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.
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.