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How difficult is it to hand-fly a jet at cruise altitudes? Other than autopilot failure and just doing it for the fun of it, when might you want to hand-fly at those altitudes?

I suspect the answer to the first question varies with different aircraft. I have an answer for the 747-100 and -200 series below.

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The Lockheed U2 was extremely difficult to hand fly due to it's narrow coffin corner. – shortstheory May 29 '14 at 15:23
@shortstheory IS! We still use the U2! – HCBPshenanigans Oct 13 '14 at 20:43
I was a flight attendant for a major carrier and taking flying lessons back in the early 80's. When I had about 5 hrs total time, a captain who was a friend of mine allowed me to try and hand fly a 727 at altitude from the right seat while we were over international waters. (Not that that would have mitigated the consequences if it got out what we were doing) I couldn't do it. The lag time between input and reaction was just too long for me to get any kind of feel for the controls. I tried for a couple minutes with him continually re-engaging the autopilot after the excursions got too big. – PJNoes Feb 18 at 16:56

For 747-100 and -200 aircraft at 35,000 ft and above, you can do it, but it's hard to keep the airplane within 100 feet of the assigned altitude, and you typically can't do that (or at least I couldn't) without practice. 200 foot altitude excursions were the norm when I first took control if I had not done it for a while. For the few first officers that accepted an invitation to try it, an initial 300 foot altitude excursion was typical when they first tried it, especially immediately after disengaging the autopilot.

I found the concentration required was very tiring. Ten minutes was typically enough to satisfy the urge.

Insofar as when you might want to do it, I found hand-flying produced a smoother ride in heavy to severe turbulence than the autopilot's turbulence mode, which tended to try to keep the assigned altitude and aircraft pitch too slavishly.

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Are you even allowed to do it now there is RVSM? – Jan Hudec May 28 '14 at 18:58
@JanHudec No, handflying is off limits in RVSM airspace. – DeltaLima May 28 '14 at 19:11
It helps a lot if you have a good flight director with altitude capture and hold. Then it isn't quite as big of a deal, though it is still tiring because of the constant concentration that it requires. In the past when an autopilot has failed, I would take turns with the other pilot and we would only fly for 15 minutes at a time. – Lnafziger May 28 '14 at 19:14
@Lnafziger Using a flight director is cheating! lol Although I suppose one could say that using the artificial horizon is cheating and one should do it simply by outside visual reference. I tried that once and it simply didn't work for me. – Terry May 29 '14 at 5:25

It's probably not a good idea to hand fly jets at cruise altitudes in many cases (US, EU, and others). The reason is that from FL290 to FL410 (29,000 to 41,000 feet standard pressure altitude), a lot of airspace is under RVSM rules (Reduced vertical separation minima).

This means that aircraft are only separated by 1000 feet vertically. One of the requirements for flying in RVSM airspace is a system for automatically maintaining altitude. If this system is not working, either the aircraft must fly at an altitude outside RVSM space (most likely below) or ATC must agree to provide 2000 foot separation above and below from other traffic.

Some examples of this in practice:

See the related question for more details:

Is it legal to fly in RVSM airspace with an inoperative autopilot?

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You can legally do it at FL430 or above though! – Lnafziger May 28 '14 at 20:02
So you can handfly the supersonic Concorde at cruise? YEAHH! – shortstheory May 29 '14 at 15:23

Aerodynamic damping is proportional to density, so all maneuvers require less control input at altitude than near the ground. On the downside, excursions from the trimmed condition produce greater amplitudes before stability pulls the aircraft back. This explains why hand-flying needs more attention at high altitude.

Background: Damping is the reaction of a system to movement, and positive damping means the reaction slows the movement down. Case in point: The horizontal tail. When the pitch attitude changes (say, by a vertical gust which changes lift first on the wing, then on the horizontal tail), the rotation of the aircraft around the Y axis (the one pointing sideways) creates an additional vertical speed on the horizontal tail surface. This vertical speed is proportional to pitch speed (obviously) and the distance between c.g. and tail. This speed changes the local angle of attack by the ratio between the vertical speed and flight speed. Now we are at the core of it: A high flight speed will cause a smaller angle of attack change at the tail for the same pitch rate. Since this angle of attack change creates the damping force (by creating lift on the tail which counteracts the pitch movement), a higher flight speed at the same dynamic pressure will lead to less damping. This is a fancy way of saying that flying in lower density air makes the aircraft more responsive to disturbances.

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AF 447 was a case of the autopilot dumping control into the laps of the pilots, at cruise altitude and speed, and they managed to put the aircraft into a fatal high speed stall. At cruise, aircraft will often be fairly close to the edge of the envelope, and, as @PeterKämpf mentioned, you've really got to pay attention to what you're doing, so you don't end up on the wrong side of the limits. – Phil Perry May 29 '14 at 13:50
No, Phil, that was an ordinary low speed stall. A high speed stall happens when Mach effects limit the lift coefficient to values below what is required to create sufficient lift. And the cruise altitude of airliners is limited by engine power - they are not (yet) flying in the "coffin corner". Yes, the envelope is smaller, but mostly because of limited thrust. – Peter Kämpf May 29 '14 at 15:35
Sorry, I've frequently heard this case described as a "high speed stall", but maybe everyone saying that is wrong. They had what would normally be considered plenty of airspeed, but raised the nose way too high and stalled as a result. Would that still be considered a "low speed" stall even though they were (AIUI) still at more or less cruising speed? – Phil Perry May 29 '14 at 16:39
Yes, this is low speed stall because the dynamic pressure was not high enough to allow the aircraft to fly properly. The angle of attack was well into the stall region, large sections of the wing had separated flow and the drag that goes with it. This drag caused the high sink rate which made AF447 sink from cruise altitude to sea level in just three minutes. They arrived there at the same dynamic pressure at which they started the descent, and then the aircraft was flying really slowly, too. – Peter Kämpf May 29 '14 at 16:58

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