Posted by: Korry | September 26, 2011

Why I Love Auotpilots…And You Should, Too!

On September 1, 2011, I came across an article on CNN entitled “Autopilots may dull skills of pilots, committee says.” At the time, I didn’t think too much about it as I’ve come to realize that much of what the modern press says about aviation may be in the ballpark but fail to tell the whole story. (You may have noticed this, too, when it comes to news stories in your particular field). But then I came across a survey on Cheapflights.com that I linked to last week via my Twitter feed here (are you following me yet???).

While I thought most of the survey was predictable, there were also a few very surprising [to me] results.

What got my attention the most? 62% of survey respondents said they would prefer if their pilots manually flew their airplanes instead of using autopilots. Now, I’m guessing these 62% equate being a good pilot with having both hands on the wheel, manually in control, all the time. I can understand why they think this, however, there’s far more than just “stick-and-rudder” skills to being a great pilot.

I’m also concerned that these 62% may think that if the plane is on autopilot then the pilots aren’t really doing anything at all and that they’re most likely just kicking back, drinking a cup of coffee, shooting the bull and just aimlessly riding along, not really paying any attention to what’s actually going on. The truth is that while the pilots may be kicking back, drinking a cup of coffee and shooting the bull, they aren’t just aimlessly riding; they’re paying a LOT of attention to all sorts of details absolutely critical to the flight.

As I write this, I am deadheading to Denver, sitting [relatively] comfortably in seat 12F. There is almost a 100% chance that the pilots flying this airplane are currently using the autopilot…and I couldn’t be happier about that.

Why would I be so happy that my pilots are most likely using the autopilot and letting their hand-flying skills deteriorate as the recent news articles could lead us to believe? Quite simply because in the interest of total flight safety they have better things to do right now!

Don’t get me wrong. Hand-flying skills are important, and there have been a few high profile incidents in the past few years such as the Air France accident off the Brazilian coast or the Colgan Air accident in Buffalo, NY that were linked at least in part to pilots making devastatingly costly mistakes in basic hand-flying airmanship. But as I mentioned last Monday here, the vast percentage of pilots fly their airplanes incredibly skillfully day in and day out, leading to safety ratings that are far in excess of 99.999%. Unfortunately, airline accidents tend to be spectacular events that cause a lot of attention to be placed upon them. And while that attention often leads to safety improvements, the notion that pilots should be spending more time hand-flying than on autopilot is at best an overstatement of what improvements need to be made and, at worst, a recipe for increased levels of pilot error.

Think about it like this. Have you ever been sitting in the backseat of a car and noticed a traffic light change from green to yellow to red while the driver continued along as though nothing was wrong despite the cars ahead coming to complete stop? Most likely, the driver was focused on other things—checking his speed, watching a pedestrian along the road, programming the GPS, checking email etc. You, as the “back seat driver”, were easily able to identify the most imminently critical threat of the red light more quickly than the driver because you were removed from the task-saturation that can occur while driving. You could see the “big picture” while the driver only saw some of the threats around him but not the most critical one. The same goes for pilots and autopilots. Autopilots help pilots to see the big picture, and as I said here, being a good pilot is all about seeing the big picture.

Autopilots allow there to be, in essence, three pilots in a two-pilot flight deck. One pilot—the autopilot—focuses on the basic, mundane and fatiguing tasks of actually “flying” the plane such as maintaining altitude, airspeed and heading. The two human pilots can then step back and focus on the big picture as a team. They can focus on tasks such as safely navigating around weather or terrain, complying with air traffic control requests, monitoring the flight’s progress and aircraft systems, planning for descents or the specific arrival challenges, and assisting the flight attendants with such passenger issues as medical emergencies. Computers can do things, but they can’t think or reason. Thinking and reasoning are the pilots’ primary jobs, and that’s what they get paid to do well.

Yes, hand-flying must be practiced so that skills do not deteriorate, and it is practiced on every takeoff and climbout as well as almost every approach and landing. But, I firmly believe that overall flight safety is greatly increased by pilots using the autopilot regularly. Autopilots allow human pilots to monitor, prepare and anticipate. Most of all, utilizing the autopilot allows pilots to focus on what really matters: seeing the big picture.

What do you think? Are you convinced, or do you still think pilots should be manually flying all the time?

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Responses

  1. I totally never thought of autopilot in that regard (allowing Pilot’s to do other things) but how totally true! I was never one to think that pilots were just chilling while on auto but I didn’t see the big picture.
    Thanks for this blog Korry! Very informative!

  2. You’re quite welcome, Heather! And thanks so much for reading my blog. I’m so glad you enjoy it and find it thought provoking! I mean, it’s nice to write…but it’s even nicer to know that people actually like to read what I write. So thanks again!

  3. […] everything the pilot does. This includes watching him or her manipulate the controls (including the autopilot) and listening to the Air Traffic Control […]

  4. […] for takeoff”, I’m actually looking for reasons NOT to go flying. Why? Well, just like autopilots, takeoff is more complicated than it first seems. As with most areas of flying, my focus is on the […]

  5. Spot on Korry! I’ve long said that ‘straight and level cruise’ is never a measure of ones aptitude. If your approach to total airplane management is through heading and altitude, then there is a world of influences (literally) that you’ll be missing. The technology of today enables and at the same time demands greater accuracy (RVSM, RNAV arrivals/departures) as we squeeze more aluminum into a finite amount of terminal airspace and pavement. Throw in RNP 0.1 GNSS approaches to 200′ minimums and it doesn’t take long to figure out that you have to stay ahead of the airplane instead of being absorbed by “trying to figure out the best wind correction angle”. I believe long careers are had by those that embrace and understand the programming of the technology so the moment of “what’s this thing doing now” doesn’t turn into an unsolved mystery.

  6. […] but the rain is really dumping down now. Windshield wipers to high. The captain disconnects the autopilot just as I call the runway lights in […]

  7. […] a cockpit environment that encourages participation and debate? How can the entire crew see the big picture and all of its resources both inside and outside the […]

  8. […] got done and no corners were cut. It just took more time and more effort. My focus had to move from big picture thinking to little picture thinking, which isn’t where I want my thinking to […]

  9. […] logistics behind our requests. He didn’t micromanage, and he always kept thinking about the big picture, never forgetting to follow the most important rule of aviation: fly the airplane first. It would […]

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  11. […] and up to about 10,000 feet into the crisp winter air, I reached up to turn on the “B” autopilot…but it wasn’t to be. The autopilot disconnect buzzer sounded, warning both of us that […]


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