Alex Appolonia: It’s not always a smooth and pleasant landing for airplanes. Intense strong winds can affect the position of how planes land on the runway, making it look like the plane is literally landing sideways. Here’s how planes land sideways in high winds. Landings like this actually have a name, crabbing. The name comes from the way crabs walk sideways across the beach. That’s kind of what the airplane looks like when it’s landing this way. Crabbing is usually needed because of high crosswinds.
Les: The wind can either be blowing straight down the runway or 90 degrees to the runway or somewhere in between. And usually it’s somewhere in between there.
Les: Landing in a crosswind situation requires a couple of different maneuvers. When we’re at altitude, the aircraft just flies in a crab, and we just go across, kinda sideways. Once we get down to the ground, we can’t land with the aircraft in a crab, because that’s gonna put a lot of stress on the outside of the landing gear, and could actually cause the landing gear to collapse if we put too much stress on it.
Alex Appolonia: Whenever there is a crosswind, there’s a lot of turbulence, so it’s not like the pilots are flying through a slight summer breeze. Of course the ultimate goal is for the aircraft to land straight, where the nose of the plane is in alignment with the stripe that’s down the runway. Those crosswinds sure make it challenging!
Les: There is an angle to that. You know, as a forced vector, so the direction and the intensity that it’s coming at will determine how much input we have to put into the aircraft’s flight controls.
Alex Appolonia: As the plane comes in, the pilots are actively controlling it, so that it’s in the perfect landing position. But, when a gust of wind comes at the wrong time, it will cause the pilot to execute a go-around instead of landing. If the crosswinds are severe enough, around 45 miles per hour or so, the pilot does not have enough control to straighten the airplane out and land. If this happens, the pilot will abandon the approach and divert the plane to another airport. These strong winds can prevent the planes from taking off at an airport. That’s sometimes where those flight delays come in, and we all love those!
So, exactly how do the aircrafts land in these conditions?
Les: So, at the last minute, we want to move the nose of the aircraft parallel with the runway, but soon as we do that, the aircraft’s gonna start blowing off to the side of the runway with the wind. So in order to counteract that, we’d lower the wing, the upwind wing, we lower the wing, and straighten the nose out, and a perfect crosswind landing will be when the upwind wheel touches down first, the aircraft is straight down the runway, and then the second wheel will come down after that.
Alex Appolonia: Finally, the plane is on the runway and heading to the terminal.
Les: Some of your best landings are actually made when it is in challenging conditions, ’cause you are on your A-game when you’re doing this. All right, and you’re completely engaged, and actively controlling the airplane so, actually some of our best landings are made when we are in these crosswind landing situations.
Narrator: So, if you’re ever on a plane that feels like it’s landing sideways, feel safe knowing the pilots have the situation totally under control.
EDITOR’S NOTE: This video was originally published in April 2019.
Ashley Garris: What makes our job very challenging is it’s a game of inches. It’s fighting for every little bit of space.
Narrator: Airplane interiors are a battleground among airlines. Who can make 15 hours straight in the air most comfortable, even if you’re stuck in economy? But comfort isn’t the easiest to come by flying in a metal tube 40,000 feet in the sky.
Alice Belcher: There are challenges because you’re in a very small space with a lot of people.
Narrator: We went on board Delta’s redesigned Boeing 777 with the people whose job it is to make flying suck a little less.
Delta announced the redesign of its entire 777 fleet back in 2018. And the airline finished updating the 18 planes in Singapore in early 2020. All four cabins underwent upgrades.
Belcher: When that 777 comes in, it has a very old interior, so they rip it all out and they install everything new. There is thousands of hours of engineering that has to be done to install all that equipment and develop the interface diagrams, develop the certification documentation.
Narrator: While Delta has announced it will retire the Boeing 777 fleet, its facelift can still give us a look into how designers maximize limited space on a plane.
This is Ashley. Ashley identifies what frustrates customers on board and comes up with possible solutions.
Garris: So, in product development, we have thought about every single inch of this aircraft, from the business-class cabin to the size of the closets to the size of the lavatories.
Narrator: Then engineers like Alice figure out how to bring those ideas to life from this fancy lab in Atlanta.
