I'm studying aircraft maintenance. I looked in my books and searched the web but couldn't make a big picture of the concept of autopilot.

  • Specifically what is its relation to modern systems like FMS.
  • Is the AFCS an independent system or does it take orders from the FMS?
  • What are AFCS subsystems?
  • Is the flight director the old version of FMS?

2 Answers 2


Since you are studying maintenance, I would suggest you obtain a copy of ATA iSpec 2200, Information Standards for Aviation Maintenance ATA Standard Numbering System. Most large aircraft manufacturers and airlines use the ATA Standard Numbering System in organizing their maintenance documentation.

To your specific question, the ATA spec lists the following:

The FMS is the primary tool for managing the navigation. It is part of the larger Navigation system which includes the aircraft attitude, air data, and positioning sensors. The FMS supports flight planning (path definition) and integrated position determination.

Chapter 34 NAVIGATION, section 60 Flight Management Computing.

That portion of the system which combines navigational data to compute or manage the aircraft's geographical position or theoretical flight path. Includes items such as course computers, flight management computers, performance data computers, and associated control display units, warning annunciators, etc.

The FM function outputs a desired path and guidance data to the displays and AFCS. The FMS is one source of path and target (altitude and or speed) data for the AFCS. The other input source is by crew input via the Mode Control Panel (MCP).

The AFCS is functionally independent from the FMS and primary flight control system (FCS), though it is sometimes physically integrated with one or the other or both.

The AFCS has two major components, autopilot and auto throttle. Autopilot includes the Flight Director.

Chapter 22 AUTO FLIGHT, section 10 Autopilot

That portion of the system that uses radio/radar signals, directional and vertical references, air data pitotstatic, computed flight path data, or manually induced inputs to the system to automatically control the flight path of the aircraft through adjustment to the pitch/roll/yaw axis or wing lift characteristics and provide visual cues for flight path guidance, i.e.: Integrated Flight Director. This includes power source devices, interlocking devices and amplifying, computing, integrating, controlling, actuating, indicating and warning devices such as computers, servos, control panels, indicators, warning lights, etc.


Chapter 22 AUTO FLIGHT, section 30 Auto Throttle

That portion of the system that automatically controls the position of the throttles to properly manage engine power during all phases of flight/attitude. This includes engaging, sensing, computing, amplifying, controlling, actuating and warning devices such as amplifiers, computers, servos, limit switches, clutches, gear boxes, warning lights, etc.

The AFSC computes the necessary control inputs to fly the aircraft along the defined path and meet targets. It provides control inputs into the flight controls (ATA Chapter 27) or in the case of the Flight Director, it generates a display that directs the pilot to make the needed control inputs.

This steering will steer the aircraft to the path defined by the FMC, or it can steer to a simple path entered by the pilot directly into the AFCS via the MCP. In older aircraft, the autopilot steers by using a series of special actuators to manipulate the controls. In modern fly-by-wire aircraft, it provides input directly to the FCS as the FCS already has the necessary actuators.

Auto Throttle provides throttle adjustments to meet speed targets from the FMC or MCP.

By the ATA standard, the FMS, AFCS, and FCS are three distinct systems. As noted above, modern fly-by-wire systems are beginning to blur the boundaries. Without the need for separate actuators for the AFCS, it just becomes software much of which is getting merged with the primary FCS.

  • $\begingroup$ Not all AFCS include an auto throttle or auto thrust system. Not all autopilots include a flight director. $\endgroup$
    – J W
    Commented Jul 10, 2017 at 23:16
  • $\begingroup$ Thank you so much Gerry . it was very helpful . and is the ATA iSpec 2200 available to public for free or it's a published book ? I googled it and couldn't find anything . thank you $\endgroup$
    Commented Jul 11, 2017 at 6:55
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ It's a publication of the Airlines for America (www.airlines.org) which was formerly known as the Air Transport Association (ATA). Most of their industry information can be purchased through their e-business portal (www.ataebiz.org). The documents cover a wide range of airline operations. Unfortunately, they're not cheap. I have the iSpec Extract, which is just the structure and definitions without all the details. You might see if your school library can obtain a copy. Alternately, you can just look at a Boeing or Airbus maintenance manual if you have access to one. $\endgroup$
    – Gerry
    Commented Jul 11, 2017 at 11:31

The FMS is the whole system that includes everything from the knobs the pilots touch, the CDU's with keypads and screens, the black-box computers, everything.

A flight director is, conceptually, an autopilot without the actuators -- it presents guidance to the pilot, who follows that guidance to match what an autopilot would be doing.

The AFCS may take orders from the Flight Management Computer(s) (which are parts of the overall FMS), or it may be set to fly simply a given heading & altitude -- whatever mode the pilot has selected.


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