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Who's Flying This Thing???

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An observation I occasionally hear from Customers as we chat during the boarding process is that as Pilots we don't actually fly the aircraft very much; rather, the autopilot does all of the work.  My initial response is "yes and no".  I have flown aircraft in which I did the takeoff and at 400 feet above the ground could engage the autopilot, and the airplane was capable of flying several thousand miles, make the approach, land, and slow to taxi speed.  All the Crew had to do was verfiy that the information the plane used to make the flight was correct, disconnect the autopilot and autobrakes, and taxi off the runway and to the gate (and, yes, take over if the system failed!!).  Southwest's 737 aircraft do not have autoland, but the autopilot is capable of all other phases of flight. For the most part, Pilots at Southwest use the autopilot as drivers use the cruise control in the family car:  to ease our workload during hours and hours behind the wheel, and to keep us refreshed.  We actually "hand fly" the autopilot by inputting commands into the autoflight system to tell the aircraft to climb, descend, and cruise at a particular altitude.  Certain reduced visibility approaches require the autopilot to be used until ready for landing.  The lowest visibility approaches flown at Southwest actually require the Captain to hand fly the aircraft using special guidance systems to descend to within 50 feet of the ground before we have to see the runway and needing only 700 feet of forward visibility.  We can even takeoff with as little as 300 feet of visibility (the length of a football field) at certain airports, making it safer to fly that day than it was to drive to the airport. Sometimes it is better for the Pilot to do the flying than the autopilot.  A case in point was during my last flight sequence flying into Kansas City (MCI) and St. Louis (STL).  In both cities, the winds were very strong and gusty, over 71 mph just a couple of thousand feet above the ground, and over 40 mph at the surface.  The autopilot does not handle these conditions very well, so we get to do all the work. So the next time you are flying along, taking advantage of Southwest's low fares, enjoying a cold beverage and our award-winning Flight Attendants' gracious hospitality, and wondering who is doing the flying during the "cruising" part of your flight, it is probably the autopilot.  But rest assured, there are two highly trained individuals in the first row of seats working just as hard to get you to your destination safely and as comfortably as possible.
20 Comments
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Wow!!!! Thanks for clearing that up... Yesterday when we landed in San Diego the pilots slammed on the breaks as if we had no more runway left, even though we did. San Diego seems like a challenging airport to land at. Have you ever landed here or in SNA? I know places like ABQ AND PHX have four long runways... USS BLOG BOY
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Hello Captain-a few years ago Airliner (?) magazine did an article about SWA getting the 737-700 and had some pics of a lady who was described as one of SWA's chief pilots at the controls. I could have sworn that the article said the planes were autopilot equipped, but that SWA policy was manual landing except in an emergency. Do I not remember correctly? When I was reading Captain Stark's entry a couple of months ago about being diverted to BWI and it still being dicey there I was wondering about that..............
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Hi Jeff, I was the one who wrote that article, and it was for Airways magazine. I think you are confused by autopilot and autoland. Autopilots have been on every major airliner since 1945, but autoland is on some widebodied aircraft and the Airbus narrowbodies. Autoland essentially flies the aircraft completely, whereas an autopilot is actually controlled by the Pilots. My article mentioned that Southwest doesn't use the autothrottle feature of the 737-700. Captain Evans can provide you with more information about that. Even without autoland, our HGS-equipped aircraft can operate as Captain Evans mentioned in the same Category IIIA conditions as an autloand aircraft, the difference is that our Pilots fly the aircraft instead of the computer. For more information on HGS, please see this post by Captain Stark. Brian
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Jeff, I think you are confusing "autoland" with "autopilot." Automatic Pilot controls such thingss as heading, altitude, and speed. Autoland does what it says. Lands the plane without input from the pilots. Pretty much all commercial aircrafts have autopilot installed. The pilots might keep the autopilot on until the last 50 feet or so when they reach the decision height, which is the point where if the pilot has the runway surface/lights in sight, he can continue and land. If he does not have them in sight, he must preform a go-around.
