Ladies and Gentlemen, I present you with the following scenario:
It’s a clear sunny day and ATC gives you your takeoff clearance. You advance the throttles and smoothly accelerate the aircraft to VR and rotate. Upon positive rate, you retract the gear, and at 400ft. you hit the Center Autopilot in Command.
George conducts the majority of the flight uneventfully, and may even land at your destination where you say to George “My Airplane” (really and truly you disconnect the autopilot after all, George isn’t that automated) on the runway, turn off and taxi on in to the gate. Sound familiar? As one American Airlines captain put it, we are rapidly (and in some cases are already) becoming “Children of the Magenta”, completely dependent on the airplanes autopilot and automated systems.
George Isn’t All Bad…
Now don’t get me wrong, by no means am I the consummate aviator, I’ve been guilty of committing this very act on more than one occasion (most recently this past weekend) and really and truly, it isn’t a crime to have the autopilot fly the aircraft. In no way am I bashing George…why, I quite like George. Many nights while I was asleep, George was hard at it helping me to build hours at my current virtual airline (Don’t judge me, we’ve ALL done it) and was kind enough to have me right at the top of descent where I’d wake up and take over.
In all truthfulness, he is actually quite useful and is our friend I mean, could you imagine how painful it would be to hand fly an aircraft for 8 hours on a transatlantic flight? He is great at keeping things straight and narrow for us during the hectic portions of flight, especially since in most cases, we lack a copilot in the flight simulator world. Despite all of his better qualities however, we have to ask ourselves one question.
At what cost?
Have we become so dependent on the autopilot and other automated systems and functions of the airplane that as a result, our own piloting skills have deteriorated?
Ask yourselves the following questions:
Can you effortlessly follow the flight director commands without jerking the aircraft around?
Better yet, when was the last time you intercepted the localizer and glideslope sans the help of Georgie boy and hand flown an approach?
If I were a betting man, I’d be willing to say that a lot of us can’t remember.
Why Practice Really Does Make Perfect
What it really boils down to is something you’ve probably heard a million times in your life: if you don’t use it, you lose it. The same goes for our piloting skills. When George flies (in excess), we lose our feel for the aircraft, we don’t anticipate as well, we don’t learn the aircraft’s tendencies, in a nutshell, we become incompetent.
Recently, there have been a few accidents that have been linked to pilot over dependency on the autopilot and the aircrafts automated systems. In emergency situations, as pilots we need to be Competent and Confident (The Two C’s as I like to call it) in our own skills and the only way to do that is through constant training and practice.
One great benefit I find from hand flying the airplane is an unbelievable sense of satisfaction. There is something about flying an airplane half way around the world, hand flying the approach and greasing the landing that you simply don’t get when George does it.
Be that as it may, as pilots we should strive for a balanced approach between the two. A happy medium if you will. Using the autopilot and other automated systems effectively is equally as important as knowing how to hand fly the airplane. We must learn to coexist with George rather than hide beneath him, after all, why should we let him have all the fun?
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