We all know that commercial planes use autopilot once they are in the air. But what about take-offs and landings? Are human pilots even needed for these manoeuvres?

The answer is clear when it comes to take-offs: autopilot is not used at all. “The pilot always does that himself, regardless of the weather,” says Markus Wahl, a spokesman for the German pilot organisation Vereinigung Cockpit.

There are various reasons take-offs are always handled manually. “There are so many things that could theoretically go wrong and there is not a lot of time to react,” Wahl says.

In a problematic situation, a computer could make the wrong decision. What, for example, if another plane suddenly drives onto the runway – and in a thunderstorm or severe crosswinds?

“In that situation, you need human experience,” Wahl says.

But the situation is different with landings. They are done manually in normal weather conditions, but not in poor weather – because of poor visibility.

planes takeoff and landing

“Humans are limited because they have to be able to see the runway. But the computer does not,” Wahl explains. So autopilot is a major help in foggy conditions, for example. So why does autopilot not always land the planes?

Autopilots don’t see everything

One problem with an automated landing is that the safety gap from other planes and vehicles on the ground must be drastically increased. This is because the plane’s signals might otherwise be disturbed.

If all planes were to land via autopilot all the time, then airports would have to reduce their capacity by about 50%, according to Wahl. That would be the only way to guarantee safety – but it is not economically feasible for airports.

So, take-offs with autopilot are not possible, but a landing is – though pilots usually handle the latter as well. – dpa