"Sometimes when I look back to the instruments after tuning a radio or checking my charts, I find that the airplane has started a gentle turn or begun to climb or descend. It happens despite the airplane being perfectly trimmed. But other times, it doesn't happen at all. Why is this?" —José R.
“When you reach to twist a knob, move a control, or even just look away to check a chart on your iPad, you’re unconsciously nudging the flight controls. It’s almost impossible to suppress these involuntary inputs. They’re especially insidious when you’re in IMC or flying at night, and if you don’t catch the deviation quickly, a gentle bank can lead to a spiraling descent or other prelude to a loss of control, especially if you also experience the first symptoms of spatial disorientation.
The key to avoiding subtle control inputs is opening your hand before you turn your attention away from the instruments—or the big horizon outside the window when you’re flying visually.
Don’t completely let go of the yoke or stick. Just consciously relax your fingers and arm so that you don’t make roll or pitch inputs while you’re performing a cockpit flow check, switching fuel tanks, changing frequencies, or loading an approach.
I teach my instrument students always to pause briefly before they turn their focus away from the primary flight instruments. Waiting a beat to confirm that they’re not holding the reins too tight helps them avoid wandering off heading and altitude and then making abrupt inputs when they resume their scan. With repetition, this habit becomes almost as automatic as the involuntary inputs that cause the problem in the first place.”
Which statement best describes your strategy for using autopilot (AP)?