When You Should Use the Autopilot

Even after flying for the past thirteen years, I still get a kick out of manually steering the airplane around. But I’ve also come to understand that autopilots can be a life-saver. If you’re like me, you probably hate to relinquish the controls to a machine but there are times when you ought to take full advantage of an autopilot.


After earning my private pilot license, I had a few opportunities to fly fancier airplanes than the “just the basics” rental plane with more experienced pilots. I was always surprised to see the autopilot come on. Besides the new-tech “wow factor,” I didn’t understand why anyone would opt to fly with the autopilot for much time at all. After all, half the fun of flying an airplane is flying the airplane. Maybe this was an FAA “hazardous attitude” poking through. What was that “antidote” for machoism again?

Hands-on flying is a necessary skill, and is certainly a lot of fun but it takes a good portion of brain-space away from the important task of decision making. There is only so much that the human mind can effectively process before becoming “task-saturated.” This is the point at which performance suffers because your brain can’t keep up! To stave off task saturation pilots should maximize the use of automation is high-workload environments.

Diamond with a G1000

Diamond with a G1000

Consider engaging the autopilot in areas of inclement weather. Sometimes the decision making process is clean cut: nasty clouds to the left, maybe we’ll go right. Other days, the choice is not so clear. By letting the autopilot fly the airplane, you can focus a little more closely on the weather and make more effective decisions en route.

Going into a busy airport? Turn that autopilot on and focus on those radio calls and keep your eyes open for traffic. A lot of airplanes are even approved for “coupled approaches” where the airplane will actually intercept a localizer and fly an instrument approach. This frees the pilot to shift to a “big-picture” focus and stay ahead of the airplane. Just a word of warning: be ready to manually intercept the final approach course. Most of the airplanes I’ve flown do a fine job of blowing through the localizer on a coupled approach.

Long cross-country flights are the perfect time to make use of the autopilot. Why fatigue yourself by wiggling the controls to keep the wings level for several hours? Turn on the autopilot and relax. You’ll be that much more alert when it comes time to land.

Anytime you feel task-saturated, consider raising the level of automation to help you catch up and stay ahead of the game. Remember, physically maneuvering the airplane is only one part of flying. Good pilots are also good decision makers, so take advantage of any tools at your disposal to increase your situational awareness and aeronautical decision making skills.


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About the author
Pat Flannigan is a professional pilot and aviation blogger. He has been flying for fifteen years and is currently working as an airline pilot in the United States.

4 Replies to When You Should Use the Autopilot

  1. Jeffrey says:

    Patrick,

    Nice job again! As we both know, as the airplane becomes more complicated and faster, like the CRJ airplanes we fly, the autopilot becomes even more important. Traveling 140 kts on final versus traveling 80 kts on final are two different things. The autopilot gives us time to resolve situations and stay ahead of the airplane instead of hanging off the tail, figuratively speaking.

    Keep of the great work!

    Jeffrey

    • Yep, always a good idea to at least start the approach on autopilot and get everything stabilized and in-order. There is a catch though, most new guys (and some senior ones!) have trouble making the approach when cleared for the visual. If the autopilot isn’t configured right, you’ve got to be ready to turn the darn thing off! Thanks again for the insightful comments Jeffrey.

  2. I had a great example of the autopilot messing up a nice approach yesterday – I was flying into Rotterdam in a group Cirrus SR-22 and I was intercepting the localiser on the autopilot but the wretched thing flew through the centreline and the weaved like an inglorious basterd trying to recapture it. I disconnected it and hand flew the approach.

    This was fine because it was a beautiful day and I could see the runway but in turbulent IMC it would have suddenly and dramatically increased my workload.

    Much smoother if I had not simply used the heading bug to line up on the localiser and then engaged approach mode. Also, better to revert to using the heading bug from full-on auto-coupled approach mode rather than disconnecting completely. (Which is always my first reaction and a dumb one, really, when you think about it.)

    I think the interesting reminder for me is that even with the same model autopilot and plane (S-Tec and SR22 in this case), you can get different results in different aircraft. I have fly in about 7 or 8 different Cirruses and each one is slightly different. Most would make that auto-capture smoothly. One of the planes I fly has a slight wiggle trying to hold an altitude. Another one used to dramatically pitch down at awkward moments (noone used it below 2,000′!) etc.

    • Most autopilots are notorious for shooting through the localizer and weaving like that. Not sure how the Cirrus does, but in the CRJ you can usually use the heading bug to lead the turn once the localizer is alive, that way the plane doesn’t have to over (or under) react when the autopilot captures the localizer.

      I think you made the right call by turning it off and hand flying. The CRJ HDG mode commands a pretty slow roll rate, so that option would almost certainly not work in my airplane. When this happens to me (more often than you might expect), I just click it off and intercept by hand. Then I’ll go back to approach mode and re-engage the autopilot if I need to. Of course, on a Cat-II approach, that’s a go-around…

      These systems are cool, but there is still no substitute for a thinking pilot.

      Thanks for the comment and the linkback on GolfHotelWhiskey.com!

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