Ask the Captain: Is flying a plane as easy as driving a car?

ByJohn Cox, special for USA TODAY
February 27, 2012, 5:54 AM

— -- Question: Is it true that flying a commercial jet, aside from all of the many checks you need to constantly be watching, is as easy or even easier than driving a car? I've heard this a few times from people trying to calm my nerves.

— submitted via e-mail

Answer: The comments made by the people you refer to are a bit misleading. Unlike a car, an airplane in cruise flight does not require constant minor corrections if it is on autopilot. An automobile may have cruise control, but the driver has to make constant corrections to keep it in the proper lane. An airplane's autoflight system (autopilot and autothrottle) can maintain the proper speed and fly the proper path. However, the pilots must carefully monitor the flight path to ensure it is correct. During take-off, climb, descent and landing, pilots are much more directly involved requiring more concentration than driving.

Professional pilots are very experienced in flying their aircraft. This experience makes the complex tasks required of them "easy" most of the time. However, unquestionably flying is more complicated and demanding than driving.

One consideration hopefully to help calm your nerves. Driving is one of the more dangerous activities we do on a regular basis. Flying is one of the safest.

Q: Hello Captain, do all trans-Atlantic flights have an "auto pilot" and "auto landing function?" Does this mean that technically we don't really need a pilot/s? Under what circumstances will someone need to be there at the pilot seat to manually land the plane like in Apollo 13?

Thank you,

— Daretowin555555

A: To my knowledge all airplanes flying trans-Atlantic have autopilots. The vast majority are autoland capable. We very much do need pilots. None of these autopilots can be programed from the ground, furthermore there are far too many variables that happen during a flight to even consider flying without a pilot. While there are some autolandings, most landings are made by pilots manually. I am not sure I would characterize it as being like Apollo 13. Professional pilots are skilled individuals who land aircraft in many different conditions safely. We may one day have automation allowing airliners to fly without pilots, but that day is a long way off.

John Cox is a retired airline captain with U.S. Airways and runs his own aviation safety consulting company, Safety Operating Systems.

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