What happens when pilots have to fly without an autopilot?

“Using the autopilot” is a bit of a vague statement that needs to be clarified. Firstly, we need to ask the question, “What does the autopilot actually do?”

On a modern airliner, there are various levels of automation available to the pilots. Some are emergency systems only activated if the safety of the aircraft becomes in doubt, for example, slow-speed protections. Others are used every day, such as the autothrottle. All these systems are designed to reduce pilot workload, allowing us to dedicate more of our mental capacity to other aspects of the flight, particularly during emergency situations.

The autopilot is merely a servant, it does what it’s told to do and no more. As a result, the performance of the autopilot is only as good as the instructions the pilots give it. If a crew instructs the autopilot to fly a heading of 090 degrees at 3,000 feet, the autopilot will do this perfectly… until it flies into a mountain. There are no prizes for this.

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