Here is a synopsis of tools that we pilots usually use and a discussion about “manual reversion” otherwise known as “old school” or “back to basics” style of flying:
Much of the time we use a system called the “Instrument Landing System” or ILS. This is designed to send a continuous signal out from a ground unit to the aircraft for both horizontal (localizer) and vertical (glide slope) guidance. The jet systems receive these signals and translate them onto a visual display that we pilots see. We adjust the aircraft with pitch (using the control yolk or control stick) and power using the throttles to stay on the glide path with appropriate speeds and descent rates. We turn the controls side to side with corrections to stay on the lateral path. The goal always being a safe and stabilized landing in the appropriate area of the runway.
Sometimes we use the autopilot system and the auto throttle system for the initial part of the approach and very rarely do we use them both all the way to the ground except in cases of very low visibility. We can set these systems to follow the vertical and horizontal paths of the ILS while we control the speeds and descent rates. Many of us “hand fly” the approaches so that we can retain our flying skills and hand/eye coordination.
In our initial pilot levels of training well before flying for the airlines, we learn and practice spatial orientation. This means to understand where we are in a point in space at any given time. We also need to understand our speed and relation to other aircraft, terrain, weather systems, airports, etc. This is one of the foundations of flying. If you do not have this skill, you cannot master flying a large jet. It is somewhat similar to driving your car in comparison to situational awareness. You need to understand the characteristics of how your particular car handles speed and road conditions, your spacial orientation to the other vehicles and obstacles, navigating to your destination, making sure that you have enough fuel, etc. I would have to say though, it is maybe a bit more like driving a high performance race car at the Daytona 500 in 3D!
Visual approaches simply include what I mentioned above. If it is a straight visual approach, this means that there is no navigation ground station guidance. In this case, we must use our spatial orientation and math planning skills. A general rule of thumb I mention in my book “Remove Before Flight” is 3:1. For every 1,000 feet we descend, we travel roughly 3 nautical miles. This will vary slightly with different jets and different weights of the aircraft. As an example, if we were turning base leg to final and we were about 8 miles out, we should be close to 2400 feet high, slowing to our final approach speed and finalizing the configuration of the jet. Our descent rate should be 600-800 feet per minute and we could keep running these calculations in our minds and adjusting the pitch and power accordingly. We are continuously scanning our instruments to make sure the jet is responding to our inputs and we are scanning outside to the airport environment and runway to make sure the pictures look correct in our windshield. Sometimes the runways will have a Vertical Approach Slope Indicator or a Precision Approach Path Indicator just off to the side of the threshold where we aim to touch down. These will give you a visual indication of you are on path, slightly low, or slightly high. They are very helpful in a pure visual approach, especially at night when depth perception becomes a little more challenging. Occasionally, airports must do work and these are not operational.
I hope this helps you to understand some of what we do in the cockpit to ensure your safe flight. We too want to arrive safely and comfortable for our family and friends as well. This is why it is so crucial to develop and maintain our base flying skills and not fall into the trap of over reliance on automation. We want all pilots to have the best and most thorough training possible while avoiding cut backs for cost saving measures in these areas. I think you would all agree that pilot skills, training, and experience come pretty high on the travel priority list! I do!
Blue Skies! Z6 Laura