A lot of new avionics basically fly small planes for you. Looking at a Beechcraft with a pretty cool glass cockpit, it claims to do everything for you except within 50 feet of the ground. Basically you takeoff and land and nothing else according to the advertising.

I'm planning on doing more than that, but it made me curious, is the "within 50 feet of the ground" non-autopilot part because it's a legal requirement or because it's just the trickiest part and they don't want to deal with that?

Is there a legal requirement in the US for part of the flight to be piloted manually, whether that be percentage or just takeoff and landing or is that just the hardest part to automate? If so, can it be remotely piloted?

  • $\begingroup$ I'm confused. Do you mean to say that the autopilot does everything except when you're within 50ft of the ground? $\endgroup$ Jun 5, 2017 at 19:05
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    $\begingroup$ What does "do everything for you" mean? Even if you're using automation, you still have to tell the computer what you want it to do. The output can only be as good as its input. Telling the automation what to do (and knowing how much automation to use when) is very much part of the skill of piloting a suitably equipped aircraft; you're just manipulating higher level controls. $\endgroup$ Jun 6, 2017 at 2:05

2 Answers 2


This varies based on if you are VFR or IFR certified.

Basic currency requirements for general aviation flying under part 91 which I presume is the target of this question. The comments to the answer outline the commercial implications, can be found in

§61.57 Recent flight experience: Pilot in command.

(a) General experience. (1) Except as provided in paragraph (e) of this section, no person may act as a pilot in command of an aircraft carrying passengers or of an aircraft certificated for more than one pilot flight crewmember unless that person has made at least three takeoffs and three landings within the preceding 90 days, and—

(i) The person acted as the sole manipulator of the flight controls; and

(ii) The required takeoffs and landings were performed in an aircraft of the same category, class, and type (if a type rating is required), and, if the aircraft to be flown is an airplane with a tailwheel, the takeoffs and landings must have been made to a full stop in an airplane with a tailwheel.

.... [read on for IFR and night currency]

However the FAA actually views using the auto-pilot as manipulating the controls. You can find the full legal interpretation here. But in short,

The FAA considers a pilot's use and management of the autopilot to be the equivalent of manipulating the controls, just as one manages other flight control systems, such as trim or a yaw dampener. The autopilot system's sophistication does not affect a pilot's responsibility to manipulate and manage all control systems, including an autopilot, appropriately. Therefore, a pilot may log PIC flight time as the sole manipulator of the controls for the time in which he or she engages an autopilot.

With that in mind you can maintain your currency using only auto-pilot and in theory if your plane and the desired airport was equipped for auto-land (which, as far as I know, no GA planes are) you could maintain your currency without physically manipulating the yoke aside from takeoff and climb to autopilot altitude. So no there is no legal obligation to physically touch the controls to maintain currency if your plane is capable of some kind of completely programmable flight (I don't think any are currently).

There is however one notable exception to this regulation. On an IFR checkride you must fly a manual approach,

From the ACS...

• The applicant must accomplish at least two nonprecision approaches in simulated or actual weather conditions.

  • At least one must be flown without the use of autopilot and without the assistance of radar vectors. The yaw damper and flight director are not considered parts of the autopilot for purposes of this Task.

It claims to do everything for you within 50 feet of the ground.

This is a bit misleading. First off, most, if not all GA planes lack auto-throttle so power management is in the hands of the pilot and is fully manual in most cases. Some more modern airplanes like the DA-42 have FADEC which loops prop and throttle controls to one lever minimizing but not eliminating manual control.

There are lots of autopilots out there and function varies heavily: some only have a single axis (heading hold and adjust capability). Some have 2 axes which can hold altitude and headings and some which have the ability to follow GPS courses, fly approaches down to different minimums etc. It should be noted that some units can be set to create situations that can stall the aircraft or otherwise put it in a dangerous flight scenario, the auto in autopilot does not mean absolute protection or full automation.

If so, can it be remotely piloted?

This is actually a completely separate question if you are asking "do I need to physically be inside the aircraft" i.e. "can I maintain currency with a drone if it's properly equipped". I don't think the FAA has fully fledged regulations on this yet. If by remote you mean by use of autopilot, see above.

  • $\begingroup$ IIRC on the Mythbusters episode about someone "talking the plane down", the vastly easier option was for them to just push the "autopilot" button, which would land the plane on its own. $\endgroup$ Jun 5, 2017 at 15:50
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    $\begingroup$ There is no such thing as an "autopilot" button. Autopilots have many modes which are activated though different buttons. There is also no "auto-land" button that must also be set up and not every plane or airport has the facilities or equipment required for that. APR mode will get you close to the runway if the rest of the instruments are properly set up but will not land the aircraft. $\endgroup$
    – Dave
    Jun 5, 2017 at 16:26
  • $\begingroup$ For part 121, there are regulations. See 14 CFR 121.579. law.cornell.edu/cfr/text/14/121.579 $\endgroup$ Jun 5, 2017 at 16:51

The pilot must abide by the limitations of the aircraft. The Pilot Operating Handbook and supplements will include limitations pertaining to when a particular autopilot may be used.

For example, a Garmin autopilot may have a minimum engagement speed of 70 KIAS. Notwithstanding other limitations and a FAR pertaining to careless and reckless operations, using the autopilot for takeoff or landing would not be approved.

  • $\begingroup$ 70 KIAS is far below liftoff or touchdown speeds for your typical aircraft. $\endgroup$
    – Vikki
    Oct 23, 2019 at 23:00

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