Autopilot: Friend or Foe?

After years of trying to convince pilots it’s OK to use the autopilot, the pendulum is now swinging the other way. The FAA is afraid pilots are losing flying skills because they use the autopilot too much.

Today, even in a Cessna 172, it’s possible to engage the autopilot shortly after takeoff and never touch the controls again until minimums on final approach. Truth is it takes just as much skill and practice to use the autopilot well as it does to hand fly a good precision approach, and you need to be equally proficient at both if you expect to fly competently in instrument meteorological conditions (IMC).

G1000 Instrument Departure from San Diego

G1000 Instrument Departure from San Diego

If you think you can maintain instrument proficiency by merely meeting the FAA minimums and averaging one instrument approach a month, it’s time to rethink your proficiency program. I don’t know what’s right for you, but here’s what it takes me to feel comfortable: I want to fly a minimum of two approaches a month in the airplane, and I prefer to get three. I like to supplement that with two or three more approaches on an FAA-approved trainer. If I’m under the hood with a safety pilot or flying the simulator, I like to alternate between using the autopilot and hand flying the approaches. If I’m IMC, I like to use the autopilot as much as possible to free my mind to pay attention to ATC, fly the clearance, manage the flight and stay ahead of the airplane.

In my Air Force flying, neither the F-4 nor the F-15 had a coupled autopilot so every approach was hand flown. Fortunately, both were very stable instrument platforms that supported proficiency at attitude flying. It wasn’t that big a deal in Arizona, but we frequently flew to minimums in Europe. Today I primarily fly a G1000 with either a Garmin or King autopilot. Both require attention and constant monitoring, although the Garmin autopilot better integrates with the capabilities of G1000.

You need to be proficient at hand flying the airplane so you never hesitate to come off the autopilot if the automation gets the best of you or the situation dictates. I was recently flying the GPS 24 approach to Oceanside on autopilot with a safety observer when conflicting VFR traffic dictated coming off the autopilot to avoid the traffic and continue the approach. At that point, it was easier and safer to continue hand flying the approach rather than trying to get the autopilot re-engaged and coupled to the GPS navigation. It’s just as satisfying to be able to respond to situations like this in the practice environment as it is to comfortably fly an approach to your personal minimums in real weather.

There are some good practices to remember when using the autopilot, and the best advice comes from Ronald Reagan: “Trust but verify.” Just because the autopilot is flying the airplane, you don’t get to let your mind wander. The autopilot has become the “Pilot Flying” and you are now the “Pilot Monitoring.” Make sure the autopilot is doing what you want. Anytime you change something on the autopilot, articulate it verbally even if there’s no one else in the airplane. Say what you just did and then visually confirm the revised autopilot indications reflect that action. If you have set the autopilot to climb to an altitude, verify the correct altitude in the altitude alerter and confirm the autopilot is armed to level at that altitude. Then call out “1000 feet to level off,” followed by “300 feet to level off,” and watch the autopilot capture and level at the assigned altitude. When you’re flying an approach and you activate the approach mode, verify the autopilot is armed to capture course and vertical guidance. Then call when the localizer and glide path are alive and again monitor that the autopilot captures and responds to the guidance.

The secret—and fun—to comfortable, competent instrument flying is practice with and without the autopilot. It’s worth your time and money to do it.

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About Rich Martindell

Instrument flight instructor (CFII), rated airline transport pilot (ATP), former military instructor pilot in F-4s and F-15s. Aircraft accident investigator and flight safety consultant. FAA Safety Team Lead Representative.
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