I have to admit…rarely do I reinvent the wheel when it comes to aviation training. My clients would testify that I am rather boring, teaching the same ole stuff that has been taught for years. I teach the basics first, and I don’t teach the “higher level stuff” until the pilot is good at the basics.
Those basics are what differentiates a good pilot from one who should hang up their wings. Even today, a pilot must do the same thing that was done 100 years ago in aviation…the pilot must “fly the wing,” and use 4 basic flight controls (pitch, roll, yaw, and power) to maneuver the airplane safely. Nothing has changed with the basics since 1903, and a mastery of the basics is what makes a pilot great.
It has been rightly said that one definition of a virtuoso is “one who performs the basics uncommonly well.” All pilots can land an airplane, but can you land on centerline every time? Land with the longitudinal axis aligned with the runway centerline every time? Do you touch down within 50 feet of your announced touchdown point? All pilots can hold altitude, but can you hold altitude within 50 feet during the entirety of the level portions of an instrument approach? All pilots can hold airspeed, but can you perform and entire traffic pattern and hold prescribed speeds within 2 KIAS the entire traffic pattern? Can you perform a traffic pattern and hold both altitude and airspeed within 20 feet and 2 KIAS?
George can do it. “George” is the universal name that many give to their autopilot. Many would say, “George is flying” to mean that they’ve turned on the autopilot. And today, we’ve got some new and better autopilots on the horizon. But, even with the advent of stunningly brilliant aviation technologies and new ways of approaching flying, the best pilots are the ones who couple uncommon excellence at the basics of flight with superior decision-making.
We are on the eve of Garmin’s introduction of the GFC600 into the PA46 world, and Genesys Aerospace has already brought the STEC 3100 autopilot to the market. Rumors abound that Bendix-King will have the AeroCruze Autopilot, a KFC-150 replacement with “safety features,” by the fourth quarter of 2019. Are these autopilots a good idea? My answer: Yes!! But, with a caveat.
Heretofore, if you wanted an autopilot with “safety features” (underspeed protection, overspeed protection, straight-and-level button, etc), you had to ante up for an M350, M500, or M600. But now, with the advent of the latest and greatest hitting the market, a 1984 Malibu (or any other earlier PA46) can be fitted with these wonderful autopilots and the owner can enjoy a truly remarkable flying experience, nearly equitable with the avionics suites flowing off the Piper assembly line.
Not only do the latest and greatest provide “safety features”, but they also climb in IAS Mode, which is a true game-changer for safe climbs. We’ve had one deadly accident within the last 12 months due to a stall/spin while climbing in v/s mode, and I’d like to see those types of accidents stop forever.
But, will the latest and greatest autopilots ensure that we don’t crash airplanes? No. But, they could help stem the problem. When “everything works as it should,” I think that the latest and greatest autopilots will stop some accidents.
But, the problem is that accidents often happen when systems fail, and even the latest and greatest autopilots can fail. I’ve been onboard training 4 separate times with clients this year when the “latest and greatest” autopilot either completely failed, or lost a feature that should have been available. When that happens, the pilot must take controls. Then good flying skills will be required. And, don’t let anyone lie to you…you want those skills when the chips are down.
It always seems that the brakes fail when you are landing on the shortest runways, the engine coughs at night with a new moon, the pressurization fails when you are at high altitude, and the autopilot fails when you are in the mix with low IFR all around. You can’t plan your next in-flight emergency, but you can plan FOR your next in-flight emergency. And, a good pilot will always have the ability to turn off the automation and not sweat.
What do I recommend to become a virtuoso? Here’s a checklist for you to consider to ensure your basic flight skills are virtuoso-good:
- Yes, go buy the latest and greatest autopilot, and get rid of all vacuum instruments in your panel while you are at it. They really are worth it!
- Hand fly every third flight up to 10,000ft MSL or level-off, which ever is lower.
- Hand fly every third instrument approach, especially if it is in the soup.
- Fly a missed approach at least every 2 months
- When that “perfect IFR weather” shows up at your airport, and you don’t have a reason to go flying that day, just go flying to do approaches.
- Buy a cheap tailwheel airplane, put it in the back of the hangar with your PA46, and fly it at least once per month.
Remember, the basics are what counts. Every pilot should be able to fly their airplane in all regimes of flight with no sweaty palms. If you want to fly like a virtuoso, don’t be a button-pusher, be good at the basics. Get a good autopilot, but don’t let that autopilot make you less than your best.