“Helping people to overcome their fear of flying is not a question of dumbing down complex issues but of explaining them effectively.” 

Do you worry about how safe the plane is? Do you worry about things like automatic pilots? You’ll be pleased to know that modern automatic pilots can fly a plane more accurately and more consistently than any human pilot can. But autopilots can’t think, so there’ll always be a pilot on your plane for the foreseeable future.

Even on a bright sunny day, fearful flyers imagine that a plane is balanced on a knife edge when it’s flying. In bad weather, they are ready to go into panic mode about the extra dangers they imagine. Even worse …imagine such a situation and then leaving it all to a computer! But the fact is is that flying is straightforward, it requires skills, special skills but no more than any other job. Before I explain what autopilots do I need to explain what the real pilots do.

Human Pilots

Unfortunately Hollywood has done pilots no favors by suggesting that we’re all like the fighter pilot in films like Top Gun. They portray pilots as steely-eyed superheroes whereas pilots are just people who fly planes. Sure some pilots are different from others but then so are train drivers or accountants.

If you accept that pilots are normal people, it must follow that flying planes has got to be normal too. It’s a fact that anyone with a degree of common sense and able to complete the training could fly a passenger jet. It’s only because there are more people wanting to do the job than there are jobs available that makes the competition fierce and the selection standards so high. But that’s not the same as saying the job is difficult. Just in case you think that I’m saying that anyone could be an airline pilot, that’s not what I’m saying. The task of flying is relatively simple, the task of being a crew member and living the life of early starts, missing public holidays, missing the children’s concerts at school, all go towards the self-selection that pilots go through. A pilot’s life wouldn’t suit everyone.

It would be immensely difficult for me to be an accountant or heart surgeon, I’m sure I could do it technically but it’s not my cup of tea as we say here in England. So all in all the thought that flying is hard has to be replaced with the fact that it’s just a job like lots of others. It has perhaps more glamour than office work … but it’s still an airborne office. So if it’s an ordinary job for a human being, you don’t need a particularly sophisticated bit of robotics to fly a plane either.

A pilot undergoes rigorous and extensive training taking someone with no aviation skills to a qualified co-pilot in a little under two years. Pilots learn basic handling skills and then go on to qualify for different aspects of flying like, in cloud or at night, with more than one engine, different sizes and so on. They progress from flying alone to being an integrated member of a crew where every action is part of a procedure. By contrast, an automatic pilot doesn’t have to think. You program it to follow a route and it will program it to land and it will. But you have to tell it where and on which runway. So a combination of a thinking human pilot and obedience of an automatic one the aircraft is in the best hands possible.

Automatic Pilots

I don’t know if you’ve been to a car factory … it really is the most enlightening experience. If you’ve ever taken something out of a car and tried to replace it … like the door lining to get at the window winding motor or something even trickier like removing the bits under the dashboard, then you’ll know how much harder it is to replace them when you’ve finished. But go to the factory and you’ll see a robotic arm pick up the, say dashboard, move it sideways to get it through the door opening, then twist it another way, then move forward a bit, ease it this way, then that way, twist, push, slide up a bit, down a bit and clunk, it slots into position. I don’t know what sort of tolerances this device works to, but it’s got to be a millimetre or two.

So there are bits of machinery that can be programmed to exactly what is needed time after time after time. And of course, they have to have limits set on them so that if it goes wrong it just stops. In the car factory, you don’t want it to go smashing into the side of the car in an attempt to do something rather than nothing.

By comparison, how many more safety devices do you think there are on an autopilot compared to a robot in a car factory? Well, you can be sure that there are lots more. And on each plane, there will be at least 2 or 3 autopilots connected at the same time to ensure that if they’re being used for something where it’s got to be perfect, like on landing.

Recently but not for the first time I was asked about when we used the autopilot, was it at night or when we couldn’t see and maybe if the landing was a difficult one? The answer is that we use it most of the time…it’s part of the plane it’s part of the crew it’s what we do. 

Best wishes,

Captain Keith

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