Bill Cox has flown 210 international ferry flights, including one to Korea in a Grand Caravan. On the 15.1-hour leg from Santa Barbara, Calif., to Honolulu, Hawaii, he was very grateful for the autopilot.
One of the most common questions I get about flying the oceans is, "How do you stay awake on a 10- to 15-hour leg?" My standard answer is, "Consider the alternative."
In truth, I have fallen asleep in flight, not on a ferry trip but during a long editorial round-robin through the Southwest in my Mooney 231. I had flown from Long Beach to Ruidoso, N.M., to research and shoot pictures for a story on the Chiricahua Apaches' use of a Cheyenne III (somehow appropriate), then up to Farmington, N.M., for an article on a Navajo operator, and finally back home to Long Beach, all in one day. It was about 13 hours of flying and another six hours of photography and interviews. Not very smart.
I fell asleep on the 600-mile flight home, somewhere over the Colorado River. I overflew the LA Basin and woke up out over the Pacific, about 50 miles southwest of Catalina Island. Fortunately, I had plenty of fuel and a good autopilot, and was able to reverse course and return to the coast without problems.
Fast-forward 30 years. I delivered a Grand Caravan to Korea a while back, and it was one of the slowest but most comfortable ferry flights I've made. The airplane is a condominium with wings. Cessna got virtually everything right in designing it for the utility mission when they introduced the Cessna 208 nearly 30 years ago.
Normally, faster is better, but most cargo doesn't need to travel at Mach numbers, and that was the Caravan's presumed mission. Today, FedEx operates about 250 of the type.
For my unusual brand of flying, often long legs across the water, faster is nearly always better. Risk isn't measured in miles, it's measured in time. The reality is, however, that if you're comfortable and relaxed, you can put up with an extended ETE, especially if you're flying with a turbine out front.
On the Korea trip, the Santa Barbara-to-Honolulu leg was the toughest one, 15.1 hours. Yet, the big Caravan, with its large, sumptuous seats, an excellent environmental control system and most importantly a great autopilot, made the time seem shorter. After that, the legs were shorter and less demanding.
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.
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.