Automation - Aeronautical Decision Making

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 1]

Automation - Aeronautical Decision Making
Figure 1. 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]

Automation - Aeronautical Decision Making
Figure 2. 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

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.

Equipment Use

Autopilot Systems

In a single-pilot environment, an autopilot system can greatly reduce workload. [Figure 3] As a result, the pilot is free to focus his or her attention on other flight deck duties. This can improve situational awareness and reduce the possibility of a CFIT accident. While the addition of an autopilot may certainly be considered a risk control measure, the real challenge comes in determining the impact of an inoperative unit. If the autopilot is known to be inoperative prior to departure, this may factor into the evaluation of other risks.

Automation - Aeronautical Decision Making
Figure 3. An example of an autopilot system

For example, the pilot may be planning for a VHF omnidirectional range (VOR) approach down to minimums on a dark night into an unfamiliar airport. In such a case, the pilot may have been relying heavily on a functioning autopilot capable of flying a coupled approach. This would free the pilot to monitor aircraft performance. A malfunctioning autopilot could be the single factor that takes this from a medium to a serious risk. At this point, an alternative needs to be considered. On the other hand, if the autopilot were to fail at a critical (high workload) portion of this same flight, the pilot must be prepared to take action. Instead of simply being an inconvenience, this could quickly turn into an emergency if not properly handled. The best way to ensure a pilot is prepared for such an event is to carefully study the issue prior to departure and determine well in advance how an autopilot failure is to be handled.


As previously discussed, pilot familiarity with all equipment is critical in optimizing both safety and efficiency. If a pilot is unfamiliar with any aircraft systems, this will add to workload and may contribute to a loss of situational awareness. This level of proficiency is critical and should be looked upon as a requirement, not unlike carrying an adequate supply of fuel. As a result, pilots should not look upon unfamiliarity with the aircraft and its systems as a risk control measure, but instead as a hazard with high risk potential. Discipline is key to success.

Respect for Onboard Systems

Automation can assist the pilot in many ways, but a thorough understanding of the system(s) in use is essential to gaining the benefits it can offer. Understanding leads to respect, which is achieved through discipline and the mastery of the onboard systems. It is important to fly the aircraft using minimal information from the primary flight display (PFD). This includes turns, climbs, descents, and being able to fly approaches.

Reinforcement of Onboard Suites

The use of an EFD may not seem intuitive, but competency becomes better with understanding and practice. Computer-based software and incremental training help the pilot become comfortable with the onboard suites. Then the pilot needs to practice what was learned in order to gain experience. Reinforcement not only yields dividends in the use of automation, it also reduces workload significantly.

Getting Beyond Rote Workmanship

The key to working effectively with automation is getting beyond the sequential process of executing an action. If a pilot has to analyze what key to push next, or always uses the same sequence of keystrokes when others are available, he or she may be trapped in a rote process. This mechanical process indicates a shallow understanding of the system. Again, the desire is to become competent and know what to do without having to think about, “what keystroke is next.” Operating the system with competency and comprehension benefits a pilot when situations become more diverse and tasks increase.

Understand the Platform

Contrary to popular belief, flight in aircraft equipped with different electronic management suites requires the same attention as aircraft equipped with analog instrumentation and a conventional suite of avionics. The pilot should review and understand the different ways in which EFD are used in a particular aircraft. [Figure 4]

Automation - Aeronautical Decision Making
Figure 4. Examples of different platforms. Top to bottom are the Beechcraft Baron G58, Cirrus SR22, and Cirrus Entega

The following are two simple rules for use of an EFD:
  • Be able to fly the aircraft to the standards in the PTS. Although this may seem insignificant, knowing how to fly the aircraft to a standard makes a pilot’s airmanship smoother and allows him or her more time to attend to the system instead of managing multiple tasks.
  • Read and understand the installed electronic flight systems manuals to include the use of the autopilot and the other onboard electronic management tools.

Managing Aircraft Automation

Before any pilot can master aircraft automation, he or she must first know how to fly the aircraft. Maneuvers 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 occurs during takeoff and initial climb.

An advanced avionics safety issue identified by the FAA concerns pilots who apparently develop an unwarranted over-reliance in their avionics and the aircraft, believing that the equipment will compensate for pilot shortcomings. Related to the over-reliance 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 understanding 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 generally 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 stop, look, and read. 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 behind the display screens on an advanced avionics aircraft, the pilot’s goal is to meter, 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,” “DTK” (desired track 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 exactly the information needed for any given flight operation. Examples of managing information display for a specific operation include:
  • Program map scale settings for en route versus terminal area operation.
  • Utilize the terrain awareness page on the MFD for a night or IMC flight in or near the mountains.
  • Use the nearest airports inset on the PFD at night or over inhospitable terrain.
  • Program the weather datalink set to show echoes and METAR status flags.

