In June, I flew my plane 38.4 hours, of which 37.3 were all cross-country. I was in IMC for 15.9 of those hours and shot two localizer, two ILS, and two GPS approaches — and all six were to within 100 feet of minimums. My personal airline had a 100% dispatch reliability and on time record for those trips, but I did all the work. Well, maybe not all the work. I had George to help me.
George is my autopilot. It is a new S-TEC System 30 installed by Air Associates of Asheboro, N.C. I must admit that over the past 35 years of flying I have remained pretty much dedicated to hand-flying. I just love to fly. In my years with Cessna and Commander (mid 1970s to early 1980s), I often flew high-performance singles as well as piston twins and turbines, all with pretty capable autopilots. But even then, I wouldn’t use them nearly as much as might be expected. However, they did a decent job, therefore making sense to use them when the situations called for it. The “autopilots” in the smaller airplanes of the same time period were hardly “autopilots” at all and were at their most useful when asked to just hold a heading. When using the other functions, these “autopilots” usually did such a poor job of flying the plane the way I thought it should be flown I just turned it off and flew it. It was much simpler that way.
Prior to the new system, my plane had the original Cessna 300 autopilot and it was, as usual, marginal. At best it held a heading and sometimes flew a nav needle with relative smoothness and accuracy if it was coupled to the GPS. But for the most part, I was happy to hand fly and use the old George when I needed to copy a clearance or read a chart. But old George finally packed it in and I refused to spend any money to revive him. I decided it was finally time to get a real autopilot. All the rage lately in the avionics business has been aimed at GPS, MFD, PFD, glass technology — and rightly so. But quietly in the background, autopilots for general aviation airplanes have significantly improved and are doing more for less cost (not even considering inflation) than the aftermarket flight control systems of 20 to 30 years ago.
The System 30 will fly my plane like it’s on rails. It turns to and tracks a heading perfectly. It will hold altitude just as well, even in the bumps. It is coupled to the VOR/LOC indicator and it flies the VOR or Localizer course pretty well, but when the nav needle scallops, it wants to follow the needle, so there is a little wing-wagging at times. It won’t fly the glideslope — the pilot must still manage that unless you opt for a more expensive version.
Where the System 30 really shines is in GPS flying. With the GPS Steering mode, the autopilot takes its cues directly from my IFR GPS. Load in a route, and the GPS drives the autopilot through all the necessary turns, corrections and course changes and will fly a perfectly executed GPS approach. And the system does not need any part of my vacuum system to do it. Talk about an awesome back-up for a vacuum system failure in IMC.
June was a tough month for a number of reasons and letting George do the lion’s share of the flying was like having my own personal pilot to do the tiring work, allowing me to concentrate on the navigating, communicating, situational awareness, and just keeping ahead of the game when the deck was stacked against me. I finished each flight feeling good, like I wasn’t pushing any of my safety limits, and with a keen awareness of how much the new autopilot contributed to this result.
I’m not saying I’ve made this great discovery and now I’m letting all of you in on the secret. Far from it. I’m sure you’ve read the many articles that preached the enhanced safety and utility, especially when flying IFR, provided through the autopilot. But usually the writer had some pretty deep pockets and was flying a high-performance and complex single or twin.
The functionality, cost and reliability of even the most basic new autopilots available today make it realistic to consider them as an integral part of any avionics package, even in light single-engine airplanes. And that’s saying a lot from a hand-flying purist like myself.