It seems like in many areas people are divided into two camps, with each side strongly supporting its way of thinking while disparaging any other approach. Sometimes the pendulum of opinion swings from one side to the other, never pausing to stop in the middle. A balanced approach is usually more reasonable, applying the appropriate measures at the appropriate times.
One example of this in aviation is the autopilot versus hand-flying controversy. As an instructor at FlightSafety and SimuFlight and a check pilot for the Civil Air Patrol, I have seen both sides of this issue. For some pilots, “gear up, autopilot engaged” seems like one step in the checklist. As soon as they have achieved a positive rate of climb and raised the landing gear, they engage the autopilot, and it stays engaged right up until shortly before landing.
At the other extreme there are pilots who seem to feel that autopilots are for wimps. They hand-fly the airplane right up to the point that they level off at their cruise altitude, and then disengage the autopilot as soon as they initiate their descent for landing. Other pilots seem to think there is a rule about not using the autopilot below 10,000 feet. Some instructors and check pilots “fail” the autopilot at the start of a lesson or check ride and won’t allow its use at any point in the flight.
A Balanced Approach
Right in the middle of these two groups are the pilots who see the autopilot as a tool to be used to relieve the pilot from the duty of manipulating the controls so he can accomplish other tasks such as reviewing checklists, communicating with ATC and preparing for an approach. They recognize that a properly functioning autopilot can fly the airplane as well or better than we can and can free us up for other duties, thus increasing our overall situational awareness and making it less likely that we will make a mistake or miss a call from ATC.
The FARs recognize the advantage of using an autopilot in single-pilot operations. While Part 91 has no regulations governing autopilots in small airplanes, Part 135 allows single-pilot operations only if the airplane has a functioning autopilot. In the same vein, the Mitsubishi MU-2 SFAR requires a functional autopilot to operate single-pilot at night or in instrument conditions. However, just as you can lead a horse to water but can’t make it drink, you can require a pilot to have a functioning autopilot, but there are no regulations in Part 91 or 135 that require the pilot to use it.
It is up to each pilot to decide how best to use the autopilot, just like any other tool in his flight case. Because pilots are different, some may want to fly with the autopilot engaged most of the time, while others may prefer to hand-fly the airplane. I have no problem with either approach as long as the pilot can operate smoothly both with and without the autopilot. I get worried when I fail the autopilot and discover that a pilot has been using it as a crutch to cover up a lack of basic piloting ability, or when I ask a pilot who has been hand-flying the airplane to fly a coupled approach and discover the pilot has difficulty using the autopilot.
Every pilot needs to be competent at hand-flying the airplane, and it takes training and practice to maintain an adequate level of competency. However, human factor experts are discovering that the constant autopilot use that is typical in modern glass cockpit airplanes is leading to a decrease in basic hand-flying skills. Recent airline crashes have been traced back to pilots who didn’t have an ability to fly an airplane by basic pitch and power attitude flying. When the system crashed, they crashed.