Business Aviation Insider

Understanding how advanced systems work and carefully monitoring their performance are essential.


July 3, 2017

When automated systems began appearing on business aircraft flight decks some 40 years ago, they were simple, stand-alone devices that aided navigation, fuel computation and flight instrumentation, working through a rudimentary flight management system, often connected to autopilots. They were aids designed to reduce pilot workload and add precision to their flying.

These modern marvels rapidly grew into fully integrated systems that, when properly fed and tended, could significantly reduce pilot workload and provide true automated flight. But, as with the sorcerer’s apprentice, these devices could easily overwhelm their masters with their complexity, rapid responses and sometimes confusing capabilities.

Kathy Abbott, the FAA’s chief scientific and technical adviser for flight deck human factors, notes that the agency has studied flight deck automation in depth, the results of which may be found in a 2013 FAA report titled The Operational Use of Flight Path Management Systems.

Said Abbott: “We discovered, among other things, that lack of system knowledge, incorrect assumptions made regarding systems, complacency, overreliance on automation, degradation of manual flying skills, and failure to adequately monitor systems and errors made during high-workload situations were notable deficiencies when using automated systems.

“Overall, failure to monitor the aircraft flight path and energy state were some of the major factors in critical automation errors,” added Abbott. “Inadequate standard operating procedures (SOPs) and training were also found to be faults. Problems programming automated systems are fairly common. Finally, realize that vulnerabilities in programming and errors [while] using the automated systems are more prevalent during times of high stress or workload.”

“The FAA is providing new advisory materials to help correct some of these issues,” said Abbott. “Advisory Circular 120-71B, Standard Operating Procedures and Pilot Monitoring Duties for Flight Deck Crewmembers, was released earlier this year to provide guidance in some of these areas.”


Many business aircraft pilots are aware of the potential pitfalls of automation and are seeking to better understand these sophisticated systems, their limits, potential areas of confusion regarding their operation and how to train so that they can effectively use such systems.

David Ryan, director of a West Coast flight department and chair of the NBAA Safety Committee, says, “We always train as crews, equally emphasizing the duties of pilot flying and pilot monitoring. We create training scenarios with our Part 142 training provider that fully reflect our normal and potentially abnormal operations.

Automation is fully integrated into our SOPs, providing emphasis on monitoring and cross-checking duties. These activities are integrated into our safety management system and its risk-based provisions.”

The concepts of training specifically oriented to automated systems are emphasized in the FAA’s automation report. Understanding the system, its normal and abnormal modes, proper feeding of information into the system and carefully monitoring its performance are essential. These features are being integrated into initial- and recurrent- training scenarios offered by some training providers.

Paul Ozmer, regional director of training for FlightSafety International, states, “The impact of automation, if used improperly or at an inappropriate level for the task at hand, can lead to a loss of situational awareness and task saturation, both of which have been documented in numerous commercial [aircraft] mishaps. All stages of our training – from ground school through the simulator syllabus – stress not only the software and hardware integration of automation, but, perhaps more importantly, the human factors and crew resource management aspects of the flight. This enables our customers to determine the correct level and utilization of automation, while maintaining situational awareness.


“Workload assignment and management, pilot monitoring and cross checking, and communications are specifically integrated into automation management,” continued Ozmer. “The role of the pilot monitoring is critical to the effective functioning of the crew; in many cases this may be more critical, as the pilot monitoring may be responsible for data entry into a flight management system or for manually selecting automation for the pilot flying. The pilot monitoring has as much skin in the game as the pilot flying in ensuring that all factors affecting the flight are anticipated and addressed.”

While practice in using automation to control the aircraft is helpful, using it too much may have drawbacks. A 2013 FAA Safety Alert for Operators (SAFO) stated that autoflight systems are useful tools for pilots and have improved safety and workload management, and thus enabled more precise operations. However, continuous use of autoflight systems could lead to degradation of the pilot’s ability to quickly recover the aircraft from an undesired state. Continuous use of those systems does not reinforce a pilot’s knowledge and skills in manual flight operations.

The SAFO advises: “Operators are encouraged to take an integrated approach by incorporating emphasis on manual flight operations into both line operations and training (initial/upgrade and recurrent). Operational policies should be developed or reviewed to ensure there are appropriate opportunities for pilots to exercise manual flying skills, such as in non-RVSM airspace and during low-workload conditions.”


Some business pilots operate without a copilot, making this person both the pilot flying and pilot monitoring. This obviously places a greater workload on the single pilot and underscores the need for developing different procedures to deal with cockpit automation.

Tom Goonen, a Simcom program manager specializing in single-pilot training, advises, “Automation requires the pilot to become a babysitter. Tell the system what to do and make certain it does what it is told. Don’t become complacent; it is easy to fall behind the aircraft.” He notes that having a good set of standard operating procedures and closely following them is important, too. This is especially true in high-workload situations. Finally, “Don’t forget the basics of flight! Fly the airplane, not the automation.”

Ben Kohler, a captain with a large flight department who heads the Technical Excellence Working Group of the NBAA Safety Committee, recommends, “Stay in the loop; force yourself to question the automation. It is too easy to become lulled into a false sense of security by the system. Because of this, the pilot monitoring role is becoming increasingly important to observing what the both the pilot flying and the automation are doing. Accordingly, crew resource management should be emphasized. Be more specific on pilot-monitoring duties: actively monitor the automation, emphasize autoflight mode awareness, fly the airplane more frequently, be inquisitive. Automation is good, but don’t let it become the master.”

Kohler concluded, “The Technical Excellence Working Group believes that appropriate knowledge, skill and proficiency to execute an intended function or role is critically important given the wide range of safety-sensitive functions in aviation. This has never more been more important than when considering automation.”


Automated flight decks are here to stay, and new features will continue to be rolled out. As these improvements are introduced, aviators must remain attentive to the need to fully understand these features, properly monitor and manage these functions and train to use them effectively.


  • Develop automation-oriented standard operating procedures
  • Understand automation logic, limitations and failure modes
  • Emphasize automation usage/failures in training
  • Fly the airplane, not the automation
  • Monitor aircraft flight path and energy state
  • Focus on crew resource management
  • Stay in the loop
  • Maintain manual flying skills

Several significant air carrier accidents and numerous business aviation incidents related to automation issues have occurred when pilots have been unable to stay ahead of these systems’ capabilities. Problems also have occurred when aviators have become more concerned about supervising the automation than managing the aircraft’s flight path and energy state. Simple issues like not being aware of flight program modes, partial system failures, faulty interpretation of displayed data and incorrectly directing these devices can lead to hazardous consequences.

While there have not been any business aircraft accidents tied to automation, some airliners have not fared as well.

  • Accidents involving distractions due to heavy cockpit workloads have caused commercial flight crews to improperly set auto-throttle modes, resulting in low-altitude stalls and destroyed aircraft.
  • Improper use of – or misunderstanding the function of – takeoff/go-around switches during the landing phase have also caused accidents.
  • Multiple automated system failures, coupled with conflicting flight instrument indications and annunciations, caused a notable fatal air carrier accident several years ago.

Perhaps most significantly, some incidents have involved improperly programmed autoflight systems, erroneous interpretation and confusion associated with displays, high-workload situations resulting in improper programming of automated systems, loss of situational awareness and poor command of devices designed to relieve such situations.