Belcher: What we’re trying to do is figure out, can we take that technologies, and is it ready to be on an airplane with 281 passengers at 30,000 feet flying 400 miles an hour? And then if it is, what we do is we wanna execute it as flawlessly as we possibly can.
Narrator: So, what changes did designers make? We’ll start with business class.
Garris: This whole seat has memory-foam cushioning in it. It’s designed to be like a mattress, basically. For us, it’s all about picking very careful, sustainable, nonflammable materials, but also making sure they’re comfortable as well. We also have all of our controls for the seat here.
What we really work on is also building spatial mock-ups to really determine that every passenger of all sizes is comfortable in this space here. And if not, then we’ll work to adjust. Can we adjust the console size to make it smaller or bigger and give more room here? Every suite also has a fully enclosed door. And if you’re in the center seats, then you also have a privacy divider between the two seats.
Every seat has a leg rest, footrest, got a remote control, got my nice 13.3-inch high-definition IFE screen.
Narrator: That in-flight-entertainment system is wireless, the first of its kind in the industry. It was developed in that fancy lab.
Belcher: This is our IFE lab. What we’ve done with wireless seat-back IFE, we eliminate the ethernet cable, and by eliminating all those cables that are running all over the airplane, we save about a pound per seat. That’s about 281 pounds per aircraft. Basically equates to 1,330 metric tons of carbon-emission savings per year.
Narrator: Alice partnered with the Georgia Tech Research Institute to create a software system in the IFE that could easily be updated with new technology.
Belcher: We can’t set a whole airplane fleet down every two years and redo it all, so we have to think very innovatively. It also has to last a long time. These displays on an A220, that thing flies eight to 12 hours a day, maybe more. It could possibly be on almost that whole time. We worry a lot about reliability as well.
Narrator: Back in Premium Select, beyond the TV, there’s also plugs and USB ports, and a couple other tricks to designing within this small space.
Garris: So, every seat also has a very large tray table. These seats are so far apart that to put a tray table here, I mean, you would really be reaching. So we put the tray table in the arm. The back of the seat’s also grooved out to still give you those extra inches there in your knee space.
This is Delta’s Comfort Plus cabin. We do want to create that open, airy cabin. Part of that also is just the way that the bins are designed, right? So, they’re still high enough up that you have lots of space and headroom. But they’re big enough to be functional, to hold all of our passengers’ bags they’re bringing on board.
All of our passengers usually really care about storage. Probably fits maybe six roller boards. But if I put six roller boards in here, I’m not gonna be able to close it.
Belcher: Delta came to us and said, “Hey, we have this problem. We spend a lot of money on back injuries to flight attendants. Can you guys think of some way to fix it?” And so we were given the challenge to say is there a easier, better way to be able to push up these bins? We partnered with a supplier in Germany to come up with this electromechanical device.
Garris: The bin lift assist will actually click on when this weight reaches 45 pounds, and it will make the close force like I’m closing a bin with only 35 pounds inside.
Narrator: Engineers also had to make the bins durable.
Garris: These bins are probably used, you know, 500 times a year by all our passengers, so that means, just, they take a beating. We have to really be careful about the materials that we put on board to make sure that they’re reliable and robust and not breaking.
This is really where we spend the most time. I think the hardest part of an economy seat is the inches. So, the industry standard on a 777 aircraft is actually to put 10 seats wide. Instead of squeezing in a tenth seat in each row, we maintain nine. Everyone hates getting that middle seat on a long-haul flight, so instead of having two middle seats here in the center, we only have one.
It’s also about giving passengers things to do at their seats while they’re on such a long flight. In the event that the passenger in front of me wants to sleep and they recline their seat, then my screen here tilts so that I can get a better viewing angle regardless of what the passenger in front of me is doing.
Narrator: But the design details extend beyond just the seats and into the whole plane. They added more space in front of the lavatories for people to line up.
Garris: Making sure the aisles are wide enough so that customers can easily get their bags up and down. Flight attendants can also easily push the carts up and down.
Narrator: They also tweaked the lighting system.
