Hello everyone and welcome back to my Flight Blog. I hope everyone out there is following the two rules of flying out there(be safe and have fun)! Today I want to talk about flying an automted cockpit and some tips and tricks to have the most success. An autopilot is a great tool to have in the cockpit especially if it’s coupled to a GPS Nav system. They definately have come a long way in both useability as well as functionality.
Today in most airline cockpits you will see a very sophisticated autopilot that is powered by a flight management computer and can also be manually manipulated by the pilot. Some can even land the plane on a Cat IIIb approach when the weather and visability is very bad. Most general aviation aircraft don’t come close to that level of sophistication however we Cessna, Beechcraft, and Piper guys do have some great equipment available.
The most sophticated autopilot I have ever flown was a Garmin G1000 suite in a Cessna 172SP. That system would do everything but takeoff and land. The only catch with it, just like any other autopilot system, is you have to set it up correctly. Thats where a pilot can get into trouble. As a pilot, one of the things were tested on when we go for our license is automation operation and management. However, if after your checkride you dont fly an automated airplane for sometime, it’s easy to forget or overlook things. The bigest item to watch is what mode you have the autopilot in. We used GPS for primary navigation for most flights in the G1000. So, when engaging the autopilot you would put it into Nav mode. There was a catch though, that autopilot had a similar setup to most autopilots for small aircraft. It can’t capture a course that is going almost directly behind you. In other words if you takeoff heading straight north and the course you want to follow is straight south, the autopilot can’t capture that. It wont stear the plane that far to capture a Nav course. So, you would engage Nav mode, but the autopilot would go into Rol mode which would just keep the wings level. Instead of turning, it would hold you in a straight line. In Iowa, it isn’t as big a deal as in an area with mountains. In rugged terrain you could easily fly into the side of a mountain because you thought the autopilot was in Nav mode, turning you on course but in reality it wasn’t. The fix was simple, grab the wheel, hold down the control wheel stearing button to stear without disconnecting the autopilot, and steer it manually to the course. You could also put it into heading mode and dial in the heading. Once it was close enough to the course then Nav mode would engage and off you went to your destination. Garmin did a great job with there annunciator system so it was easy to tell if the autopilot was doing what it was susposed to do. You just need to look and see.
That example above is one of many to watch out for. I fly a Cessna R182 now with a differant autopilot system in it. It doesn’t have quite as many abilities as the G1000 autopilot though it requires the same attention. A big one for me comes when flying in instrument conditions. Flying in bad weather is a high workload day for the pilot. The highest workload for me personally comes when it’s time to shoot the blind approach. Theres alot going on in the cockpit come time to land. Making sure the aircraft is configured for landing, breifing the approach, changing radio frequencies and running my checklist. Thats where the autopilot is a blessing. I can engage it and, if all goes well, it couples and then i’m free to accomplish some tasks. The big thing I always watch in that airplane is weather it’s going to capture the glideslope on an RNAV GPS Approach. Once in a while it doesn’t so me as the pilot must watch carefully. My procedure is simple, if i don’t think the autopilot is going to follow the glideslope down, I click the button on the wheel to disengage the autopilot and proceede to fly it in manually.
Autopilot is a great tool for pilots. It helps reduce workload and fatigue. It, just like every other portion of your flight, demands respect as well as attention to detail. The systems we have today would make the inventor proud. Just remember to watch the programming and modes your in. Don’t just press the button and move right into another task before verifying that the autopilot is actually doing what it is susposed to do. Remember to, if the autopilot isn’t working the way it should or isn’t coupling, turn it off and do what we do best, fly the plane.
Well everyone, thanks for reading. I hope you enjoyed the blog. If you have any questions or would like to suggest a topic for me to cover please leave a comment or feel free to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org . Until next time, have fun and keep the greasy side down!
Flight Operations Manager
Winterset Aviation Services
Below is an example of the G1000 suite in a Cessna 172SP