Practical Test Standards and the Great Autopilot Debate

One of the key items in the practical test standards (PTS) for the private pilot and commercial pilot certificates addresses a topic of an endless, often shrill, debate among pilots and flight instructors: the role of the autopilot.

Partisans usually belong to one of two groups, (1) those who regard the autopilot as a crutch for lazy or unskilled pilots, especially in small, single-engine aircraft, and (2) pilots who consider it a key, if not essential, tool for safe, efficient flight, especially under IFR.

I belong to group (2), with the understanding, of course, that aviators must always be able to fly without an autopilot (the gizmos do malfunction, and basic stick-and-rudder skills shouldn’t be allowed to atrophy).

The PTS for both the private and commercial pilot certificates include the following language about automation management, a key skill that an applicant must demonstrate during a practical test:

Objective: To determine that the applicant can effectively use the automation features of the aircraft, including autopilot and flight management systems, in such a way to manage workload and can remain aware of the current and anticipated modes and status of the automation. The applicant should:

  1. Explain how to recognize the current mode of operation of the autopilot/FMS.
  2. Explain how to recognize anticipated and unanticipated mode or status changes of the autopilot/FMS.
  3. State at any time during the flight the current mode or status and what the next anticipated mode or status will be.
  4. Use the autopilot/FMS to reduce workload as appropriate for the phase of flight, during emergency or abnormal operations.
  5. Recognize unanticipated mode changes in a timely manner and promptly return the automation to the correct mode. (FAA-S-8081-14B, p. 16)

The FAA offers more detailed guidance in an often-overlooked, but excellent, text, the Advanced Avionics Handbook (FAA-H-8083-6):

An autopilot can be capable of many very time intensive tasks, helping the pilot focus on the overall status of the aircraft and flight. Good use of an autopilot helps automate the process of guiding and controlling the aircraft. Autopilots can automate tasks, such as maintaining an altitude, climbing or descending to an assigned altitude, turning to and maintaining an assigned heading, intercepting a course, guiding the aircraft between waypoints that make up a route programmed into an FMS, and flying a precision or nonprecision approach. (p. 4-2)

Elsewhere, the handbook notes that:

One of the most valuable benefits of using the FD/autopilot is delegating the constant task of manipulating the aircraft’s controls to the equipment, which do nothing other than comply with the pilot’s programming. This allows you more time to manage and observe the entire flight situation. Managing the flight versus actually moving the controls allows more time for:

  1. Programming. Especially when flying under IFR, changes to a route are inevitable. Even when the pilot is proficient in using FMS/RNAV, this task requires focusing some attention on the programming task. The FD/autopilot keeps the aircraft on the programmed heading or course and altitude while the pilot makes the necessary changes to the flight plan. If programmed correctly, the aircraft maintains the correct track and altitude.
  2. Distracting tasks/workload. Similarly, the FD/autopilot is used to control basic aircraft movement while the pilot focuses attention on tasks such as reviewing charts, briefing and configuring for an instrument approach, updating weather information, etc. The FD/autopilot can also be a great help in other high workload situations, such as flying in a busy terminal area or executing a missed approach in adverse weather conditions.
  3. Maintaining autopilot skills. The FD/autopilot’s ability to help manage pilot workload depends heavily on the pilot’s proficiency in using it. Regular practice with the various autopilot functions (especially the approach functions) is essential to develop and maintain the knowledge and skills necessary to maximize its utilization.
  4. Emergencies. The FD/autopilot can be extremely useful during an emergency. It can reduce pilot workload and facilitate efforts to troubleshoot the emergency. (p. 4-14)

These descriptions, especially “reducing workload as appropriate for the phase of flight,” recall the purpose of trim, as noted in the Airplane Flying Handbook:

Proper trim technique is a very important and often overlooked basic flying skill. An improperly trimmed airplane requires constant control pressures, produces pilot tension and fatigue, distracts the pilot from scanning, and contributes to abrupt and erratic airplane attitude control. (p. 3-7)

Finally, in a letter of legal interpretation (Murphy 2015), the FAA Office of Chief Counsel notes that the autopilot is essentially another flight control.

…The first logbook question, briefly stated, asks whether a pilot who uses an autopilot is sufficiently “manipulating the controls” of the aircraft to allow the pilot to log that time as pilot-in-comment (PIC) flight time. For the reasons stated below, a pilot may log PIC time as the sole manipulator of the controls when the pilot uses an autopilot…As described above, you note that you are “specifically interested in whether the pilot can be considered to be ‘manipulating the controls,’ within the context of[§] 61.51(e)(l)(i).” That section states that a pilot may log PIC time if he or she “is the sole manipulator of the controls of an aircraft for which the pilot is rated …. ” The FAA considers a pilot’s use and management of the autopilot to be the equivalent of manipulating the controls, just as one manages other flight control systems, such as trim or a yaw dampener [sic]. The autopilot system’s sophistication does not affect a pilot’s responsibility to manipulate and manage all control systems, including an autopilot, appropriately. Therefore, a pilot may log PIC flight time as the sole manipulator of the controls for the time in which he or she engages an autopilot. (Murphy 2015)

Most instructors and pilots respect aviators who understand and make effective use of trim. We should encourage the same skills when we fly airplanes equipped with autopilots.

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