Wondering if passenger jets can land themselves? This post shares everything you need to know about automatic lands.
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Can a plane land by itself?
Passenger jets can land themselves provided that the crew have the necessary qualifications, the aircraft is suitably equipped, and that airfield has the correct infrastructure.
Aircraft certified to conduct automatic landings fly the approach themselves, then flare automatically once over the runway and touch down automatically.
Although the aircraft does land itself, most aircraft certified for automatic landings need the pilot to manually select reverse thrust (to slow the plane down). Pilots are also required to disengage the autopilot and take over manually during the landing roll and steering to maintain the centreline on the runway.
Some more advanced aircraft are equipped with rollout guidance, and the plane can steer itself for most of the landing roll.
Pilot qualifications to be able to fly automatic landings
For a pilot to fly automatic landings, they have to undergo specific training in a flight simulator. Before that, the pilot would need to hold a multi-engine instrument rating.
A multi-engine instrument rating is a minimum requirement to fly precision approaches using an instrument landing system. A multi-engine instrument rating allows the pilot to fly approaches down to a decision height of 200ft and 550m Runway Visible Range (RVR).
Approaches can be flown when the weather is below these limits, but they are then required by law to be auto land approaches, i.e. the aircraft would be landing itself.
During auto land approaches, the pilot’s role becomes a ‘monitoring’ function to monitor the aircraft system to verify that they are performing appropriately.
Pilot training to conduct low visibility autoland approaches starts in the simulator. The simulator sessions will typically involve several scenarios that allow practice for the crews in determining if an approach can be continued safely and legally.
Although the aircraft will be landing using the autoland feature, the pilots must establish specific visual references at ‘minimums’, which is the decision altitude to either continue the approach or carry out a missed approach.
In the simulator phase, scenarios are practised where the visual references are not seen at the decision height, leading to a missed approach. Conversely, if visual references are established at the decision height, then the approach can continue.
Autolands may have very low decision heights – sometimes as low as 50ft or even 0 ft, meaning that in the event of a missed approach, the aircraft sometimes touches down as it is in the process of going around. This is called a baulked landing.
Although 50ft seems high, assuming a rate of descent of around 750-800ft per minute, decision height can sometimes be a second or two before touchdown.
Depending on the approach, the visual references needed to be established to allow the autoland to continue can be as little as three runway lights.
These scenarios will be practised over and over again in the simulator where visual references are not established, and a go-around is necessary, or at the last moment, the visual references are found, and the landing can continue.
The other scenarios practised in the simulator include failures of one or more systems during the latter stages of the approach. These may include erroneous flight deck indications requiring the crew to disconnect the automatics and fly a go-around/ missed approach.
Engine failures are also practised, which incidentally in a low visibility approach may lead to going around (depending on the aircraft type).
Once the pilot is assessed as competent (part of their type rating) in low visibility automatic landings and able to recover from the various failures, the next phase will be to practice an autoland in the actual aircraft in good visibility.
The practice autoland in the aircraft will be under the watchful eye of a line training captain before the pilot would be signed off to carry out autolands for real in low visibility conditions.
Aircraft requirements for jets to land themselves
Not all passenger jets can land themselves. For a passenger jet to land itself, it needs to be certified to perform automatic landings.
The certification process for aircraft autoland systems will involve rigorous design and testing of the aircraft and avionics to ensure sufficient reliability within the system to conduct automatic landings safely.
To pass certification to conduct autolands, part of the aircraft system design will also include ensuring sufficient redundancy is inbuilt into the aircraft avionics.
There is typically a requirement that for aircraft landing systems to work independently to allow cross-checking of the aircraft systems by themselves. In the event of a failure, the system design should allow pilots to be alerted in good time when a failure condition occurs.
Examples of the redundancy include:
- Making sure the aircraft has at least two independent power sources, so if an engine were to fail, for example, that flight crew would be able to carry out a missed approach safely and divert to land elsewhere using visual references on a single-engine.
- If there is a total failure of the autoland system, the aircraft is left in a condition that allows the failure to be recognised with no sudden changes to the flight path as a result of the failure.
- This method of system failure is described as a ‘fail passive’ condition, with one of the main criteria being that the aircraft remains in trim.
One of the biggest safety concerns of recent times has been the problems raised over the interference of aircraft radio altimeters (allowing accurate measurement of the aircraft heigh over the ground and allowing automatic landings to take place) with that of 5G cellular networks.
The safety risks are that aircraft radio altimeters operate in the 4.2-4.4 GHz band, which is separated by 220 megahertz from the 5G networks C-Band telecommunication systems in the 3.7-3.98 GHz band.
