Learning how to fly is a challenge, and it can be mentally and physically taxing. Flying is one of the few three-dimensional activities that humans engage in, and it’s not our natural state of being. As we progress up the ladder of competence and proficiency, it becomes easier, and we develop a sort of stamina for flying longer and longer periods of time, especially if we limit ourselves to cruise flight and take out the work of practicing takeoffs and landings.
As we move into bigger airplanes, we begin to have more tools at our disposal to make our task of flying easier. GPS, Nexrad, and other goodies become more prevalent. At some point (we hope), a functioning autopilot finds its way into our lives. If so, life becomes much easier indeed. A good autopilot is much more than just cruise control, since it should control both pitch and roll. Once you have experience with an autopilot you’ll realize just how fatiguing the art of flight can be, especially if you’re trying to avoid weather or multi-task.
When you reach the corporate/135/121 world, autopilots are often not just a luxury, but mandatory—especially for RVSM airspace and for some approaches. It becomes very easy to take off, reach the minimum engagement altitude, and turn on the autopilot. On the other end, you might turn it off right before landing. After all, autopilots are smoother than we are, and they can often increase the efficiency of the flight, which in turn saves money because of fuel savings.
The NTSB has found, and the FAA agrees, that it’s very easy to become overly reliant on automation. As you progress in your career, it’s important to keep up the practice of hand flying, and stay proficient without a flight director to guide you along. But even if you use a flight director, practice flying with the autopilot off. Do it in all phases of flight. Throughout my airline career, I’ve tried to do a fair amount of manual flying. I don’t do a lot in the terminal area of a busy airport, especially a hub, because I believe it’s safer to use “George” and keep my eyes outside for traffic. That said, I’ll often climb most of the way to cruise, and I try to turn the gizmos off well before landing. This keeps me proficient on the way the airplane handles, and it keeps my basic flying skills sharp.
If you need proof, look no further than the 2009 Air France flight over the Atlantic that crashed, as well as the 2013 Asiana flight into San Francisco International Airport (SFO) that hit the seawall. Obviously, in both cases, more was involved. But basic piloting skills had been eroded, which was totally preventable.—Chip Wright