What’s the most important item in the cockpit? If you said, “the pilot,” you are correct. But what about the second most important item? I suggest it’s not the autopilot, but instead, the “scoreboard.” That tiny, colorful box with all sorts of confusing acronyms situated directly in front of your vision. It’s so important because it tells you what the airplane is actually doing if the autopilot is engaged.
And, it is one of the most underused assets in the airplane.
I know from experience (reference “Just a Routine Departure,” T & T Jan. 2018). And now, from the NTSB’s final report on the Cleveland, Ohio Citation CJ4 accident, we know that not using the scoreboard correctly can kill you.
To refresh your memory, the pilot departed Cleveland’s Burke Lakefront airport on a dark, snowy December night in 2016, lost control of the airplane shortly after takeoff, and crashed into Lake Erie killing all six on board.
And while I agree there were many other factors in this tragic accident (low time in type, “dark hole” departure effect, etc.), there is one item that might have saved everyone.
Correct use of the “scoreboard.”
How many times have you engaged the autopilot in your airplane? Or selected NAV, or PITCH, or FLC? Hundreds? Thousands? And virtually every time, it works like clockwork. It works so well that we assume it will do so every time. Too often, we don’t even look to see if our “selection” has actually occurred. And if we accidentally push the YD button instead of the AP button as I did earlier this year, we can actually “feel” the thump of a servo engaging, even if the wrong one.
All those backlit buttons on the autopilot control panel are merely a “wish list” for what we would like the autopilot or flight director to do. We should view those buttons as meaningless.
Until we verify on the scoreboard what we “want” to happen has actually happened. From the NTSB report:
It is likely that the pilot attempted to engage the autopilot after takeoff as he had been trained. However, based on the flight profile, the autopilot was not engaged. This implied that the pilot failed to confirm autopilot engagement via an indication on the primary flight display (PFD). The PFD annunciation was the only indication of autopilot engagement. Inadequate flight instrument scanning during this time of high workload, resulted in the pilot allowing the airplane to climb through the assigned altitude, to develop an overly steep bank angle, to continue through the assigned heading, and to ultimately enter a rapid descent without effective corrective action. A belief that the autopilot was engaged may have contributed to his lack of attention.
We train in the simulator or the airplane flying 360-degree turns over and over again. Our instructors tell us, “you must not exceed 100 feet or 10 knots, or you fail the exercise.” In real life, however, it is unlikely that busting these parameters will get us killed. Not cross-checking your actions on the scoreboard just might.