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With how advanced autopilot systems have gotten in recent years, pilots have a lot less to do during flight. Can they leave the cockpit while autopilot is on?
Under the guidance of the Federal Aviation Regulations, there always has to be at least one pilot in the cockpit and at the controls at all times. Even if the plane is flying on autopilot. The other pilot(s) can potentially leave the cockpit, but it can’t be left unattended even if autopilot is on.
The advancements in technology in aircraft has led to autopilot systems that can almost fly the plane without any input from the pilot. But that doesn’t mean that they can just turn on autopilot and walk away. As you read this article, you’ll learn that pilots can’t leave the cockpit even if autopilot is on, you’ll get a look into how much autopilot can really do, and we’ll discuss some of the things that pilots do while autopilot is flying the plane.
You can read through this article while resting assured that everything you see has been thoroughly checked for accuracy. Through my own extensive experience in the aviation industry over the years and the combination of research, discussions with aviation experts, and written federal regulations, the question of if a pilot can leave the cockpit is an easy one to answer!
Can A Pilot Leave The Cockpit If Autopilot Is On?
The answer to this question requires a bit of nuance in understanding what is really being asked. Pilots of passenger jets, for example, are able to leave the cockpit quite often during flight, whether the autopilot is on or not. That’s because these flights require two pilots at all times. So one of them is free to leave the cockpit, whether that’s to grab a snack, go to the bathroom, or get some rest.
But the key is that both pilots cannot leave the flight deck or the cockpit at the same time, even if autopilot is turned on. In fact, not only does at least one pilot need to remain in the cockpit at all times, they also must actually be at the controls and ready to operate the plane as necessary. Autopilot on its own is not allowed to fly the plane without oversight or guidance from at least one — or both — of the pilots on board.
To make it even more strict, the remaining pilot at the controls needs to also don an oxygen mask if the aircraft is flying at over 25,000 feet if the other pilot leaves the cockpit. This is because the pilot that is left at the flight deck and at the controls needs to be able to stay cognizant and handle even emergency situations since no other pilots are in the cockpit with them.
The reason that pilots cannot leave the cockpit entirely while the plane is using autopilot to fly is similar to why drivers of self-driving cars are not legally allowed to sit in a different seat or not be at the wheel while driving. A human — whether a driver or a pilot — must always be at the ready to take over just in case something with the autopilot (or self-driving) software goes wrong.
How Much Of The Flying Does Autopilot Do?
To further understand why both pilots cannot leave the cockpit even if autopilot is flying the plane, let’s take a bit of a deeper look into what autopilot is and how much of the flying it’s really capable of handling on its own.
In the modern-day and technology-driven world that we live in today, autopilot systems have become incredibly advanced over the years. The autopilot systems that airplanes have access to now can almost fly the plane entirely on their own, including even some systems that can handle limited takeoff and landings. But the keyword in that sentence is almost. The systems cannot, and should not be relied on to, fly entirely on their own without any human supervision.
Autopilot systems in airplanes are basically advanced computer systems that use a system of sensors around the aircraft and feed information back to the main computer. These sensors all around the plane gather flight-related information such as speed, altitude, turbulence, traffic avoidance, and more. This information then goes to the computer, which then automatically makes adjustments to the plane as needed, similar to what a pilot would do.
And in the spirit of full transparency, the autopilot system actually can do all of this and make adjustments more accurately than a human pilot can. So in many instances, autopilot is actually better than the pilot themselves. With some modern aircraft, the pilot just puts in the route, takes off, and then lets the autopilot handle the rest of the flight, including landing the plane for some systems. This is because autopilot does such a great job of flying the plane.
But it isn’t a foolproof system.
Like any computer system, autopilot can fail or make mistakes. Sometimes, the system will disengage itself if turbulence gets too rough, letting the pilot take the reins. Or sometimes, a sensor can go bad which could cause the system to think the conditions outside are much different than they are. If the system isn’t getting accurate information, autopilot can — and will — make mistakes.
So it’s of utmost importance that the pilots actually pay attention during the flight to what the autopilot system is doing, what their own gauges and systems are saying, and how the plane is being flown by the computer. The pilot should never assume that the autopilot will operate correctly, and always needs to be at the controls and ready to take over.
What Do Pilots Do While Autopilot Is Flying The Plane?
As you can likely guess by this point, pilots typically will do similar things while the plane is on autopilot that they would do if they were actively flying the plane themselves. That’s because the pilots — or at least the one at the controls — need to understand what is going on with the aircraft at all times. Just in case something goes haywire with the autopilot system, they will be able to take over and fly the plane as needed.
That said, it’s understandable to think that pilots will get a little bit more relaxed in their duties once the autopilot system is flying the plane. So even though one needs to remain in the cockpit and at the controls at all times, they won’t exactly have their hands on the sticks or ready to press a button during the entire flight. They’ll stay alert and ready to go, but it’s safe to say that they won’t necessarily be hands-on throughout the flight.
That’s not to mention what the second pilot is doing while autopilot is on. Depending on the length of flight, the second pilot may be able to leave the cockpit entirely to even go lay down in bed and get some much needed rest. On shorter flights, the second pilot might get some sleep in their seat using controlled rest, or get up and make a quick trip to the bathroom as needed. But the key here is that this is actually because of the other pilot still being at the controls, not because the autopilot is doing such a great job flying the plane.
On smaller, single-pilot planes, the pilot is still not supposed to leave the cockpit even if autopilot is flying the plane. So if you are flying a plane by yourself and have autopilot activated, you’re supposed to stay in the cockpit and at the controls, ready to take over from the autopilot system if you need to. You don’t want to leave the cockpit and controls unattended and have something with the autopilot system fail — so always stay at the controls!