Are You On Automatic Pilot?

Automated Systems Require MORE Training

by jeff edwards

If you are like me, weather this season has really curtailed your flying for the last several months. Knowing I had to travel to Dallas, and would likely experience IMC, I brushed up on instrument procedures with my instructor. I try to get an IPC several times a year to stay current and proficient. This is based on my experience as an accident investigator, where I often find loss of control in IMC involves a pilot who is not instrument current. As an instructor, I am at a loss as to why an instrument-rated pilot would not maintain their currency (sometimes for years) then get in to an aircraft, file IFR and launch into IMC – sometimes at night. I believe automation dependence is a major reason. Read on.

This past November I was involved in an aviation court case in Florida. The accident pilot and his wife were aboard a high-performance aircraft departing their home airport in the Atlanta area bound to a nearby airport for lunch. Shortly after takeoff (at about 300 feet AGL) the pilot engaged the autopilot on the G1000, even though the AFM says 1000 feet is the minimum engagement altitude.  The airplane climbed on autopilot to the assigned 6000 feet MSL altitude while passing over Atlanta Hartsfield airport southbound. A few minutes later the engine quit. The aircraft was a few miles east of Atlanta Speedway airport (5000 feet of runway). Weather was CAVU. The pilot declared an emergency and told the controller he had a low oil pressure problem—not that the engine quit. 

The controller vectored the aircraft to Falcon Field (KFFC) about ten miles west. The controller queried the pilot twice more about his problem, and the pilot reported only "low oil pressure" both times.  Finally, as the aircraft descended through 500 feet AGL, still more than a mile from KFFC, the pilot said he was not going to make the airport. The aircraft struck trees and came to rest in an athletic field adjacent to a high school. The pilot and his wife were injured but survived. 


The aircraft could easily have glided to Atlanta Speedway airport but the pilot did not use the NRST (nearest) function on the G1000, instead relying on ATC instructions. The aircraft could even have reached KFFC had the pilot configured the aircraft properly (including feathering the prop) and flown at best glide speed, but he did neither. The pilot could have leveled the wings and attempted an engine restart, but he did not do that either. The pilot admitted he did not refer to the emergency checklist printed on laminated cards or displayed on the MFD. 

Analysis of the SD card from the G1000 revealed that prior to the engine quitting the aircraft was flying in a ten-degree left sideslip for a number of minutes. The aircraft departed with more than enough fuel to reach the destination and return, but the sideslip caused the fuel in the left wing to migrate outboard into the partially empty tank.  After few minutes the fuel trapped in the inboard collector tank was exhausted, and the engine quit due to fuel starvation. How did this happen? Apparently the pilot inadvertently turned the yaw damper off during the climb. As the aircraft accelerated after level off it became more and more out of trim, causing the severe left sideslip. The pilot was unaware of the sideslip.


As I noted, the pilot survived, and he filed a lawsuit against the aircraft manufacturer. He alleged the plane was defective because it lacked warnings on the panel about the autopilot and yaw damper. He made this allegation despite ignoring most of the warnings present on the G1000 caution and advisory system. What good is a warning on the panel if you never heed the warning? Analysis of the SD card data revealed he frequently (348 times or 70% of the time) engaged the autopilot below the AFM limit of 1000 feet AGL. On three occasions, he engaged it below 100 feet AGL.

Automated systems are making planes more complex, and it behooves all of us to study the manuals and understand and heed the limits of these systems. Just because the automation permits you to do something, you should be knowledgeable enough to know when that something should and should not be done. You should also endeavor to stay mentally engaged with what is going on while the aircraft is under the control of the automation, especially in cruise flight. Do not turn on the autopilot and turn off your brain! The BEST way to keep your knowledge fresh and your skills sharp in the face of increasing automation is training with an instructor. Training cannot be viewed as a “one and done” event, it must be a recurring series of events throughout your flying career. This immutable aviation truth is becoming ever more critical as pilots rely more and more on automation to keep them, their aircraft, and their passengers safe.

FAA Guidance

The Risk Management Handbook (FAA-H-8083-2) (pg. 7-9) outlines the hazards of over dependence on automated systems:

An advanced avionics safety issue identified by the FAA concerns pilots who apparently develop an unwarranted overreliance in their avionics in the aircraft, believing that the equipment compensates for pilot shortcomings.

On pg. 7-10 we are reminded that Electronic Flight Displays (EFDs) do not replace pilot knowledge and ability:

It is important to remember that EFDs do not replace basic flight knowledge and skills. They are a tool for improving flight safety. Risk increases when the pilot believes the gadgets compensate for lack of skill and knowledge. It is especially important to recognize there are limits to what the electronic systems in any light GA aircraft can do. Being pilot in command (PIC) requires sound ADM, which sometimes means saying “no” to a flight. 

For the GA pilot transitioning to automated systems, it is helpful to note that all human activity involving technical devices entails some element of risk. Knowledge, experience, and flight requirements tilt the odds in favor of safe and successful flights. The advanced avionics aircraft offers many new capabilities and simplifies the basic flying tasks, but only if the pilot is properly trained and all the equipment is working properly. 

Pilot management of risk is improved with practice and consistent use of basic and practical risk management tools.

In SAFO 13002, Manual Flight Operations, the FAA warned pilots that:

...continuous use of autoflight systems could lead to degradation of the pilot’s ability to quickly recover the aircraft from an undesired state.

The SAFO was issued based on a recent analysis of flight operations data (including normal flight operations, incidents, and accidents), which identified an increase in manual handling errors. The FAA stated that maintaining and improving the knowledge and skills for manual flight operations is necessary for safe flight operations and opportunities to exercise these skills should be encouraged when appropriate. While aimed at air carrier operations, this SAFO also has great relevance for the general aviation community. According to FAA Air Carrier Training Branch Aviation Safety Inspector Robert Burke, “An overreliance on automated cockpit technology for GA pilots can have equally detrimental effects on flight safety. During a flight, pilots should always be seeking appropriate opportunities to maintain their ‘stick and rudder’ skills.”

Further guidance may be found in the Pilot's Handbook of Aviation Knowledge, (H-8083-25B), (pg 2-27):

Pilots must maintain their flight skills and ability to maneuver aircraft manually within the standards set forth in the PTS. It is recommended that pilots of automated aircraft occasionally disengage the automation and manually fly the aircraft to maintain stick-and-rudder proficiency. It is imperative that the pilots understand that the EFD adds to the overall quality of the flight experience, but it can also lead to catastrophe if not utilized properly. At no time is the moving map meant to substitute for a VFR sectional or low altitude en route chart.

The Risk Management Handbook (FAA-H-8083-2) (pg 7-4) further cautions pilots to maintain their manual instrument flying skills, especially when operating an aircraft equipped with integrated advanced program avionics systems. The handbook states:

[T]hese systems can lull pilots into a sense of complacency that is shattered by an inflight emergency. Thus, it is imperative for pilots to understand that automation does not replace basic flying skills. Automation adds to the overall quality of the flight, but can also lead to catastrophe if not utilized properly.

It cannot be overemphasized that pilots need to maintain their manual flying skills. The best way to do so is to fly with an instructor and guage your skills and ability to maneuver the aircraft against the standards set forth in the PTS. If you fly an aircraft with automated systems, congratulations! These systems can make flying much safer and more enjoyable. But if you don't want your stick-and-rudder skills to atrophy make sure you  occasionally disengage the automation and manually fly the aircraft. There is a reason pilots call it the "joystick." Grab it every once in a while so you don't forget!

For questions and comments on this post contact Jeff via email: j.edwards [at]