Vertical Mode Trap

Gulfstream G450

Eddie sez:

The automation system in the G450 is superb with hardly anything that can kill you when you least expect it. Hardly anything? In the photo of the guidance panel here the aircraft was at FL 340 descending to FL 280, instructed to "expedite the descent," using the VS vertical mode of 2,500 fpm. Just as the aircraft captured the altitude the crew was re-cleared to FL 200 which the PM entered. Because the aircraft had captured FL 280 the vertical mode disengaged. Now the airplane was still descending but with no vertical mode engaged the airplane would not level off at the new altitude. Fortunately the crew had a technique to catch this.

I learned this technique flying into New Orleans Lake Front where it could have turned my sleek airplane into a submarine. Here's that story and the birth of a technique you really need to consider.

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Vertical Mode Trap


Figure: G450 Guidance Panel No Vertical Mode, from Eddie's aircraft.

Our Story Begins

A few years ago, I was flying over Ireland in my high-tech Gulfstream with the flight-level change mode of the autopilot doing a nice job of holding our Mach number and the engines giving us a steady 1,000-ft-per-minute rate of climb. As the autopilot captured our intermediate level-off altitude, FL350, Shannon Center re-cleared us to FL400. The first officer spun the altitude selector to the new flight level, I acknowledged the setting and got busy with verifying our oceanic clearance between our master document and the flight management system. Halfway through this task we got the dreaded, "Say altitude?" request from center. We were at 40,500 ft. and climbing an anemic 200 ft. per minute. We had flown imperfectly.

Shannon Center was very understanding and simply requested we chaps correct to our assigned flight level. I thought about this for a very long time. When we got back I convened a flight department meeting and we dissected the events as best we could. Even our youngest pilot had decades of international experience and I had over 20 years in Gulfstreams. This should not have happened!

The interim solution was to watch the automation like a hawk . . .

The Problem Revealed

I'm surprised this hasn't been more greatly publicized. Here is an example on approach.

The Approach


Figure: New Orleans Lakefront ILS Runway 18, from Jeppesen Airway Manual, page KNEW 21-1, 13 Apr 12.

We were at 3,800 feet descending to 3,000 feet on an intercept to the Lakefront localizer when we were cleared to descend and maintain 1,700 feet until established.

The copilot dialed the altitude selector to 1,700 feet just as the autopilot captured 3,000 feet. I pointed to the new altitude on my pilot's flight display and acknowledged the new altitude clearance. It was a dark, moonless night and we were still 15 nautical miles north of the field. I asked the copilot if we were cleared the approach and he said no, just to intercept. In our discussion neither of us noticed the vertical mode of the autopilot was gone, though the airplane continued the previously programmed descent rate of 1,000 feet per minute.

The localizer was centered and the glide slope was full scale deflection high, as would be expected this far from the runway. I watched the airplane reach 1,700 feet as was directed in the guidance panel and was dismayed to see it continue its descent below our assigned altitude. At 1,500 feet I disengaged the autopilot and brought the airplane back to altitude.

The copilot heard the autopilot chime and asked, "what happened?" "I don't know," I said, "it missed the altitude."

I reengaged the autopilot and was happy to see it perform normally for the rest of the flight.



Figure: Side view of example approach, from Eddie's notes

We kept an eye on the automation to see if the problem would repeat itself. After three or four subsequent examples we figured out the autopilot's sequential thought process: (1) Altitude captured, vertical mode isn't needed so disengage it. (2) New altitude dialed in but no vertical mode, go to pitch hold mode.

That the G450 autopilot will do this is dismaying, to be sure. I'm not sure other aircraft have the same issue but the issue is there for all G450 operators.



Figure: Vertical Mode Technique, from Eddie's notes.

We've been doing this for a while now and just about every three months or so it goes like this:

  • PM: (Changes altitude select knob) "Four thousand feet."
  • PF: (Points to PFD) "I see four thousand, and . . ." (points to guidance panel) ". . . whoa, no vertical mode, setting one now."

At the very least the technique has saved a violation or two. I'd say it is worth adopting.

See Also:

Jeppesen Airway Manuals