Ladies and Gentlemen, this is Your Autopilot Speaking

By Carmel Beham-Brecht | First Officer, Republic Airways,  | Based in Newark, USA.

Have you ever heard someone say “The pilots don’t do anything; the autopilot flies the plane”…?

I’m sure you have. But it is a misconception that leads to further misunderstanding.
It also doesn’t do justice to this ingenious, ever-evolving, safety-promoting innovation. The invention of the autopilot has, in many ways, improved the safety of flight and the capabilities of the aviation world to deal with threats and risks. However, it still to this day cannot exist without the human pilot.
What does this dependency consist of and what are its benefits?
Let’s explain a few basic concepts. You may have already learned in the SimpliFly course about the basics of flight, and that as an airplane flies, air passes over the wings and creates what we call lift. Air, as you know, is not a static object and is constantly in motion, which causes small changes of air movement on the wings.

For you, the passenger, to feel comfortable in your seat and experience a ‘smooth’ flight, the airplane must constantly make tiny corrections as the air changes, even while flying at the same direction and same altitude. This ongoing, precise, and frankly, exhausting task was once the job of the pilots, and they would regularly reach their destinations tired and overworked.
Even during the flight, always having to move the controls required so much effort that pilots were often not available to deal with other, more important matters like weather avoidance and onboard systems (that’s why you needed three and sometimes four people in there). So essentially, the aviation industry was looking for an “auto-flight-control computer,” to which pilots could feed commands such as what altitude and what direction they want to fly, and the computer could then move the surfaces on the wings and the tail accordingly, while always making those small adjustments needed to keep the airplane in that condition.
This computer earned the name “Autopilot.” It is able to receive inputs and commands from the actual pilot and translate them to the actual movement of the control surfaces on the wing and tail, causing the airplane to turn, descend, climb, accelerate and decelerate.
So, someone (a pilot) has to tell the computer (autopilot) what to do at all times, or else it will just wait there, patiently (as patient as machines can be, anyhow), for the next instruction.
Since autopilot technology was first invented in the late 20s, engineers have been continuously improving and tweaking its capabilities to translate our commands. As a result, we can operate airplanes more efficiently and with increased safety. However, the more advanced the machine is, the more important it becomes to ensure that it works properly. 
We as airline pilots are regularly trained (and retrained) on working with the autopilot system. We are taught how to input information, how to confirm that the correct information has been received, and monitor the actions that follow—and then—we train and practice how to intervene just in case the computer does something we don’t want it to.
We have a button at our fingertips to cancel the autopilot, and just fly the plane ourselves. But with the help of this trusted, technologically advanced friend, we’re able to increase our workload capacity, our situational awareness, and our ability to respond to events in flight.