To Autopilot or Hand Fly, that is the question…

Reading a lot of online and magazine articles lately may lead some to believe that modern pilots are using autopilots too much. A lot of instructors teaching IFR and Private Pilot don’t let the students use autopilots at all, until just a little bit at the end. I’d like to offer a different perspective… people should install and use autopilots more! Modern pilots are much safer when they do use autopilots, in fact much safer than hand flying for three big reasons. Before you begin sharpening your pitchforks and planning how to best tear this opinion apart, I’d like you to hear out my reasons first. If you still think I’m wrong, you can always light the torches later.S-TEC_System55X

The biggest reason I would like pilots to use the autopilot more is that they can pay more attention to more important things. I’m not saying flying the plane isn’t important, I’m just saying the pilot’s focus should be on weather, traffic, and other critical situational items more. It’s very easy when you’re focusing on maintaining altitude, course, and heading to miss a radio call, traffic conflict, or even a critical altitude or change in IFR. A good autopilot is especially important for Single Pilot IFR.

The second reason that pilots should use their autopilot more is that it gives them time to get ahead of the airplane instead of just keeping up. It’s a whole lot easier to work your new Avidyne or Garmin GPS,  use ForeFlight or look at XM or FIS-B weather when the robot does the simple stuff. Getting set-up and briefed for an Instrument approach thirty minutes early is a lot safer than holding a plane on course and being too busy later.

The third reason that autopilots should be used more often is simple. We know that it works and makes flying safer! Ask any professional pilot who flies stuff that goes high and fast. Their job is to manage the entire plane and constantly changing situation around them not just hold a course. The airlines know this and that’s why they fly this way. Any GA jet or turboprop certified for single pilot is designed to be flown by the autopilot.

I think everyone will admit that an autopilot can make flying safer, but only if a couple things are true. First, the pilot must understand everything about the autopilot, including limitations and how to recognize and respond to malfunctions. For instance some of the new GA certified autopilots will only track a GPS signal and can’t fly an ILS. Some older autopilots can only hold the wings level. The STEC 55X can do a lot more. Second the pilot must constantly check that the autopilot is doing what you want it to do. Third the pilots must train on a regular basis in how to disconnect and hand fly if any malfunction occurs. That means a lot of training in malfunctions and flying without the autopilot too.

Remember a great autopilot will make you much safer, if you know how to work it and know how to turn it off and hand fly if something goes wrong.

Fly Safe!


Gary Reeves is an ATP and Master Flight, Instrument, and Multi-Engine Instructor. A well-know national speaker, he has over 6,800 hours and was the 2016 FAA Instructor of the Year for the WP Region. Gary is also the Avidyne National Training Provider and offers 3-4 day programs teaching Avidyne and Garmin Avionics in IFR. He is also the Chief Safety Pilot for Contact him at or


3 thoughts on “To Autopilot or Hand Fly, that is the question…

  1. Great article Gary!! I agree, a good
    Pilot knows his/her autopilot and
    Is proficient with it and without it. It should not be a crutch.
    You still need to be able to hand fly
    Maneuvers to PTS Standards and
    Autopilot proficiency is a must in
    Complex high performance aircraft as

    John Mahany

  2. Spot on. I just completed a circumnavigation in my Mooney and used the Autopilot a great deal. Made a quick IFR trip to a nearby airport today with one of my instrument students in the right seat. I was explaining that the autopilot is a key cockpit resource to reduce pilot workload so that the pilot can better maintain situational awareness. I also pointed out to him that it freed me up to spend more attention explaining to him what I was doing in navigating and preparing for the upcoming approach.

    If an aircraft has an AP, the instrument student should be able to demonstrate knowledge of all the AP’s features, and to use them effectively, even during a check ride. Sure she should be able to revert to hand-flying when the AP “fails” (and it should, during each approach). But until then, use it effectively.

  3. Right on Gary. I agree 100%. I recently bought a 2004 Columbia after owning a 50 year old piper arrow for 40 years. What a joy to fly a modern airplane in instrument conditions which allows me to watch the weather and focus on the approach. Nay sayers are stuck in the past. Too bad for them.

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