Automation and You! Strategies for Effective Automation Management

by HPA · February 17, 2016

Automation and You

Automation and You!

Strategies for Effective Automation Management

John Hollingshead

Today’s aircraft are seeing a higher level of technical sophistication. When we talk about “Technically Advanced Aircraft,” most people think of a brand new Cirrus or Cessna TTx, but the fact of the matter is, high-tech retrofits of older aircraft are becoming increasingly common. A study conducted by NTSB in 2010 (NTSB SS-0110) showed some interesting statistics. The study compared accident rates in aircraft manufactured between 2002 and 2006, broken down by glass cockpit vs steam gauge. The results were surprising. Percentage of fatal accidents in glass cockpit aircraft was twice that of steam gauge. It would seem that glass cockpit aircraft have a higher safety potential, therefore it is a little surprising to see a higher fatality rate. Why do we see this increased fatality rate? Training. Making airplanes safer is great, but it doesn’t do much good unless we make the PILOTS safer as well.

Automation Management is a very important aspect of Single Pilot Resource Management. FAA buzzwords aside, automation management is a subject that requires a great deal of consideration in present-day flying. Automation has some excellent benefits. Good automation management frees us up to manage the “Big Picture”, allowing us to more efficiently manage workload given last minute ATC reroutes, digging out charts and publications, or even executing abnormal or emergency procedures. Potential drawbacks of automation, however, include an increased likelihood to lose situational awareness due to a higher probability of being “heads down” for prolonged periods, the distraction of highly complex systems, or becoming overly reliant on automation. Also, automation over-use can cause a degradation of hand flying skills.

When considering the psychology of automation, it is important to take note of a few details of human nature. We tend to skip verifying modes of operation and data that we have input into our systems. We tend to assume that equipment will work as expected, and we tend to assume that we do things correctly. This type of mentality seems to be more common in the portions of society that are attracted to aviation.

Automation Dependency is a condition whereby we either perceive automation as a “crutch,” or actually use automation as a “crutch”. Perceiving it as a crutch happens when we have a conscious concern that we are overly dependent upon the automation, and circumstances that necessitate hand flying inject stress and reduce our confidence in our hand flying skills to the point that we exhibit poor hand flying. The progression of this condition leads to actual reduction of hand flying skills to the extent where we are unable to competently pilot the aircraft under manual control.

The polar opposite of Automation Dependency is Automation Avoidance. This is typically a condition where a pilot’s perceived lack of understanding of the automation systems available in his or her aircraft causes them to avoid using them, thereby passing up the numerous benefits of automation that are available to them.

In considering strategies for effective use of automation, we can establish some foundational concepts to assist us in tackling the subject. Understanding your equipment is paramount. Do you know if your autopilot is rate based or attitude based? Is your GPS IFR Certified? How about IFR Certified but not Approach Certified? We have developed a checklist of core competencies that lead to effective automation management. These individual skills provide the building blocks of good automation management. Once core competencies are attained, scenario based training can be used to provide practice and to allow a pilot to use the core competencies in concert under conditions that simulate real-world flying.

Even with good training from a competent instructor, these skills will degrade if not used. We can practice these skills on our own or with a safety pilot. Even requesting an approach instead of “taking the visual” from time to time will allow us to use our automation skills.

Another consideration that enhances flight safety in general is to always take advantage of available resources. On numerous occasions I have had students “hit the wrong button” and find that the flight plan is gone, or incorrect. An option that is always available is to just let ATC know, and request a vector until you can get things organized again. ATC would much rather give you a vector than have you deviate. Why don’t pilots like to do this? Because ATC may laugh at them. Maybe it’s the inner “class clown” in me, but I figure making ATC laugh is a lot better than making them mad…

With proper training and frequent practice, we will find that our ability to use automation to our advantage is greatly increased, which allows us to do things such as immediately discern what mode of operation our system is operating in, identify when our use of automation is increasing our task load versus decreasing it, and reduce pilot fatigue.

Have Fun and Fly Safe!

