Automation Overload


Can using too much automation be a bad thing?

In recent weeks I’ve had the opportunity to go Cirrus checkout, and then go though Cirrus Standardized Instructor (CSIP)training with another flight instructor. On a couple flights I was a back seat observer watching the other instructor being checked out and the instructing instructor go through the paces of the CSIP checkout.

During one of the flights (a night profile), the two instructors (one flying, one teaching) setup a monument to automation by having the Cirrus fly an almost hands off GPS approach with the lateral and vertical modes of the autopilot coupled to the GPS, and then had the Cirrus calculate the wind correction angle, fly the correction, with vertical step-downs.

Now, while I was mildly impressed with the automation they had programmed in, what wasn’t terribly impressive is that the approach controller passed them to the tower controller, and they acknowledged the handoff but never called the tower.

Now, I don’t like being a backseat pilot, but at a half mile final I had to ask "You guys gonna get a clearance to land?" They did, and the flight ended uneventfully. Doesn’t that completely illustrate an age-old principal… two CFIs in the front, and no-one flying the airplane. They were both playing the role of the instructor. The second principal that seemed relevant was a newer one.

This flight got me thinking about all the automation in this little Cirrus SR-22. Wow! MFD, PFD, moving map, XM, charts, 2 GPS units, an autopilot with all the modes, and all the electronics talk to each other.

My observation is that use of all these tools leads to a great deal of heads down time. Now, in an IMC environment that may be ok, because the flight needs to be orchestrated through the instrumentation. The issue is that there are a good deal of VFR pilots conducting VFR flights in VMC, but are spending a good deal of their time with the head in the cockpit rather than looking out the window for traffic, keeping situational awareness of their visual surroundings, communicating, looking for the potential landing site, overall just using their most important tool (visual sight) to gather information about their flight.

With all this new automation, pilots need to remember to look out the window and not get buried looking at computer displays. I submit that the above potential incident was due entirely to not looking out the window. The pilots did not have positional or situational awareness. Had they been looking out the window it would have been obvious what needed to happen as the runway grew bigger in the window.