for National Geographic News
Airplane technology under development at NASA could bring a whole new meaning to the term "autopilot."
Called the Intelligent Flight Control System, the futuristic software is meant to help keep damaged planes flying right even in the face of catastrophic failure.
Fighter pilots could return to safety with a shot-up wing, for example, or a commercial jetliner could land with a busted stabilizer.
The software knows how the airplane should fly, said James Smolka, a test pilot at the Dryden Flight Research Center in Edwards, California, who has been working on the project.
If the plane starts to fly differently than it should, the system will adjust controls such as rudders, flaps, and engines to get it back on track.
"It measures the actual [flight patterns] and it knows what it prefers to have, and it tries to change the actual to fly more like the desired," Smolka said.
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With this technology, even pilots who lack special training on how to make those adjustments themselves could stay in control of the plane, he added.
One example of where such technology could have been useful is Alaska Airlines Flight 261, which lost control of its horizontal stabilizer and spun into the Pacific Ocean off California on January 21, 2000.
(Related images: disasters reconstructed.)
"That airplane very likely could have been flown by a system like this without much difficulty," Smolka said.
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