Garris: Our full-spectrum LED lighting has seven different lighting scenarios. So, for your meal setting, you’re gonna have a nice, warm orange-red color that is supposed to stimulate hunger. We also have a sunset setting, which is a couple minutes of transition, which actually replicates a sunset on board, and then it takes you to night mode.
As a designer, I’ve sat in these seats, I’ve flown all over the world. I wanna know what the experience is like, and I want to know the customer pain points, mainly because I’ve experienced them, but it’s also my job to try to ease those pain points.
Narrator: But making any changes to a fleet, big or small, takes years.
Garris: We haven’t even talked about certification yet. Every single seat that you sit in has been thoroughly tested to withstand an accident, if that were to ever happen. Every single piece on here is built with all of those certifications and testing before it ever goes on board.
Narrator: Ashley said the 777 redesign took 3 1/2 years.
Garris: And I would say at least 20 different teams at Delta all working together.
Belcher: We came and we tested it. We had some flight attendants come in and try it out. We did the certification and the installation and all the engineering so we could put it on the airplane, make sure it was safe, and flew it away.
EDITOR’S NOTE: This video was originally published in July 2020.
Boeing’s most notorious aircraft is having a great start to March with two milestones to kick off the month.
Alaska Airlines began passenger service with the Boeing 737 Max on Monday after a long-delayed start. Flight AS482 departed to San Diego from the airline’s hub in Seattle in the early morning hours of the day and arrived without issue before departing back for Seattle.
The first flight was the culmination of more than 19,000 miles and 50 hours of proving flights performed in the weeks since the aircraft’s delivery to Alaska. The airline’s sole Boeing 737 Max 9 was flown as far from Seattle as Charleston, South Carolina; Kailua-Kona, Hawaii; and Juneau, Alaska throughout February, FlightAware data shows.
Alaska is the fourth US airline to fly the Max and initially planned to start service during the summer of 2019 until the March 2019 grounding delayed those planes. The first Max delivery to Alaska only occurred in January, just two months following the Federal Aviation Administration’s ungrounding order that was quickly echoed by countless regulators around the world.
Alaska has only four daily departures are planned with the aircraft until March 18 when its second Max enters passenger service. Los Angeles and San Diego are currently the only cities receiving Max visits on flights from Seattle, according to Cirium data, and eventually from Portland, Oregon.
The aircraft will primarily stay on the West Coast until more aircraft are added but the proving flights reveal the airline likely has plans for East Coast and Hawaii Max flights. Alaska will be able to take the Max south of the border to Mexico, the airline’s largest international destination region, and Costa Rica as both countries have given the aircraft a green light to fly in their airspace.
United places more Max orders
United Airlines is also pressing forward with the Max on the heels of a successful relaunch. Andrew Nocella, the airline’s chief commercial officer, told staff in a memo that 25 new Boeing 737 Max aircraft were just ordered and deliveries of 45 previously ordered aircraft have been moved up.
“These new aircraft represent the best the industry has to offer in terms of customer amenities, experience and comfort,” Nocella said in the memo, which United shared with Insider. “In fact, flights on our MAX aircraft in 2018 and 2019 had the highest average customer satisfaction score of any large narrowbody aircraft.”
Textron Aviation is continuing the legacy of the iconic Beechcraft King Air family of aircraft and debuted its latest iteration in August. Starting at $7.9 million, the King Air 360 features advanced onboard systems aimed at easing the flying experience.
“The Beechcraft King Air 360 builds on decades of renowned versatility and reliability in the King Air family,” Ron Draper, Textron Aviation’s president and CEO, said, “and this upgrade further elevates it with the aircraft’s superior features and engineering advancements designed to create an enhanced flying experience for passengers and crew alike.”
Any frequent private aircraft flyer is sure to recognize the King Air as its been faithfully flying since the 1960s. Aircraft in the product line have been used by entities ranging from private airlines to national governments.
Levi Stockton is the president of Hawthorne, California-based Advanced Air, an aircraft management firm and private charter airline that operates 22 aircraft, including nine King Airs. He recently got a first-hand look at the King Air 360 during a recent visit to Textron Aviation’s Kansas factory.
Here’s why he’s excited about the Beechcraft King Air 360.