The closeness between aircraft radio altimeters and 5G telecommunications has led to recent flight cancellations where potentially automatic landings would be needed.
To learn more, check out my post on 5G risk to aviation: 6 things you need to know.
Airport requirements for an aircraft to land itself
To allow automatic landings to take place and the plane to land itself, the airport and the specific runway need to be approved to carry out automatic landings.
The airport runway needs to have what is known as an instrument landing system (ILS) certified to CATII or CAT III requirements.
Part of the approval requirements will include:
- Enhanced runway lighting
- Protection of the runway (signage to minimise the risk of aircraft inadvertently crossing the runway in low visibility conditions)
- Safeguarding the ILS equipment to minimise interference or blocked signals by passing aircraft.
The limitation to conducting landings with zero visibility conditions is not the automatic landing system—but rather the practicalities of the aircraft needing to vacate the runway and taxi to its parking stand is the actual technical limit right now.
Taxing is done manually with no automation at present, so the pilots still need a minimum amount of visibility to see outside to navigate through the airport and taxi onto a parking stand.
During low visibility operations where aircraft are landing automatically, certain precautions are taken to reduce the risk of aircraft to aircraft collisions. This includes limiting the number of apron movements for taxing and increasing the separation between landing aircraft, so aircraft have more time to vacate the runway.
Automatic landing requirements
CAT I ILS
Although not automatic in the sense that the aircraft touches down automatically, the CAT 1 approach requirements as a minimum are:
200ft decision height and 550m RVR ( Runway Visible Range)
CAT II ILS
A CAT II is the first tier of truly automatic landing, i.e. the aircraft lands itself. The minimum requirements for a CAT II approach are:
100ft decision height and 350m RVR
CAT III ILS
CAT III A approach requirements start with a decision height of less than 100ft and an RVR of not less than 200m.
CAT III B requirements allow for a decision height of less than 50ft or no decision height at all and RVR of less than 50m.
CAT III C approaches allow for automatic landings with no decision height and no RVR, but there is the practical constraint of how to taxi off the runway if there are no visual queues outside.
Do commercial pilots land planes manually?
Provided conditions allow pilots to do so; commercial pilots do most landings manually. The autopilot is usually disengaged between 1000ft and 200ft, with the final stages of the approach being flown manually.
If low visibility procedures are being used, then legally, an automatic landing is to be flow.
If planes can land themselves automatically, why do pilots bother flying manually?
Not all runways are equipped to allow automatic landings, so the approach has to be flown manually in those cases.
If a runway is equipped for automatic landings with a CAT II or CAT III approach, air traffic control also needs to protect the runway to make sure that signals from the instrument landing system do not suffer from interference.
Safeguarding the runway for CAT II or CAT III approaches procedures reduces traffic flow and is less efficient in maximising the use of the runway, which can lead to delays in peak periods.
From a pilot competency perspective, it is essential to keep up manual flying skills and not develop an over-reliance on automation. If the autopilot should fail, pilots will need to fly the aircraft manually.
For this reason, most companies encourage pilots to fly manually (including landings) when conditions are suitable.
Conditions that may decide how much manual flying takes place include the approach’s complexity or departure. If the departure is complicated and potentially in busy airspace, it may make more sense to utilise as much automation as possible to minimise the workload on other crew members.
The currency and fatigue levels of the pilots will also have a bearing on how much automation is used. If the pilots are feeling fresh and reasonably current (i.e. they have been doing a lot of flying recently), that may be an excellent opportunity to do more manual flying.
On the other hand, if the crews have had a hectic month and have had a long day in bad weather, then utilising more automation may make more sense to reduce the workload of other crew members.
The weather also has a bearing on how much of a commercial flight is flown using the autopilot. Low visibility conditions pretty much dictate the autopilot has to be used for an automatic landing.
If flying into gusty conditions, it is sometimes more effective to fly the aircraft manually as the autopilot may not cope with challenging and turbulent conditions close to the ground.
How much of a commercial flight is autopilot?
The majority of commercial flights are flown on autopilot. Most autopilots are engaged somewhere between 400ft and 1000ft (1-2 minutes after departure) depending on the airline, weather, local navigation requirements etc.
The autopilot is then disengaged somewhere between 1000ft and 200ft (1min to 30 seconds before landing) in the final approach just before landing.
Most commercial flights are flown with the autopilot engaged for around 85-95% of the time.
The truth is that modern autopilots are more accurate and less likely to make mistakes than human pilots. Autopilots also reduce the workload on flight crews, so they have extra capacity to carry out other tasks.
Airspace around international airports is busy and generally congested, so keeping the autopilot engaged during these busy phases of flight from a flight path management and control perspective makes sense.
