An autopilot is not a simple “easy” button. Pilots must train to understand completely and, thus, be smarter than the autopilot. Inadequate knowledge of autopilot characteristics has led to accidents, even in modern jets.
The last thing a pilot wants to be heard saying is “What’s it doing now?” Striving to avoid this brings up two questions: Why use an autopilot? And, at what point should an autopilot be introduced into flight training?
Using an autopilot greatly improves the pilot’s ability to multitask. An autopilot significantly improves this ability by allowing the pilot to focus on tasks such as coordinating with air traffic control and managing complex, and highly capable, navigation equipment.
At what point should an autopilot be introduced into flight training? Perhaps the best method is a graduated approach throughout the training curriculum.
During private pilot training, the first priority is to become comfortable with the hands-on control of the aircraft. Beyond that, the integration of an autopilot for straight-and-level flight could greatly improve the pilot’s ability to manage relatively complex operations such as a Class B airspace transition.
For instrument training, the first focus should be on developing an ability to hand-fly the airplane in instrument flight conditions. Once that is accomplished, an autopilot can be integrated to assist during high-workload periods of flight, such as descent and approach. Ultimately, an instrument pilot should strive to use the autopilot through all phases of flight, thus maximizing the ability to multitask at any time.
Regardless of the level of training being provided, an autopilot should never substitute for learning fundamental skills. Rather, the pilot should learn to integrate it as an invaluable tool that reduces fatigue and increases the pilot’s ability to perceive, and react to, the always-dynamic flight environment.