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While flying in simulations, I found that using the Approach feature is very beneficial for riding the glide slope (clear weather or not), however, while watching videos of GA pilots, I do not see it performed too often. Which brings me to my question as to whether that is a common practice, or if it is frowned upon unless it is necessary for a safe landing?

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    $\begingroup$ In those videos, how many of the aircraft have autopilots installed? $\endgroup$ – Dan Pichelman Feb 2 at 14:16
  • $\begingroup$ touché.. I cannot say for sure, but assuming a pilot did have it installed, would it be considered common practice to do so? $\endgroup$ – Ryan Feb 2 at 14:29
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    $\begingroup$ First, what percentage of GA aircraft even HAVE autopilots? In 40+ years of flying, I don't think I've ever even been in a plane (other than as an airline passenger) that had one. $\endgroup$ – jamesqf Feb 2 at 19:02
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    $\begingroup$ How interesting would the videos be if the pilots let the AP do all the work? And how many critical comments would they get about it? Were they in VMC, where is relatively easy, or IMC, which has a much higher pilot workload? $\endgroup$ – StephenS Feb 2 at 20:25
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    $\begingroup$ @jamesqf, lots of GA planes have autopilots. My small 4-seater has one, they are not that expensive to put in. Mine only controls the ailerons, for a few thousand more I could have had one that controlled pitch as well. I am still hand flying my approaches for practice, one of these trips I will let the autopilot follow the Localizer, or the GPS, in calm weather, and see how well it does. Then try it in rougher weather, see what it's limitations are. $\endgroup$ – CrossRoads Feb 3 at 19:10
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It's a perfectly acceptable practice, provided you disengage the autopilot upon reaching minimums and hand fly it the rest of the way. Some manufacturers, like Cirrus, recommend flying a coupled autopilot approach.

I won't sit on the fence about this. Learning how to fly coupled autopilot approaches are fine, but I insist all my students learn how to hand fly approaches, both as part of their initial instrument training and for all instrument proficiency checks I administer. If I were an examiner I would insist on seeing instrument applicants demonstrate hand flown approaches on their checkrides as well.

Autopilots are great but their use can begin to atrophy their flying skills and it can come back to bite them, particularly in an emergency.

As to the exact numbers of GA pilots who fly coupled autopilot approaches, that's probably going to depend on the pilot and the equipment in his/her aircraft. Pilots with autopilots installed are probably going to be much more likely to use them and be more comfortable flying approaches this way.

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  • $\begingroup$ Why disconnect the autopilot at minimums? Why not disconnect at the minimum altitude certified by the AP manufacturer? $\endgroup$ – Mike Sowsun Feb 2 at 16:46
  • $\begingroup$ If it’s specified in the AFM, sure. $\endgroup$ – Carlo Felicione Feb 2 at 19:05
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The question as it currently stands in the headline "How often do GA pilots use the Autopilot approach feature while landing?" is hard, if not impossible to answer due to lack of relevant statistics.

As for the matter(s) raised in the body of the question, is and should the autopilot be used on approaches in GA, here's how I see it, plain and simple:

  1. You must be able to fly the plane manually, no matter what the situation is.
  2. You should be able to fully understand and operate any systems your aircraft provides: gps, autopilot etc.

Proficiency of both should be practiced in order provided above, former being necessary for survival, and latter providing ease of operation and extra safety when used properly. I won't give examples of ratio between practising 1 and 2, as this varies hugely from one person to another.

As long as you are able to take over from any system, the AP for instance, at any time, no-one should (probably will though) frown upon using it.


P.S. the best mindset for GA pilot is to consider every flight a training flight. Set more goals than just fly from A to B to A. The most dangerous GA pilots are the ones who know it all and therefore no longer need to practise. They are as good as dead.

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In the non-student GA world, I would say not very often. Maybe 1 in 6 approaches as a guess and from personal experience. If a pilot is flying actual IMC, they may fly a coupled approach as a safety measure. Most non-commercial GA pilots will avoid flying actual IMC in most cases as a rule. Some will fly actual IMC, when the conditions are not too bad, to stay sharp. Others will only fly their required 6 approaches in VMC. Either way, they will mainly hand fly the aircraft for the sake of staying proficient. I’ll usually make sure to fly 1 of my 6 on autopilot.

As far as the videos mentioned, how many of them were from training flights? More emphasis will probably be made on hand-flying on training flights. The DPE on my Checkride required one approach be done using autopilot. All of the others were required to be hand-flown.

Then again, this is speculation on the general aviation community based on my little microcosm of it. The sample size is only in the dozens.

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