Airlines Flight 214 that crashed while landing at the San Francisco International Airport back in 2013, in what was called an autopilot issue. Both the pilot and co-pilot assumed that the autopilot was malfunctioning, on the safe yet highly automated Boeing 777.

Automation is a great technology, however, if there is a miscalculation between the crew and the automation system, it can be quite dangerous. So, an autopilot is a lot like a car’s cruise control system. It can take control when you need it to, yet you still have to be cognisant of what the car is doing and where it’s going.


Century Avionics stocks various types of autopilot systems. Located in Lanseria International Airport, Century Avionics provides professional advice on autopilots and other aviation equipment. In addition, Century Avionics is at the height of cutting edge aviation technology and are well-informed on what is happening within the industry, both locally and internationally.

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