CHAPTER 4. Automated Flight Control

Common Error: Failure To Arm the Altitude Mode

The most common error made by pilots during climbs and descents is failure to arm the altitude mode to capture the assigned altitude. In many instances, this happens when the crew does not correctly adjust the altitude selector or alerter. Sometimes, this malfunction occurs when the altitude is adjusted at the same time the system is attempting to go into the capture mode. This situation typically results in the aircraft climbing or descending beyond the assigned altitude, which may result in an altitude deviation. Altitude deviations are among the most common mishaps reported by pilots to NASA’s Aviation Safety and Reporting System (ASRS). In any event, always monitor the actions of the FD/autopilot system and be prepared to fly the aircraft manually.

Awareness: Altitude Alerting Systems

Altitude alerting systems were mandated for commercial jet transports in the early 1970s in response to a growing number of altitude deviations in airline operations. Although they helped reduce the total number of altitude deviations, altitude alerting systems also made possible a new kind of error. Altitude deviation reports submitted to the Aviation Safety and Reporting System (ASRS) indicate that pilots sometimes rely too much on the altitude alerting system, using it as a substitute for maintaining altitude awareness. Instead of monitoring altitude, pilots sometimes simply listen for the alert. This phenomenon is one instance of what human factors experts call primary-secondary task inversion—when an alert or alarm designed as a secondary backup becomes the primary source of information. In the case of the altitude alerting system, when the alerting system is missed, or you are distracted, nothing is left to prevent an altitude deviation. You must remember that the altitude alerting system is designed as a backup, and be careful not to let the alerting system become the primary means of monitoring altitude. Most airline operators have a standard operating procedure that requires pilots to call out approaching target altitudes before the altitude alerting system gives the alert. Common errors occur when setting 10,000 feet versus 11,000 feet. Too many ones and zeros can confuse a fatigued, busy pilot, resulting in setting an incorrect altitude.

Awareness: Automatic Mode Changes

Distinguishing between “armed” and “engaged” adds complexity to the process of maintaining mode awareness. In addition to autopilot functions that are engaged by the pilot, some autopilot functions engage and disengage automatically. Automatic mode changes add to the challenge of keeping track of which autopilot functions are currently engaged and which functions are set to become engaged. You can minimize confusion by always verifying the status annunciations on the FMs, PFD/MFD, and the autopilot mode annunciator after any change of heading, altitude, or vertical speed. The verification process forces you to carefully consider the configuration of the FMS and FD/ autopilot. Determine if engaging the autopilot cancels certain FD modes. Some units interact, and when the autopilot is engaged, some FD modes are automatically canceled, notably altitude hold or selection.

Learning: The Importance of Understanding

One way to learn the steps required to use an autopilot is simply to memorize them. This approach focuses solely on the button and control manipulations required to perform each procedure. Although this approach to learning may appear to be the quickest, studies have shown that pilots who take the time to develop a deeper understanding of how a system works give themselves three important advantages. These pilots are better able to:

  • Work through situations that differ from the ones they learned and practiced during training,
  • Transition from one manufacturer’s system to another, and
  • Recall procedures after not having practiced them for some time.

Investing time to understand FD/autopilot functions pays off. For example, in many systems, once the aircraft reaches the selected altitude and levels off as indicated by the altitude mode annunciator, the pilot can select the next altitude in the window. Then, upon receiving the clearance to climb or descend, the pilot must select only the vertical mode. In many systems, the vertical speed mode is indicated and the altitude mode is indicated as “armed” and ready to capture the selected altitude. Only the power requires pilot manual control.

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