Why Pilots Can’t Afford To Neglect Hand-Flying Proficiency

2 min read
Feb 29, 2024

I recently reconnected with a friend who got checked out in a new TBM 940 and 960 to get his thoughts on transitioning to one of the popular turboprops. "It's not a pilot's aircraft," he said. By that, he meant the airplane was touchy and designed by the manufacturers to reduce pilot workload and maximize automation usage. 

The idea of reducing pilot workload is becoming synonymous with less hand-flying. Manufacturers equip modern airplanes with sophisticated autopilot systems capable of nearly flying the aircraft from start to finish. All pilots have to do is push a button. 

While, on the one hand, automation is a big help in the vast responsibilities pilots have during a flight, on the other, it can cause concerns about when and how a pilot accomplishes these duties on the flight deck. I have seen where a pilot gets behind the airplane due to the software logic that autopilot manufacturers have developed. 

Pilots know precisely what they want the aircraft to do; getting the autopilot to comply is another thing. Pilots can waste precious time en route, struggling to configure the autopilot to meet the requirements because the command tree is not intuitive to them. 

  • Is it direct, enter, enter? Or is it just direct, as Garmin's suite of products requires?
  • Are you sure it is set up to intercept the approach of an assigned heading?

I have seen many pilots lose their way here and see the airplane take them flying instead of the other way around.

So what do you do?

Pilot flying a Ga twin-engine airplane


Though airplanes are becoming more automated, you must remember that automation is a crutch. It is only there to augment your flying. Before getting into an aircraft, if possible, you should train with a flight instructor who can run you through a gamut of scenarios that force you to master the autopilot logic in a timely and appropriate way for each leg. 

In my scenario above, sometimes ATC assigns a pilot a heading from which to intercept a final approach course. The approach should be loaded and armed using the autopilot, but the heading mode should be active. In most autopilot logic, the autopilot systems should show the heading mode on the autopilot command as green, which is the active mode, and the approach mode as white, which is armed. It is also important to distinguish between approach and navigation mode. 

At the same time, the airplane might follow a specific path, and you should be aware of each offer's error tolerances, which is why they must be in the correct mode. For instance, when in NAV mode on an approach path, such as approaching an initial approach fix, the tolerance for deviation is up to one mile left or right of course, as wiggle room. However, in approach mode, the deviation is 0.3 miles left or right. That means if you are in NAV mode on approach, and the airplane drifts to the left or right, you could end up outside the safety margins at the least opportune time.

Understanding this logic should encourage you to seek mastery over your autopilot system. More importantly, you should be ready to turn the whole thing off and hand-fly the airplane when things look wrong. 

The Federal Aviation Administration says that learners need to know how to operate a particular automated system to know what to expect, how to monitor for proper operation, and when to promptly take appropriate action if the system does not perform as expected. 

That last one is particularly critical. One of the most important concepts of automation management is knowing when to use it and when to take over and fly the airplane.