From The Desk of The Editor

Is Autopilot in Light Helicopters a Magic Bullet?

I recently read an amazing book called The Power of Habit by Pulitzer Prize winner Charles Duhigg. In it he wrote:

“Habits are powerful, but delicate. They often occur without our permission, but can be reshaped by fiddling with their parts. They shape our lives far more than we realize—they are so strong, in fact, that they cause our brains to cling to them at the exclusion of all else, including common sense.”

As helicopter pilots, we definitely have healthy habit patterns that aid us in doing our jobs. For example, we reduce workload and ensure certain tasks are not forgotten in the course of a flight. We don’t actually create these habits on our own, rather they are trained into us. The longer we exercise such habits, the harder they are to break. This is especially true when it comes to stressful situations like entry into inadvertent instrument meteorological conditions (IIMC).

As you will see in our autopilot feature on page 54, an entire generation of single-engine helicopter air ambulance (HAA) pilots will soon be letting go of the controls to let an autopilot (AP) take over. For us helicopter pilots, the base instinctual habit of hand flying is so overwhelmingly strong that it can be a real barrier to learning and trusting new AP technology.

I know that’s true from personal experience. In 1999 I became a new HAA pilot and transitioned into an aircraft with AP for the first time. During initial training, I trusted the technology with the logical side of my brain—until the “crap” hit the proverbial fan! Then old habits started kicking in. I grabbed the flight controls and fought the AP, and even went so far as to punch it off. Letting go of the controls does not come natural to a helicopter pilot!

I eventually came to fully trust my AP, but it took a lot of rigorous training on its uses and limitations to get me to that point. Eventually, I used it as much as possible to reduce my routine workload in the cockpit. Later, I had another breakthrough during the night hour of 3 a.m., when I went IIMC at 1,300 feet on climbout from a dark area. My training—and new habit pattern—kicked in, allowing me to use the AP in conjunction with our IIMC procedure. Letting go led to a successful conclusion.

Publisher Brig Bearden Editor-In-Chief Lyn Burks Account Executive Teri Rivas Layout Design Bryan Matuskey Online Accounts Manager Lynnette Burks Copy Editor

Rick Weatherford Social Media Guru Laura Lentz

Contributing Writers

James Careless Sharon Desfor

Rick Weatherford Eric Lian

Matt Johnson

Randy Mains Brad McNally Tim Pruitt

Randy Rowles Scott Skola

Here’s my plea to HAA operators installing APs in their light single-engine helicopters: Give your pilots very comprehensive training. Utilize simulators and real aircraft so that they completely understand and regularly use the AP. Even more, make sure your pilots trust their AP enough to use it should they go IIMC.

In 2011, 86 percent of IIMC-related helicopter accidents were fatal. There may be no single magic bullet that neutralizes that horrific statistic, but a well- trained pilot with a perfectly functioning AP could be the magic combo that dramatically reduces it.

Lyn Burks, Editor In Chief

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Sept/Oct 2016

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