Autopilots are great. First and foremost, they’re safety-enhancing devices. They free us from the mundane, but often consuming, task of simply keeping the airplane where it should be. This allows us to better manage the myriad other things we have to do. Plus, of course, it reduces fatigue. What could be better?
Indeed, that’s all good. But, there’s a downside. Our skills atrophy and we can rapidly begin to rely on the autopilot so much that it becomes a crutch. Shortly after that, we begin to lose the skill we worked so hard to master. Eventually, we might get to the point where we couldn’t pass a checkride without using the autopilot.
When flying an airliner, besides all the obvious needs, it’s paramount to provide the folks in back with a smooth ride. In that almost-mythical silky smooth air, when is the hand-flying pilot most likely to provide other than a smooth ride? Well, almost any time, but specifically when leveling off at an altitude. We might first overshoot on a climb, then push over too hard to get back to altitude. Then, we’ll overshoot that and the overshoot-overcorrect cycle repeats, giving the butts in back a bit of a rollercoaster experience. Is there any difference when you’re flying your piston GA airplane? Unlikely.
Many new first officers (And yes, many old-hand captains, too.) just use the autopilot as much as possible. It does a fine job of smoothly flying the plane. Do that on every flight over a few years and, well, your skills are, if not gone entirely, certainly not what they should be. Now, unless you don’t have a working autopilot, don’t tell me that’s not you. I know it’s me and almost all of us. What can we do about it? Well, just as the FAA advises, hand fly more often.
Got access to a sim? If so, you definitely should be hand flying that beast. Maybe once in a while you can use its autopilot if you’re worried about maintaining autopilot proficiency, but otherwise, you should do the flying. Oh, and turn off the flight director, too. Fly completely using your own judgment and skill. Remember when that was fun? It can still be fun. See how well you do, then try to do better.
Back in the airplane, on departure, hand fly all the way into cruise. Not just to the level off, but through the cruise checklist where you’re distracted with cowl flaps, power settings, etc. It’s better yet if you’re departing busy airspace with lots of ATC instructions: turn, level off, go direct, turn again, climb, change frequencies, level again, etc.
Don’t let yourself get into a situation where you use the autopilot because you’re uncomfortable hand flying. Then if you do ham-hand fly, you risk upsetting either ATC or your passengers, so you use the autopilot. That’s the time to go up in VMC by yourself and practice. Or, go back into the sim.
Our technically advanced aircraft are marvelous machines with lots of automation. But, even the best of them are little more than dumb, but skilled machines. They can’t be Pilot In Command. Make sure you can be.