Situational Awareness?

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friend of mine and I departed our home airport in my 1976 Piper Arrow II. I recently had a new autopilot installed in the airplane and, while initial test flights showed everything worked as expected, we wanted to go put the new equipment through some exercises. We were eager to see how it worked, which included entering a flight plan into the GPS.

Our planned destination was an airport almost directly east of the airplane’s base. Between us and the destination airport was an active restricted area. The plan was to fly northeast, turn east over a small airport that we had set as a waypoint in the GPS and then shoot a VFR practice approach to Runway 23 at the destination. One of the features of this plan is it would have kept us well outside of the restricted area.

We loaded the approach but had not activated it, so the small airport/waypoint and the destination were the only fixes in the flight plan. Thus, while we were focused on watching the autopilot make this beautiful turn over the waypoint, it was turning us directly toward the destination airport instead of toward an initial fix on the approach. The only problem with that plan was the restricted area. We “knew” where we wanted to go, but forgot to tell the autopilot, which obediently turned direct toward the destination after passing over the small airport/waypoint. But the autopilot didn’t know or care we were headed for the restricted area. The pilots hadn’t bothered to verify they were proceeding as intended and didn’t know it either.

Calling ATC to request the practice approach at the destination saved us from a pilot deviation when the controller vectored us away from the restricted area, and then onto the practice approach.

Lesson learned: Maintain situational awareness and monitor turns over waypoints—especially when demonstrating new equipment—to ensure the aircraft is turning toward the correct fix. Even if George is flying, we still need to make him aware of the plan.

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