How Does Autopilot Work?

Autopilot first showed up in the aviation world in 1933 when American aviator Wiley Post became the first person to fly solo around the world. The secret to his success was using a simple autopilot that steered his plane while he rested. Today, autopilot systems are highly sophisticated technology that can perform the same duties as highly trained pilots. In some in-flight procedures, autopilots are even better than a pair of human hands. Autopilot not only make flights smoother, but safer and more efficient.

What are Autopilots?

Automatic pilots, or autopilots, are devices for controlling aircraft without constant human intervention. A more accurate description is automatic flight control system (AFCS). The AFCS is part of an aircraft’s avionics. Avionics include electronics for communications, navigation, collision avoidance, and weather. Originally AFCS was used to give pilots relief during tedious stages of flight, like high-altitude cruising. Today’s AFCS can be used for precise maneuvers like landing an aircraft in zero visibility conditions.

Types of Autopilots

Single-axis autopilots manage just one set of controls, usually the ailerons. This type of autopilot is known as a “wing leveler” because it keeps the aircraft’s wings on an even keel. A two-axis autopilot manages elevators and ailerons. Elevators are devices on the tail of a plane that control pitch. Finally, a three-axis autopilot manages all three basic control systems: ailerons, elevators, and rudder.

Autopilot Parts

At the heart of all modern automatic flight control systems is a computer with many high-speed processors. The processors communicate with sensors located on the major control surfaces. They also collect data from other airplane systems and equipment. The processors take the data and compare it to a set of control modes. Control modes are settings entered by the pilot the define specific flight details. The plane then takes the computer’s instructions and uses motors and hydraulics to move the craft’s control surfaces in accordance.

Can Autopilot Fail?

Autopilots can and do fail. Bad motors or poor connections are often the source of autopilot failures. The position sensor can also fail, resulting in a loss of data input to the computer. Thankfully manual override is always available in the event of an autopilot failure. To override autopilot, a crew member simply has to disengage the system by flipping a power switch or pulling the breaker.

Ready to Give Autopilot a Try?

CTI can get you ready for a career in aviation. We offer several flight programs that will give you the credentials and licenses needed to get a fast track start as a pilot. Visit either of our two campuses or book your discovery flight today!

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