Get our free download here: Automation Core Competency Checklist

Get our presentation here: Automation and You – Presentation

How it Started

One of my best friends in high school, (Doug Gray) was a private pilot. He offered to take me up for a flight in a 1967 Cessna 150, N6228S. We took off from Calhoun, Georgia, and he took me on a scenic tour of the area, I was hooked. I later found out that my English teacher, (Jan Haluska) was also a flight instructor and the school was offering a ground school course the next year, which he taught, along with flight training with the goal of becoming a private pilot. I managed to talk my dad into funding the training, at the time the total cost was right around $500. Cessna 150 rental rates where $12 an hour, and the 172 we used for cross country was $15 an hour including fuel.

Training Begins

It started August of 1977. The fall semester rolls around, and I am enrolled in ground school, and if memory serves me, we met twice a week. First came the paperwork for my student pilot certificate, which at the time was included with the 3rd class medical. I loved ground school, especially learning navigation, plotting courses on the sectional, again this was before iPads and GPS, so we did a lot of dead reckoning and VOR navigation for cross countries. At the end of the course, I made an 83% on the Private Pilot written exam, remember this was before we had the question-and-answer books that on future test I would consume before taking a written.

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The fun really began on August 22, 1977, it was my first flight. To my surprise we used the same Cessna 150, N6228S that my friend Doug Gray had taken me for a ride in. The Cessna 150 had a standard VFR instrument panel, with one NAV/COM, and one VOR CDI. No intercom, so no headset, at the time I didn’t know what I was missing. I didn’t get my first headset until I started my instrument training in 2003. I was a big guy, I was 6’ 4” and weighed 245 lbs. but I do not remember being uncomfortable in the 150 even with the instructor in the right seat.

First flight lasted .8 hours, and we accomplished orentation, shallow turns, stability, and effects of flight controls. Over the next few months we added steep 720’s, slow flight, stalls, turns around a point, S-turns, emergencies, landings, (short field, soft field and normal).


At this point I want to talk about a training experience that still stands out. We were close to solo and were practicing takeoffs and landings. Turning base to final Jan got very upset at the way I was cross controlling the aircraft. Cross control is when you are in, say a left turn, and use opposite rudder to line the nose up with the runway. So, he had me depart the pattern and head east to the practice area, and climbing up to 5500 feet MSL, he had me slow down to just above stalling speed, start a left shallow turn and add right rudder. As the airplane stalled I had the strangest sensation, no roller coaster has ever come close, instead of blue sky in the windscreen I was looking at brown ground, and as far as I could tell we were upside down, through the terror of the moment Jan talked me out of the spin, controls neutral, oposite rudder, pull slowly out of the dive. As we leveled off he asked me what altitude we were at, as I remember it was around 2,800 feet MSL. Then he asked me what would happen if I experenced this on base to final in the traffic pattern. The answer was obvious, I would be a pile of wreckage off the end of the runway with a very short-lived aviation career. Needless to say this cured my cross-control tendencies.

Another training event the sticks out in my mind was the first time we did takeoffs and landings at the High School runway. The runway was 1,500 feet long, not sure of the width, but it seems like we had about 5 feet on each side of the wheels when on the center line of the runway. Landing from the south you also had to go between a cutout in the trees to be able to stop in time on the runway. After getting confortable landing here every runway since seemed huge. I remember landing at Chattanooga (KCHA) on a night cross country and commenting to Jan, that I felt like I could of landed sideways on the runway, it felt that large.

Very soon after this I started wearing old shirts to all my flight lessons, the reason for this occurred on February 8, 1978. The lesson that day was stalls, takeoffs and Landing. As we were taxing back in Jan told me it was time for my first solo. I was very excited, and after some last minute advice from Jan, including watch for floating on landing the plane will be light with him not in the right seat, complete 3 takeoffs and landings to a full stop. It was a blast, and at the end of my shirt was shorter in the back because Jan cut the tail out of it signed and dated my solo [an aviation tradition]. Total flight time accumulated on the day of my solo was 18.1 hours. I was now officially a pilot with solo priveleges.

In my next article I start cross country training, when Jan decided that it would be best accomplished this in the 172. Checking out in N5970R was like moving into a 747, this started a love affair with one of my faviriote planes to date. Since this time I have flown over 900 hours in many different models of the 172 and feel like I am stepping into an old friend every time.

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