Enhanced Situational Awareness

An advanced avionics aircraft offers increased safety with enhanced situational awareness. Although aircraft flight manuals (AFM) explicitly prohibit using the moving map, topography, terrain awareness, traffic, and weather datalink displays as the primary data source, these tools nonetheless give the pilot unprecedented information for enhanced situational awareness. Without a well-planned information management strategy, these tools also make it easy for an unwary pilot to slide into the complacent role of passenger in command.

Consider the pilot whose navigational information management strategy consists solely of following the magenta line on the moving map. He or she can easily fly into geographic or regulatory disaster, if the straight-line GPS course goes through high terrain or prohibited airspace, or if the moving map display fails.

A good strategy for maintaining situational awareness information management should include practices that help ensure that awareness is enhanced, not diminished, by the use of automation. Two basic procedures are to always double-check the system and verbal callouts. At a minimum, ensure the presentation makes sense. Was the correct destination fed into the navigation system? Callouts—even for single-pilot operations—are an excellent way to maintain situational awareness, as well as manage information.

Other ways to maintain situational awareness include:
  • Perform verification check of all programming. Before departure, check all information programmed while on the ground
  • Check the flight routing. Before departure, ensure all routing matches the planned flight route. Enter the planned route and legs, to include headings and leg length, on a paper log. Use this log to evaluate what has been programmed. If the two do not match, do not assume the computer data is correct, double check the computer entry
  • Verify waypoints
  • Make use of all onboard navigation equipment. For example, use VOR to back up GPS and vice versa
  • Match the use of the automated system with pilot proficiency. Stay within personal limitations
  • Plan a realistic flight route to maintain situational awareness. For example, although the onboard equipment allows a direct flight from Denver, Colorado, to Destin, Florida, the likelihood of rerouting around Eglin Air Force Base’s airspace is high
  • Be ready to verify computer data entries. For example, incorrect keystrokes could lead to loss of situational awareness because the pilot may not recognize errors made during a high workload period.

Automation Management

Advanced avionics offer multiple levels of automation, from strictly manual flight to highly automated flight. No one level of automation is appropriate for all flight situations, but in order to avoid potentially dangerous distractions when flying with advanced avionics, the pilot must know how to manage the course deviation indicator (CDI), the navigation source, and the autopilot. It is important for a pilot to know the peculiarities of the particular automated system being used. This ensures the pilot knows what to expect, how to monitor for proper operation, and promptly take appropriate action if the system does not perform as expected.

For example, at the most basic level, managing the autopilot means knowing at all times which modes are engaged and which modes are armed to engage. The pilot needs to verify that armed functions (e.g., navigation tracking or altitude capture) engage at the appropriate time. Automation management is another good place to practice the callout technique, especially after arming the system to make a change in course or altitude.

In advanced avionics aircraft, proper automation management also requires a thorough understanding of how the autopilot interacts with the other systems. For example, with some autopilots, changing the navigation source on the e-HSI from GPS to LOC or VOR while the autopilot is engaged in NAV (course tracking mode) causes the autopilot’s NAV mode to disengage. The autopilot’s lateral control will default to ROL (wing level) until the pilot takes action to reengage the NAV mode to track the desired navigation source.

Risk Management

Risk management is the last of the three flight management skills needed for mastery of the glass flight deck aircraft. The enhanced situational awareness and automation capabilities offered by a glass flight deck airplane 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 asked to passively monitor an automated system for faults, abnormalities, or other infrequent events, humans perform poorly. The more reliable the system, the poorer the human performance. For example, the pilot only monitors 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 PIC requires sound ADM, which sometimes means saying “no” to a flight.

Risk is also increased when the pilot fails to monitor the systems. By failing to monitor the systems and failing to check the results of the processes, the pilot becomes detached from the aircraft operation and slides into the complacent role of passenger in command. Complacency led to tragedy in a 1999 aircraft accident.

In Colombia, a multi-engine aircraft crewed with two pilots struck the face of the Andes Mountains. Examination of their FMS revealed they entered a waypoint into the FMS incorrectly by one degree resulting in a flight path taking them to a point 60 NM off their intended course. The pilots were equipped with the proper charts, their route was posted on the charts, and they had a paper navigation log indicating the direction of each leg. They had all the tools to manage and monitor their flight, but instead allowed the automation to fly and manage itself. The system did exactly what it was programmed to do; it flew on a programmed course into a mountain resulting in multiple deaths. The pilots simply failed to manage the system and inherently created their own hazard. Although this hazard was self-induced, what is notable is the risk the pilots created through their own inattention. By failing to evaluate each turn made at the direction of automation, the pilots maximized risk instead of minimizing it. In this case, a totally avoidable accident become a tragedy through simple pilot error and complacency.

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 mission 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 as advertised.

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