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How Much do Airline Pilots Actually Fly an Airliner by Hand?

ATP graduates fly for every airline in the United States and many airlines overseas. Chris Carey, who has written some very good articles for PilotJobs, is a graduate of ATP who has gone on to fly for United Airlines. Chris is also a mentor with AirlinePilot.Life, a free website where anybody can ask pilots questions about the industry, flight training, and other pilot related questions.

Hand Flying at the Airlines

As an airline pilot, I often find myself answering questions about flying and many times dispelling misconceptions. One of the questions that I am frequently asked is: “How much do you actually fly the airplane?” Some people think the whole task of flying is automated while others believe we are hand flying the airplane the entire time. The reality is it is a mixture of both, with a heavy emphasis on automation.

In small airplanes, such as the kind most pilots do their initial training in, the flying is all done by hand. Very few small airplanes have an autopilot. If they do they are very simplistic in nature and are meant more as a workload reducer than a full-blown autopilot. Even if you fly an airplane with an autopilot during your training, it is likely that you will almost never use it as it is your instructor’s job to teach you how to fly, not how to use an autopilot.

As you progress to larger and larger airplanes the amount of hand flying tends to decrease while the abilities of the autopilots increase. I flew the Embraer 145 for a few years when I worked for ExpressJet. The autopilot on the 145 could handle lateral movements like tracking courses or maintaining a heading, but it did not provide very good pitch (angle) information and had no autothrottle system at all. This meant that as a pilot I was very involved in controlling the pitch of the airplane and manipulating the throttles by hand to achieve the desired speed or climb rate.

On the 737 that I currently fly we have a two autopilot system that can control almost all aspects of the airplane’s movement and an autothrottle system that is able to fully control the speed of the airplane. The autopilot can be turned on at 1,000 feet above the ground on takeoff. On landing, if the second autopilot is engaged concurrently with the first one, the airplane can actually land itself and will remain in control of the airplane until all three sets of wheels are on the ground. The second autopilot is engaged with the first one to add a layer of redundancy to the autopilot. Yes, the airplane can land itself and apply its own brakes, but it cannot track the runway centerline while it completes the landing roll. This means that the pilot must take over as soon as all three wheels are on the ground and guide the airplane down the runway as the speed decreases.

The 757 and 767 that I previously flew have autopilot systems that are similar to the 737 except they actually have three autopilots. Typically, only one autopilot is engaged at a time, but for low visibility approaches all three are engaged concurrently. When in the three autopilot mode the 757/767 can land by itself and come to a full stop on the runway centerline. This is especially useful in very low visibility situations like fog or snow where the pilots will have some difficulties seeing the runway markings or lights.

So yes, more advanced airplanes can practically fly themselves, but this does not mean the pilots are simply sitting up front staring out the window. The autopilots have to be actively managed and monitored. At the end of the day, they are only as good as the information the pilots put into them. During cruise flight, the pilots are busy monitoring the en route and destination weather, keeping track of the fuel burn, coordinating any changes with their dispatcher, talking with air traffic control, and when over the ocean and not in radar contact making position reports. It would be very difficult to manage all of the above while actively hand flying the airplane. The autopilot frees us up to enable us to manage other aspects of the flight.

You may be asking yourself: “when do pilots actually hand fly the airplane?” We all take off by hand and most of us fly for a couple of minutes before turning on the autopilot. If there is a pressing reason to turn it on soon, such as needing to activate the radar to help avoid thunderstorms or in an emergency situation we will do it right away. If it is a nice, clear day I typically fly to about 5,000 feet before I turn on the automation. Some pilots will wait much longer. On approach to land most pilots will turn off the autopilot a few minutes before landing if the weather is good.

In the general course of a flight pilots do not spend much time hand flying the airplane, but we fly it when it matters and for the parts that are more challenging, such as takeoff and landing. For those who love to hand fly, the opportunities are there. Recently, the FAA and the airlines have been encouraging more hand flying as a way to keep pilot’s skills sharp. No matter how complex airplanes become there will likely always be pilots at the controls.

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