Can a novice land a passenger plane?

Naked Scientist Matthew Hall is put to the test of landing a commercial aircraft... simulator!
30 July 2019

Interview with 

Ben Bowness, Virtual Aviation in Cambridge


An inside view of the controls in a plane's cockpit


Which would you prefer: a plane flown by humans or one that is fully controlled by autonomous systems? Currently, aircrafts are controlled manually by a pilot but can also switch over to autopilot, an automatic system. In some cases, pilots can be in full control of the airplane for as little as 10 minutes throughout an entire flight. To find out exactly how safe this level of automation is for autopilot, and whether it could replace humans altogether, Matthew Hall set out to Cambridge Airport...

Matthew - Autopilot in commercial aircraft has come to the point where it's been implemented in almost all aspects of flight - all except the takeoff process. It's a little scary to think about just how much of our safety, while airborne, is in the hands of an automated software. We do also have the pilots that can take control at any time, in case of an emergency, but what if something were to happen to those pilots? Are we at a point now, in automation, where a novice could grab control of the plane and potentially land without incident? In a mission to discover more about present and future autopilot systems, I took off toward Virtual Aviation Airline Training which is home to a flight simulator used to train pilots for commercial aeroplanes...

Ben - Today, you're going to be seeing an airliner simulator - it's the Airbus A320 simulator and it's a device that is used to train pilots and it simulates the flight deck of an Airbus A320.

Matthew - That's Ben Boness, an aeroplane pilot and flight simulator instructor who is going to coach me through the landing process in his flight simulator.

Ben - The simulators are as close to the real aircraft as you can get. We use official system that simulates the outside environment, but all of the switches and the controls within the simulator are exactly the same in terms of look and feel as per the real aircraft. So the autopilot has to replicate what the autopilot would do on the real aircraft for us to have the aircraft or the simulator certified for what we use it for, so it is a hundred percent exactly the same as per the real aircraft. The only difference with the simulator, of course, is that there isn't motion. It's a fixed base simulator but apart from that everything is exactly the same as the real aircraft.

Matthew - But it's a simulation. What are some of the controls that you can do with this simulator that you can't do in real flight?

Ben - We have the ability to freeze a simulator. So if we want to cover some points of learning we can just freeze it and then talk about the particular manoeuvre, or what we’re looking at in the simulator - so we can freeze time. We are able to simulate different conditions, we can introduce failures, so that the trainees can see how the aircraft reacts. And we can change the position of the aircraft as well, so we could one minute be making an approach into a particular airfield, and then 10 minutes later we could reposition it to another airfield to look at a takeoff.

Matthew - If something were to go wrong and the pilots were unable to fly this plane and one of the customers at the back had come in and fly this thing, had to land it, is the autopilot in a condition where a novice, like myself, could take control and land a commercial sized aircraft?

Ben - I'm confident that we can talk you through how the autopilot flies and the different modes we can use to operate it and we'll see if you can land the aircraft yourself. I'm confident you'll be able to.

Matthew - Well no pressure then!

Ben then took me through an open hangar full of planes housing the simulator entrance. He opened the doors, and I was immediately in awe at the sight from the other side. The simulator itself is a massive metal box, easily the size of a living room, and on the inside metal box half of the interior was just dull white walls but the other half was alive - with the lights and controls of a perfect 'copy and paste' replica of a cockpit from a commercial aircraft.

Ben shut the soundproof doors, turned on the simulator, sat me down in the captain's chair and programmed the scene for an in-flight emergency situation. The pilots are down; I've been thrown into the front, I’m at 35,000 feet and I have no idea if I can land this thing.

Ben - So you need to come forward.

Matthew - The first step: activate the autopilot which is turned on simply by pressing a button labelled AP1.

The second step: descend to 20,000 feet which is controlled by turning a dial anticlockwise until the number 20,000 is displayed on the screen. And just like that, the plane cuts its throttle, and starts descending with no further control from me where it will eventually level off on its own.

The third step: once cleared by air traffic control is to get to 1300 feet in preparation for landing.

Ben - Okay. So we've now descended from 35,000 feet and we find ourselves 3 miles from the runway, 1,000 feet above the ground, currently flying at 140 knots and now it's Matt's job to get us on the ground.


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