I was wondering how planes find their destinations. For example, if a plane takes off in Los Angeles, does it just fly in the direction of, say Heathrow, London or does it follow a set route?
If it’s a set route, how does it follow this route?
Boeing 777 flight – Chicago to London Heathrow
If a plane were like a real bird, it would just head onto an Easterly direction towards London after airborne. It would then follow familiar rivers, roads, railway lines and other distinguishing land features to get to its destination. Well, that would be the way pilots do in good weather long, long ago when hi-tech navigation facilities were unavailable!
Today, planes are sometimes forbidden to use the shortest path because of legal restrictions such as flying over-populated residential or other political sensitive airspaces. So, it is not a general straight line as a crow would fly in most cases. That said, once high up at the cruising level, the pilot may request for the shortest route where possible.
Finding the destinations is the least of the problem for pilots. With modern navigation aids such as the GPS (global positioning system), all destinations wherever are reachable. The accuracy of the GPS can be within 10 to 50 feet (3 to 15 meters) 95 % of the time even after flying about 5500 miles (8800 km) between Los Angeles and London. This is provided that its navigation systems are told exactly where they are before they move and are then automatically updated along the route. The pilot would then load the departure gate position and the prescribed route right up to the landing runway in Heathrow in the airplane’s computer.
Once airborne with the autopilot on, the plane would just fly according to the set route. Theoretically, the pilot need not have to look out at all to see where he is going! In practice, due to other airplanes around, the route may sometimes be interrupted and the pilot may have to intervene to make minor corrections.
The myth that pilots must have perfect vision (without glasses) is no longer true. They need not have to look out to search for their destination. As long as he can load the route accurately (with glasses) onto the computer, that is good enough!
Yes, a modern plane like a Boeing 777 can actually land blind during an auto-landing at London Heathrow with zero visibility (but in reality, it is generally restricted to 100 meters)!
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