Cirrus' $2 Million Vision Jet Now Lands Itself, No Pilot Needed

We’re flying about 5,000 feet above rural New York in a Cirrus Vision Jet when the pilot has what appears to be a heart attack. He lets go of the controls and slumps forward in his seat, leaving me—not a pilot—to fly the airplane to safety. I reach behind me, press a big red button in the ceiling of the cabin, stop worrying about the plane and concentrate on trying to resuscitate my fallen companion. Fifteen minutes later, the plane touches down at a remote airstrip.This scenario, thankfully, was playacting, though not as far from the truth as you might think. My pilot, Matt Bergwall, remained perfectly healthy and alert during this demonstration. But we were indeed over rural New York. Bergwall did in fact invite me to land the airplane in his stead. And I did push a bright red button and watch the small jet find its way to that airstrip, descend, and put rubber to tarmac all on its own.

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That was thanks to the Safe Return Emergency Autoland System, developed by avionics company Garmin with input from aircraft manufacturers including Cirrus and Piper, both of which unveiled the technology this week. When activated, it finds the nearest suitable airport, calculates a flight path that avoids mountains and menacing storm fronts, communicates with air traffic control, and autonomously guides the aircraft onto the runway and to a complete stop. It could have also notified emergency services; Cirrus disabled that function for the demo.

The button that activates the system is easily accessible from both the front seats and the passenger seats behind them.

Photograph: Jeff Frey/Cirrus
This isn’t the first feature of its kind, but it’s certainly the most capable. Other commercial autoland systems require continuous oversight by a trained pilot, and are only meant to assist if one of two pilots becomes incapacitated. The tablet-based app Xavion provides similar functionality for private aircraft, but it, too, requires a degree of oversight, and is mostly meant for engine failure situations, with the pilot taking over the glide during the final approach.What’s novel about Cirrus’ system is that it gives the power of flight to even the noobiest of passengers. That red button is easily accessible from both the front seats and the passenger seats behind them, and Safe Return is hardwired into the $2 million Vision Jet’s controls, using autopilot functionality and the small jet’s simplified engine management system to steer the aircraft to a smooth landing and brake to a stop.