Stockton has been flying King Air’s since 2005. The King Air 350, the family’s largest passenger model, is also the flagship of his firm’s scheduled airline division.
“The King Air is really an amazing airplane that does what is advertised,” Stockton told Insider.
And from what he’s seen, the King Air 360 is no different. Textron Aviation’s latest turboprop has room for up to 11 passengers and a range of 1,806 nautical miles.
It can tackle the short hops like New York-Boston or Los Angeles-Las Vegas while also able to stretch its legs on longer routes like Chicago-Miami or Denver-Philadelphia, when conditions allow.
The true improvements are on the inside, however, including in the passenger cabin that can seat up to 11 passengers. Technically it’s same as its predecessor’s, but Stockton says that the cabin liners have been made thinner to give the cabin a more spacious feel.
The windows have manual shades instead of elaborate electronic shades or dimmers.
And the side tables have been elevated so passengers have more knee space. The improvements may seem basic but likely come as a result of customer feedback, Stockton said.
The Collins Aerospace Pro Line Fusion cockpit has one of the aircraft’s greatest improvements, the addition of an autothrottle system for pilots.
The system allows pilots to set a speed and the aircraft will automatically adjust the throttles to accommodate, reducing pilot workload and ensuring the plane is running at peak performance.
“You’re going to allow the airplane to always be right at the right performance numbers rather than trying to get the throttles just perfect,” Stockton said, adding that this can help prevent engine issues and keep maintenance costs down.
Cabin pressurization is also automated on the new aircraft, further reducing pilot workload. Aircraft cruising at 27,000 feet will also be pressurized as low as 5,960 feet, Stockton said, decreasing air travel’s effect on the body for passengers.
Textron also unveiled the King Air 360ER, offering longer ranges of up to 2,692 nautical miles. That’s enough range to fly from Los Angeles to New York.
Stockton said that King Air has carrying capabilities that outweigh even some jet aircraft. Up to 15 passengers can fit in the King Air 360ER while most light and midsize jets can’t, even if the turboprop isn’t as fast.
And cargo carriers can also use the plane to transport freight.
Both aircraft are powered by Pratt & Whitney PT6A-60A engines, offering a maximum cruise speed of over 300 knots.
The same autothrottle and digital pressurization systems are also available in the King Air 260.
Stockton said that making the King Air faster will be something he looks for in future variants.
So will Advanced Air be placing the next order for the King Air 360? No. Stockton’s firm typically manages aircraft purchased by other companies or wealthy individuals and does not typically make purchases itself.
But Stockton does expect to be managing a King Air 360 within the next few years for a client, and is excited to see the iconic aircraft continuing to be updated.
“It just shows that this particular airplane is going to be around for a long time,” Stockton said.
American Airlines and Delta Air Lines were the two largest airlines in the US before the pandemic, each generating billions in revenue each year and boasting the largest fleets of any global airline. Both offered similar products with the choice between the two coming down to factors like customer preference, price, and loyalty.
The divide between them widened during the pandemic, however, thanks to one key factor: safety. While Delta blocked middle seats through for most of 2020, American filed its planes to capacity as early as the summer.
I took three flights across both airlines on a recent trip, flying from New York to Miami on American and then from Houston, Texas to Los Angeles via Salt Lake City on Delta. The result was surprising, especially as the US continues to see record COVID-19-related deaths and a slow-going vaccine rollout.
Here’s which one handled pandemic flying the best in 2021.
My first flight on American took me from New York to Miami on one of the airline’s most popular routes. Florida has become a travel hotspot due to lax restrictions and airlines are angling to take advantage.
When I checked in, I was required to acknowledge that I didn’t have any COVID-19 symptoms and I haven’t been exposed to nor tested positive for the illness. This is standard practice across all major US airlines now but enforcement has proved tricky.
Check-in at LaGuardia Airport was filled with social distancing measures including plexiglass partitions at ticket counters and spaced kiosks. The same can be found at airports across American’s network as is the airline’s new safety standard.
Ticket in hand, I headed to the gate through LaGuardia’s newly-renovated Terminal B and arrived at the gate a few minutes before boarding. It was decently crowded and I was expecting a full flight.
