EP 3 Autopilot Question

Is having a large, lumbering aircraft like the EP 3 set on autopilot while a fighter jet is twenty feet off of its left wing tip a good idea? It would seem it is, having not heard any criticism otherwise. Why? Does autopilot do a better job of holding the aircraft steady than a human pilot? Under those circumstances, does the human pilot still keep his hands on the controls, just in case a sudden evasive maneuver is necessary? If so, why doesn’t he just fly the plane himself?

IANA Pilot, but I know people who are and the advantage of using the autopilot is that it allows the pilot to do other things (like take pictures for example) without having to worry about the plane going into a dive.

Since it’s easy to turn on and off the autopilot I assume they use it when they want to free their hands and turn it off when they need to fly the plane manually. Just a WAG.

IANAPilot, but:

I think that autopilot would be the best idea. Although I do not trust the piloting ability of a Chineese fighter pilot more than you do, I think that they would be less likelt to crash into a constantly moving object than one that makes sudden manuvers based upon information that is probably not entirely accurate. It is impossible for a pilot to manuver effectively when another aircraft is flying 2 inches off of a control surface that they can neither see or precisely control.

Quite simply, swerving to avoid will cause more accidents than resisting the temptation to react.

Thanks Dolphinboy for cluing me in on the concept of autopilot. I was totally in the dark about it until you presented us with your vast expertise in aviation. I bet you slept in a Holiday Inn last night.

IANAP either. That’s why it makes no sense to me to fly on autopilot with another aircraft 20 feet away from a mid-air collision. It would be nice if a pilot could explain the rational behind this. I would never drive my car through heavy traffic at 70 mph on cruise control. In fact, it’s impossible to do safely for more than a moment or two.

The EP 3 had two pilots, a PRC fighter jet directly in front of it, and another one 20 feet off of its left wing. Why couldn’t one of the pilots fly the plane while the other one “took pictures”? Why couldn’t both pilots pay attention and let one of the other 21 crew members “take pictures”?

IAAP, but I’ve never flowm anything as large as the EP-3. However, it is my understanding that aircraft of this size have their autopilots on all the time, although not fully engaged. Often when maneuvering around traffic, large turbine powered aircraft will have their airspeed hold function of the autopilot engaged, but the heading and altitude hold functions disengaged. This allows the pilot to fly the direct heading and altitude changes manually while not having to worry so much about power and airspeed settings. The press describing the autopilot as being on isnt terribly helpful.

In regards to which is better, I’d say that the pilot would be more able to make quick fine adjustments. However, the autopilot would fly a more predicable route, and an autopilot is able to keep a high level of percision over long periods of time. Hand flying in close formation is extremely fatiguing.

As far as evasive maneuvers, EP-3 is slow and lumbering. At the distances and speeds we are talking about here, I don’t think anyone would be able to react quickly enough should a collision appear imminent. Besides, having the autopilot on and fully engage would not preclude evasive action. Every aircraft with an autopilot has a large red button on its control yoke. This is the autopilot disconnect and it is there so the pilot can quickly regain control of the airplane whenever he/she needs to.

P.S. Was the sarcasm directed at dolphinboy really necessary? I always thought this was a more civil forum, where people don’t get jumped on for less than stellar responses. Maybe I’m wrong though.

  1. I can see that you’ve never been in any P-3’s. Nor have you taken advantage of some of the Javascript items on sites such as CNN. (Sorry: Can’t post the link here: I can’t get it to copy correctly. Go to CNN.com, look for the ‘Other Resources’ side bar on any EP-3 story) The cockpit doesn’t come with nice handy windows for picture taking. Nor is it a spacious place where you can bring extra people just for filming what is, in effect, a fairly common example of rude behavior: It’s not safe to crowd the flight deck. If you can take photos of the left wing, you are the pilot, or are at least sitting in his seat. Ditto the right wing, except then you’re the co-pilot. The cabin doesn’t come equipped with a windows, either. It’s full of electronics, and operators using those electronics to record every emmision coming off the fighters.

  2. Autopilot is very stable in almost all aircraft, and is the preferred mode of flying in a situation like this, as there’s far less chance of an autopilot error than a human error, in a situation where you need rock-steady flying. Or at least that’s what my buddies in the fixed-wing ASW community (P-3s) said when I asked them.

