Otto, You’re Fired

otto

Heading Mode

Oh, that’s sort of sad for Otto. So trustworthy (except when he’s not). In my head, the KAP 140 in the new plane is the same pilot as the one that was in the old plane. The operation and display are identical, and I talked to Otto the same way when I am flying solo: “Time to climb, Otto,” “Let’s get you ready to follow that approach, Otto,” and near the end of each flight, “Otto, it’s my turn to fly.”

There is scant information on the history of the KAP 140 online, which surprises me. The Wikipedia page for Bendix King (the company that made the autopilot) has been deleted. One wonders if since their acquisition by Honeywell if the Department of Defense has just started to slowly scrub the from the ‘net.

The red LEDs and the few words the autopilot uses as audio cues makes it feel like a late 1970s product. I have only heard it say a few words and phrases, all in the same sad monotone: “Altitude” when the plane is within a thousand feet of reaching the assigned altitude; “Autopilot,” said in a particularly sad way when the autopilot is disengaged; and “Trim in motion,” when the trim is, in fact, NOT in motion (caused both times by a headset cord getting caught in the trim wheel).

When I first turn it on for a flight I often think of JFK Jr. since he had the same autopilot in his plane. Activating it requires pressing the AP button for a third of a second. When it comes alive it is in roll mode (“ROL” on the display), which means that it just levels the wings and keeps the same pitch. If he had pressed that button for just half a second three people wouldn’t have lost their lives.

Just last week Otto flew me about four hundred miles north from Caldwell, New Jersey to Parry Sound, Ontario.

The flight was flawless, with Otto holding the altitude, heading and (once I turned it over to him), follow the magenta line all the way into the north woods of Ontario. Along the way, just before I crossed the northern border of the nation, I flew over the Williamson-Sodus airport, which I consider a blog-over-blog moment since I follow Photographic Logbook and Warrior 481 was down there somewhere, snug in a hangar.

sodus

Sodus Below!

The four nights up at the lake were blissful. I had made it up from New Jersey to Parry Sound in two hours forty-five minutes. When I was a child rattling about in the back of my parents’ station wagon it was a fourteen hour odyssey. Even now Google Maps reports that it would be eleven hours of driving, and who’s going to do that without a few hours of meals and rest stops?

Those long road trips would have been much easier with an autopilot. Right now Uber is readying a fleet of self-driving cars to serve the Uber riders of Pittsburgh. And the Tesla Autopilots have driven a combined one hundred forty million miles. But, as the first Tesla Autopilot fatality showed, having an autopilot is not the same as having an autonomously driven car.

No, an autopilot requires attention and management. In fact, as planes became more technologically advanced, pilots have needed to have better and better system management skills. What did that beep mean? Is this light blinking a good thing or a bad thing? Famously, in the fly-by-wire, hugely-advanced Airbus airliners the pilots are most likely to ask, “What’s it doing now?”

A few of the first fatalities in the Cirrus planes were related to the autopilot (an S-TEC unit a little more advanced than the KAP 140). Pilots would dial in an altitude, like 10,500, and then tell the autopilot to climb at 700 feet per minute, something it is totally capable of doing at sea level. As the plane climbs up through the atmosphere the air is thinner and the performance of the plane suffers accordingly. An attentive pilot will watch the airspeed and as it starts to slow, the pilot tells the autopilot to climb a little less aggressively, maybe 500 feet per minute. Some of the new Cirrus pilots didn’t do this, and in an effort to keep climbing at the requested feet-per-minute, the autopilot kept raising the nose, pulling back on the yoke, until the airspeed ran out, the wing stalled, and the plane spun and fell to the ground.

You have to monitor the systems.

When Diamond offered the Garmin G1000 glass cockpit G1000 in their DA40 they kept the autopilot sold with the original planes. It was only after a few years that they switched to the matching Garmin autopilot, the GFC-700. I’ve flown both (my friend Susan has a DA40XLS with the Garmin autopilot). It’s unfair to compare the two, since there are decades between the development of the two systems, but the Garmin has more powerful, digital servos to run the control surfaces. It is directly integrated into the G1000 so you are monitoring a single system rather than something split between two devices, and most importantly it has an FLC button.

FLC. Flight Level Change will fly the plane from one altitude to another while keeping a constant airspeed. On either climb out (see Cirrus accidents above) or on an instrument approach, being able to set a constant airspeed rather than a climb rate is a big safety improvement. After take off I set the desired altitude and then tell the autopilot what airspeed I want to maintain. In the new plane 105kts seems like a good speed for control authority and rate of climb.

The toughest climb out I ever had was out of Garden City, Kansas. We had landed for lunch and the plane was refueled. So we had full tanks, full seats, and luggage for crossing the country. It was August so it was 105 degrees on the ground. The runway was a mile and a half long, so I knew we’d get up, but we were all sweating and looking forward to returning to the sixty degree air at 10,500 feet. It was a very slow climb, probably 200fpm for the first few thousand feet, with sweat running into my eyes and bumps the whole way up to six thousand feet. Then the usual miracle of cool air pouring through the vents, the plane suddenly cruising up at 500fpm on a nice, smooth, steady ramp.

I don’t know how the FLC would have done on that day. I know that the turbo-charging on the new engines would have made a big difference in the performance. Two engines would have helped, and the digital servos react faster to the bumps. I hand flew it, back then, but I would like to try something similar with the autopilot flying and me monitoring.

factory

Whole Fleet Behind Romeo Delta

So, after a nice break at the lake, I flew an hour south and dropped Romeo Delta at the factory to have the old autopilot removed and the Garmin GFC-700 installed. (They will do some other things as well, but that’s the big, complex part of the work.) I’m thinking of renaming to Ottillie.

About Colin Summers

I am an architect, programmer, private pilot, husband and father. A couple of those I am good at.
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