It’s difficult to fathom there was once a time where fog at an airport meant you were unable to land. The development of autoland was a gamechanger for airlines, preventing diversions and all the associated costs and inconvenience to passengers.

Having experienced low visibility landings, it is a little disconcerting to see nothing until you’re about to touch down. It’s perfectly safe and has been around for quite a long time now.

What Is Autoland?

Limited visibility operations are divided into categories outlining the decision height (DH) and runway visual range (RVR). The decision height is the minimum height at which a pilot must be able to see the runway to continue the landing. The runway visual range is how far you can see ahead. If the minimums are not met then the landing will be abandoned.

Landings can be fully automatic including approach, flare and landing. Alternatively, it could be automatic on approach with the pilots handling flare and landing or it could be all automatic apart from the landing itself. Essentially technology progressed from having just the approach automated to the possibility of the entire sequence being done by the machine.

Which Aircraft Pioneered Autoland?

The 1960s were a time of great innovation in aviation and this is where we find the first automatic landings by jet aircraft. The French Sud-Aviation Caravelle made the first automatic landing on 29 September 1962. Certification to CAT II standard was granted on 25 September 1964, with automation allowed to take the aircraft to 50 feet, followed by a manual touchdown.

Over in the USA, the first automatic landing was made by a United Airlines Caravelle VI-R on a demonstration flight into Washington Dulles on 8 December 1964. Of course, this was conducted in good weather but it’s still the first there. The British Hawker Siddeley Trident claim the world’s first fully automatic landing on 3 March 1964 and they also had the first auto-flare with passengers on board take place on 10 June 1965 in clear weather.

The Boeing 727 made the first completely automatic landing in revenue service on 27 February 1967, though it was under CAT I conditions. That was on a flight into New York from Montego Bay.

Finally, on 9 January 1969 a Caravelle made the world’s first automatic approach and landing under actual CAT IIIa conditions in passenger service. There were 56 people on board a flight that landed at Paris Orly in Caravelle F-BNKH.

So Which Airline Made The First Autoland?

There are three airlines which stake a claim to being the first to use autoland. British European Airways and their Trident made the first one with passengers on 3 March 1964, though it was just the approach and not the flare and touchdown. Their first approach and flare came later on 10 June 1965.

Pan American claim they did it first as they made the landing in all three axis of flight on 29 February 1967, however this was under CAT I conditions. My vote goes for France’s Air Inter, who made the first landing under actual CAT IIIa conditions on 9 January 1969. All of them are correct, it just depends upon your interpretation of the “rules”.

Overall Thoughts

A lot of testing and work went into the autoland system and it’s not too surprising the European’s led the way. Foggy conditions are more prevalent in Europe, so it made sense they would focus on this.

No matter which way you slice it, it’s good that we have this technology when flying. Otherwise there would be many more reports of stranded passengers due to the weather. By the way, the first large aircraft to have the system was the Vickers VC10 and you can see a short video of it landing automatically here.

Do you agree that Air Inter was first here or would your vote go for one of the other airlines? Thank you for reading and if you have any comments or questions, please leave them below.

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Featured image by Jean Dieuzaide via The Dreamy Dodo.
United Caravelle by Jon Proctor.
BEA Trident via BAe Systems.
Air Inter Caravelle by Michel Gilliand on