  3. When being overtaken by fast-movers (whom, btw, were not flying formation, but ‘buzzing’ the EP-3; Coming up from behind and above it, diving down and passing under the wing, then pulling up again in front of the aircraft and going around for another pass); When you’ve got a couple of cowboys playing this game with you, stable and predictable flight is exactly what you want, and what the autopilot provides.

  4. As you state, you’re not a pilot. The crew of the EP-3 ARE pilots, and ones with families. They are also highly trained professionals, placed in charge of an expensive and sensetive aircraft. That trust isn’t given to any yahoo off the street, nor to second-raters prone to panic or thoughtlessness. These are men and women whom very much want to get home at the end of the day, and have lots of practice doing just that. They’re not likely to be taking any unnecessary risks. I think you can count on them knowing in what mode the aircraft ought be flying at any given point in time.

:. If the aircraft was in autopilot, it was supposed to be in autopilot.

Equality 7-2521 will you please refrain from less than civil comments to folks who are just dropping in to keep your thread alive? Thank you.

I am a pilot and I am just starting to learn to use an autopilot, so please keep that in mind during the following.

First of all, although “autopilot” bears a passing resemblance to “cruise control”, they are not the same thing. A better term might be “labor-saving devices” but the “autopilot” name has stuck.

There is this thing called “trim” on most airplanes. It allows you to adjust things so you don’t have to be constantly applying pressure to the controls to maintain level flight. In smooth air, a properly trimmed aircraft will continue at the same altitude, speed, and heading even if you take your hands off the controls. I also have been flying a plane that allows you to lock the throttle in place, thereby maintaining constant power without requiring constant attention on the pilot’s part. Very handy when you need to fly, adjust navigation radios, and write down what air traffic control is telling you all at the same time. That way I only need 1 extra hand instead of 2 or 3 extra hands.

Of course, air is seldom completely smooth, the balance of the plane changes with fuel burn and, in a large enough plane, with people moving around inside. Autopilots range from devices that merely keep the wings level to sophisticated, computer-controlled things that can almost render a pilot superfluous - climbing, holding course through heading changes, monitoring systems, and taking the plane through descent and landing.

All of them can be overridden by that “big red button” on the control yoke/stick; all the ones that I’ve heard of will automatically shut down if a human being grabs the controls and makes a sudden, large input; and as a last resort you can pull a circut breaker to shut them down in the event the device malfuctions and starts causing severe problems.

Properly used, yes, an autopilot might in fact fly a given course more accurately than a human, especially when you factor in things like military-grade GPS. A pilot is still there to monitor the machine, make adjustments, and, oh yes, deal with situations like harassing fighter jets which, of course, the autopilot is not programmed to deal with. The pilot is also there to deal with emergencies like mid-air collisions.

An autopilot would help a plane like an EP 3 fly the intend course while staying out of official Chinese airspace - being a machine, it can’t be distracted as a human can. So having it on autopilot makes perfect sense to me. Although it would not require constant attention the pilot(s) would be keeping an eye on it, to make sure it was continuing to function properly. Meanwhile, this would free up pilot time to look out the window for things like other passing airplanes that might require a sudden change of plans. So, really, it is safer to use the autopilot than to not do so.

Thanks to Broomstick, Tranquilis, and Dr. Lao for relieving this lay person of his ignorance in aviation. I appreciate the pilot’s skill in landing the aircraft under those circumstances, but I didn’t understand why total control of the aircraft under those conditions was not optimal. You all did a great job of making that clear.

I’m sorry if I was hard on the lad. I don’t need my GQ mocked by someone who has nothing constructive to say, just to keep my thread alive.

It’s ironic, though, that Dolphinboy was correct. What he said was:

The purpose of the autopilot systems is, indeed, to free up the pilot from one flying task to allow him or her to perform some other task(s). I don’t think he was mocking you at all.

Again, I’m sorry broomstick. I’ve re-read the GQ, and it seems clear to me that I was asking why autopilot would be used in a dangerous situation, like the one that caused an international incident between two superpowers. You and the other pilots answered that for me. Thank you.

Yes, dolphinboy gave what I took as a rather condescending answer to “I’ve never heard of autopilot. What is it?”

My most humble apoligies to all who were offended by my apparent lack of GQ etiquette.

Hey, it’s cool now.