Autopilot is not an automated replacement for an actual pilot. One of the most prevalent misconceptions about automated flight systems is that a pilot is not actually needed for today’s commercial flights. Every automated system relies on input from the flight crew. The pilot or co-pilot inputs parameters and commands into each system, not one master system. The pilot must enter route data, including start and stop points.
Automated flight systems are also primarily used in-flight. Most take-offs are performed manually by the pilot and/or co-pilot. The main exception is extreme weather conditions that cause unacceptably low visibility.
Automated flight control systems aren’t standard across the board. There are three different types that are available:
This option manages only one set of controls. Single-axis typically controls ailerons.
This option effects ailerons and elevators.
Controls all three core systems, ailerons, elevators, and rudder.
Although automated flight systems can be safer or more effective in many situations, this is not always the case. Any machine or system can breakdown or malfunction. When these types of situations occur, the results can be disastrous. Automated flight system problems played a role in a 2009 aircraft crash.
Flight 447 was scheduled to depart from Rio de Janeiro, Brazil and arrive at Paris, France June 1st, 2009. The aircraft was flown by a pilot and two co-pilots that were using automated flight control systems. Shortly before entering a turbulence area, the speed sensors on the plane started to ice. The automated system issue was clearly explained in Nicola Clarks’ New York Times article, “As the plane entered a zone of mild turbulence, the autopilot and autothrust suddenly disengaged — probably because of speed sensor icing.” Responding quickly when this happens is extremely difficult, especially if the pilot is unaware that they have just lost autopilot functionality.
Contrary to popular belief, severe storms are more likely to be managed by a pilot than the automated flight system. The pilot will use a hands-on approach during times of mid to severe turbulence. Industry insiders agree that an automated system can’t match the intuition and experience of real pilots. Reaction time is critical in this type of situation. Even though systems are filtering through information at speeds of a fraction of a second, reaction time may not match that of the pilot. Some experts attribute this to system information overload, the tendency towards minor versus major adjustments, or even inability to determine the best course of action.
Pilots have more going on in the cockpit than meets the eye. In addition to managing the flight of the aircraft, pilots are communicating with air traffic control, ensuring navigation, and managing many aircraft systems.