Airlines Not Only Ones Addicted to Autopilot

By Scott Spangler on September 15th, 2011

September started with an AP story that revealed the cost of airline cockpit automation, atrophied stick and rudder skills. As one might expect, there’s been a lot of comment on both sides of the argument. Some GA types have been, without justification, overconfidently smug.

GA pilots can become addicted to cockpit automation just as easily as their airline peers. What makes this worse is that unlike airline pilots, who must fly according to thick and specific operations manuals, GA pilots consciously chose to become addicted. And they’ve been doing that ever since glass-controlled started taking up residence in GA cockpits.

Back when I was flying for publication, airframe manufacturers were like street corner pushers, “Hey there, magazine writer guy, want some stick time?” Call me old school, but in my vocabulary “stick time” means I’m holding the stick (or yoke) and actually flying the airplane. About 15 years ago the definition changed: “stick time” was a takeoff and landing separated by a lot of button pushing and knob twisting.

On my last flight for publication, I was looking forward to getting hands-on with a tumultuous Midwestern wind. Having been a while since my last flight, I was looking forward to realigning the seat of my pants to such things as crab angles and smoothing out the bumps.

When I didn’t automatically engage the autopilot after takeoff, the demo pilot (a CFI, like most are)  looked at me in amazement, like I was some sort of alien being. But he said nothing. For about 10 minutes, until he couldn’t stand it any more. Then, with my PR minder in the back seat, over the intercom he shamed me into giving up command to technology.

For the rest of the flight he demonstrated what I already know: technology flies better than I do. It should, it always gets more practice. The real demonstration came at landing, in a pretty stiff crosswind. By his silence, I assumed that the demo pilot never recognized my insufficient correction, never recognized that I was drifting toward the downwind side of the runway. Overwhelmed with my first real crosswind landing in more than a year, I didn’t see it until the centerline crawled into view off my left side.

Thankfully, the runway was more than 100 feet wide, so we made it down without incurring a deductible. “Nice landing,” is all the demo pilot had to say before showing me what button  transferred the ground control from the database to the transceiver.

What’s really odd about all of my “stick time” during the technology era, the only flight that didn’t involve an autopilot was a demo with an avionics manufacturer showing off its new glass. The airplane had an autopilot, the demo pilot said, but all he wanted to show me is how the glass made it easier to hand-fly the airplane. And he was right. By following the magenta line I flew my first-ever DME arc to simulated minimums, and I did it to PTS parameters.

Should I ever be lucky enough to own a airplane, it will have the requisite technology, including an autopilot, because flying with these safety tools is less than prudent. But there’s a time and place for everything. Challenge is one of my primary motivations for flight, and there is not a lot of that involved in button pushing and knob twisting. –Scott Spangler


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3 Responses to “Airlines Not Only Ones Addicted to Autopilot”

  1. Pieter Says:

    Nice one! Good and practical use of assistance (or automation or autopilot) Pieter

  2. Pilot Training India Says:

    I have also heard about that news on cockpit automation and I was rather confused over this issue. A debate may arise over the autopilot and automation issue. But I agree with your opinion.

  3. charles Says:

    I read the article and I was a little amazed at some of the statements about pilot use of automation. I fly at United and, maybe it is a corporate culture thing, but most pilots almost always handfly to FL180, and kick off the autopilot around 10000 feet in the descent. This is encouraged by our training center, and this article really pisses me off with its general, and incorrect assumptions. I posted a reply on the original piece saying it was hack journalism. I am so tired of the media always writing bad, misleading, and incorrect articles on aviation!

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