More Than One Kind of Autopilot

A Cessna 185 amphib lost power shortly after takeoff. Authorities determined that the pilot had selected Fuel Off instead of Fuel Both for tank selection. How did it happen? The fuel tank selector cover was broken which allowed full movement of the selector knob. The pilot relied on feel for sensing the knob’s location. The accumulator tank contained enough fuel for full operation of the plane until shortly after takeoff.

I wonder if the problem wasn’t just the fuel tank selection. Sometimes we switch on autopilot, and I don’t mean the plane’s autopilot; the more time we log, the more likely we’ll perform tasks without thinking.

Autopilot is seductive. To combat it, I’ve developed a trick. I mentally picture what I want, and then I compare that image with what I actually see. For example, if Tower clears me to land on runway 31L, I picture in my mind what 31L looks like. Then I check – is what I see actually 31L? This is a faster process than it may sound – in the time it takes me to repeat my call letters and runway number I’ve visualized where I need to go. From downwind to final, I keep that image in my mind and verify that I’ve lined up for the right runway. Tower can switch me to a new runway in the midst of me doing circuits and I won’t land out of habit on the wrong runway. Use whatever technique works for you, but watch out for autopilot.