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Autopilot can do a lot of the flying for the pilot, but it typically isn’t used for everything. When do pilots turn on and off the autopilot system while flying?

With most airplanes, pilots must wait until they’ve reached an altitude of at least 400 - 1,000 feet before turning on autopilot. That said, most pilots like to hand-fly until an altitude of around 10,000 feet. After going over 28,000 feet, it is mandatory for pilots to have autopilot engaged.

Autopilot systems are becoming more and more advanced seemingly every year. With the capabilities becoming more impressive, it’s getting to the point where it seems like autopilot can just do it all. In this article, we’ll take a look at when pilots actually turn the autopilot system on, what it does and doesn’t do, when it gets turned off, and what pilots do while the autopilot is flying.

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When Do Pilots Turn On Autopilot?

It might seem like the best thing for pilots to do would be to just turn the autopilot system on as early as possible so that the plane pretty much flies itself, right? Well, the fact of the matter is that the vast majority of pilots actually prefer to really fly the plane themselves. Known as hand-flying, many pilots actually like to leave autopilot off as much as possible so that they can truly be in full control of the plane.

That said, many flight paths are nearly just straight lines from departure to landing, or at least for the lionshare of the flight. And it’s not really enjoyable for many pilots to just fly in a straight line for hours at a time. So even though many pilots don’t turn it on as soon as possible, the autopilot system invariably will be engaged at some point.

So when is autopilot turned on while flying?

It depends on the type of plane and other conditions, but autopilot typically cannot be turned out until the plane is at least 400 - 1,000 feet in the air. This means that for the entirety of the takeoff, the pilot is hand-flying and is truly in control. This of course goes for taxiing around the airport as well; that is done entirely by hand.

Even though this is the earliest that a pilot can engage the autopilot system, most pilots will wait until the plane is even higher and much of the real flying is over with. A general rule of thumb is that many pilots like to wait until they reach an altitude of at least 10,000 feet before turning autopilot on.

By this height, the plane should have the correct heading and be nearing cruising speed, making it a great time for the pilot to let “George” — the term used by those in the aviation industry to refer to autopilot — take over the controls. Interestingly, even if the pilot really wants to fly the plane themselves, there does come a point in which they have to engage autopilot.

In order to meet the requirements of the Reduced Vertical Separation Minima (RVSM), pilots have to engage autopilot after reaching an altitude of 28,000 - 29,000 feet on their way to cruising altitude. This enables planes to be able to fly in the same airspace with only 1,000 feet of vertical spacing between them. Autopilot systems maintain altitude and are incredibly consistent, which makes RVSM possible to begin with.

Do Pilots Use Autopilot During Storms?

As we mentioned above, many pilots like to wait to turn autopilot on until they’re much higher than the point at which they can turn it on. But one reason that pilots will opt to turn the system on much sooner after taking off is if it’s stormy out or there is bad weather. During storms and heavy fog, pilots will often turn autopilot on as soon as possible.

This is because the autopilot system can take over much of the flying while allowing the pilot to concentrate on other things, such as avoiding the storms as much as possible. Autopilot can also be extremely helpful when there is heavy fog and it’s difficult to see, since the system does not require eyesight like humans do. This makes it a vital part of any successful flight or landing in the most severe weather conditions.

When Do Pilots Turn Autopilot Off?

Now that we’ve talked extensively about when pilots turn autopilot on, it only makes sense that the next thing you’re likely wondering is when pilots turn the autopilot system off. So let’s take a quick look.

Let’s start with the hard and fast rule that pilots must follow. Current regulations state that autopilot must be disengaged upon reaching the decision altitude (DA). Most commonly this altitude is 200 feet above the touchdown area, and this is applicable during most landings, which are known as “CAT I” instrument approaches and landings. In some of the worst landing conditions, pilots can potentially use autopilot even lower, but they must be trained in doing so.

While this 200-foot altitude rule is the lowest that pilots can fly using autopilot, at least in most cases, it is not the norm for many pilots. The majority of pilots don’t actually use a particular altitude as a threshold for when to disengage autopilot. Instead, they let autopilot handle the controls until the landing area and runway is clearly in sight and clearly visible.

What Do Pilots Do While Autopilot Is Flying?

There seems to be a common misconception among the masses that when autopilot is flying an airplane, the pilots are free to do whatever they want. They can get their meals, go to the bathroom, read a book, take a nap, or one of a hundred other things that they can do. As long as the autopilot is flying the plane, they’re free to get up and move around, right?

Well, not exactly.

It is actually required that a pilot must be at the controls and paying attention to everything going on at all times, regardless of if the autopilot system is flying the plane or not. Just because autopilot is flying, the pilots cannot leave the cockpit to go to the bathroom or take a nap. At least not both of them. As long as one pilot remains at the ready, then the other one(s) can leave the cockpit and do whatever it is that they need to do.

So to answer the question about what pilots do while autopilot is flying, it’s actually not a whole lot different from what they would be doing otherwise. At least one pilot must always be ready to take control of the aircraft at a moment’s notice and must be monitoring the instruments and the airplane’s systems to make sure that autopilot is flying the plane correctly and it’s all operating as it should be.

While I’m sure that pilots would love to be able to just turn on autopilot and then go do whatever they want, that just isn’t the case! Passengers get to lay back, sleep, watch movies, etc. But the pilots are responsible for the aircraft as well as everyone on board. So using autopilot isn’t just a free pass — the onus is still on the pilots!