The case for automation

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.

S-Tec 55X autopilot
It’s just a tool – nothing more, nothing less

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.

Instrument approach G1000
This is hard work – it’s OK to enlist a helper.

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.

8 Comments

  • I agree wholeheartedly. In fact, I think that pilots who own TAA need to use automation more frequently to keep “current” with the plethora of modes available. My aircraft is an experimental with a totally glass cockpit. The AP is simply outstanding in the way it helps precision while enroute. I particularly like the altitude hold mode when consulting the charts. However, I do find that some pilots have not sufficiently familiarized themselves with the operation of their equipment, which leads to extended periods of “heads down.” Luckily I was riding shotgun and watching for traffic, but I’m going to assume that they do it while flying solo. So yea, learn your systems.

    • Absolutely learn your systems. Whether its the autopilot or a new GPS its amazing how many people learn how to use a single basic function and then launch. As soon as something pushes them outside their comfort area they are in trouble with their head down and forced to learn while in the air. It leads to them getting far behind the airplane and often busting an altitude or heading assignment.

      • I agree with you. Proficiency with automation means bottonology is intuitive, and that alone does not substitute for polished Stick ‘n Rudder skills! It also means rigorous cockpit discipline to actually USE ‘see and avoid’. I have vivid memories of flight five years ago in a shiny new C182T model equipped with the latest G1000 hardware and integrated auto pilot. While flying between KPLU and KOLY I and the other two pax (PP, CP, and ATP) had our heads on a swivel because of the super abundant traffic in the Class B and along our route. I swear the pilot never looked out the window after breaking 50′ AGL on takeoff (when he activated ‘George’). Nor did he avert his gaze from the eye candy filled panel until he was at 100′ and he deactivated ‘George’. For 95% of that short flight the closest he came to stick and rudder inputs was moving the bug. THAT was a nerve wracking flight. Since I’ve heard more than one highly qualified, very experienced pilot tell stories of automation failure at inopportune times… and their challenges with recalling the muscle memory necessary for smooth hand flying.

  • I am still not a big fan of automation. I still use paper charts, and avoid busy airspace when at all possible. I can see the “need” for some automation just not in the type of flying I do. I have never flown for more than 2 hours at a shot, and don’t intend to. I fly for the fun of flying and to get across Arizona a little faster.

    • I moved from a 1982 Mooney M20J with a barely usable auto pilot to a 2013 SR20 with G1000 and GFC700 auto pilot. Let me tell you, the G1000 and it’s GFC700 is much better and safer. Period and end of story. Flying single pilot IFR in the Northeast (KFRG home base) to anywhere makes it safer and more aware. This idea that I need to hand fly to be a “real” pilot or because automation isn’t safe is not only ridiculous but ignorant. I’ve flown approaches to minimums with the G1000 that I would NEVER have flown in the Mooney. I let automation fly the approach and I monitored all the way. BTW, that’s what airlines do. Why? Safety. Period. I have hand flown other approaches that weren’t to minimum but low ceilings. I hand fly VFR locally and will do practice approaches and hand fly under the hood. But when I’m flying from KFRG to KROA on V16 down the coast from JFK, the GFC700, heading bug and GPS are not only required but make the flight safer and I arrive more fresh. I keep my head outside and I spent a lot of time paying attention to the airplane and the flight.

      For those that are carrying paper charts because that’s old school. IGNORANT. Much easier to plan, plot and find my way on an iPad or my G1000 then old paper charts. If my G1000 fails, I have the iPad. If the iPad fails, then I have my iPhone.

      Automation when used correctly and trained properaly is a no brainier.

  • I’m a “hand flyer”, because as well-equipped as my airplane is, it does not have an autopilot. I admit there are some times I’d like to have at least a wing leveler. Most of my flying is relatively short flights, with the occasional longer flight of 3-4 hours, and once a year the flight to OSH, typically 6 1/2 flight hours going and 7 1/2 flight hours returning. An autopilot would be nice on the longer flights, but unnecessary for the others.

    But the cost of adding even a basic autopilot is excessive for a 53 year old 172. I’ve already put thousands into my airplane, including $30,000 into the panel so that it can be safely flown in both today’s and tomorrow’s ATC system.

    So as desirable as an autopilot might be, it’s hard to justify yet another $20,000 for that convenience, considering that the value of my airplane would not increase, and that my usual flights would not be substantially improved.

  • Cary,

    I agree with your thoughts. I sure wish that we could get some of the less expensive AP’s that are available for experimentals, into our certified aircraft.

  • Automation is nice to have. Unfortunately it is very expensive to buy. Most aircraft do not have an auto-pilot or a GPS other then the hand held variety. An I-pad with fore-flight pro is the newest aid to flight out their. It is inexpensive and a great navigation device.

    Recently I was flying with a student that had not done an instrument approach in 15 years. He had a rusty instrument ticket and eventually became so rusty that he very uncomfortable even at towered airport. I showed him my I-pad and set up an ILS approach to our local Charlie space airport. I handled the radios and he flew a very acceptable ILS practice approach. The point here is automation allowed him to function and in an emergency situation it could very well save his life. BTW he immediately went out and bought and I-pad as back up to his aircraft radios.

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