Here, there were more plexiglass partitions, social distancing stanchions, and even floor placards to remind folks of social distance and of the new onboard mask requirements.
The digital signage at the gate didn’t do much to convey the safety message. Using this signage to promote the airline’s safety measures can help flyers feel comfortable that the airline is doing everything they can to keep their customers safe, as it did for me on my first flight back.
American does, however, send a push notification to those with the airline’s mobile application saying that the aircraft has been disinfected and reminding passengers to social distance.
The flight was off to a good start but quickly fell down during boarding.
While an agent was reminding passengers to wear their face coverings at all times, American hasn’t changed its boarding procedure to back to front so first class still boards first followed by the first few rows of economy, and so on.
The guiding principle behind back-to-front boarding is that passengers in the back don’t have to walk through a crowded aircraft to get to their seats. If you’re in basic economy and boarding last, for example, you’re still walking through an entire airplane full of people.
The jetway was bare with no social distancing placards. These placards are largely ignored but are, once again, symbols that show the airline is taking additional action to keep travelers safe.
Once on the plane, flight attendants welcomed us with a hello but we didn’t receive anything in the way of hand sanitizer or alcohol wipes.
My seat was immaculate and I didn’t have any concerns whatsoever that American didn’t do a great job in this department.
American has not blocked any seats on its aircraft since June 2020 so I’d almost definitely be seated next to another flyer since this was a full flight on a popular route.
Once settled in, both the flight attendants and pilots reminded passengers to wear their face masks as part of the safety brief.
As expected, my row was initially full but I managed to luck out, however, as our middle seat occupant chose to sit closer to his companion and occupied another middle seat instead.
I was surprised to see an in-flight service start promptly after takeoff. My last flight on American saw drinks served only on request but on this flight, we were given a snack bag with pretzels, a sanitizing wipe, and a water bottle.
One pet peeve I noticed was that flight attendants were not wearing gloves while doing the service, something that differs on every airline it seems.
After the service, I walked around the plane and noticed multiple passengers flouting the mask mandate. Some either had the covering under their nose or off entirely.
Flight attendants on all airlines don’t walk the cabin as frequently as they once did since there’s no in-flight service and while it reduces passenger interaction, it does make enforcing the mask rule harder as it relies on other passengers speaking up.
American wouldn’t reveal how many passengers have been banned for not wearing masks either when asked by Insider in January.
Soon enough, it was time to land in the warm-weather paradise of Miami.
A reminder to social distance during deplaning, however, went unheeded and most flyers defaulted to the norm of standing in the aisle as soon as the seatbelt sign turned off. This is common on any airline, not just American.
A few days later, it was time to test out Delta with two flights from Houston to Los Angeles via Salt Lake City. I had toured Delta’s new “care standard” operation at New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport in October 2020 but now I’d be putting it to the test as a passenger.
I arrived at Houston’s George Bush Intercontinental Airport in the early morning hours to catch the first flight to Salt Lake City on Delta’s new Airbus A220-300.
Delta had completely overhauled the ticketing area more so than other airlines with social distancing floor placards, plexiglass partitions, and mask reminders.
The only disappointing aspect was the check-in kiosks. Some airlines are blocking every other kiosk or placing dividers in between them but Delta opted not to, here in Houston and at other locations.
Houston is a mere outstation for Delta, not a bustling hub like Los Angeles or Salt Lake City, so to see this level of commitment was impressive. The same setup could be found during my tour at JFK Airport.
Then it was off to the gate, which was no less impressive than the check-in with the same setup of plexiglass partitions, social distancing placards, and mask reminders.
Before boarding, the gate agent went through how the flight might be different than what most passengers are used to and explained that masks were now required by federal law.
As of mid-January, Delta had banned over 800 passengers for not wearing masks.
We then boarded the aircraft in Delta’s new back-to-front procedure with only 10 passengers at a time. First class flyers and elite status holders, however, could board at any time.
Even the jetway had social distancing reminders. Again, these are rarely adhered to.
Flight attendants at the boarding door gave us each a Purell wipe to use but our seats showed no sign of poor cleaning.
And as Delta is blocking all middle seats through April, I didn’t need to worry about having a neighbor.