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Thanks-I meant to say autoland-having been on half a dozen flights autolanding iin CLT fog (I asked the flight deck crew to be certain each time) I really do know the difference. But to prove I'm not the brightest bulb on the tree: as a student pilot I wandered too far away one time and had to land in very dark twilight-couldn't remember how to turn on instrument lights in a 150. So I was striking matches-later found out 150's (at least at that time) had a low illum orange overhead light. So, yeah I've done many dumb things and sorry for the misstatement above
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I know this has nothing to do with this blog, but I couldn't find any info in your search feature. Anyways, is Southwest still opening their homebase in Las Vegas in October 2007?
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Hi Brian, This is one of the advantages of Head Up Dispalys (HUD's). They are wonderful tools for helping the pilots manage their workload, and in particular the transition from heads down (looking at the instruments) to heads up (looking outside). It also provides the pilots with spatial awareness, with cues on where they should expect to see the runway for example. Any Cat III approach (wether hand flown or performed with Autoland) requires a large amount of skill and training on behalf of fflight crew, they definitely earn their money to get us up and back down, safely, comfortably, and on time! Any flight is a collective team effort, and Southwest has got the best in it's industry! :o)
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Hi Anna, yes the Las Vegas Crew Base should open on schedule. Blog Boy
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lighting matches in a 150? wow I'm impressed! lol whenever I'm night flying, I carry phosphorous sticks of the kind that don't generate any heat - you crack them and shak 'em and they glow bright green for 12 hours. (www.cyalume.com - my flying club buys a box of about 1000 for night flying every year) great for checking fuel levels as well when refueling. That didn't stop me from forgetting the aircraft log book on top of a fuel pump once, realised at destination, re-filed a flight plan and went back to get it before anybody noticed. Had the ATC boys perplexed... :o(
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I fly a lot. A LOT! More than many ATP pilots. The thing that I have noticed is that SWA pilots are the best at maneuvering through bad weather. Living in Chicago, I have had a lot of bad-weather approaches into tiny Midway and the men and women in the front seats pull off some remarkable landings. I'd rather fly the middle seat on Southwest than first class on United!
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The pilots of our recent LAS-RNO flight did a great job of turning the plane into a 70+ MPH headwind to make final approach, and it may have been faster than that up there! As we turned, the 737 not only bounced up and down, but from side to side as well! :-o Also: This might be a dumb question, but what are those sloped metal barriers for at the end of runways, esp. in places like MDW and BUR? Are those for planes that overshoot the runway? (Just asking; not trying to rub in any bad memories of what happened at MDW.)
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Paul, Not a dumb question! Those are blast fences. They direct the exhaust away from whatever is on the other side of the runway. In midways case it is the road. I wish they still had the truelook cameras working there! A runway over run area is made of crushed concrete and other materials. Bud light presents real men of genius. Today we salute you Mr. Candycorn colorer guy. (also known as Charlie brown, Brian Lusk, Blog boy, blog bog, etc) Ding! boy Joe
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I consider myself enlightened, Ding! boy. Thanks much!
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I just wanted to thank the pilots that were flying on fight 2092 Kansas City to Denver on 4\2\2007! My 10year old son was flying for his first time and wanted to look in the cockpit this pilots took time out to show him around in there. He was so happy it made his whole trip! He has told everyone how great the pilots on southwest are!! Thanks so much for making his whole trip! Tonya Duval
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Having flown only twice in my life and this last time almost 3 years ago from kc into st louis and on to orlando it was a good experience and a good landing even if landing in orlando was dippy even and having to stay onboard due to storms that summer was an interesting experience
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I just wanted to add a bit of clarification regarding autopilots, autoland, etc. I don't think anyone in this thread has quite nailed the explanation just yet. An autopilot does just what you would expect--maintains altitude and heading as it is instructed, either by the flight management computers, or directly by the pilots. A plane might descend from 20,000 feet to 10,000 feet if the pilots change the altitude instruction the autopilot is given, or if the pilots disconnect the autopilot and manually fly the descent. Autoland is a special feature, performed by an autopilot (actually, three separate functioning autopilot circuits are usually required). For an autoland, instead of the crew disconnecting the autopilot and adjusting the throttle settings, pitch, and heading manually, the autopilot system is left active and it uses guidance from the Instrument Landing System beacons on the airport. A typical instrument approach requires a minimum of 200 feet ceiling and 1/2 mile visibility, but using autoland capability, an aircraft might land in complete whiteout conditions. Southwest uses a version of this scenario in which all flight control inputs are made by the Captain, instead of an autopilot, based on highly precise computer generated guidance again using the ILS beacons. So, in a nutshell, autoland requires an autopilot, but landing in very low visibility does not necessarily, as long as the aircraft and crew are properly equipped and trained. As far as I know, Southwest is the only major airline that chose to have its Captains perform a hand flown low visibility landing instead of an autopilot controlled landing in these conditions.
