Thursday, July 29, 2010

Through A Glass, Darkly

According to the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), in 2006-7 the fatal accident rate for conventionally-equipped ("steam gauge") aircraft was 0.45 per 100,000 flight hours, while that for glass-paneled aircraft was 1.03 per 100,000 flight hours, more than double! [Aviation Week and Space Technology, July 26, 2010, p. 66]. The FAA and the NTSB have squabbling in their mutual genes, and the FAA says that it has done something about the problem by revising the Practical Test Standards (which detail the level of skills that pilots must show to get a new rating) and the Instrument Flying Handbook [H-8083-15A].

Of course both are right. The Instrument Flying Handbook does a great job of explaining how to use glass, but aside from instrument instructors, few pilots read it, although they should. And most pilots, even may professional pilots, forget all about the PTS once the check ride is passed. So maybe the next generation will use these tools more effectively.

The problem is with legacy pilots like me. I got my instrument rating in 1985, while EFIS was nothing but a gleam in some engineer's eye. I used VOR, ILS, DME, and ADF. I lost my instrument rating in 1993 when I became an ATP. To do that I used VOR, ILS, DME, and ADF, supplemented by a VFR-only GPS receiver that had no moving map.

Then one day I found myself going to Santa Monica (KSMO) in an EFIS-equipped King Air. The company had just bought it, and I had read the manual backwards and forwards. But between the early departure, the unfamiliarity, the pace of flying in the LA Basin, and the empty right seat, the odds were stacked against me. I programmed the route before I left, and enroute I managed to load the approach. It was a morning arrival and SMO was predictably under the marine layer. There was traffic everywhere, my airspeed was high at ATC's request, I was descending, and I was busy squinting through the haze looking for traffic and the airport. I was way behind the airplane.

But no matter; it just turned final without me.

The key to this (just barely) success story was that I had spend hundreds or even thousands of hours flying with various IFR-certified GPS units. My habit was to load an approach every time I arrived, whether IFR or VFR. "It's clear and a million!" people flying with me would chide. "It will be winter someday," I answered.

The great chef Escoffier said that one does not know how to cook a dish until one has cooked it 1,000 times.
I say that one does not know how to load an approach until one has loaded an approach 1,000 times.

The key to flying glass safely is practice and training. New pilots get it, because they are new; old timers like me need to make sure that we get it on our own. And, judging by the people at my home field who have glass cockpits, they are not doing so.

The same applies in the glider world. At a recent SSA contest, one of the contestants was selling the latest glass for sailplanes. These are complex units, incorporating the ship's performance, the terrain, and the winds aloft, and after each day's flying I saw him sitting and demonstrating what the unit he was selling could do. He was super-proficient at navigating the pages and punching the buttons.

But he landed out at least once, too.

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At July 30, 2010 at 12:29 AM , Blogger On a Wing and a Whim said...

I'll disagree that the problem lies in legacy pilots - given each manufacturer has their own system of menus and interfaces, (and manufacturers do not always remain consistent within their own brand) - getting behind the airplane happens to new pilots raised and trained on different glass just as it does to pilots raised and trained on round gauges.

Worse, as technology changes with each revision, pilots raised on glass who are out for a few years (or in an old plane) find themselves behind not only on catching up to their old glass (if they can find it), but also on any new glass and on steam gauges.

I've had pilots who know their stuff backwards and forwards come in and stare at the Garmin display like a dog watching television, and start gingerly poking at it with a determined scowl before confessing that no, they're not looking to buy - they're looking to get a little familiarity before the interview with a different company.

I agree that practice and training are the only ways to overcome the hurdles and fly glass safely - and that flying the plane is far more important than the glass inside!

At July 30, 2010 at 8:58 PM , Blogger Dr.ATP said...


Interesting observations, thank you. I think I know what you mean. Most of my experience is with the Collins EFIS, and the few chances I've had to fly a G1000 left me feeling like a dog watching TV, too.

I'm about to purchase a new handheld to supplement the meager avionics in my flying club's planes. I intend to experiment on myself: Just how long will it take me to get proficient with the new interface?


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