Automation (Part One)

In the GA community, an automated aircraft is generally comprised of an integrated advanced avionics system consisting of a primary flight display (PFD), a multifunction flight display (MFD) including an instrument-certified global positioning system (GPS) with traffic and terrain graphics, and a fully integrated autopilot. This type of aircraft is commonly known as a technically advanced aircraft (TAA). In a TAA aircraft, there are typically two display (computer) screens: PFD (left display screen) and MFD.


Automation is the single most important advance in aviation technologies. Electronic flight displays (EFDs) have made vast improvements in how information is displayed and what information is available to the pilot. Pilots can access electronic databases that contain all of the information traditionally contained in multiple handbooks, reducing clutter in the flight deck. [Figure 2-21]

Figure 2-21. Electronic flight instrumentation comes in many systems and provides a myriad of information to the pilot.

Figure 2-21. Electronic flight instrumentation comes in many systems and provides a myriad of information to the pilot.

MFDs are capable of displaying moving maps that mirror sectional charts. These detailed displays depict all airspace, including Temporary Flight Restrictions (TFRs). MFDs are so descriptive that many pilots fall into the trap of relying solely on the moving maps for navigation. Pilots also draw upon the database to familiarize themselves with departure and destination airport information.

More pilots now rely on electronic databases for flight planning and use automated flight planning tools rather than planning the flight by the traditional methods of laying out charts, drawing the course, identifying navigation points (assuming a VFR flight), and using the POH to figure out the weight and balance and performance charts. Whichever method a pilot chooses to plan a flight, it is important to remember to check and confirm calculations. Always remember that it is up to the pilot to maintain basic airmanship skills and use those skills often to maintain proficiency in all tasks.

Although automation has made flying safer, automated systems can make some errors more evident and sometimes hide other errors or make them less evident. There are concerns about the effect of automation on pilots. In a study published in 1995, the British Airline Pilots Association officially voiced its concern that “Airline pilots increasingly lack ‘basic flying skills’ as a result of reliance on automation.”

This reliance on automation translates into a lack of basic flying skills that may affect the pilot’s ability to cope with an in-flight emergency, such as sudden mechanical failure. The worry that pilots are becoming too reliant on automated systems and are not being encouraged or trained to fly manually has grown with the increase in the number of MFD flight decks.


As automated flight decks began entering everyday line operations, instructors and check airmen grew concerned about some of the unanticipated side effects. Despite the promise of reducing human mistakes, the flight managers reported the automation actually created much larger errors at times. In the terminal environment, the workload in an automated flight deck actually seemed higher than in the older analog flight decks. At other times, the automation seemed to lull the flight crews into complacency. Over time, concern surfaced that the manual flying skills of the automated flight crews deteriorated due to over-reliance on computers. The flight crew managers said they worried that pilots would have less “stick-and-rudder” proficiency when those skills were needed to manually resume direct control of the aircraft.

A major study was conducted to evaluate the performance of two groups of pilots. The control group was composed of pilots who flew an older version of a common twin-jet airliner equipped with analog instrumentation and the experimental group was composed of pilots who flew the same aircraft, but newer models equipped with an electronic flight instrument system (EFIS) and a flight management system (FMS). The pilots were evaluated in maintaining aircraft parameters, such as heading, altitude, airspeed, glideslope, and localizer deviations, as well as pilot control inputs. These were recorded during a variety of normal, abnormal, and emergency maneuvers during 4 hours of simulator sessions.

Results of the Study

When pilots who had flown EFIS for several years were required to fly various maneuvers manually, the aircraft parameters and flight control inputs clearly showed some erosion of flying skills. During normal maneuvers, such as turns to headings without a flight director, the EFIS group exhibited somewhat greater deviations than the analog group. Most of the time, the deviations were within the practical test standards (PTS), but the pilots definitely did not keep on the localizer and glideslope as smoothly as the analog group.

The differences in hand-flying skills between the two groups became more significant during abnormal maneuvers, such as accelerated descent profiles known as “slam-dunks.” When given close crossing restrictions, the analog crews were more adept at the mental math and usually maneuvered the aircraft in a smoother manner to make the restriction. On the other hand, the EFIS crews tended to go “heads down” and tried to solve the crossing restriction on the FMS. [Figure 2-22]

Figure 2-22. Two similar flight decks equipped with the same information two different ways, analog and digital. What are they indicating? Chances are that the analog pilot will review the top display before the bottom display. Conversely, the digitally trained pilot will review the instrument panel on the bottom first.

Figure 2-22. Two similar flight decks equipped with the same information two different ways, analog and digital. What are they indicating? Chances are that the analog pilot will review the top display before the bottom display. Conversely, the digitally trained pilot will review the instrument panel on the bottom first. [click image to enlarge]

Another situation used in the simulator experiment reflected real world changes in approach that are common and can be assigned on short notice. Once again, the analog crews transitioned more easily to the parallel runway’s localizer, whereas the EFIS crews had a much more difficult time with the pilot going head down for a significant amount of time trying to program the new approach into the FMS.

While a pilot’s lack of familiarity with the EFIS is often an issue, the approach would have been made easier by disengaging the automated system and manually flying the approach. At the time of this study, the general guidelines in the industry were to let the automated system do as much of the flying as possible. That view has since changed and it is recommended that pilots use their best judgment when choosing which level of automation will most efficiently do the task considering the workload and situational awareness.

Emergency maneuvers clearly broadened the difference in manual flying skills between the two groups. In general, the analog pilots tended to fly raw data, so when they were given an emergency, such as an engine failure, and were instructed to fly the maneuver without a flight director, they performed it expertly. By contrast, SOP for EFIS operations at the time was to use the flight director. When EFIS crews had their flight directors disabled, their eye scan again began a more erratic searching pattern and their manual flying subsequently suffered.

Those who reviewed the data saw that the EFIS pilots who better managed the automation also had better flying skills. While the data did not reveal whether those skills preceded or followed automation, it did indicate that automation management needed to be improved. Recommended “best practices” and procedures have remedied some of the earlier problems with automation.

Pilots must maintain their flight skills and ability to maneuver aircraft manually within the standards set forth in the PTS. It is recommended that pilots of automated aircraft occasionally disengage the automation and manually fly the aircraft to maintain stick-and-rudder proficiency. It is imperative that the pilots understand that the EFD adds to the overall quality of the flight experience, but it can also lead to catastrophe if not utilized properly. At no time is the moving map meant to substitute for a VFR sectional or low altitude en route chart.

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