How Does Autopilot Work On Aircraft?

In 1933, the famous eyepatch-wearing Wiley Post touched down in New York after completing the first around-the-world solo flight in seven days, 18 hours, and 49 minutes. This being his second famous flight, Post had completed an around-the-world trip just two years earlier with navigator Harold Gatty onboard to keep him on course and alert. So how was he able to complete a similar flight with no partner on board? The answer, of course, was autopilot, which kept him flying in the right direction while resting. This was not the first time autopilot was employed, nor would it be the last, as autopilot has now become a common feature on aircraft that uses many of the same basic principles as were utilized on Post’s flight more than a century ago.

How Does Autopilot Work?

Whereas “autopilot” is a name given to a variety of systems that can be used in ships, cars, buses, and more, we will largely be discussing the automatic flight control system (AFCS) which comprises autopilot on aircraft. While the first AFCSs were designed to provide relief to pilots during cruising periods that could become long and tedious, most modern ACFSs can also carry out some advanced maneuvers in flight. These maneuvers may include controlling the elevators, bearing rudder, ailerons, or even all three, depending on whether the autopilot is a basic “single-axis” or the more advanced “two- or three-axis” variant.

Modern aircraft autopilot systems also use a computer with a high-speed processor to control the aircraft, but their underlying technology is much the same as what was used in the 1912 design. For example, a gyroscope and altitude indicator remain the fundamental instruments used in modern autopilot, but with much greater accuracy as a result of improving technology. Still, other aircraft systems involved in autopilot will use compasses, airspeed indicators, and accelerometers, as well as monitor GPS signals to determine the plane's position. With this added information, the autopilot system can not only keep a straight and level path, but even execute an entire flight plan. In most cases, this system is used to ensure that the aircraft maintains the correct pitch, speed, heading, and altitude, making slight adjustments to the vehicle’s control surfaces to keep on track with a planned flight.

How Much Does the Autopilot Fly?

Autopilot systems have become very intelligent, able to effectively perform complex maneuvers like landing the plane whereas in the past they could only maintain a straight path mid flight. In fact, when visibility is very poor, autoland may be used to help bring the plane down when the pilot’s vision is compromised. Nevertheless, this is only possible at some airports and is very rarely used, with pilots landing manually nearly all of the time. More often, the autopilot is used to help make minor adjustments in response to controls set manually by the pilot. In this way, the autopilot can be thought of almost like the cruise control found on a car; it lends a great resource for pilots to focus on more important tasks while the autopilot can handle the menial ones associated with simply keeping the plane adjusted for the right heading. Nevertheless, although autopilots can give pilots a little bit of a break, they are still responsible for the inputs and are in control of the plane at all times.


First invented in 1912, just nine years after the Wright brothers’ first flight, autopilot has since become a standard system on most aircraft. Nevertheless, autopilot systems have changed significantly over the years, with the most up-to-date systems usually computer-controlled and highly sophisticated, but their underlying processes have remained largely the same. When you require autopilot system parts for your aircraft, ASAP Fasteners has you covered. As a leading distributor of Aircraft Parts that have been tested for their durability in the harsh conditions of flight, you can rely on our inventory of over 2 billion parts. Begin procuring the parts you need from our team of market experts when you submit a Request for Quote (RFQ) form on any item(s) of interest. With representatives on standby 24/7x365, you can expect a custom solution to your parts needs in 15 minutes or less!


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