How often do airline pilots rely on autopilot? What happens if a plane's engine falls off?

·1 min read

Corrections & Clarifications: An earlier version of this column omitted the 1979 crash of American Airlines Flight 191 at Chicago O’Hare International Airport.

How often is autopilot used by the pilots during emergency? If not, then how much is it used during bad weather? What about takeoff and landing?

– Jai, India

During inclement weather, the autopilot is normally used. In cases of significant turbulence, a pilot may disengage the autopilot to help ease the vertical loads on the airplane by reducing the corrective control inputs.

All takeoffs and most landing are done manually. In reduced visibility conditions, many airliners utilize auto land where the autopilot(s) perform the landing under the close monitoring of the pilots.

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Can an airplane's engines fall off? What happens if they do?

– Maria, Towson, Maryland

On some older airliners, there were some very rare cases where an engine departed the airplane. The most famous case happened In 1979 when American Airlines Flight 191 crashed at Chicago O’Hare International Airport after the McDonnell-Douglas DC-10 lost its left engine during takeoff. All 271 people on board were killed along with two people on the ground.

Chicago was also the setting of another incident of another engine loss in the 1980s when a friend of mine was the captain of a Boeing 737-200. Soon after getting airborne, the pilots reported to the air traffic controllers that they would need to return as they had "lost an engine." The controller replied, "Yes sir, it is in a field just off the end of the runway." They returned for a safe landing.

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John Cox is a retired airline captain with US Airways and runs his own aviation safety consulting company, Safety Operating Systems. The views and opinions expressed in this column are the author's and do not necessarily reflect those of USA TODAY.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: How often do airline pilots rely on autopilot?

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