On Autopilot

Now You Need to Know

February 1, 2005

The proper use of autopilots

As I write this, a relatively recent revision to the Instrument Practical Test Standards (PTS) was issued, effective October 2004. In the added revision, a new requirement for examiners to test the applicant's knowledge of and ability to use an installed autopilot. This is huge.

For years, it seemed that flight instructors did not teach students how to use autopilots until after they had finished the checkride. The rationale was that examiners were not going to allow students to use the device during a checkride, forcing the students to demonstrate the skills being tested instead of relying on a computer to help them. This is a valid concern, but it is also flawed logic. Autopilots are installed to reduce workload, especially in a single-pilot environment, and thus to enhance safety. Besides, having access to an airplane with certain avionics and not being able to properly use them can be dangerous if pilots try to figure out how to use the systems on the fly in instrument meteorological conditions. That's sort of like trying to figure out how to program your car radio while driving on a rainy night.

A more valid process all along would have been to encourage the students to learn how to properly use the autopilot, and then allow them to use it during certain portions of the checkride, such as during cruise or busy terminal operations when a third hand would be useful. Furthermore, to truly test the ability of the student to use the device, examiners could have asked for a mix of coupled (autopilot engaged) and uncoupled (hand-flown) approaches. This is exactly what will happen now. In the subsection "Aircraft and Equipment Required for the Practical Test," the PTS stipulates, "The applicant is expected to utilize an autopilot...if properly installed." Later, in the same section, the new PTS states, "The applicant will be required to demonstrate the use of the autopilot and/or flight management system during one of the nonprecision approaches as long as the autopilot is operational."

Ironically, this conflict of trying to decide the best way to do something is not limited to general aviation. It's a common problem at the airlines. My company strongly encourages use of the autopilot throughout training. This is not to say that we don't hand-fly, because we do. However, using the autopilot allows both pilots to better share information and to communicate with less risk of a mistake in procedure. We routinely hand-fly single-engine approaches, no-flap landings, and several other maneuvers during training. Other companies, however, do not allow the same degree of autopilot use in training, instead forcing the crews to use the flight director and hand-fly much more. Is one philosophy more "right" than the other? No, they are just different, and as long as the company trains the pilots to proficiency in both methods, all's well.

The point is if something is installed in the airplane, especially something as sophisticated as an IFR approach-capable autopilot, it is critical that you understand how to use it. One reason it didn't happen in the past was because the instructors themselves did not know how to use them properly. Worse still was the CFI who didn't know what he didn't know, and passed on inaccurate information. In the end, a lot of pilots did not know how to use this valuable tool, and it was often placarded inoperable for checkrides, thus rendering it unusable. Previously, since there was no instruction on whether the autopilot would be used in the checkride, and since the previous PTS had language implying that any equipment installed and operational on board the airplane could be included in testing, this placarding practice occurred.

Navigating the autopilot

Autopilots can have several modes both vertically and laterally. Common vertical modes are climbing or descending at a set vertical speed; maintaining a certain pitch; or maintaining a set airspeed. Laterally, they can have a heading mode, during which you steer by slewing the heading bug; a nav mode, which is slaved to a VOR or GPS or other form of electronic navigation primarily for en route use; and an approach mode, which is typically designed to capture the glideslope and localizer on an ILS approach. Without proper knowledge of the modes, and the limitations of the system, pilots risk an accident, and it might be from something as simple as disconnecting the autopilot accidentally or not knowing how to turn it off. Equally important is to be aware of faults or problems and know how to fix them. A common joke among pilots of airplanes equipped with new glass displays instead of conventional instruments is that the most common question that pilots ask one another is "Why is it doing that?" Proper training can save a lot of guessing.

By adding the new requirement to the PTS, the FAA is at last acknowledging the explosive growth in sophisticated avionics in the general aviation fleet. It also acknowledges that knowing how to use an autopilot is a good thing, and to use it during a checkride is not a form of cheating. In a busy terminal area, a pilot might be trying to write down the ATIS or shuffle through approach charts and airport diagrams, especially if there is a sudden change in landing direction. Autopilots are also incredibly helpful on approaches that are flown close to minimum weather conditions. The altitude-hold feature can be used on a nonprecision approach to guarantee that the airplane does not descend below minimums or below a step-down altitude (depending on how good the autopilot's altitude capture is). Coupling an ILS allows a pilot the best chance of seeing the runway at the end of the approach. Because the ILS signal is so sensitive as you near the runway, you can easily spend so much time trying to maintain the course that you have very little time to look for the approach lights and runway near the decision altitude.

Furthermore, autopilots do wonders for reducing the fatigue brought on by the mental rigors of instrument flying. Reducing fatigue reduces risk, thus enhancing safety, especially on low-weather approaches.

Autopilots have come a long way in the area of affordability and in sophistication. Pilots who have one at their disposal have an obligation to learn to use the equipment competently and comfortably. Refusing to use an autopilot on the grounds that real pilots fly without them is archaic and, for lack of a better word, stupid. In not using them, you will be more tired and more prone to mistakes.

By finally forcing pilots using aircraft that have autopilots to actually demonstrate the full use of both, the FAA has also forced the flight-instructor community to become better informed and more proficient in the use of these systems as well.

While some autopilots are better than others, knowing how to use them is important. That means learning the basic modes, the strengths and weaknesses of each system, and the appropriate time to use them (for checkrides, this probably should be discussed before the ride so that everyone knows what the parameters will be). Also, as a result of adding the use of the autopilot to the IFR checkride, it is fair game to be asked to demonstrate the required proficiency in using it on a flight review as well.


Chip Wright, AOPA 1086994, of Hebron, Kentucky, is a CRJ captain for Comair.


Autopilot Education

We give them nicknames — Gyro George, Mechanical Mike, Otto Pilot — so it must be that we think of our autopilots as friends worthy of affection (or scorn, depending on the particular moment). But friendship is a two-way street: In order to reap the benefits of the relationship, you need to learn as much as you can about your cockpit companion. To this end we've compiled a directory of articles and reviews published over the past few years in AOPA Pilot and AOPA Flight Training magazines.

A special two-part series in AOPA Pilot, "On Autopilot," ran in 2000 and focused on managing an autopilot — and knowing when to turn it off. Among other relevant articles, this series lives online ( www.aopa.org/members/autopilots/).

We also recommend for owners and users of Bendix/King and S-Tec autopilots (particularly the KAP 140, KFC 225, or Fifty Five X) the Autopilot Systems CD from ElectronicFlight Solutions. The $195 price tag is a worthy investment for a solid dose of systems knowledge. Order the program online ( www.electronicflight.com). — Julie K. Boatman