The invisible helper


Flight instructor Cord Becker, a former Lufthansa pilot with some 20,000 flight hours under his belt, writes about aviation topics. This time he talks about the autopilot

Security concerns no longer permit it, but in the old days, passengers sometimes paid a visit to the cockpit. And someone invariably said, “Aha, the autopilot’s on now, right?” If we switched it off, visitors started looking uneasy. Did they really have more faith in an automatic pilot than in us? To explain: No scheduled flight can take off on with the autopilot activated and 99 percent of all landings are handled manually – so that the pilots always have their hand in in case of emergency.


Very important: Pressing the red buttons on the sidesticks to the left of the captain and the right of the copilot will immediately deactivate the autopilot function

© Deutsche Lufthansa AG

 The autopilot may not be used in particularly difficult situations, like extreme winds; and cannot be used if a technical problem prevents it. At such moments, only a pilot with his or her hand on the joystick can land the plane safely. There are lots of good things about the autopilot function, though. If pilots give it useful and correct orders, it helps them to fly safely and precisely – even more precisely than a human being can. In fact, the technology has come so far these days that pilot and autopilot together make a fantastic team. I’ve started hearing some drivers talk about “visual driving,” whatever that means, when referring to a car. I just hope they will always drive with full visibility and that no one ever gets the hare-brained idea of relying on instruments alone.

It’s different for pilots. Depending on the weather, they can choose between visual flight or instrument flight. Only very rarely is a pilot required to land solely on the strength of one or more autopilots. Some aircraft are equipped with two or three autopilots that can be operated simultaneously, a prerequisite for approach flights when visibility is very poor. The red button that switches off the autopilot is right on the sidestick because it is so very important to be able to deactivate it within a fraction of a second. You will never find a button that reads “Land at destination airport” in a cockpit, only in the movies. That’s because “operating” the autopilot is sometimes trickier than performing a perfectly normal manual landing. So who do you think takes full responsibility for your safety on board: the human being in the cockpit or the autopilot? You already know the answer, naturally. Happy landings!