As we settled in, flight attendants reminded us about the face covering rule and asked that passengers keep their masks on during the in-flight service until the flight attendant has left their row.
Our aircraft was equipped with in-flight entertainment systems, which Delta used to show a video about the new health and safety protocols being undertaken.
It showed the aircraft being “fogged” with an electrostatic sprayer and surfaces being cleaned, for example.
Even the bathroom had a placard to remind passengers of the best practices for hand washing.
Then it was off to Salt Lake City. Soon after takeoff, gloved flight attendants went up and down the aisle to offer complimentary headphones and begin the in-flight service.
Each passenger gets a snack bag complete with a water bottle, napkin, Biscoff cookies, Goldfish crackers, and a Purell wipe. All Delta flights see the snack bag service while other airlines limit the in-flight service on shorter flights.
Inside was also a small placard outlining the new health and safety protocols, as well as how to use the in-flight WiFi.
Delta Comfort+ passengers, of which I was one, were also offered complimentary beer or wine. I waited until one of the later flights to imbibe but it was odd that alcohol was being offered but not soft drinks like a Coke or seltzer.
As the flight continued, I walked around to see how well the mask mandate was working and dishearteningly saw some passengers flouting the rule. It seems to be harder to enforce on these longer flights.
It was soon time to land in Salt Lake City and we began our descent between the snow-capped mountains.
Once we touched down, flight attendants asked passengers to follow a new deplaning procedure that required them to stay seated until the row in front of them was on their way. As is human nature, however, not everybody complied.
It was a bit of a walk to my next gate for the flight to Los Angeles so I got to see the new Salt Lake City airport terminal. Every single Delta gate had been overhauled with the new safety features.
The one feature not installed, however, was the floor placards. I guess Salt Lake City airport didn’t want to mess up the new carpets.
Another difference from this terminal compared to Houston was the digital signage. All the Delta informational screens had rotating messages showing what the airline was doing to keep travelers safe.
The boarding procedure for my next flight was nearly identical with the gate agent going through what to expect for the flight and then boarding back to front. Flight attendants also gave the sanitary wipes again.
I got to my seat and noticed just a few leftover crumbs. While the plane was otherwise spotless, even the slightest crumb could make a passenger doubt the cleanliness of the aircraft.
In the welcome announcement, the cabin crew stressed that having a recent negative test or being vaccinated didn’t mean that you could flout the rule, and flight attendants walked the aisle asking people to correctly wear their masks.
“Although things may look a little different, our priority is a safe and clean experience for you,” reads the safety briefing script.
The service was the same, a snack bag with the same goodies as before. And a quick walk through the plane mid-flight indicated the proactive flight attendants had effectively convinced passengers to keep their masks on
The one-hour flight quickly passed as we landed in Los Angeles. Flight attendants once again asked the passengers to stay seated until the row ahead of them was on their way but once again, most passengers did their own thing.
It’s been eight months since my first comparison of American and Delta, and nothing has changed.
Delta is the clear winner here over American once more when it comes to social distancing in the skies. The middle seat blocking policy is a huge factor but the little things like giving passengers sanitary wipes when boarding and making sure passengers are informed about the safety measures being undertaken by the airline truly make the difference.
I still consider American to be one of the least safety-minded airlines when it comes to the pandemic when compared to the rest of the big four US airlines and didn’t feel as if the airline was going above and beyond.
Delta wasn’t without its mishaps, as I did notice a lack of mask enforcement on my first flight and the seat on my second flight wasn’t immaculately clean, but I always felt safer on Delta than on American.
Some travelers are still skeptical about returning to the skies, even with a vaccine, and airlines should be focused on providing an experience that’s over the top when it comes to safety.
Narrator: Autopilot isn’t as “auto” as you might think. There’s no robot that sits in the pilot seat and mashes buttons while the real pilot takes a nap. It’s just a flight-control system that allows a pilot to fly an airplane without continuous hands-on control.
Basically, it lets a pilot fly from New York to Los Angeles without white-knuckling the controls for six straight hours. But how does it actually work? Kind of like a polar bear. A polar bear’s core temperature sits at about 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit. It is so well insulated against the frigid Arctic cold that it often overheats. When that happens, its body reacts by releasing excess heat through its hairless parts, like its nose, ears, and feet. The polar bear’s body temperature returns to a comfortable 98.6, and it’s free to hunt seals another day. That cycle is called a negative feedback loop, and it’s the same way an autopilot functions.
