IFR Focus #5

Don’t Disable. Revert!

They say automation breeds bad habits, but I think automation training is where the blame lies.

Here’s one beef: What should you do when the autopilot fails to capture the glideslope or turns right when you expected left?

You should disengage the autopilot and hand-fly, right?

Wrong. Wrong. Wrong.

Think about this objectively for a moment. Right at a critical moment in the approach, you’ve been hit with a surprise, so you immediately throw out one of your best IFR tools and double your workload. You do it right when a precise flying action is required. And you’re distracted because part of your attention is off thinking, “Why did the autopilot do that?”

But Disengaging is Easier

Yes, disengaging the autopilot is the “easiest” way to fix the situation, and that’s the problem.

It’s easier because we rarely do what I’ll call “Reversion Training.”

With one exception (which we’ll talk about in a moment), I have yet to see an autopilot surprise anybody in heading and basic altitude mode. If it does, the thing is probably broken, and then we’re in agreement it should be turned off. The reason is simply that heading mode and simple altitude or vertical speed hold are direct commands for performance. Fly left. Go down. Stay here.

This means that even in a critical moment, using these simplified functions should be an easy way to command your aircraft without abandoning the autopilot assistance altogether. When the more complex navigation or approach modes let you down (usually because something was entered incorrectly or too late), revert to the simpler heading and altitude modes and put the airplane where you want it. You know where the aircraft should go, or you wouldn’t be complaining the autopilot is misbehaving.

Building this habit of reverting down one level of automation takes a little practice. We have to break the red-button-disconnect habit, and we must build some skill using heading mode for more than vectors.

Step one is probably changing how you engage your autopilot. Do you go straight from hand flying to NAV mode where George follows the pretty magenta line? Don’t.

Instead, start with a Roll-and-Pitch hold mode if you have it. Essentially that’s the simplest autopilot mode of all and it’s easy to see if it’s working. When you engage roll and pitch holds and release the yoke, nothing should change.

The next step up is Heading Mode with a selected Vertical Speed or Altitude Hold (or just trim if you have only one axis of AP control). How’s that working? Great. Now you can take the last step up to advanced navigation modes.

Making a practice of stepping up lays the foundation for stepping back down when you need to. Part two is practicing entire approaches using just the heading bug and basic vertical speed control. It’s not hard. In fact, it’s kind of fun, but it takes some practice. You should be completely comfortable flying both ILS and LPV approaches with a continuous descent and non-precision approaches with level-offs and power changes using HDG, VS and/or ALT, and the throttle(s). Yes, you must also be comfortable hand flying approaches in case the autopilot completely fails, but that’s a different article.

There’s one other habit that’s useful for many reasons, but essential here. Make a habit of syncing your heading bug to your current heading on a regular basis, even if the bug isn’t in use.

The one time reverting catches people off guard is when they engage the autopilot HDG mode without realizing the heading bug is 110 degrees to the left. The aircraft dutifully rolls off toward the bug as the pilot makes a mad scramble to the swing the bug back forward.

To successfully and smoothly revert, you must have these details covered. Master that, and a misbehaving autopilot is almost boring.

Watch This Video:
“How to Fly a Flight Director”


Hand-Flying the Easy Parts

The simple fact is you get good at hand-flying an aircraft by … hand-flying an aircraft.

Something you notice watching many pilots fly is that few have trouble hand-flying when they’re focused on the gauges. The actual motor skill is not the weak part. The weakness is in split attention.

Out-of-practice pilots get into trouble because they’ve lost the skill of maintaining a pervasive and constant awareness of the flight instruments while they do other tasks.

Here’s a good exercise for that: Don’t use the autopilot in cruise. Use it for climbs or descents as you get ready for approaches if you want. Use it for at least some approaches as well. But when things get boring, turn it off. Your mind will naturally wander—forcing you to practice continually checking back to the flight instruments. Regularly reinforce hand-flying skill when life is relaxed, and it’ll be there for you when things get busy.

ForeFlight Question of the Month:

You bring your Stratus 2 along to fly with a friend in her tailwheel Cessna 180. You place it on the glare shield during startup and it seems to work fine, but when you level out, the attitude display (HUD) shows 10 degrees nose down.

You realize this is because the glareshield in the 180 is angled to be level with the tailwheel down, so it’s sloped quite downward in flight.

The simplest way to deal with a pitch up, down or otherwise misaligned HUD in Foreflight is:

A. Resetting the level point for the Status in-flight from the
device settings.

B. Resetting the level point for the Stratus in-flight from the
AHRS button on the HUD.

C. Holding the Stratus at just the right angle when it first starts
up on the ground.

D. Restarting the Stratus in flight view.

Your host for IFR Focus is Jeff Van West, former editor of IFR magazine and co-editor of Aviation Consumer. His writing has appeared in AOPA Pilot, Flight Training, AVweb and many other outlets. IFR Focus offers the same practical, humorous, and out-of-the-box thinking Jeff is known for.

We'll Focus on Your Questions

Got an IFR or avionics question? Fire off an email with the details to IFRFocus@pilotworkshop.com

Read IFR Focus #4

Focus on Your Questions


Question from subscriber Doug:

How long does the downloaded “pack” information stay on my iPad? For those of us who are space challenged (despite owning a 64GB iPad), I’m wondering whether this information times out at some point, or whether it lives on the iPad forever, or if there’s a way to clean old packs out once the flight has come and gone?

Answer – We got Doug’s answer from Eric Hake, ForeFlight expert from The Modern Pilot, and he says:

The chart data downloaded for the regions you do not have currently selected to update each month, will be downloaded and stored for this chart cycle only. Weather, Fuel and NOTAMs expire well within 24-hours and are flushed out when new data arrives, either via ADS-B in the cockpit, or the next time the device is connected to the Internet.

One caveat, however, is that charts that were downloaded using pack, when the cycle has rolled over, will show as expired in the download section.   To remove them, tap More -> Downloads – > Delete -> Delete Expired.

Another new feature I like, in ForeFlight Mobile v7, is the separation in the download section of the “Packed and Unselected Regions” listing from the subscribed regions. When pack downloads new charts over a route of flight, out of the area of coverage you normally download to your device, the Downloads list will show:


> Packed and Unselected Regions

2 downloaded

> Texas

8 downloaded

If you’re really tight on space, it’s an easy matter now to swipe the “Packed and Unselected Regions” line from right to left and then tap on the “Delete” button that pops-up.  That will selectively delete the pack specific downloads if you like, at the end of your flight.

Lastly, if you see a state that you want to ‘save’ from the Packed and Unselected Regions list, you can add that state or region to your download list (More -> Downloads -> United States, etc.), and it will move from Packed and Unselected to the monthly update list, automatically.