Lately there has been a lot of focus on over-reliance on automation in the cockpit – both in general aviation and the Part 121 world. With all sorts of examples from Asiana 214, Air France 447, down to us little guys destroying perfectly good airplanes on a routine basis, there obviously is a need for some concern. Most of us can agree that as our avionics and aircraft become more sophisticated and automation becomes more affordable, this is a very real problem. But what about those of us who insist on flying with too little automation?
For the first time I have recently began hearing autopilots and other automation talked about as if they are some sort of mysterious evil boxes that at any second can cause airplanes to crash. In reality it’s either the lack of understanding how the automation works (or what to do when it fails), or the over-reliance on such automation.
Recently, a relatively new private pilot I was assisting in purchasing a first airplane for cross country use balked at the idea I presented that a must-have feature of his new airplane should be at least an autopilot able to hold a heading or track a VOR/GPS course. His words were something along the lines of, “I know how to actually fly the airplane” and “What do I need that for? It is not that hard to fly by hand.”
For pilots who don’t make it up in the air as often as we might want to or those who typically fly short $100 hamburger flights, every last bit of manual hand-flying time is extremely valuable. It’s a chance to not only knock the rust off our skills but it’s also a chance to become one with the airplane. From an aircraft owner’s perspective, it’s the best way to feel when something is not quite right with your airplane (controls not quite perfectly rigged, a strange vibration, etc.) far in advance of it getting to the point when it can bite you.
But what about those of us who fly long trips and fly frequently? I do a lot of single-pilot IFR flying for business purposes and my typical trip leg is between 2-5 hours and typically I fly alone. My personal aircraft is far from what most would call “sophisticated” – steam gauges, a WAAS GPS, and a 30-year old two-axis autopilot. A few things I have learned through years of flying on IFR flight plans in the busy northeast corridor is sometimes some degree of automation is not only helpful it’s simply a necessity.
Flying from my home airport just south of the Washington DC area to the Boston area means transitioning the Washington, DC Special Flight Rules Area, four areas of Class B Airspace, rigid ATC assigned airway routing, and typically hearing the words “I have a change to your routing; advise when ready to copy” up to five times throughout the flight. Shortcuts and going direct are virtually unheard of, and I have found – the hard way – that if you are even a quarter of a mile off the center of the airway you will be queried by ATC to confirm that your are in fact V214 direct to JFK or some other fix. It’s simply the nature of the airspace and the volume of traffic moving through the area.
It’s not uncommon to arrive at a destination mentally and even physically exhausted after hand-flying the airplane in actual IMC and dealing with everything else that is going on for several hours without the assistance of any automation or another pilot to take the controls for a minute so I can stretch.
On the other hand, by clicking on the autopilot to track the GPS course or, even better, turning on altitude hold as well and actively monitoring, it’s much easier to juggle all the necessary inflight tasks while ensuring the airplane is where it is supposed to be and everything is functioning as it should be.
By no means am I advocating turning on automation and turning off your brain and catching up on your reading or movie watching. I am advocating the judicious use of such automation to make flying safer and ensure that as pilot in command we arrive at the next critical phase of flight – landing – as fresh and mentally prepared as possible.
Maybe you don’t fly in busy airspace all that often or the majority of your flying is in the Midwest or Plains where the controllers are a little more relaxed and you routinely get direct routing to your destination even though it’s still hundreds of miles away. On a recent flight from my home airport to Kansas City, I was cleared direct destination with 630 miles left to go according to the GPS. While the use of automation may not be quite as necessary due to workload, it can still be helpful to give you a much needed break from the concentration required for precise hand-flying over, say, a five-hour leg.
Use the automation temporarily when leaning the mixture to some precise lean of peak target, briefing an approach, or even just to stretch. Although it may sound contrary, sometimes not flying the airplane is exactly what is needed to give you a quick mental break so that you are actually seeing and interpreting the gauges and instruments you are supposed to be monitoring and so you are ready to fly the airplane during critical times such as an approach in IMC.
Automation is just another set of tools we have at our disposal in the cockpit. It’s up to us as pilot in command to make the decision when and if we will use any of those tools. Like any other aircraft system, it’s not something to be feared or something we should avoid learning how they work, why they work, and when to use them.
As for my client who insisted an autopilot was for the lazy and incompetent? A flight from our home airport to Hartford, Connecticut, was all the convincing he needed. He is now the proud owner of a Mooney M20K 252 with a two-axis autopilot and actively working on his instrument ticket.