We Finally Know How Autopilot Works on an Airplane

The process isn’t as carefree as you might think.

The cockpit on a plane has always been a mystery. The pilot often comes out at the end of the flight to thank passengers for flying with that airline, but other than that, you don’t see him. The doors are closed when you’re in the air, and no one really knows what he does to fly you from point A to point B. Here are more secrets your airplane pilot won’t tell you.

One of the many airplane facts you’ve always been curious about is probably how autopilot actually works. The answer probably isn’t what you’re thinking. A robot doesn’t sit in the pilot’s seat and steer the plane. In reality, it’s just a bunch of buttons. But don’t be alarmed; the pilot doesn’t just hit a couple buttons, kick back, watch a couple episodes of Jeopardy, and enjoy a sandwich.

Essentially, autopilot is a very smart and powerful computer that works similarly to a GPS. It can assist the pilot in flying the plane from departure to the touchdown at its final destination. There are a few different features that autopilot has. Some planes have all of these features, while others only have a few.

Heading Hold: This will set the desired direction or heading that the pilot wants the plane to take. However, this doesn’t take into account changes due to wind or the desired route; the pilot has to correct that himself. These hidden features on every airplane can make any flight a lot more comfortable.

Heading and Navigation: This setting will hold a direction as well as navigation. It’s similar to an automated car in that it follows the navigator’s input. The pilot continues to monitor as the plane flies.

Altitude Hold: In addition to everything above, this feature allows the pilot to set a desired altitude that the aircraft will fly. Some planes have a fancier altitude hold that lets the pilot set a desired climb or descend rate that will make the aircraft automatically climb or descend and then hold that altitude.

Instrument Approaches: This type of autopilot will fly preprogrammed instrument approaches. The only time the pilot has to take over is to execute the landing.

Now you know why the pilot stays in the cockpit the entirety of the flight and doesn’t come out to greet everyone and make sure they are enjoying their ginger ales. A lot still goes into flying the plane, even when autopilot is on. If you were worried, you can breathe a sigh of relief. There’s always a human in control of the plane, but we have to give technology some credit. Now here’s what those 9 airplane noises actually mean.

Source: [Quora]

Morgan Cutolo
Morgan is the Assistant Digital Managing Editor at Reader’s Digest. She graduated from the University of New Hampshire in 2016 where she received her Bachelor of Arts in Journalism. When she’s not writing for rd.com or keeping the 650+ pieces of content our team produces every month organized, she likes watching HGTV, going on Target runs, and searching through Instagram to find new corgi accounts to follow.