Manual flying skills, like any skill, need to be practised. If conditions allow, the autopilot may be engaged slightly later during the climb phase and disconnected slightly earlier during the landing phase allowing manual flight.
Recurrent simulator training also allows an excellent opportunity for practising manual flying skills.
Can autopilot land a plane?
The autopilot can land a plane. The crew, aircraft, and runway need to be certified to conduct Instrument Landing System CAT II, or CAT III approaches.
Can a 747 land itself?
The 747 can land itself. The 747 is certified to conduct autolands to CAT IIIB requirements.
The 747 does have ‘flare’ and ‘rollout guidance’ – where the 747 will reduce the rate of descent just before touchdown, and rollout guidance allows the autopilot to maintain the runway centreline after touchdown.
Can a normal person land a plane?
A normal person can land a plane, and there have been cases when a passenger (with little flying experience) has been taken for a recreational flight, and the pilot has fallen ill.
The passenger then managed to land the aircraft with air traffic control talking them down.
What would a normal person would need to land a small piston aircraft?
The first essential item is to remain calm. Small piston aircraft are legally required to take off with at least the amount of fuel needed for the flight (plus carrying out a diversion). On top of this, the piston aircraft would need to have at least 45mins of fuel on landing (final reserve).
So provided the passenger remains calm, they have time on their hands. The next important thing to do is to ensure that the aircraft is safe and the flight controls are free from interference by the incapacitated pilot.
Move their seat back and, using the seat harness, make sure they are secure and not slumped over the controls.
Once the aircraft is secure, the next thing is to call for help. Hopefully, the passenger paid attention to how the pilot was transmitting to air traffic control.
The best advice is to speak normally and explain what has happened, i.e. pilot is incapacitated, and you need help getting back on the ground. Air traffic control can seek the help of a flying instructor who can walk the passenger through what to do.
The person will need to point the aircraft back in the direction of the runway. Air traffic control will guide where to go with the help of the flying instructor.
The flying instructor, via the radio, will talk the person down on what to do. To keep things simple air traffic control will help line the aircraft up from a distance to give the person the best chance of getting into a good position for landing.
Air traffic control will also move other aircraft out of the way.
The flying instructor will assist by talking through the aircraft’s essential indications, i.e. airspeed indicator, and controls to turn left and right and pitch up and down.
Provided the person remains calm and listens to instructions, they should hopefully get the plane down after a few attempts. The good thing about flying small aeroplanes is that the speeds are relatively low, i.e. landing at around 60kts.
Provided the person can get the plane down on the runway (for a controlled crash), there should not be too much energy that needs dissipating, and the person will most likely be able to walk away.
Can a normal person land a passenger jet?
Things get slightly more complicated when a normal person tries to land a large passenger jet with no flying experience.
An average person who does not know how to fly, trying to land a passenger is the ultimate movie scenario where both pilots are incapacitated, and no other pilots on board can help.
This scenario is improbable.
Various youtube videos have been made to look at this scenario – can a passenger land a plane.
The essential item to increase the success of this happening is that the passenger jet is equipped with an autoland system. If the aircraft has autoland, then by manipulating the autopilot, there is a good chance the aeroplane will be able to land itself.
The average person with no flying experience would need to do specific items to allow the plane to land itself.
They would need to program the radios with the ILS frequencies. If air traffic control can talk them through how this is done with the help of an instructor, then this would increase the chances of landing the plane safely.
Once the ILS frequencies are in, the courses for the runway direction would need to be set. Again, the person can be coached through the radio on how to do this. Hopefully, with a bit of instruction, the person would be able to manipulate the autopilot based on ATC instruction to set the aircraft up for an automatic landing.
The person would need to deploy the landing gear and flaps at the appropriate time manually, and once again, air traffic control, with the help of an instructor, could talk the person through where these items are located.
The final step to allow an autoland to be accomplished is for the novice pilot to be told when and how to close the thrust levers (if needed) on touchdown.
The novice pilot would then need to disconnect the autopilot during the ground roll. The plane will brake itself, provided the auto-brake function has been selected.
The chances of such a situation are near enough impossible as it is difficult to imagine a scenario where a cabin crew or another pilot onboard may have a vague idea of how the different items work!
If you have any questions about if a passenger jet can land itself, please leave a comment in the section below – we would love to hear from you!
Kudzi Chikohora is a B737 pilot with over 2,500 hours of flying in Europe. He holds a Master’s degree in Aerospace Engineering, is a chartered engineer, and is a member of the Royal Aeronautical Society.
Kudzi completed his pilot training via the self-funded modular pilot training route and created kcthepilot.com to share pilot training and aviation content.