Depend on Automation…When Appropriate

By Jason Blair, ATP, CFI-I, MEI-I, FAA Designated Pilot Examiner | January 2015

Without a doubt, reliance on aircraft systems to control the aircraft can lead to over-dependence on automation systems for pilots. In some cases tragically - think of Asiana Flight 214 that crashed in July, 2013. According to the National Transportation Safety Board’s Accident Report Summary, among the many factors that led to that crash was a lack of understanding of certain automation systems during approach and landing1. But those same systems can also offer significant benefits to safety when they are used properly. Sometimes, it is a good thing to depend on aircraft automation systems, as long as they are used correctly.

Some keys to avoiding over-dependence on automation systems are to actually know how to use them, what they are doing and when they can be used to improve safety. We all like to have an autopilot maintain straight and level as we cruise enroute, but what about more critical phases of flight such as during an approach or, dare I propose, to recover from an unusual attitude encounter?

I’ll preface the rest of this discussion with the general statement that if you don’t know how to use the systems in your aircraft that automate functions, such as autopilots, Flight Management Systems (FMS) and Global Positioning Systems (GPS), you shouldn’t rely on them.

The most common use of autopilots and advanced avionics is generally during IFR flying where autopilots are used to maintain straight and level, track GPS or VOR navigation paths, or fly approach paths on both horizontal and vertical planes. This is a good thing. When used properly, even simple wing levelers have the ability to keep the aircraft on a path and at an altitude to reduce your workload. The reduction in physical workload needed allows pilots to pay more attention to setting up on an approach, not busting minimums, or properly planning for the weather ahead.

But let's take this further. Some modern avionics systems can do more. We all know that when VFR pilots encounter IMC conditions, the outcome is all too often deadly. But with new systems, we can increase the survivability. What if a VFR pilot is flying an aircraft that has a three-axis autopilot or just a wing leveler? A wing leveler can be used to manage workload and keep an aircraft straight and level. And, for pilots with three-axis autopilots, it may be safer to engage the autopilot to maintain straight and level in an inadvertent encounter with IMC conditions. Once the aircraft is stable, they can select adjustments to headings or altitude for the autopilot to perform at prescribed rates. This reduces the potential that the pilot will lose control and go from inadvertent IMC to an unusual attitude. I wonder how many pilots might have had better results in their encounters with IMC conditions if their autopilot had been properly operated.

How about recovery from an unusual attitude? Some aircraft have an autopilot that is capable of bringing an aircraft from significantly abnormal attitudes to straight and level flight with just the push of a single button. Would this be safer than having a rusty VFR pilot try to recover using skills they may have learned many years ago and not practiced since?

The first rule of flying is, of course, to fly the airplane. The second is to fly the airplane in a manner that stops it from hitting stuff (ground, other planes, bad weather, etc.). How we fly the aircraft has traditionally been considered a physical thing we do with our hands and feet. Perhaps we now need to consider that “flying the airplane” also should include “directing the airplane” using automation systems.

Even just using the autopilot to stay straight and level as we set up for an approach can reduce our workload enough to spend more time reviewing the approach plate for the approach. This can be the difference between catching and missing key information on the procedure.

I will never advocate reduced emphasis on the training an improving aircraft control (stick & rudder) skills. I will advocate training for pilots in the proper use of the automation systems to augment their overall control of the aircraft, and that may help them out of a situation that is above their aircraft control abilities. Knowing when to rely on automation systems and how to use them properly is something that might help save a few more pilots when things go from the planned to the unplanned.

If your plane has autopilot systems that can help, then practice. If you don’t know how to use the systems, locate an experienced flight instructor who is familiar with them and learn. Over-dependence on automation can be fatal, but utilization of automation systems can reduce workload and in some cases, even save your life.

1http://www.ntsb.gov/news/events/Pages/2014_Asiana_BMG-Abstract.aspx

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Jason Blair is an active single and multi-engine instructor and FAA Designated Pilot Examiner with 4,800 hours total time and 2,700 hours instruction given. He serves on several FAA/Industry aviation committees and is the past Executive Director of the National Association of Flight Instructors. He also consults on aviation training and regulatory efforts for the general aviation industry.


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