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

My good friend Jon Egaas, a far better pilot than I'll ever be, has probably triple my measly 210 international trips, many of them in big, turboprop Ayres Thrush or Air Tractor cropdusters to Central and South America, and occasionally across the Pacific to Australia and New Zealand. Jon almost NEVER has an autopilot and must hand-fly every minute.
I'm fortunate in that most of the time, the twins and singles I fly have fairly complete avionics packages, usually including one of a variety of STEC, King or Garmin autopilots.

The current family LoPresti Mooney began life with Positive Control, a full-time wing leveler provided as standard equipment and intended to maintain the wings in level flight unless you depressed a button on the left yoke. It was arguably a worthwhile safety feature, but many pilots (this one included) disliked it and simply taped the button down so the controls weren't constantly fighting any maneuver. Even those of us who enjoy using autopilots don't want them on all the time.

These days, my Mooney has an STEC-65 that's so talented, I'm convinced it could figure my taxes if I asked it to. Fortunately, my editorial missions and the occasional ferry flight keep me reasonably current (if not necessarily proficient) at IFR, so I normally entrust the autopilot with the en route segment only. With the STEC engaged, I have more time to look for traffic, a critical consideration in the LA Basin. Altitude busts aren't impossible with an autopilot, but they're less likely than with a human at the controls, at least this human.

Fact is, virtually any properly functioning autopilot enhances safety and improves performance. Years ago, I went to Wichita to fly a new 58 Baron. The check pilot and I flew northwest over the plains, leveled at 8,500 feet, and the Beech pilot bragged about the precision of the King autopilot. As proof, he suggested I trim the airplane as perfectly as I could in the light summer chop. When I had everything set and was satisfied, my speed was averaging about 170 knots indicated. He took the controls, retrimmed slightly, and we saw 171 knots. After that, he punched up the King KFC200 autopilot, gave it a minute or two to stabilize, and we were looking at 173 knots.

Of course, there's a downside to autopilots, in addition to the economic one. There will be a few pilots who will abuse the privilege and substitute an autopilot for IFR proficiency and wind up going bump in the night, but anything that reduces fatigue and contributes to a more alert pilot is worth the investment.

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