Plane & Pilot
Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Autopilots Equal Safety

It may seem counterintuitive for macho pilots, but an autopilot will nearly always do a better job than you will

The key was the autopilot. Recently, I was giving a presentation on ferry flying to an audience in Florida. I had just finished extolling the virtues of a good autopilot as a mandatory item for transoceanic delivery flights, when I was taken to task by an audience member. He was surprised that I had been willing to walk away from a trip to South Africa in another Caravan when the autopilot failed going into St. Johns, Newfoundland, Canada.

(I had insisted the system be fixed before I'd continue the trip, and the owner had it repaired rather than look for a more adventurous pilot. I'm not alone. I know of many other delivery pilots who wouldn't consider launching on a 10,000 nm delivery flight without an autopilot.)

My questioner was of the old "Autopilots-Are-For-Wusses" school, and believed that employing the services of the servos somehow abrogated his rights as an aviator. He argued that autopilots are very expensive anyway, they're not installed in every aircraft (even some airliners), and they're too often used as crutches by pilots with more money than brains.

I agreed there are few inexpensive flight control systems, and that some pilots with the resources may get to know their electronic copilots almost too well, far better than the rest of the airplane. The logical question is, what happens when the system fails and the pilot has to fall back on his own rusty skills?

We didn't have time for a long debate, but the point may be moot to many pilots anyway. Unlike ELTs, transponders and encoders, autopilots will never be mandated (I hope). My protagonist seemed somewhat placated when I told him I had never used an automatic flight system for an actual coupled approach in hard IFR, only for en route control. That assumes I'm more precise than a typical autopilot, not necessarily a logical assumption.

Few sane pilots fly 10- to 15-hour legs. Four hours is often max endurance. Throw in a little turbulence, weather and the slight hypoxia that accompanies flying at even 7,500 feet, and an autopilot can definitely earn its keep.

I've always felt that even a basic wing leveler provides a valuable electronic hedge against fatigue or simple distraction, to take over when we need to look up a frequency, examine a chart or just search for that ham and cheese sandwich in the cooler in the back seat.

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