Are you a pilot or an appliance operator?

by Michael J. “Mick” Kaufman
Copyright 2021. All rights reserved!
Published in Midwest Flyer Magazine – print and online April/May 2021 issue

In my previous column entitled “Are you a child of the Magenta,” I wrote about the deterioration of our basic piloting skills and the mindset of using the wrong level of automation. I am not opposed to using automation in our everyday flying, but there is a time we must revert to basic pilot skills. Should an unexpected/undetected aircraft appear in your windscreen (my J3 Cub, for instance) as an imminent threat, would you use vertical speed, flight level change or heading mode on your autopilot to avoid a mid-air? I hope your answer would be “none of the above,” and you would instead disconnect the autopilot and do what is necessary to avoid the disaster.

When I do advanced training with pilots, especially the instrument rating, I teach pilots to be a pilot first and an appliance operator second. The question often comes up as to when we should use our pilot skills and hand-fly the airplane, and when we should use our computer skills and higher levels of automation.

I had a recent discussion with a well-respected instructor and friend after that article was published, and we discussed the topic of automation and autopilots. After takeoff in low instrument meteorological conditions (IMC), should we engage the autopilot immediately or hand fly the airplane? I mentioned in one of my recent columns about the “OH-WOW” factor and why new instrument-rated pilots need to get some dual instruction on low IMC departures before they attempt one on their own. If the pilot should engage the autopilot in the first 100 feet after departure, and if it is all set and functioning properly, no problem. But given the situation that all does not go well, there is a good chance of a fatal accident.

How many times do things not go right in this scenario? I have seen this way too many times.

How fast can we disconnect the autopilot and execute an unusual attitude recovery at less than 500 feet AGL (above ground level)? Hopefully, always, but maybe that’s not always possible under difficult circumstances.

I want to clarify that I am not saying that autopilots are unreliable and not to be trusted as most of the issues I have seen are actually pilot programming errors, including some of my own, like having a toggle switch in the wrong position. 

I would like to dedicate the balance of this article to the IMC takeoff and initial climb. So much can be said about a low IMC departure. I have set my personal minimums for weather at the time of departure and refer back to the curriculum used for the Cirrus aircraft and developed by the University of North Dakota that I had written about previously.

As a recap, you plug in the variables and make a go-no-go decision. Some of these variables include the pilot’s proficiency and physical and mental state, the pilot’s time in aircraft, recent maintenance performed on the aircraft, and, of course, the weather. So, my minimums change from day to day depending on these variables. In my personal aircraft, on average, I will accept a 500-ft ceiling and 1 mile visibility for departure. When I fly a lot, it can be less or on this day as I am writing this article, it would be circling minimums for the departure airport. We use circling minimums as a standard for all of our flight training in the Bonanza training program I manage. Other factors to consider when making that go-no-go decision should include thunderstorms, icing, turbulence and wind shear.  

After a good preflight of the pilot’s personal mental and physical state, the weather, and the airplane and equipment, we find ourselves ready to get our clearance and taxi. In today’s modern aircraft, we have a pretty good idea what our route clearance will be like, and I usually program this route into my navigator before I call for clearance. Once I have my clearance, I update it in my navigator. One big statement of caution here is, never takeoff VFR without a clearance unless you are 100% sure you can maintain VFR until you can get the clearance. Many pilots in a rush have taken off without a clearance and were unable to maintain VFR, and it has proven to be fatal. 

It is important to note that there is a big difference on the clearance when taking off from a busy “tower-controlled” airport than when taking off from a “non-tower-controlled” airport in a sparsely populated rural area.

Let’s look at the tower-controlled airport in this article. Here you will have your route given to you in your clearance, but not your departure instructions, which will usually be given to you at the end of the runway with your takeoff clearance.

For example (weather is 300 ft ceiling and ¾-mile visibility): “Cessna N2852F, fly runway heading, climb and maintain 3000 feet, cleared for takeoff, Runway 31. This is pretty straight forward; you taxi out and line up with the runway and do a final instrument and radio check. This should include a check of your attitude and heading indicators, engine gauges, tower frequency in primary and departure frequency in standby. Many pilots miss having a departure frequency in standby and still have ground control from the recent frequency change. This will increase your workload when tower switches you to departure shortly after takeoff.

If I am fortunate enough to have a flight director in my airplane, I would turn or skew my heading bug to the runway heading and push the “go-around” button to set the climb pitch. After beginning my takeoff, I would do one last instrument check before rotation.

