Pilots & Aircraft

Can A Plane Land Itself – Autopilot & Autoland

787 plane landing

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.

Approach

plane landing at airport

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!

Autoland

jumbo jet landing on runway

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

Emergency Autoland

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?

aircraft landing on runway

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.

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12 thoughts on “Can A Plane Land Itself – Autopilot & Autoland

  1. A really interesting read. I honestly didn’t know that planes had the ability to land themselves. However I am glad that they will not be taking the pilots Jobs

  2. Hi this is a very interesting topic. I have to say I wonder how panic might ensure in the passenger cabin if a robotic electronic voice were to come over the intercom “This is your autopilot speaking … the pilot appears to be unconscious . . .etc” I also wonder how an automatic system would handle blustering cross winds. I am sure many of us have had the experience of being in a plane and witnessing the pilot struggling with gusting crosswinds. Maybe an automated system would handle it better. But isn’t there a long-term risk, that if pilots get used to autoland systems, they would lose practice in actually landing a plane.
    Thanks
    Andy

    1. I am sure passengers will have some fear if their pilot is unable to fly. It is up to the pilot to brief the passengers about the system and that it will bring them down safely. Pilots today only use the autoland if visibility is very poor and they can not see the runway. Some airline companies encourage hand flying and landing to keep pilots proficient.

      Thank you for leaving your comment!

  3. This is interesting. I’m an aspiring pilot myself, but more recreational than commercial. However, I guess an obvious question from here would be; “Is there a shelf life for pilots going forward?”.
    It seems likely that we’re going to end up in a future with un-manned commercial airliners, or maybe remote controlled like drones? Although, whether the public would ever be comfortable with getting on board an un-manned plane is another consideration…
    Where do you see this going in the future? It’s very though provoking!
    Cheers, Gazza.

    1. This is a very interesting topic to talk about! I think that pilots will remain relevant for a good while. Today’s passengers will not accept that their flight does not have a pilot on board. Also, although automation has become very advance recently, it would take A LOT more test to ensure that un-manned commercial airliners are safe.

      Military pilots are more “at-risk” than airline pilots if you ask me. A lot more military drones are being utilized for missions today.

  4. Wow! What an interesting and informative read. Having been in aerospace for over 30 years (mainly manufacturing), it’s interesting to read articles that cover other aspects of an aircraft. The layout of your article is excellent and makes for easy reading, and the insertion of the video is great, giving that little bit more insight.

    Keep the articles coming, will be following you.

    Steve

  5. An AutoPilot system is great as a backup, but the whole idea of a plane entirely flying itself from one country to another is really unnerving – sounds like something one of the villians in a James Bond film would be trying to create to take over the world.

  6. Lol, it does. But pilots can take over anytime as they wish. They are trained to fly the aircraft without it. They mostly use it during the cruise phase of flight.

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