MIAMI — Last June marked the 50th anniversary of commercial aviation’s first autopilot landing touchdown. This technological feat changed the future of commercial aviation by opening the door for future autopilot landing systems that have become standard practice in modern commercial aviation.
In the mid to late 1960’s, the British carrier British European Airways (BEA) lead the charge for advanced commercial airline landing systems. After several aircraft landing incidents and several fatal aircraft crashes on landing and approach, BEA began experimenting with autopilot landing systems in hopes of improving safety. Using military technology dating back to 1937 and the origins of the “autoland”, BEA began adopting these technologies on their fleet of 24 Hawker Siddeley HS 121 Trident aircraft with hopes of introducing autolanding features on the aircraft in the near future.
After two years of Trident operations, BEA was ready to begin testing the autoland system in March of 1964. BEA would send one of its Trident aircraft to the now closed RAE Bedford in South-Central England for weeks of autoland touchdown testing. After a successful test program, it was time for BEA to introduce the autoland touchdown system to the world.
On June 10th, 1965, British European Airways flight BE343 from Paris Le Bourget to London Heathrow would become the first commercial airline flight to make an automatic touchdown. Under the command of Captain Eric Poole, the BEA Trident 1 G-ARPR aircraft helped usher in future landing technologies that greatly improved commercial aviation safety. At the conclusion of the flight, each passenger received a signed certificate from Captain Poole and BEA Chairman Sir Anthony Milward.
“This is a truly significant piece of aviation history.” said Paul Jarvis, the manager at the British Airways’ Heritage Centre. “We are proud to have been at the forefront of technological advancement in the aviation industry then and throughout our 95 year history to present day.”
For BEA, the quest for commercial auto landing systems was just getting started. BEA wished to partner in developing a system in which commercial aircraft could land in advanced categories of visibility. After several additional years of testing, BEA achieved this goal in May of 1972 when the advanced Trident 3B became certified to land in category 3A autoland. Category 3A allowed aircraft to land in conditions with external visibility at a minimum of 700 feet and a landing decision height of only 75 feet near landing. These new guidelines allowed the Trident and other future commercial aircraft the opportunity to land in weather they previously would avoid and greatly improved passenger safety.
British European Airways would later become British Airways through a merger with the British Overseas Airways Corporation. Their history lives on thanks to the historic record keeping and artifact preservation at British Airways’ Heritage Centre near London Heathrow Airport.
Special thanks to the book The History of British European Airways for historical information.