“You need more right rudder,” Bill Martin scolded as I sloppily put the Cessna 172 into a climbing right turn. My recollection of P-factor and torque effect, it seemed, had gone the way of the dodo bird.
“I guess I’m used to yaw dampers in the jets,” I mumbled. “It’s been 10 years since I’ve flown one of these.”
Bill flicked his headset’s microphone closer to his mouth. “Well, obviously. You’re all over the place.”
With that bit of chiding, memories from my flight-training days encircled me as if I had flown turns around a point yesterday. Bill was my first flight instructor — a successful middle-aged businessman who loved flying and pushing his students to their full potential. Shooting partial-panel NDB approaches (with procedure turns!) was normal during my instrument training, complemented by his index finger forcibly tapping the altimeter if I dared to break his stringent limits.
Yet there was a “method to the madness,” as Bill always said. Eventually, his fingerprints disappeared from the Cessna 172’s instruments and his terse commands from its intercom. Bill hadn’t cracked the altimeter’s glass or developed laryngitis — his lofty standards had become my own.
I was 16 when I first clambered into a cockpit with Bill. We were a bit of an odd couple, considering our age difference and places in life, but Bill’s pursuit of perfection resonated with me. As I progressed from C-172s to larger cockpits, and eventually to the Boeing 737 I currently fly, his standards stayed with me — a constant in a dynamic profession. Ultimately, our relationship came to represent one of aviation’s greatest gifts: a lifelong bond between student and instructor, a relationship where learning never stops.
Seventeen years after our first flight, the setting was perfect for a reunion as we trundled around the Florida sky. The C-172 was a late-1970s model configured almost identically to the aircraft from our past. Bill’s trusty instrument hood and vacuum instrument suction-cup covers were missing, thankfully, but the aircraft was remarkably similar. The musty odor somehow synonymous with training aircraft was even present, complete with the scent of the avgas that I clumsily spilled on my hand while straining the fuel tanks.
Bill mentioned he could’ve rented an aircraft with a glass cockpit complete with autopilot, but he thought flying an antiquated bird would be more fun. “No GPS, FMS or autopilot,” he said. “You’re going to have to hand-fly this thing, just like you used to do.” He paused, and I could’ve sworn I saw his index finger twitch. “And I don’t care how long it’s been since you’ve flown one of these.”
As I guided the Cessna through the morning air (I did eventually make coordinated turns, and Bill only sparingly tapped the altimeter), I couldn’t remember the last time I had hand-flown an aircraft during all phases of flight. Although I manually take off and land the 737, hand-flying entire climbs and approaches is rare and never occurs in cruise within RVSM airspace. My fingers are adept at interfacing with the flight management computer and the autopilot, but they spend considerably less time manipulating the Boeing’s prominent control yokes. Even when the autopilot is off, the flight directors usually remain on the primary flight display.
In comparison, the Cessna’s attitude indicator looked painfully inadequate, a tiny circle with faded blue, black and white that somehow had kept me right-side up not that long ago. I looked back outside, appreciating that I could simply point the riveted nose where the Everglades’ green met the blue sky.
“Automation is a great tool,” Bill said over the Lycoming’s drone. “But if it fails, you’d better be able to hand-fly the airplane, or at least be proficient with basic flying skills. If a pilot depends too much on an autopilot to keep him out of trouble and his hand-flying skills degrade because of that dependence, I don’t want to be riding in that airplane when something goes wrong.”
Bill’s comment highlighted the Shakespearean question “to be, or not to be” as it relates to piloting, particularly in the wake of the recent Air France Flight 447 accident report: To hand-fly, or not to hand-fly — how do pilots ensure that they do not become overreliant on automation to the point where they can’t safely fly the airplane if the technology fails?
Since piston cockpits now rival jet avionics, the question is all-encompassing — from the student pilot to the jet captain. It’s certainly a complicated issue, considering that there are numerous situations that warrant the autopilot: flying in congested airspace or challenging weather, troubleshooting a mechanical problem or dealing with human factors, to name just a few. The autopilot enables effective aircraft monitoring, crew resource management and situational awareness. Undeniably, it is a key factor in improving aircraft safety.
There needs to be a balance, though. As we’ve seen, overreliance on automation is a matter of grave concern. The idea that pilots should periodically hand-fly to maintain proficiency is valid, but this notion extends beyond basic flying skills. Hand-flying enhances an essential attribute embedded deep within every pilot’s psyche: confidence.
A pilot at any level innately understands this requirement. Modern avionics reduce workload, but pilots must maintain confidence in their flying abilities should the automation fail. Hand-flying is the obvious means to sustain this mental comfort. Plus, we’re pilots — individuals who pride ourselves on being “good sticks.” How can one have such status if the autopilot is always engaged?
My foray into the automation versus hand-flying question was triggered by the Canadair Regional Jet. Like most modern airplanes, the autopilot is integral in flying the aircraft. Initial training honed these skills and made manual flight a rarity amid fire bells and other warnings. Some components of the check ride were contingent upon proper FMS entries. It didn’t matter if you knew what entry to use in a holding pattern — the ride was over if you didn’t correctly program the “box.”
Flying the airplane using the autopilot continued during my initial operating experience, but unlike the simulator, I often hand-flew the CRJ as per the check airman’s instruction. The airline’s culture encouraged its pilots to have a “true feel” of the aircraft. Automation was definitely a great tool, but it was not responsible for the aircraft — that privilege belonged to the captain and the first officer.
Ultimately, hand-flying helped us understand how the autopilot flew the aircraft, resulting in better system monitoring. Through our own hands, we knew the elevator trim required during flap changes and the pitch attitude during final approach. If the autopilot wandered from these constants, the question “What’s it doing now?” was moot as we thumbed the disconnect button.
Perhaps being able to hand-fly is the pilot’s most distinguishing quality. Autopilots are an extremely effective tool, but they’re just that — a device utilized at pilots’ discretion. Their precision can make one think otherwise, but they’re still a backup. Pilots shouldn’t be confident that the automation won’t fail; rather, they should be confident they can fly if it does.
As I hand-flew the Cessna with Bill, it didn’t escape me that I was learning a lesson applicable to today’s flying world from the instructor and aircraft of my past. While a professional pilot flying a single-engine airplane is hardly unique, the blending of time and memories pulsed through the aircraft like an old NDB identifier.
For a moment, time collapsed on itself as my flying journey circled back to when I looked skyward every time a plane passed overhead and counted down the hours to my next flight lesson. The Cessna’s yoke was tiny in my left hand compared to the Boeing’s, but the connection was still there — a linkage of time, aircraft and yet another lesson from the man who had already taught me so much.
I’m a proponent of hand-flying for pilot proficiency, training and safety. If nothing else, perhaps we should click off the autopilots to remind ourselves of our original excitement about flying. Surely I’m not the only one to smile when eyes, hands and feet work together to coax the airplane into perfect movement — as if the flight controls are actually connected to the mind and body.
Having the confidence to hand-fly will remain important for pilots as cockpits continue to evolve. While avionics have greatly advanced, from the first EFIS tubes to modern touch screens, the constant has been the pilot’s ability to turn off the automation and do something that has spanned aviation’s history: fly the airplane.