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10 Tips For Flying With An Autopilot In IMC

A functional autopilot in solid IMC takes work off your shoulders. To do it well, use these 10 tips.

1) Were you just given vectors? Sync your heading bug, engage heading mode, then turn.

If you're in "NAV Mode" and were just given a heading vector, avoid making the mistake of dialing in your new heading first. If you simply click "HDG Mode" after tuning your assigned heading, the airplane will initiate a turn in the shortest direction to reach that heading.

This can create an issue if ATC has specifically cleared you for a "right" or "left" turn. Make a habit of syncing the heading bug, then engaging heading mode, then turning in the direction of your assigned heading.

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2) Be cautious when using vertical speed mode (VS) for climbs.

If you climb using vertical speed mode, the autopilot will do its best to maintain the selected foot per minute climb you've set. If you don't manage your power correctly, or become distracted, the autopilot could allow the aircraft to begin flying dangerously slow as it tries to maintain the vertical speed setting you've requested.

A better alternative is to climb in "speed mode," which will give you the best rate of climb for a airspeed you've selected. Introducing a higher power setting will result in a steeper climb.

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3) As you activate new flight modes, verbalize them to yourself or your crew members.

Anytime you select a new auto flight mode, you should say it out-loud to yourself, or announce it to your crew members. It's an important way to make sure everyone in the cockpit is aware of how or where the plane will fly.

Verbalizing your settings is also a great way to second guess your own decision making by saying "is that really the flight mode I wanted?"

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4) Attached a mental trigger to the phrase "cleared for the approach."

When you're "cleared for the approach," your mind should go to arming some kind of autopilot approach mode. If it's an ILS or LPV, you'll likely arm "APR Mode" right away. For other approaches like LOC, LNAV, LNAV/VNAV, etc., you may need to active a variety of modes like "NAV" or "VNAV."

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5) ALWAYS keep your heading bug synced.

If you've ever ridden in the jumpseat with a professional flight crew, you'll notice that pilots constantly sync their heading mode with the course they're flying.

If you have to make a sudden heading change or begin receiving vectors, having your heading synced ensures you don't begin turning in the wrong direction once you click "HDG Mode."

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6) Pay close attention to your climb rate.

Are you able to climb at least 500 fpm? If you can't, you need to let ATC know. It's easy leave vertical speed out of your scan pattern if you let the autopilot take over in IMC, especially while you're busy managing charts, running checklists, or completing briefings.

Swayne Martin

7) If you ever start thinking "What is the autopilot doing now?", get ready to hand fly.

Autopilot systems aren't perfect. If you're ever left scratching your head, you may want to disconnect the autopilot and fly the airplane by hand until you're positive it's responding to your inputs correctly.

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8) Were you cleared on the approach, or cleared to track inbound?

ATC may clear you to track the localizer course before you're given an approach clearance. If you haven't been cleared to descend, make sure a descent mode is not active or armed.

9) Practice your "hard IMC" hand flying too.

Autopilots are a great way to reduce your task load in the cockpit during challenging weather conditions. That shouldn't mean you become fully reliant on its use. Occasionally, you should practice hand-flying full departures, arrivals, and approaches in IMC.

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10) Never fly in pitch or roll mode.

Many autopilot systems automatically revert to pitch or roll mode when you've missed intercepting an altitude or course. These modes are dangerous because they may initially appear to hold your altitude, heading, or course. In reality, the autopilot is just holding your current pitch or roll.

Get out of those modes quickly and activate a form of lateral navigation, vertical navigation, or altitude capture.

Corey Komarec

What other tips do you have for flying in IMC with an autopilot? Tell us in the comments below.

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