I caution here about instrument scan and maintaining directional control by outside visual reference, as this is a spot where bad things are likely to happen. Two seconds after rotation, the pilot needs to be on the gauges using the flight director command bars for reference. The next several minutes are critical, and the airplane should be hand flown – no playing around with your multifunction display (MFD) or your engine instruments or power settings. A pilot should be at least one step ahead of his airplane, but not too far ahead.

What am I doing and where am I going? (Runway heading and 3000 feet.) After climbing a thousand feet or more, the tower will direct us to contact departure. Now, we know why it is so important to have that departure frequency in standby on the radio. We are still hand-flying the airplane. If all has gone as planned, we will acknowledge the radio call “52 Foxtrot, going to departure.” This is now a good spot in this article to talk about the clearance you received from clearance delivery or ground control.

We have the route we programmed into the navigator, and we have been given an altitude, along with some restrictions. Those were given to us in case of a communications failure. In this case, assume that the altitudes were “Climb and maintain 3000, expect 9000 10 minutes after departure.” It was important to somewhere note our departure time in case of a communications failure of some type. For now, we are good on the runway heading and plan on leveling at 3000 feet. Now that all is going well, and the workload is low, it might be a good opportunity to try our skills as an “appliance operator.”

The flight director is working well, so we might turn on the autopilot to see that it maintains heading and pitch. We might consider doing this before contacting departure as the workload could get much busier after talking with ATC. All is working well with the autopilot, so we give departure control a call: “Madison departure, Cessna 2852 Foxtrot checking in 2600 for 3000.” Notice we always give the current altitude and the climbing to or descending from altitude, and will give our last assigned route or heading, if there is any question. Upon establishing communications with departure control, our clearance is “52 Foxtrot, turn left heading 140, climb and maintain 6000, join Victor 9 on course.”

Let’s keep it as simple as we can. Rotate the heading bug slowly to the left to 140 and watch that turn on the autopilot; we have some time until we reach 6000. I am not a fan of altitude preselect, so we will just execute altitude hold when we get to FL6000. My flight plan clearance received was: “N2852 Foxtrot is cleared to the KOCF airport via MSN V9 Kelsi, direct Hefin, direct CTY, direct OCF.” 

This is a simple flight and a simple clearance, so we have not had to overtax our brain with too many tasks, and we have used some of our appliances to gain experience. We can add another item to the navigator once en route and in a low workload state by activating the fly-leg mode on the navigator. If our autopilot is capable of handling this task, we will fly the 140-degree heading until we intercept “Victor 9,” and the autopilot would turn us on the airway.

I may have made this sound simple and it can be, but a pilot can become so saturated with all of the appliances on his aircraft that he can lose it. If the pilot can’t fly a pitch, heading and airspeed to a safe altitude, it is time to get some recurrent training before flying in IMC conditions.

This article just scratches the surface on low IMC departures and the use of automation. The scenario used here is a simple IFR departure with an easy flight plan. We have used our flight director to remind us where we should be with pitch and heading if we are fortunate enough to have one. We did not have a complex charted departure procedure. We departed a tower-controlled airport, not a remote airport with poor communications, complex airspace and obstacles all around.

Automation is great when used properly and understood by the pilot. We need to be a pilot first and an appliance operator second. I have seen too many instances when something has gone wrong. Was it an autopilot failure; was it an installation error from the avionics shop; boxes not interfacing with each other properly; or the pilot miss programming a device? Any of these items can trigger this infamous quote, “What is it doing now?”

EDITOR’S NOTE: Michael J. “Mick” Kaufman is a Certified Instrument Flight Instructor (CFII) and the program manager of flight operations with the “Bonanza/Baron Pilot Training” organization. Kaufman conducts pilot clinics and specialized instruction throughout the U.S. in a variety of aircraft, which are equipped with a variety of avionics, although he is based in Lone Rock (KLNR) and Eagle River (KEGV), Wisconsin. Kaufman was named “FAA’s Safety Team Representative of the Year” for Wisconsin in 2008. Email questions to captmick@me.com or call 817-988-0174.

DISCLAIMER: The information contained in this column is the expressed opinion of the author only, and readers are advised to seek the advice of their personal flight instructor and others, and refer to the Federal Aviation Regulations, FAA Aeronautical Information Manual and instructional materials before attempting any procedures discussed herein.

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