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The mode control panel is a console in an aircraft allowing pilots and crew to select the mode they want the aircraft to operate in, determining which decisions are made by the autopilot. It is not an autopilot, but instead interfaces with the autopilot and related systems. Commercial aircraft are most likely to have this feature and pilots learn about the various modes and when to use them while they are in training.
Using the mode control panel, pilots can set targets like speed and altitude and allow the autopilot to take measures to make the plane hit those goals. The panel can also be used to tell the plane to conform with an automated flight plan. Using the panel, it's possible to allow the autopilot greater and lesser degrees of control over the aircraft. For example, the pilot might prefer to control pitch during flight, setting the mode for this to manual.
Along with other instrument panels in the plane, the mode control panel may have digital and analog readouts, depending on the age of the panel. Indicator lights are used to provide information about which controls are active and these will also light up if there are errors. Flight crews regularly inspect and test all the instrument panels to make sure they are working properly, confirming indicator lights function and checking for errors in communication between control consoles and other systems in the plane.
As pilots learn to fly, they are provided with more advanced lessons in using instrument panels like the mode control panel to control the plane. The mode control panel allows a high degree of control for the pilot, creating the ability to fine-tune a flight to meet specific needs. Many autopilots and associated systems are capable of managing almost every aspect of a routine flight when pilots operate in automatic mode and learning how to apply different modes can help pilots in a variety of situations.
Maintenance, repair, and replacement of mode control panels may require a specially trained technician, depending on the aircraft. This work is very precise in nature, with a low tolerance for error. People interested in working as technicians on instrument panels can receive training at technical schools and through other programs, such as on-the-job internships provided to people with basic electronics training. Continuing education to get familiar with new models is usually required for people who want to keep their skills current.