Automatic flight controls are now considered a standard feature in general and commercial aviation. A pilot might depend on an autopilot system for a variety of tasks, such as guiding an aircraft on a programmed route, maintaining a determined altitude, or aircraft landing (currently, these systems are not employed during takeoff).
Autopilot System Basics
Automated flight controls are made up of two integrated systems: the autopilot system, and the flight director (FD) component. The flight director operates as the “brains” of the system. It makes calculations based on parameters set by the pilot and is responsible for determining what controls and movement are necessary in order to meet those specifications. In most cases, the FD will rely on an air data computer (ADC), a flight data computer, a flight management system (FMS), and hundreds of component sensors throughout the aircraft.
The autopilot system is responsible for carrying out the determinations of the FD, or control movement of the aircraft. It accomplishes this through a set of electromechanical devices or servo actuators, which will interact with control surfaces through control circuits, and initiate control movement based on input from the FD.
There are three major control areas on an aircraft, which are based on its three axes of rotation. These components are called the elevators, rudder, and ailerons. An autopilot system actuates any one of the control surfaces when engaged by the FD, allowing the aircraft to turn, descend or lift based on the mechanisms interaction with airflow.
Pros and Cons of Automatic Flight Control
Automatic flight controls reduce the workload of a pilot, allowing them to focus on other priorities such as monitoring fuel consumption, weather conditions, and other outstanding avionic systems. The control system can also be highly beneficial in more adverse situations that a pilot might encounter. They can manage consistencies in aircraft control when navigating a busy terminal or buy time when determining a new flight plan in unexpected weather conditions. However, one of the most important aspects of understanding a flight control system, is knowing when to use it, and when not to.
The most prevalent con of an automated control system is the tendency to become over dependent on its capabilities. The Air France Flight 447 crash of 2009 is known as a prime example of what can go wrong when the functionality of an automated system is not fully understood. The Airbus A330 aircraft disconnected from its automatic flight controls unexpectedly, and the flight crew did not know how to resolve the situation and regain control of the aircraft. The crash resulted in the loss of the 228 passengers onboard.
While it can sound redundant, it’s important for the pilot and maintenance crew to remember to regularly inspect the airworthiness of these automatic flight controls. Even if the pilot is perfectly trained to use these instruments and work without them, it’s dangerous to fly with malfunctioning equipment.
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