Automation Danger?

We Love Our Gadgets

Automation is awesome. It’s the reason many of us fly a Cirrus specifically – the situation awareness brought by our moving maps, the auto-load features of the GPS systems, traffic detectors that are great assists to the eyes, XM weather that allows great strategic planning, and an autopilot that can fly an approach and then go enter a hold almost entirely without pilot input… I could go on and on.

As awesome as they are, these technological wonders present a new kind of issue in aviation safety. Not only do we have to develop a different skill set for use with the automation and practice that, but we also need to keep our manual skills sharp too. All too often pilots take the easier way out and only hand fly the minimum amount needed to take off and land. This causes skill atrophy in some areas that could prevent serious safety issues if the wrong thing happened at the wrong time (and really, is there ever a right time for the wrong thing?). We see this atrophy a lot in our currency training at CPPP events, when teaching in our simulators, or even when just working on a BFR. We’re accustomed to that in this industry: most of our clients don’t fly enough or get pushed often enough to keep all those skills sharp. That’s why I have a job.

But something caught my attention today in an article put out by the Associated Press: this is an issue that isn’t limited to General Aviation. Airline pilots are increasingly required by company SOPs to rely on the added safety that automation gives. Good, right? Unfortunately, it’s not that simple. Recent history shows that this kind of automation-exclusive mentality introduces a new risk: overemphasis on system management and a degradation of skills. There have been a few accidents, notably the accident in Buffalo NY and the Air France crash from Brazil to Paris, that have underlined this basic airmanship issue. While I don’t think these pilots were as inept as the AP article implies, I do think there’s something to this that’s worth mentioning here. You can read the article I’m referring to here.

Using Your Autopilot

Flying with the autopilot is a skill that needs to be learned and practiced by every pilot who intends to use it. Not only does a person need to know how to intercept a localizer and track it in, but they also need to know what to do when they have to intercept a glide slope from above, or how to best use their autopilot in a missed approach procedure. There’s a lot to it! If you know that your autopilot can do something like intercept a course, maintain a descent rate without rounding off, or execute a procedure turn but you’re not sure how to make it happen, talk to an instructor. Some of these things are simple enough to be explained over email.

Watch out for skill atrophy, though. Autopilots are great but, just like our airline counterparts, we’re all susceptible to losing some of our basic skills when we don’t use them very often. I suggest everybody should hand fly an approach under the hood at least once every other month as a bare minimum. Two or three hand flown approaches per month would be much better. Do it on your PC if you just can’t go fly or come see us in Vegas and fly the simulator… but do SOMETHING. Also, be sure to fly completely through the approach and go missed. Don’t underestimate this last part! Flying the missed and *anticipating* flying the missed on every approach you do will reduce the pucker factor by several orders of magnitude. See this excellent thread from the COPA forums about the missed approach concept:

I suggest a simple rule when it comes to autopilot use and personal minimums: Never let the autopilot take you someplace you wouldn’t go by hand. Its skill is not your own and you can never depend on it always being there. It’s a great tool, but it has limitations!

Training Challenge

On your next recurrent training session, see if you can use the autopilot all the way through a complete approach procedure and out to the missed without help from an instructor. Your tolerances are the same as they were on the day of your instrument test: no full scale deflections (not even if you get it back after), altitudes within 100 feet and airspeed within 10 knots.

Good luck and safe flying!

John Fiscus

Chief Pilot, The Flight Academy

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