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In a world in which airplanes come equipped with a handy auto land feature, it’s fair to wonder, “Do pilots land planes manually?” Read on to find out!

Pilots tend to land planes manually in most flights despite the valuable auto land feature. It’s because the autoland feature requires complex and accurate ground and tower staff guidance, and a manual landing is often softer and requires less work than an auto-piloted landing.

Contrary to popular opinion, autopilot flying isn’t as easy as it seems, and flying remains a hands-on operation. After all, the automaton in a plane only works when the crew tells it what to do. Moreover, even though some airplanes are certified for auto landings, many pilots prefer to land the plane manually since it requires less work than an automatic landing.

In this article, I will comprehensively answer the question, “Do pilots land planes manually, and if they do, then why?”

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Are Pilots Still Landing Planes Manually?

In today’s automation driven world, many believe that pilots use the automatic landing feature on planes to ensure a smooth landing. This feature is referred to as “autoland” in pilot-speak. It’s when a pilot can program the auto-pilot to land the plane while they monitor the aircraft.

However, contrary to this popular belief, pilots prefer landing planes manually than using the automatic landing feature, even though many jetliners and airplanes are qualified for automatic landings. But, in practice, pilots rarely use the automatic landing option.

Most pilots actively avoid using it because the auto-landing feature doesn’t offer a landing as soft as the one they can deliver if they land the plane manually. Also, there are clear limitations as to when the automatic landing system can be used.

Let’s take an in-depth look at why pilots land planes manually instead of opting for the seemingly easier automatic landing option.

Why Pilots Prefer Landing Manually Over Automatic Landings

Despite the overwhelming perception that automatic landings are a breeze and require no work from the pilot’s end, these landings are more work-intensive than those performed manually. It’s not as easy as pressing a mere button in the cockpit.

Here are some reasons why pilots land planes manually:

Automatic Landings Require Extensive Training

Pilots have to sit in front of simulators and review their manuals before learning how to make an automatic landing. Moreover, they also need to retain the knowledge every six months as it requires a higher level of automation monitoring and groundwork than manual landings. They also need proper certifications to perform an automatic landing. Plus, when auto-landing a plane, pilots are still required to monitor the flight path, configure the aircraft, and control its speed.

Manual Landings Are Smoother

The automatic landing feature lands the plane more firmly than when a pilot lands it manually. A manual landing is more gentle and soft on most occasions, even though the auto-landing system works exceptionally well. That said, even a minor technical issue can compromise the fail-passive auto land systems, requiring the pilot to handle the landing or flying the plane to an airport with clearer visibility.

Automatic Landings Are Complex

Furthermore, auto landings require exceptionally accurate ILS guidance. Not all airports are equipped with the technology needed for an automatic landing. Similarly, not all planes are equipped with the auto-landing feature. Even if the airport the pilot is landing at is equipped with calibrated ILS Cat IIIb equipment needed for auto-landing, the signals will be affected by the traffic operating near the ILS antennas.

Plus, since auto landing is a monitored approach, it naturally results in a higher workload. When flying an ILS to cat II or III minimums, you need to rely on the ground controller to protect the ILS critical areas to ensure the glideslope quality. It might also require coordination with the tower controller.

Pilots Need to Be Prepared to Land Manually  

What’s more is that pilots can never rely solely on automatic landings unless they are forced into such a position. They need to keep perfecting their landing skills and need to maneuver the plan on their own. It will help them on occasions when the technology falters.

It’s also why pilots who can use the automatic landing feature have to undergo rigorous training and hyper-realistic simulations that teach them how to maneuver the plane to safety if the autopilot fails. These pilots undergo simulations that create terrible weather conditions and the resultant turbulence they would have to face in real life if their plane gets stuck in such a situation.

When Do Pilots Choose Auto Landing over Manual Landing?

The only time pilots truly rely on the auto-landing feature is when the weather conditions are terrible and they have zero visibility. Auto landing is ideal when the pilot cannot see anything beyond their screen. It’s because poor visibility is essentially the only factor that can affect a manual landing and put the lives of the pilot and their passengers at risk.

Low visibility can be due to rain, snow, or even strong winds. Under such circumstances, when a pilot cannot land manually, the airport they are supposed to land at increases traffic spacing. The ground staff also does not allow ground vehicles near the ILS antennas to avoid the signal getting affected. It’s a standard aspect of the Low Visibility Procedures of all airports.

However, the downside of such a procedure is that it effectively reduces the airport capacity. Plus,zero-visibility automated landings in terrible weather require the input of the airplane crew, ground staff, and tower staff. With that said, the auto land feature helps pilots significantly on foggy mornings to perform a safe landing.

Most airlines have strict rules that dictate the pilot needs to have clear visibility of at least ½ a mile for a manual landing. If it’s any less than that, the pilot will have to use the auto-landing feature. If the plane does not have an automatic landing feature, it will have to wait for the fog to clear up before landing or find an airport that offers better visibility to the pilot to land safely.