I learned to fly in a venerable Cessna 150, which I once overheard referred to as “the closest thing to not having an airplane at all.” The controls on the 150 couldn’t be simpler, and the idea of equipping one with an autopilot would be a bit like adding GPS guidance to a lawnmower. It was a good thing that the 150 had no autopilot, because if it did a newbie might be inclined to use it, and in the process lose precious time actually learning how to fly.
Early autopilots were primitive, and seemed to have a mind of their own. Flight instructors—even to this day, are fond of grilling their students on the many ways to shut them off, because historically they were so unreliable that even turning them off often failed. That’s when the department of redundancy department came in.
Autopilots are supposed to be designed for simplicity, but if engineers could talk they might tell you the more complex the instrument the more difficult it is to prevent it from going haywire. To invert and paraphrase the song from Hair!, it’s hard to be easy.
I am happy to report that my own airplane, the Diamond DA40, has a marvelous autopilot made by a company called Garmin (the name being a portmanteau for founders Gary Burrell and Min Kao). It has 11 ways to shut it off, although I can only remember 4 or 5 of them at any time. Prosaically called the Garmin 700, it is fully integrated with the airplane’s navigation system, which means that once you tell the airplane where you want it to go, with the press of a single button it will take you there. It corrects itself three times per second, which anyone who knows me will tell you is much more often than I do.
Ever since flying behind an autopilot I have heard them referred to either as George or Otto. The reason they are called Otto is apparent, but I often wondered why they were also referred to as George and not Fred, Nancy or Butch. Turns out that it was the RAF pilots who first encountered them who jokingly decided that they should simply let the airplane’s true owner, King George VI, fly the airplane. “Let George do it.”
Nowadays, the use of autopilots is de rigeur, and the term has worked its way into common parlance. When we do things by rote, without giving it much thought, we are said to be on autopilot. But flying on autopilot can be hazardous to your health, as we learned from Air France 447, whose pilots flew into the icy Atlantic Ocean killing all aboard when they couldn’t manage to hand fly the airplane once the autopilot had been degraded.
As life in these United States gets increasingly complex, most of us rely on variations of our own internal autopilots. This can be deadly, as when someone is so used to driving they think it should be no problem to let the car drive itself while applying makeup or reading text messages. One could argue, and many do, that the reason autopilots have become necessary is that the tasks associated with daily living have just become too complex. It stands to reason, then, that the best way to turn off our collective autopilots would be to simplify the tasks ahead of us. So, perhaps out of a strange desire to be symmetrical, I am going to try to list eleven ways of simplifying, enabling us to shut off our autopilots, hand-fly our airplanes and get the most out of our lives. If you can come up with your own list of eleven, I would be proud. Here’s my list:
Simply unplug. Everything. Then observe what is going on around you.
Uni-task. Simply create a “task boundary” around you and insist on doing one thing at a time. Take that one task to completion.
Observe the Sabbath as Orthodox Jews do. No cars, no elevators, nothing with electricity or fire.
Take a familiar task and make it unfamiliar by breaking it down into its smallest manageable parts. Instead of brushing your teeth or taking a shower on autopilot, focus on each component part of the process.
Use chopsticks instead of forks and spoons when eating. Eat slowly and savor every bite.
Write something by hand. Instead of sending emails or tweeting, write a postcard.
Pay restaurant checks with cash. Try using exact cash and count the change in your pockets.
Park your car and walk as much as possible to do errands.
Have a garage sale and rid yourself of everything extraneous in your life.
Cancel any future commitment or event that doesn’t enrich your life somehow.
I am convinced that the less we allow George to take care of us, the more we will feel as though we are flying our own airplane and getting the most out of our lives. And that is why most of us learned to fly in the first place.