Are Needle, Ball, and Airspeed Obsolete?

Posted by in Aviation, IFR

With the advent of the Glass Age, I’ve been seeing more and more pilots question the need for traditional needle/ball/airspeed instrument skills. Why bother to learn the technology of yesterday, they ask?

On the surface, this question makes sense. After all, who even manufactures aircraft with non-glass panels anymore? Heck, even the venerable Legend Cub is being built with a Dynon D10A these days. At my home field, we have a Waco UPF-7 (a 1930′s era open-cockpit biplane) with a Garmin glass panel. It looks more like you’re sitting on the bridge of the starship Enterprise than in a barnstormer ready to dust crops.

There’s no doubt that glass panels have fewer insidious failure modes than analog instruments. Instead of an attitude indicator that slowly rolls over (possibly taking the pilot with it), you get a giant red “X” leaving no doubt about the quality of the AHRS data.

And, lest we forget, many of the pilots who balk at an six-pack instrument panel probably don’t see one that often. They fly newer airframes, experimentals, turbines, and read industry publications that rarely even show a non-glass instrument panel. Out of sight, out of mind. So the question is a good one, but my answer may surprise you.

In my opinion, the traditional analog instruments are not obsolete, if only by virtue of the fact that out of the 200,000+ GA aircraft in existence, probably 90% of them have the older style panel. These airplanes are mostly certificated in the Normal category, and it would be neither cost effective or legally possible to put newer style instrument panels into those aircraft at the present time.

Of course, if you have an RV-X and only plan on flying that airplane and it’s got glass and you can fly it proficiently (including partial-panel, whatever that may look like in your ship), then there is no need to be able to fly with a turn coordinator, altimeter, and airspeed indicator.

On the other hand, when I train students to fly IFR in glass airplanes like the SR22 and Columbia, I ensure they can fly a traditional six pack as well via simulator training. There are several reasons for this:

  • I want them to be a complete instrument pilot able to fly more than just an Avidyne or G1000
  • Second, I want them to understand the way analog instruments work since there are analog instruments even in those glass aircraft, and they have different failure modes and different scans than an AHRS-based system
  • Third, it’s harder to go “back” to analog instruments than it is to go “forward” to glass panels if you’re already a rated and experienced pilot, so I want the heavy lifting to be done while we’re already doing the heavy lifting: during primary instrument training.

I disagree with those who feel instructors are anti-GPS, anti-glass, attached to older technology, or provide unrealistic failure modes for no good reason. I know none who have that attitude. On the other hand, we often turn those devices off or direct a student’s focus elsewhere because it’s necessary for training. If we don’t push your workload to the breaking point, fail instruments and radios, etc. then we’re not doing our job.

Anyone can fly IFR when everything’s working. I’ve seen pilots who aren’t even instrument trained do it. But when you’re on one engine or partial panel in the clouds, a passenger is airsick, you need a bathroom break, the fuel is getting low, it’s night, and you’re tired, that’s not the time to find out how well you perform when stress is high. That’s why we push you hard. If you ever have a bad day and come out the other side in one piece, you’ll understand that.