To Autopilot or Hand-Fly? That is the Question
By Gary Reeves, ATP, Master CFI, CFII, MEI
Reading online and magazine articles may lead some to believe that modern pilots are using autopilots too much. A lot of instructors teaching IFR and Private Pilot students don't let them use autopilots at all until they are at the end of their training. I'd like to offer a different perspective - people should use autopilots more! In my opinion, the modern pilot is safer when they use autopilots than hand-flying for three big reasons. But before you begin sharpening your pitchforks and planning how to best tear this opinion apart, I'd like you to hear me out first. If you still think I'm wrong, you can light the torches later.
The biggest reason I would like pilots to use the autopilot more is that they can pay more attention to more important things. I'm not saying flying the plane isn't important, I'm just saying the pilot's focus should be on weather, traffic, and other critical situational items more. When you're focusing on maintaining altitude, course, and heading, it's easy to miss a radio call, traffic conflict, or even a critical altitude or other change when flying on the gauges. A good autopilot is crucial for Single Pilot IFR.
The second reason that pilots should use their autopilot more is that it gives them time to get ahead of the airplane instead of just keeping up. It's a whole lot easier to work your new Avidyne or Garmin GPS, use ForeFlight or look at XM or FIS-B weather when the robot does the simple stuff. Getting set-up and briefed for an Instrument approach thirty minutes early is a lot safer than holding a plane on course and being too busy later.
The third reason that autopilots should be used more often is simple. We know that it works and makes flying safer. Ask any professional pilot who flies stuff that goes high and fast. Their job is to manage the entire plane and the constantly-changing situation around them, not just hold a course. The airlines know this. That's why they fly this way. Any GA jet or turboprop certified for single-pilot is designed to be flown by the autopilot.
I think everyone will admit that autopilot can make flying safer, but only if a couple of things are true:
You must understand everything about the autopilot, including limitations and how to recognize and respond to malfunctions. For instance, some of the new GA certified autopilots will only track a GPS signal and can't fly an ILS. Some older autopilots can only hold the wings level. The STEC 55X can do a lot more.
You must constantly check to make sure the autopilot is doing what you want it to do.
On a regular basis, you must train how to disconnect and hand-fly if any malfunction occurs. That means a lot of training in malfunctions and flying without the autopilot too.
Remember, a great autopilot will make you much safer if you know how to work it and know how to turn it off and hand-fly if something goes wrong.
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Gary Reeves is an ATP, Master CFI, CFII, and MEI. A well-known national speaker, he has over 7,500 hours and is the 2019 FAA National Certified Flight Instructor of the Year. In addition, he has issued over 10,000 FAA Safety Wings Credits. Gary is also the only Avidyne and Genesys (S-TEC) National Training Provider. As the top national expert in Single-Pilot IFR, he offers Master Video Training courses for autopilots, GPS (Avidyne and Garmin), ForeFlight and, Single Pilot-IFR. For the few pilots that really want to fly at the Mastery level, he offers 3-day Mastering Single-Pilot IFR programs both in Texas and private classes wherever the owner/pilot lives. For more information, please visit PilotSafety.org and MasterFlightTraining.com.
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