I’ve never stood on the wing of an airplane mid-flight. I guess it’s nothing I’ve ever considered. If I ever found myself in that situation, though, I’d likely want to have a very competent pilot at the controls. So I certainly haven’t ever pondered standing on the wing of my own airplane mid-flight, looking over to the cockpit to see nobody flying the airplane. “That’s crazy,” you might say. And I’d have to agree, but that’s how it went down on a June day in California, 1914. It wasn’t me, of course. I was born slightly after that. This was a gathering of aircraft to demonstrate some of the best and brightest developments in the brand new world of aviation. On the wing was Lawrence Sperry, an aviation innovator who’s father had invented the gyrocompass. His father watched the bizarre stunt as Sperry demonstrated his invention that would change the face of aviation – the autopilot.
If you’ve flown in a commercial airplane, you’ve likely spent much of that flight enjoying the benefits of today’s modern autopilot. They’ve come a long way in those hundred years, and now the world is waking up to similar systems in automobiles. Cars that can drive themselves. Tesla is leading the charge (because they charge – get it?) with the automotive autopilot (watch the video here). From Tesla:
Your Tesla will match speed to traffic conditions, keep within a lane, automatically change lanes without requiring driver input, transition from one freeway to another, exit the freeway when your destination is near, self-park when near a parking spot and be summoned to and from your garage.
That’s a lot of automation. It begs the discussion of fully automated airplanes. Could we be heading towards a future where there are no pilots in the airplane? Let’s look at some aspects of the airplane’s autopilot to explore this further.
“Hand flying” an airplane (flying without autopilot input) is both important to master and satisfying when completed precisely. The basic “stick and rudder” skills are important to master today, but in earlier days of aviation, that was the bulk of flying. Taking off from a grass strip in a taildragger without much, if any, electrical system, and visually navigating around used to be the norm. Flying today in an intricate system of information, communication, and participation, with some right rudder needed every now and then. Don’t get me wrong, hand flying is still very important, but the aviation system has grown to be so much more than just stick and rudder. In every flight, there are both low workload phases and high workload phases. As humans, we can only have the capacity to multitask so much. The autopilot is almost like being able to give your controls over to a virtual copilot or instructor so you can multitask in ways other than correcting minor pitch and heading deviations. This allows you to bring other critical tasks to the front of mind, and reduces fatigue along the way.
I say it’s almost like handing the controls over to a competent pilot because the autopilot lacks many of the qualities that make a pilot a pilot. While it will hold altitude and heading, and even fly a course or an approach, it can’t see other airplanes and think ahead of the airplane to the decisions that must be constantly made by a pilot. It manages your workload so you can put your multitasking bandwidth elsewhere.
Some who have purchased cars with autopilots have chosen to keep their hands and attention off the wheel for an extended period of time (read one of the big stories here). Activities such as watching a movie, reading a book, or taking a nap – all while acting as driver of the vehicle – have been discussed. “The autopilot does it for me, so I can do something else,” is the mentality that I fear coming from these systems. Aviation teaches us that the autopilot might be handling the physical work of the course, but it’s up to us to be monitoring the situation, reacting accordingly and taking back over if need be. In the car, we know that texting and driving is a bad idea because when you look down to your phone screen and shift your attention, it’s easy to let the car drift from the lane. You might look up and find that you have drifted partially into oncoming traffic, even if you only looked down for a couple of seconds, because keeping the car in the lane requires a constant series of fine corrections and verifications (which relies on your eyes and attention on the road). The same is true of flying a particular heading or holding a particular altitude. We learn in training that fixating on one instrument, such as the altimeter, might allow us to peg our altitude, but other things, like heading, are likely to drift becuse of our (even brief) lack of attention to it. This series of corrections and verifications is where our autopilot plays its role. In the car, an autopilot will prevent a momentary distraction like a text or a music selection from causing us to drift. In the airplane, the same is true while consulting a map, looking up a frequency or referencing a checklist. In both cases, your eyes shouldn’t be off the road or your instruments for long, but when they are, the autopilot prevents drift and handles the corrections and verifications needed to stay on course.
In instrument meteorological conditions (not being able to see outside the airplane), the autopilot adds a great deal of safety. In situations where there is no visual reference to anything outside the cockpit, extra diligence with a constant scan of each instrument is required to catch and correct even minor deviations. With an autopilot handling those minor deviations, you are still responsible for the scan, but you’ll likely find it to be a much simpler scan to look at each instrument and verify that it is indicating right where it should be. On approaches, the simple scan is compounded with additional communication, power and altitude changes and instruments for course guidance. Autopilot has made this phase of flight much safer.
More automation doesn’t necessarily equal less skill. It might mean less physical work flying the airplane, but the tradeoff is more training for the monitoring and input of the systems. Understanding the autopilot in your particular airplane is important. Having a system to help you also means that you have one more system to manage – both inputs and potential failures. Runaway trim, for example, is an insidious autopilot failure that deserves a whole article to itself. Pilots have had a hard time recovering the airplane after the autopilot runs away with the elevator authority. As with any system, if it is in the airplane you fly, it should be studied and known inside and out. Take a watch at this week’s Clayviation YouTube video on the popular KAP 140 Autopilot. Flying around Asheville, North Carolina, in X-Plane 11, I’ll show you some of the basics of the system (don’t forget to subscribe while you’re there to keep up with the weekly YouTube videos!)
Automation will likely continue to play a greater role in the cockpit, and as it develops, we will likely become more reliant on it and come up with a bunch of cool uses for it (voice commands?!). Without some diligence in training, our hand flying skills can degrade, much like today’s cell phone and computer use can degrade handwriting skills, or how autocorrect, although helpful, isn’t helping our spelling skills too much. Even in a future with a cockpit filled with unbelievable technology and automation, it is my opinion that the human pilot will always have a seat, because a good pilot is more than axis control and getting from point A to point B (although that’s the goal). A good pilot is made up of situational awareness, seeing an avoiding, aeronautical decision making, communication, and sometimes a little finesse that a computer can’t match. While all of these qualities serve to be enhanced by technology and automation, I don’t forecast a world with Siri and Alexa solely at the controls.
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