I was reading an article about all the electronic wonders in a small aircraft (pilot plus three [skinny and short] passenger small), including dual IFR-rated navigation systems and the assorted displays that go with them. It reminded me of listening to an instructor extol the wonders of a training aircraft with such a complicated Flight Management System (FMS) that the student needed 10 hours of dual instruction in a simulator learning how to work the FMS before the first training flight. I’ve flown the older, non-FMS versions of that aircraft. The only thing students didn’t handle on their first flight was the propeller control [gear shift], and that was only because the owner of the plane had stipulated it.
I think we’re reaching the point of diminishing returns in training aircraft and electronics, at least for the casual pilot.
Before I go farther, I need to explain that I am an electronics minimalist when it comes to small aircraft. I have no problem with an all glass, EFIS, FMS, ADS-B, EIEIO* cockpit corporate or airline aircraft, so long as final authority defaults to the pilot.** I do not like having a lot of computer between me and the airplane if I just want to go out and bore holes in the sky or get a $150 hamburger.*** I learned on a basic set of instruments, with two nav/com radios. I find that the more glass in the cockpit, the less time I spend flying the plane and the more time I spend head-down in the cockpit. This is not a good thing.
GPS is a wonderful tool, one I leaned on when I flew charter and air ambulance. It also went “blork!” at inopportune moments, like when I was in solid clouds, requiring a quick mental and instrument re-set to using ground-based radio navigation systems. In one case, I watched another company pilot do his best to get lost in clear skies and great visibility fifteen miles from the airport because the GPS got the electronic version of a migraine. I’m pointing out the front window saying, “Airport, Jake. There’s the airport. Right there! Follow the highway to the airport.” Once we got on the ground, the not-so-sotto voce comments from the flight nurses were . . . uncharitable.
My head understands that electrical systems are a lot, lot more reliable than when I got started flying. Ditto computer systems and display packages. Solid state electronics don’t get bits shaken loose the way older equipment did and does. When everything works, and the pilot is aware and paying attention and understands all the limitations and procedures for the system, a “glass cockpit” can provide magnificent situational awareness of where things are and what’s going on with the plane. I get that, I see it work for a lot of corporations and airlines.
Where I start getting wary is when a system is such that it has to be flown first, and the aircraft comes second. I cannot get excited about a plane used for teaching the absolute basics that requires ten hours of computer simulator time before the student and instructor can start the engine and go cruise around the neighborhood. That requires too much “head in the cockpit” work, which means that the student is getting conditioned to look inside the plane, not outside. That way leads to loud, unplanned flight stoppages.
“First, fly the airplane.” When all else fails, ideally, the pilot should be able to turn off the top levels of technology and fly the plane, then land the plane safely. Any FMS that gets in the way of that in a basic trainer makes me unhappy as both an instructor and as a pilot.
A number of the older instructors who do a lot of instruction have begun complaining about students who see screen, lock onto screen, never look away from screen. They treat the plane—at least at first—like a video simulator that happens to have additional sensory inputs. Trying to get them to look outside the aircraft in order to fly it is a real challenge, and they tend to default to see screen, fly screen.
At least one small-plane maker experimented with a heads-up display. It was not a success, because what works for a dedicated crew and aircraft, and crew members who use the system daily is not ideal for people who fly once or twice a week and switch airplanes.
Cars are getting to be the same way. My parents’ sedan-like vehicle has a clock that is one hour off for six months of the year. Why? It takes two people and the manual to reset the clock or to make other changes in the display. The electronics guide for my pickup is fatter than the driver’s manual, I kid you not. The good news, in the pickup, it “only” takes four screens to get to the clock reset. I’ve never messed with anything aside from the clock and the radio/auxiliary sound input screens. The main instrument display has both analog and digital read outs, and I focus on the analog.
When the Electronic Flight Information System was first proposed for small aircraft, a demo version went on display at the big airshow at Oshkosh. To the fascination and discomfort of the sales staff and observers, almost everyone who tried the system flew it into a mountain. They fixated on following the “highway in the sky” flight path and ignored the terrain. At the time, it set off my warning bells, because I know I get target fixation like that even from the basic instrument panel. What about a student who has grown up with video games, and watching screens?
There’s a balance between technology that makes flight safer and provides more, and more usable, information to the pilot or driver, and technology that overloads and distracts the pilot or driver. Where is the line? Should there be an unofficial limit to how many state-of-the-art displays and boxes are in basic training aircraft? Should there be a default switch that an instructor or pilot can flip to eliminate excess material on the primary display?
I don’t have any answers. I know what I know, and what I’ve observed. I also know that the tech horse is out of the barn, and we’re never going back to the planes I “grew up” with.
*Not really an aviation equipment acronym yet, but it probably will be.
** No, I’m not a fan of the Airbus design philosophy.
*** The formerly $100 hamburger, post inflation.