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The Aviation Automation Creep Has Begun. Is It A Good Thing Or A Bad Thing?

With a handful of exciting new programs, planes and products, machines are beginning to take over the duties and, in some cases, the jobs of pilots.

It wasn’t long ago that I made my way to Olathe, Kansas, to go flying with Garmin on an airplane, a Piper M600, that could land itself in an emergency with no input from the pilot. None. The technology performed flawlessly. I watched.

One of my favorite games is to try to figure out what Garmin is up to. And lest you think the company gives me its roadmap years in advance, which I do know exists, by the way, I am not privy to its future plans. If Garmin has a blockbuster product coming out, I often learn about it a month or two in advance and, even then, under a strict embargo.

Garmin has pioneered automation in light GA, most notably with the introduction of extensive envelope-protection capabilities built into its autopilots. These include overspeed and underspeed protection, along with overbank control and others, all always working in the background and in a way that makes it transparent to the pilot unless it’s needed.

But when it rolled out Autoland in the M600, and soon thereafter in the Daher TBM 940 and the Cirrus SF50 Vision Jet, in each case for emergency use only, it became clear to me that Garmin could, that moment, field an airplane that could land itself at any time and do a first-rate job of it, from aeronautical decision making to the stick-and-rudder stuff. And forget about landing. The company could put together an airplane that would start itself, get required clearances, taxi, takeoff and complete the mission with the only input from the pilot being things like the desired destination and the number of passengers and bags. Would that person still really be a pilot? Good question. And would that person have to be trained as a pilot? Which is an even better question.

Garmin’s development of automation—Avidyne, among others, is busy at work on it, too—is about a long-term vision of aviation, and it is likely that the global aviation and consumer electronics giant is taking the long view, which is an interesting approach seeing that it already has the capability to build and field the electronics that would support fully automated flight.

Is a perceived reluctance by pilots to embrace automation what gives Garmin pause? I surely don’t know the answer, and I doubt Garmin would share such intel, but the question intrigues me. In terms of long-term strategic goals, a company like Garmin simply can’t ignore the possibility of a coming world of self-flying aircraft, whatever form they might take. And the more you look out 20 or 30 years, the more likely it seems that automation will play an increasingly important role in light aviation, though to what degree remains to be seen.


And while pilots are rightly proud of their craftwork and the hundreds or thousands of hours it took to develop such skills, even pilots who avoid automation, or those who adopt it advisedly, will be sharing the skies with other “pilots” who might understand far less than we do about what the title means.

Congress Corrects The FAA

Congress is stepping in to override the FAA’s remarkably tone-deaf reinterpretation of the rules behind training in three categories of aircraft: Primary, Amateur-Built and Limited Category. These categories represent many thousands of aircraft and even more pilots and instructors who are already being adversely affected by the new reading of the regs, which have been working just fine for 60 years!

To refresh your memory, although it’s seared in mine, a judge in Florida ruled that offering training in a Limited Category aircraft is, in a regulatory sense, the same thing as offering carriage. That means, you can’t do it—that is, without getting a Part 135 certificate, which is so elaborate and expensive an undertaking that almost no instructor could afford to do it. For all intents and purposes, it outlawed flight instruction in these aircraft.


The FAA had the next move, and its course of action was simple: clarify the existing rules and appeal the nonsensical ruling. It was a complete no-brainer. Yet, to the shock and bewilderment of just about everyone in our neck of the aviation woods, the FAA did no such thing. Instead, it chose to affirm the judge’s ruling, essentially admitting that it had gotten it wrong these last many decades. 

But it got worse. The FAA then decided to create a byzantine system to register and keep track of exemptions for every instructor who wanted to teach in one of these planes. It got even worse still when the FAA opined that instructing for free was the same as getting paid because of the inherent reward of teaching someone a new skill. It was preposterous. But the FAA agreed.

And to remind you in case you’ve lost track of the madness, the system that this new cumbersome and expensive-to-operate system replaced by the FAA’s newly proposed exemption registry was…wait for it….nothing. The way the rules were interpreted worked. It kept people safe—flight instruction is a critical element to pilot proficiency—and it needed no special paperwork.

And the unintended, at least we think, consequences of the new interpretation are beyond troubling, raising questions about the nature of flying for compensation or hire and the possible extension of that broadening of the definition that could have disastrous effects on every one of us.


Congress stepped in with a bipartisan stop hand at the urging of AOPA, EAA and others, with some of our regular good guy legislators, including Rep. Sam Graves (R-Missouri) and Rep. Kai Kahele (D-Hawaii), taking the lead on it. It’s good legislation, and the simplest kind, really, the kind that says, this is a bad idea, so stop it. Things should work this way all the time. The amendment has support in both the House and the Senate, and will likely be included in the defense reauthorization bill, which stands an almost certain path to passage.

All of which leads one to ask, if this course of action was so obvious to us pretty much from the beginning of this manufactured drama, why wasn’t it clear to the FAA?

Learn more about automation aviation here:

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Breaking News: Garmin Wins Robert J. Collier Trophy For Autoland

Video: Will Automation Replace Pilots? Expert Says Not Now, Not Ever


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