What is the ratio of hand-flying to autopilot for a typical commercial pilot working for a large airline (British Airways, Virgin, EasyJet etc.) and how many hours a year might a typical captain rack up for hand-flying (on the job)?

This question came to mind after reading an ex-pilots rant here on Quora. Here is an excerpt:

Back in my day (yawn, boring old f . . . fellow alert) we spent years as a co-pilot before getting a command. Now it seems, 4,000 hours is all that’s needed, often a lot less. It wouldn’t be so bad if the pilot in question actually flew the darn machine, but for much of the time they are required to use the autopilot. Just no fun.

So, maybe five years from flying tiddlers at flying school to stepping into the left seat and nervously taxiing out for that first takeoff. Ahhh, not enough to be a good cyclist, let alone be in charge of a machine that gobbles EDIT a tonne of air a SECOND into each engine during the cruise and gulps fuel by the tonne.

Other skills? The sky may look empty, but you are very much NOT alone. I’ve had nights when I couldn’t get a word in edgeways and had to ‘hold’ in some arbitrary place until I could carry on to the landing just because of not being able to liaise with ATC. Trying.

Another skill? buying enough go-juice to get to where you’re going - with a very specific bit to spare. OKAY, HERE’S A TOUGH ONE.

You have low hours. A bullying boss. Carrying fuel costs money so you want minimum - or so they tell you. NO! The skill of telling bullies where to shove their low fuel suggestions is an important one - if you don’t want tea and bikkies with you boss followed by you tax and insurance forms. I’m having the fuel I want, and here’s why! You can say that when you’ve got a bit of experience under your belt.

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    $\begingroup$ Personally I wouldn't read too much into that rant - it's pretty typical of an older (in this instance retired) industry person bemoaning the newbies. Everyone tends to perceive it was harder for them to do [x, y, z] when they started in an industry. I'm sure people who flew in the 30's and 40's and 50's in things like DC-3's thought people like the above were just playing at it too. I mean, c'mon, where's your tailwheel and engine management! And yes, I think that question would inappropiate and unlikely to be answered $\endgroup$
    – Dan
    Commented Sep 3, 2018 at 10:05
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    $\begingroup$ @Cloud you think way, way too hard about this stuff. You've gotta learn to relax and look at the statistical probability of getting killed in an airliner flown by western crews - too microscopic to bother with, compared to the ride to the airport in a cab (which should be the really terrifying part). Non-western crews? A bit higher, to do with certain cultural issues like old fashioned attitudes to command, and which the industry is working on, but still very very low. $\endgroup$
    – John K
    Commented Sep 3, 2018 at 13:04
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    $\begingroup$ @Cloud The downvote may be due to the rant copied verbatim, which has no bearing to the actual question. (I did not downvote, but it's a duplicate nonetheless) $\endgroup$
    – Sanchises
    Commented Sep 3, 2018 at 13:31
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    $\begingroup$ Cloud, I completely agree with you that the question does not deserve a downvote, but your addendum in the comments is basically like shooting yourself in the foot, since you know that such kind of comments will set readers against you. It would be much better if next time you would keep the things completely separate and, if you really want to ask what you have now in the comment, just ask it in chat $\endgroup$
    – Federico
    Commented Sep 3, 2018 at 13:31
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    $\begingroup$ @Cloud I didn't apply a downvote and your question is actually a very good one because there is a debate on this going on in the industry. I reacted to your follow on comment/question that revealed maybe a bit of an obsessive over-concern on safety. Try to get a handle on it. I hope the stuff you learn on here helps with that. $\endgroup$
    – John K
    Commented Sep 3, 2018 at 18:10

1 Answer 1


An airline pilot flying a jet probably won't do much hand flying. This is not because they're lazy, it's that airlinrs tend to have operation specifications (opspecs) that may require use of the autopilot above certain altitudes. In this case, the pilots cannot hand fly.

Small commercial planes (Beech 1900, Metro, etc) may not even be equipped with autopilots. Planes in passenger service tend to have them installed moreso than their cargo carrying counterparts but, still, it's hit and miss.

Small planes (Piper Navajo, Twin Cessnas, etc) that fly commercially rarely have functioning autopilots so the pilots must hand fly.

So, to your question, pilots of large jets don't do much hand flying for the amount of time they are in the air compared to pilots doing other kinds of flying or flying smaller planes.

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    $\begingroup$ The biggest surprise for me when I got a jet type rating was that, provided you were able to adapt from something slower to the space/time environment of a jet, they are very easy airplanes to fly and take less actual physical skill to land than a typical single engine taildragger. The demands are mostly mental and workload related. $\endgroup$
    – John K
    Commented Sep 3, 2018 at 18:18
  • $\begingroup$ @JohnK So an A320 is easier to land than a Cessna? That is surprising to hear (not sarcastic) $\endgroup$
    – Cloud
    Commented Sep 4, 2018 at 9:16
  • $\begingroup$ I've flown about 25 different models of light aircraft and gliders, taildraggers, floats, and the CRJ series of jets. The CRJ200 was one of the easiest to land. $\endgroup$
    – John K
    Commented Sep 4, 2018 at 11:24
  • $\begingroup$ @Cloud Most common Cessna's are not taildraggers. You've extrapolated a comment inaccurately. $\endgroup$
    – Jamiec
    Commented Sep 5, 2018 at 11:07

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