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To back up what Mark said.... The Boeing 737 comes with autoland as a standard part of its autopilot. However, the annual certification costs for that feature are astronomical. It still works but we do not use it because it is not certified. The Heads Up Display (HUD) is only about 1/4 as costly per year and gets the same job done with the Captain driving. That keeps my skills up and gives my company a decent competitive advantage which allows SWA to keep our fares cheaper. Win. Win. Win. Alaska pioneered the HUD in civilian airline operations and much of what we did with the HUD was based on their experience. The new 787 will come with 2 HUDS installed, one for each pilot. Ray
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I find the concept of engaging an autopilot at 400 feet above the ground on take off and 50 feet above the ground on landing to be very dangerous. Why? Because, if the autopilot experiences what is called an un- commanded in-put, or to put it in layman's term, a malfunction, there is little, if any airspace to recover. If the auto-pilot through some strange computer error calls for the rudder to move hard right or left, there is absolutely no air space left to recover. Two tragic crashes of Boeing 737s have taken place. One in Pittsburgh, and another one at another location. The fact is, they were never able to find the cause of those crashes with any degree of certainty. They said that the rudder went into an un commanded manuever and caused the plane to roll over on its back, killing all aboard. This is just plain stupid to trust a mechanical auto pilot that close to the ground. The pilots should hand fly the aircraft to a minimum of 2500 feet and then let the auto pilot take over. I can't believe the stupidity of the flight training on this. I won't even use auto-pilot in my car because of the danger of it suddenly taking over the throttle and causing an accident. Mistakes and glitches can and do occur. And I sure as hell would not want to trust my life and the life of 150 passengers to the cleanliness of the hydraulic fluid operating the rudder, and some auto-pilot which has gone through 1000s of flights. This is not right and not smart flying. Now, I'm sure that I will be deluged with pilots protesting what I'm saying, but I stand by my observation. You can rest assured that Air Force One and it's pilots would never DREAM of indulging in such lazy antics with the President on Board. I always thought that Southwest had it's act together. Now, I realize they are an accident waiting to happen. How lazy can you be? Wait until you are at a safe altitude, and then engage the auto pilot. Otherwise, there is absolutely no room to recover from an glitch in the autopilot system. And quite frankly, I don't care how many flight instructors disagree with me on this, it's a stupid practice.
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Actually I believe that the minimum altitude at which a 737s autopilot can be engaged is 1000 ft. And if the autopilot has malfunction a 50 ft, whats the worst that could happen? the crew would likely have control back by 30 ft, and from there, the worst would probably be a broken landing gear and one beat up plane. SWVA 7071
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"And I sure as hell would not want to trust my life and the life of 150 passengers to the cleanliness of the hydraulic fluid operating the rudder, and some auto-pilot which has gone through 1000s of flights.".... Hydraulic fluid is used to actuate the control surfaces. Period. It does not matter if the initiator of those control inputs is the pilot pressing on a pedal or turning the yoke, or if it is the autopilot initiating those same inputs. Either way, it's still hydraulic. Autopilot systems are tested and/or self-tested before every flight, as well as other items that are tested at least daily such as thrust reversers, auto-rudder for single engine ops, etc. Also, once the autopilot is engaged, if any uncommanded or undesired control inputs are observed, the pilots have numerous ways to disconnect it, most of which are, by design, quite readily at hand.