Waypoints: Throttling George

Autopilot is all about balance

March 1, 2013

Tom Haines

The former naval aviator rotated the twin turboprop skyward, slapped the gear switch up, hit the yaw damper button, flipped the flaps up, and touched the autopilot On switch—all before passing through 500 feet agl. At 27 years old, I was a complete aviation greenhorn and in complete awe of the pilot and the airplane—my first flight in a GA turboprop. The most sophisticated airplane I had flown at that point was a Cessna 172RG.

“That’s the way’s it’s done,” the pilot said confidently. And, as I have experienced many times since, he was right. He had just completed the company’s annual training requirement at one of the big training organizations and the mantra was and rightfully so continues to be: Fly the autopilot.

But like any bit of good advice, it comes with that old caveat about “too much of a good thing.” For it seems as if after a couple of decades of convincing pilots that autopilots aren’t a crutch for poor piloting, the pendulum has swung to the other extreme. The FAA is worried that pilots are using autopilots too much and that hand-flying skills, at least among professional crews, are deteriorating. In fact, the agency early this year issued a Safety Alert for Operators (SAFO) encouraging airlines and flight departments to assure that “there are appropriate opportunities for pilots to exercise manual flying skills, such as in non-RVSM airspace and during low workload conditions.” The FAA requires autopilot use starting at 29,000 feet and up when in “RVSM airspace,” that airspace where reduced vertical separation minimums apply.

Pilots coming out of World War II had flown rugged airplanes on all sorts of missions—with people shooting at them—mostly without “autoflight” systems at all. The FAA likes the term autoflight over autopilot because the former includes the use of autothrottles and autothrust systems—probably auto braking too. Pilots frequently refer to the autopilot system as “George,” perhaps because a fellow named George DeBeeson patented an “automatic airplane control” in 1931. However, not everyone agrees with that explanation.

Those World War II pilots and the following generation frequently shunned autopilot systems in favor of mostly hand-flying. Autopilot systems of the time weren’t all that capable anyhow. But with the advancement of jets and high-altitude flying, the systems became more capable and newer airline pilots adapted more readily to the technology.

Few lighter GA airplanes of the 1960s and 1970s had any autopilots at all. CFIs seldom knew how to instruct transitioning pilots in their proper use and often autopilots in GA went unused and misunderstood. In the 1990s safety organizations began to understand that many accidents caused by distractions could be prevented by the use of autopilots and so, in the GA training world, the emphasis was on using autopilots for nearly every phase of flight—until just short of touchdown. Autopilots became more prevalent, capable, and reliable. Today’s younger instructors grew up flying glass cockpits, which usually come with highly capable autopilots. As a result, training today usually includes the use of autopilots—or at least much more so than it used to.

No doubt, an autopilot is a great aid when flying single-pilot in busy airspace and in weather. At cruise altitude, the system frees the pilot to prepare for the next phase of flight. However, based on the safety analysis noted in the SAFO, the FAA fears that overuse of autoflight has eroded hand-flying skills. So expect the airline and GA training companies to begin emphasizing phases of flight when hand-flying should be considered.

My Bonanza includes an S-Tec 50 autopilot coupled to a GPS steering system (GPSS) that flies the airplane beautifully in lateral modes. It will hold altitude, but not capture an altitude. With no electric trim, it’s up to the auto-me system to fly the ascent and descent. And I happily do. It is, after all, just a Bonanza where rates of ascent rarely exceed 1,000 fpm and, if I mind the store properly, rates of descent don’t exceed that either.

Except in busy airspace, I normally hand-fly until after leveling off at cruise. If I get overtasked dealing with weather or ATC, I will use the GPSS or heading function to relieve workload. During descent, I usually leave it in a lateral mode until intercepting the glideslope. From there, I’m on my own because the simple autopilot sometimes gets behind the airplane during approaches close in to the airport, especially on an ILS.

As with everything else in life, autopilot use is about balance. Manage the technology to enhance the safety of flight while maintaining a level of proficiency that assures that you can pilot the airplane in a way that rivals George.

E-mail the author at thomas.haines@aopa.org; follow on Twitter: tomhaines29.