I am sure you have heard that aeroplanes have an automated system, called autopilot. This is a system that can take control and fly an aircraft. Autopilot is beneficial for reducing the workload from pilots. This technology is commonly used on almost every commercial flight. But can a plane land itself using this autopilot system? Do planes land without the help of pilots?
The answer to that question is yes! When configured, aircraft are capable of landing on a runway on its own. All of this varies with the type of plane, pilots qualifications and available airport equipment.
This phase of flight is when an aircraft is about to land. This is about 15 minutes before landing. One of the most known and accurate approaches that can be used is the Instrument Landing System (ILS). This approach provides lateral and vertical guidance for the aircraft, guiding it towards the runway. Here is what is needed in order to conduct an ILS approach.
- Pilot – Instrument Rated License
- Airport – Glideslope and localizer equipment
- Aircraft – Properly certified instruments
For a normal CAT I ILS approach, the pilot disconnects the autopilot before landing. Pilots must be able to find the runway and disconnect the autopilot before a certain altitude. If the pilots can not find the runway before their decision height, then they must go around and either, try landing again or fly to their alternate airport. Visibility and cloud ceilings are what mainly factors in whether the pilot can or can not find the runway.
So for a CAT I ILS approach, the plane does not land itself. However, they are different types of ILS CAT approaches, which can allow the aircraft to continue the approach to a lower decision height and ultimately, allowing the autopilot to land the aircraft!
CAT III and CAT II approach can be used by airliners. These approaches allow for an aircraft to descend to a lower altitude for pilots to find the airport. Even better, with CAT III ILS approaches, the aircraft can be configured by the pilot to perform a full autoland.
After the aircraft is set up for the approach, the aircraft can conduct the approach, align itself with the runway and land properly! For this to be used, more equipment and training is needed.
- Pilot – Instrument Rated Licenses + additional training
- Airport – Glideslope and localizer equipment + additional systems
- Aircraft – Properly certified instruments + Radar altimeter
Very recently, Garmin avionics created a brilliant system, called Emergency Autoland. Imagine, as a passenger, your pilot fell ill and was unable to fly the plane. After you press a button, the aircraft will take controls, find an airport nearby and land on the runway! The aircraft will talk back to the passengers, letting them know the time till landing, deploy its landing gear and even send messages to air traffic controller.
This technology is only available in a handful of aircraft. The planes that have this feature are single-engine aircraft, so do not expect your airliner to do this.
- Pilot – The plane does all the work
- Airport – As long as a suitable approach is available
- Aircraft – Only available on two general aviation aircraft right now
Check out the video below to see how the system works!
Why Need Pilots?
So, you now know, some aircraft are capable of landing at an airport on its own. Does that mean pilots do not do anything while flying? NO! Pilots not only monitor approaches and landings, but have to prepare, set up, and monitor the approach to ensure everything will work as it should. Also, as long as pilots can see the runway, it is common for them to disconnect the autopilot and fly the plane.
The emergency autoland is ONLY for emergencies. A pilot that has an aircraft with this system would probably never use the feature. All of these automated systems are not there to “take over” pilot’s jobs but to ensure everyone on board is safe. In aviation, safety is the #1 priority and these systems help do just that.