Autopilot Atrophy

By By Ernie Stephens | June 1, 2016


Over the past few years, I have had the privilege to perform flight evaluations on some of the most advanced rotorcraft in the world. In many of those cases, the advancement was in the quality of the aircraft’s automation, particularly the autopilot. All I had to do was pick the ship up and pound a couple of buttons, and the aircraft would climb out to the desired altitude, turn to the appropriate heading, shoot a published approach and ride the ILS all the way down to a hover above the touchdown zone.

Autopilots have been standard fare aboard airplanes since Grant took Richmond, but they were late coming to the helicopter community. Even then, the first few could only be found on medium twins or larger. But now, you can order almost any turbine with a four-axis autopilot. In fact, there are lesser versions called stability augmentations systems (SAS) that will hold heading, altitude and attitude in aircraft as small as a Robinson Helicopter R44. Now, there are plenty of law enforcement operations that have autopilots and SAS aboard their rotorcraft.

Granted, the nature of urban airborne law enforcement rarely lends itself to letting the aircraft do all of the flying: there’s too much banking and airspeed changes to make it practical. But I know of one agency flying a combination of police and medevac aircraft that has a policy requiring the pilot in command to have at least two coupled axes during all en-route phases of flight. For them, that means legs as short as 25 mi and as long as 100 mi between points.

The logic behind the order was reasonable. Since only one in the two-person crew is a licensed pilot, and the other person might likely be in the aft cabin tending to a patient, the aircraft wouldn’t be completely out of control if the pilot in command had an ill-timed heart attack or stroke. With altitude and heading coupled up, there would be time for the other crewmember to clamber up front and figure out the next move. (Hopefully, that person would have had enough pinch-hitting instructions to know how to dial in an approach to a big, fat, prepared landing zone.)

Of course, the other reason for flight automation is to ease pilot fatigue during the monotonous portion of a flight, or while the pilot is occupied with another task. (No, that doesn’t include exchanging text messages with your cousin in Cleveland.)

My problem with the habitual use of an autopilot or SAS — especially a written procedure ordering its use — begins and ends with robbing the pilot in command of the kind of stick time that makes him or her an ever-better pilot. Even a good friend of mine who flies for a major airline said that his skills have probably faded because his aircraft is flown mostly on autopilot.

Personally, I’m against any routine that allows a pilot’s skills to atrophy, to wither away as a person’s muscles do when he or she suffers from prolonged paralysis. Trust me, I’ve been the biggest victim of that. I could never pass another instrument check ride without a lot of work because I don’t fly in IFR conditions anymore. Heck, I don’t know which end of a “whiz wheel” is up anymore because I’ve been using flight computers since 1988. In essence, I have atrophied in those areas, plus many more because of my kinds of flying.

Back in the 1980s, when I was learning how to fly, I was told that smart pilots understand they are always a student. Part of that includes trying to keep one’s skills sharp. For me, it has meant shutting off the autopilot and SAS for at least some of the flight and hand-flying whatever I’m in. I want to park a ship in an out-of-ground-effect hover for 5 min. I want to freeze the localizer and slope needles during an ILS approach with a quartering headwind. I want to protect my meager skills by doing stuff without automation.

Speaking of which, I told my bosses at R&WI that it’s time for me to pass this column on to a different author. I have enjoyed writing about airborne law enforcement these past 12 years. But it’s been a while since my primary job was to police from the skies. It’s time for someone with more current observations to take up the pen.

To all the men and women who have contacted me with compliments and complaints, or have shared laughs with me at conferences and in hangars, I say thank you and be safe. “Werewolf One, requesting frequency change. So long!”

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