Automation – Flight Management Skills

Automation Management

Before any pilot can master aircraft automation, he or she must first know how to fly the aircraft. Maneuver training remains an important component of flight training because almost 40 percent of all GA accidents take place in the landing phase, one realm of flight that still does not involve programming a computer to execute. Another 15 percent of all GA accidents occur during takeoff and initial climb.


An advanced avionics safety issue identified by the FAA concerns pilots who apparently develop an unwarranted overreliance in their avionics and the aircraft, believing that the equipment compensates for pilot shortcomings. Related to that overreliance is the role of ADM, which is probably the most significant factor in the GA accident record of high performance aircraft used for cross-country flight. The FAA advanced avionics aircraft safety study found that poor decision-making seems to afflict new advanced avionics pilots at a rate higher than that of GA as a whole. The review of advanced avionics accidents cited in this study shows the majority are not caused by something directly related to the aircraft, but by the pilot’s lack of experience and a chain of poor decisions. One consistent theme in many of the fatal accidents is continued VFR flight into IMC.

Thus, pilot skills for normal and emergency operations hinge not only on mechanical manipulation of the stick and rudder, but also include the mental mastery of the EFD. Three key flight management skills are needed to fly the advanced avionics safely: information, automation, and risk.

Information Management

For the newly transitioning pilot, the PFD, MFD, and GPS/VHF navigator screens seem to offer too much information presented in colorful menus and submenus. In fact, the pilot may be drowning in information, but unable to find a specific piece of information. It might be helpful to remember these systems are similar to computers that store some folders on a desktop and some within a hierarchy.

The first critical information management skill for flying with advanced avionics is to understand the system at a conceptual level. Remembering how the system is organized helps the pilot manage the available information. It is important to understand that learning knob-and-dial procedures is not enough. Learning more about how advanced avionics systems work leads to better memory for procedures and allows pilots to solve problems they have not seen before.

There are also limits to understanding. It is impossible to understand all of the behaviors of a complex avionics system. Knowing to expect surprises and to continually learn new things is more effective than attempting to memorize mechanical manipulation of the knobs. Simulation software and books on the specific system used are of great value.

The second critical information management skill is to sense what is going on. Pilots new to advanced avionics often become fixated on the knobs and try to memorize each and every sequence of button pushes, pulls, and turns. A far better strategy for accessing and managing the information available in advanced avionics computers is to stop, look, and read. Reading before pushing, pulling, or twisting can often save a pilot some trouble.


Once in front of the display screens on an advanced avionics aircraft, the pilot must manage and prioritize the information flow to accomplish specific tasks. Certificated flight instructors (CFIs), as well as pilots transitioning to advanced avionics, will find it helpful to corral the information flow. This is possible through such tactics as configuring the aspects of the PFD and MFD screens according to personal preferences. For example, most systems offer map orientation options that include “north up,” “track up,” “desired track (DTK) up,” and “heading up.” Another tactic is to decide, when possible, how much (or how little) information to display. Pilots can also tailor the information displayed to suit the needs of a specific flight.

Information flow can also be managed for a specific operation. The pilot has the ability to prioritize information for a timely display of exact information needed for any given flight operation. Examples of managing information display for a specific operation include:

  • Programming map scale settings for en route versus terminal area operation.
  • Utilizing the terrain awareness page on the MFD for a night or IMC flight in or near the mountains.
  • Using the nearest airports inset on the PFD at night or over inhospitable terrain.
  • Programming the weather datalink set to show echoes and METAR status flags.

Risk Management

Risk management is the last of the three flight management skills needed for mastery of the advanced avionics aircraft. The enhanced situational awareness and automation capabilities offered by a glass flight deck vastly expand its safety and utility, especially for personal transportation use. At the same time, there is some risk that lighter workloads could lead to complacency.

Humans are characteristically poor monitors of automated systems. When passively monitoring an automated system for faults, abnormalities, or other infrequent events, humans perform poorly. The more reliable the system is, the worse the human performance becomes. For example, the pilot monitors only a backup alert system, rather than the situation that the alert system is designed to safeguard. It is a paradox of automation that technically advanced avionics can both increase and decrease pilot awareness.

It is important to remember that EFDs do not replace basic flight knowledge and skills. They are a tool for improving flight safety. Risk increases when the pilot believes the gadgets compensate for lack of skill and knowledge. It is especially important to recognize there are limits to what the electronic systems in any light GA aircraft can do. Being pilot in command (PIC) requires sound ADM, which sometimes means saying “no” to a flight.

For the GA pilot transitioning to automated systems, it is helpful to note that all human activity involving technical devices entails some element of risk. Knowledge, experience, and flight requirements tilt the odds in favor of safe and successful flights. The advanced avionics aircraft offers many new capabilities and simplifies the basic flying tasks, but only if the pilot is properly trained and all the equipment is working properly.

Pilot management of risk is improved with practice and consistent use of basic and practical risk management tools.

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William Kershner's Student Pilot's Flight Manual - A ground school textbook, maneuvers manual, and syllabus, all rolled into one. This manual includes detailed references to maneuvers and procedures, and is fully illustrated with the author’s own drawings. It's a must-have for all student pilots and flight instructors. This manual covers all you need to know for your first flight, presolo, the post-solo maneuvers, cross-country and night flying.