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Don Lee: Automated take off, landing a boon to pilots

As I was reading about Airbus research into automated take off and landing, I remembered my son-in-law, Riley Stevens, telling me about his automated landing while he was flying Boeing 767 for American Airlines.

He was coming into Santiago, Chile after coming down from flying over the Andes Mountains, which tower up to 22,000 feet, into Santiago, which is about 1,900-feet altitude.

The airport was reporting near zero visibility. The only way to land was to use a system called Category 3C landing procedure, which couples into the automatic pilot controls to land the plane. It is a series of radio signals that gives both altitude and directional guidance.

Riley had never landed that way, except on the simulator. He told me that on the final approach, he was thinking,

“In the next few moments, I’ll have either a safe landing or I’ll be dead.”

It was a safe landing. And, as I remember it, he told me a truck with a flashing light helped guide him to the terminal.

Airbus reported in the July 1 edition of the Wall Street Journal that they are facing the “gravest crisis” in their history according to CEO, Guillaume Faury. This concerns the dearth of air travelers and flying without a full load.

They will be laying off 11 percent of their employees. In spite of this, they have continued their research into automated flying.

Boeing is also having problems, laying off 10 percent of their employees.

It seems to me that Airbus has beat Boeing using an automated visual guidance system to land and take off. Rather than use radio signals to guide the plane, this system uses a visual presentation for guidance.

The modifications to the plane included several cameras and upgrading to the computers to accept the inputs from the cameras. They have been working on it for two years. It is named Autonomous Taxi, Take Off and Landing, or ATTOL.

They began testing in June 2018. A fully autonomous runway landing occurred recently on a flight from Beijing, China to Europe to deliver medical equipment.

They have been able to do the “whole ball of wax’” by automatically taxiing, take-off and landing for the first time ever. Their biggest problem is convincing the pilots to not do anything and to keep their hands off the throttle.

Most of the time, they have flown the plane to gather data. Airbus has carried out six test flights and has included five automated take offs and landing on each of the six flights. They used a modified Airbus 350-1,000 for their tests.

Of course, they have years of experience using automated flying and landing using ILS. They didn’t predict when the first commercial fight would occur.

There will be a lot of FAA testing before this happens. As a first step, it seems logical that they will fly with just one pilot for years before going fully automated. They will save a lot of money by this first step.

Don Lee, a pilot flying out of Lawrence County Airport since 1970, has been in charge of equipment and grounds maintenance for several years. He can be reached at eelnod22@gmail.com