A negative feedback loop is a self-regulating system that reacts to feedback in a way that maintains equilibrium. Generally, it uses a sensor to receive some sort of data or input, and the system uses that data to keep functioning in a preset way.
For the polar bear, that preset is body temperature. For an airplane, it’s lateral and vertical movement. A modern automatic flight-control system is made of three main parts: a flight-monitoring computer, several high-speed processors, and a series of sensors placed on different parts of the plane. The sensors collect data from the entire plane and send them to the processors, which in turn tell the computer what’s what.
AFCSs come in three different levels of complexity. There are single-, two-, and three-axis autopilots, based on the number of parts they control. Single-axis controls the ailerons, which are these guys. They make the plane do this. Single-axis autopilot is also called the “wing leveler” because it controls the roll of the plane and keeps the wings perpendicular to the ground. Two-axis handles everything the single-axis does, along with the elevators, located here. They move the plane like this. And three-axis juggles those two plus the rudder. That one there is in charge of this movement. Then the computer tells the servomechanism units what to do. Servos are the little instruments that actually move the parts. All of these pieces come together to make sure your plane stays in the air, where it belongs. But they don’t just work on their own.
The success of the autopilot depends on the knowledge of the actual human pilot.
Greg Zahornacky: Autopilots are dumb and dutiful, meaning this: that if you program them incorrectly, they will kill you.
Narrator: Dumb and dutiful are the “two Ds of automation,” according to Earl Wiener, a former US Air Force pilot and an aviation scholar. He once described autopilot as, “Dumb in the sense that it will readily accept illogical input; dutiful in the sense that the computer will attempt to fly whatever is put in.” It’s crucial, and I cannot emphasize this enough, that you know how to fly a plane before you use an autopilot. Step one is inputting a flight plan. And step one is also where things could start going wrong.
To get from New York to LA, a pilot needs a route. That route translates to a flight plan, and that flight plan gets punched into the computer and logged into the database. If the pilot doesn’t know what the heck they’re doing, then they can end up programming the autopilot to fly the plane upside down or to spell out “I’m a Bad Pilot” in the sky. If they correctly navigate step one, step two is simply turning on the autopilot. The system executes the flight plan and takes over from there.
Zahornacky: That will stay operational until such time as they tell it or turn it off. But it is capable of flying the aircraft essentially from takeoff all the way to touchdown and including touchdown.
Narrator: But you can’t just tap it and nap it. It’s the ABCs of autopilots: Always be checking. Because autopilots can and do fail. Sometimes it’s user error when entering the flight plan. Sometimes it’s a sensor or servo malfunction. Either way, this is when it becomes very important that an inflatable toy isn’t flying the plane.
– Why is it doing that?!
Zahornacky: If it’s not doing what I expect it to do, I’m gonna disengage the autopilot. I’m gonna go back to hand-flying the aircraft and say, OK, this is what I want you to do. I’m gonna rebuild it again.
Narrator: The good news is autopilot will never take over a plane, à la HAL. Worst case, the pilot turns it off and on again or pulls the circuit breaker if that doesn’t work and reprograms it to behave itself. Worst-worst case, the pilot just has to fly the plane themselves.
Zahornacky: So, I am a very large proponent of hand-flying that airplane to keep your skills high because, you know what, you’ve gotta go through a check ride at least once a year.
Narrator: A check ride is a practical test regulated by the Federal Aviation Administration that US pilots must pass to get their licenses. And most airlines require yearly check rides to make sure their pilots can actually fly.
Zahornacky: ‘Cause if it’s on autopilot all the time, how can you keep your skills sharp?
Narrator: There’s a reason we still have pilots flying planes and haven’t handed the yoke over to robots. As advanced as the technology is, an autopilot is not auto enough to think for itself, which means it’s not smart enough to fly a plane by itself, and that’s another thing autopilots have in common with polar bears.
EDITOR’S NOTE: This video was originally published in October 2019.