Landing Airplanes on Autopilot

Q: A recent article stated autopilot features are now so advanced they can land airplanes in bad weather on their own. Is this true?

Yes, this is true, but autoland has been around since the 1960s. The British-built de Havilland Trident was the first jet to have this capability, in 1967.

Even in good weather a crew will occasionally execute an autoland for practice or to maintain currency. Practice? Yes, because while it’s technically correct to say “the plane lands itself” the operation is vastly more elaborate than simply pressing a button marked LAND.

For a flight to take advantage of this technology for an actual low visibility touchdown, airplane, crew, and the runway itself all must be equipped, current, and qualified. A true, zero visibility automatic landing is extremely rare. Fog-prone airports, as you might expect, tend to be outfitted for them.


This article is part of a collection that originally appeared on Salon.com. Patrick Smith, 38, is an erstwhile airline pilot, retired punk rocker and air travel columnist. His book, Ask the Pilot (Riverhead) was voted “Best Travel Book of 2004” by Amazon.com. Patrick has traveled to more than 55 countries and always asks for a window seat. He lives near Boston.