Results: Can a novice land a passenger plane?

30 July 2019

Interview with 

Ben Boness, Virtual Aviation in Cambridge

COCKPIT

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

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It’s time to check back in with Naked Scientists Matthew Hall and Ben Boness from Virtual Aviation to see if Matt can land a plane. Last we heard, they were a thousand feet above the ground preparing for their landing in a flight simulator, with Ben coaching Matt through the descent. Let’s find out their fate…

Ben - So they tell you to push this one here. That is the autothrottle and here we have the thrust lever, so if you just move them forward... Okay.

Matthew - The autothrottle maintains the speed of the aircraft by adjusting the thrust of the plane and keeping it at the correct altitude before descending.

Ben - We also need to slow down. The aircraft has what we call an autobrake, so as we touch down the brakes will automatically engage and slow down the aircraft. So if you just select this button here...

Matthew - I set the brake to medium with the push of a button and we were almost at the runway. There was just one more button to press.

Ben - That's our approach button, and that's telling the aircraft to follow an instrument landing system to touch down.

Matthew - Landing was imminent. The last piece of the plane puzzle was to pull a giant lever back, cutting all the thrust, as soon as air control instructed me. And we were almost there.

Ben - Here we go…

That's good, so we can see the aircraft touches down, keeps us nicely on the centreline and you can see our speed reducing now. Welcome to London Stansted.

Matthew - Wow, we're alive.

And all it took were three buttons and a lever. Do not be fooled by the simplicity though because it has taken over a century of development for the autopilot software to get this good at its job.

With all the passengers safely on the ground, I sat down with Ben to ask him about the future development of autopilot systems.

Ben - A lot of the advancements lately have been in communications, so how we communicate with air traffic control on the ground, so a lot of that is becoming text messages between the aircraft and the ground controllers. But from an autopilot point of view they are extremely accurate, they are extremely reliable and you can see today how they can best be employed to help us as pilots.

Matthew - Absolutely! On the note of that though, is there a fear in the industry that this software will get so developed, so keen on landing/takeoff/flying that we’ll see a future of a pilotless cockpit?

Ben - I think anything like that is certainly a long way off. I don't think we're going to see, certainly manufacturers testing pilotless flights for at least the next 30, 40, maybe 50 years.

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