To Pull or Not to Pull

Garmin G1000 panel

It’s hard to believe a full decade has elapsed since the launch of the GA glass panel revolution. But as I recall, the first relatively high-volume GA aircraft with a fully integrated glass cockpit was the 2003 edition of the Cirrus SR22. That was the same year that Diamond brought the Garmin G1000 suite to their DA-40. The race was on, and we haven’t looked back since.

While this technology is a blessing, it’s also more complex than traditional analog gauges. Each product line has it’s own failure modes and redundancies, it’s pluses and minuses. Those are the things which dictate how partial panel scenarios should be simulated. It ought to be based on the way failures are expected to occur in real life, right?

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Back to Basics

After my recent article on the role of automation in the cockpit, I’ve followed this topic as the discussion continues on various sites around the blogosphere. A fair percentage of them have noticed the same hand-flying deficiencies develop after long periods behind the controls of highly automated aircraft.

Two in particular caught my attention. The first is from a former check airman:

I am aware of a pilot taking a rating check in the FAR 142 environment, who decided to disengage the automation and successfully complete the maneuver on basic flying skills, who flunked that maneuver, even though is was accomplished successfully as hand flown. What does that say about the regulatory authorities attitude about basic flying skills?

Also, many airlines, based on FAA and manufacturer guidance; discourage their pilots from hand flying the aircraft. As a result, their hand flying (and thinking) skills do not get developed and/or will get lost after a period of time flying automated aircraft.

I was a DC-8 Check Airman for a Carrier where the senior people got checked out and flew the DC-10 for two years. When they came back to the DC-8, and some of these people had 20,000 hours in the DC-8, it was clear that two years on the DC-10, not necessarily as highly automated as the current generation aircraft, had caused their hand flying and thinking skills to seriously deteriorate. Getting some of them requalified was quite a task. Not only did their instrument scans seriously deteriorate, but they also had fogotten how to fly and think ahead of the aircraft at the same time.

A few of them required more simulator time than we normally allocate to initial pilot trainees on the DC-8. It was quite an experience for me to see Captains whom I had flown First Officer for, who could make the DC-8 do exactly what they wanted the bird to do, to a situation where, as one of them told me, when I was providing line supervision “I couldn’t find my butt with both hands”.

And from a letter to the editor at AVweb:

I had been flying the Airbus A320 for a supplemental 121 carrier when I was furloughed and had to scramble to find any flying job. I interviewed for a job which required a sim check in a B727 simulator. I had not flown an aircraft with manual thrust levers, a yoke or a trim switch for several years and had never flown a 727 or a 727 sim.

My hand-flying skills were atrocious. I could interpret the steam gauges okay, but I couldn’t keep up with the trim, and I ham-fisted the thrust levers badly. Needless to say, I didn’t get the job, and I didn’t blame them a bit.

I just spoke on the phone today with a friend who spent the past year flying an MD-88 for Dynamic Airways, the new Part 121 charter airline started by Dynamic Aviation. He’s transitioning to a different aircraft and encountered a few of the same challenges encountered by the Airbus pilot quoted above.

It occurs to me that flying “raw data” after a long period away from hand-flying can be as challenging as the transition to a new airplane. I see many similarities in initial pilot performance, especially if the aviator has been confined to a single aircraft type for a long period.

In that regard, I believe one of the best ways to keep yourself sharp is to fly varying types of aircraft. If, for example, you fly an aerobatic plane or a glider in addition to that shiny jet, odds are you’ll enhance and retain skills you probably aren’t even aware of. Perhaps that aptitude is simply the mental agility to move from one cockpit to another. Maybe it’s an improved competence with pitch/power relationships or comfort with unusual attitudes.

However poorly I may have explained it, I’ve simply noticed that those who fly multiple types of aircraft seem to be able to adapt to changes faster than those who don’t. I doubt this has as much to do with physical ability as it does mental acuity, something picked up by Sam in his recent post.

Lastly and most importantly, we need to adjust our training and checking to emphasize the necessity of brainwork. Technology and mental skill ought to be mutually beneficial and neither should be employed to the exclusion of the other. Simulator instructors and check airmen should make a regular practice of failing the automation in unexpected and artful ways as a means of ensuring that pilots are actively backing up their technology and are continuously prepared to revert to lower levels of automation.

Ultimately, the most difficult thing about all this is that it will require a certain change in the training mindset at many airlines. With training footprints slashed to a bare minimum, the goal has become preparing the pilot to pass his checkride in a minimum of time. The focus needs to shift back to preparing the pilot for whatever life on the line throws at him, in particular the sneaky problems that have a way of snowballing unnoticed.

Vee One cuts are serious and it’s good that we practice them, but they’re not particularly subtle, nor do they require much thought beyond rote repetition. We need to move beyond “checking the boxes” mode and include opportunities for real learning in every training and checking event. This will require more simulator time and therefore increased training budgets, but I believe the result will be more thoughtful pilots more attuned to their aircraft and better equipped to handle unusual problems.

Speaking of Sam, notice that he comes to the same conclusion I reached in my original post: namely that the rudimentary flight skills must be developed in primary training because there is little room made for them during advanced ratings, and automation can easily mask the lack of those abilities until they are the only thing standing between a pilot and a Very Bad Day. As such, the case is made for conducting primary flight training in a non-automated aircraft, or at the very least, with the automation fully disabled.

All these guidelines are applicable to advanced airplanes from glass-equipped C172s on up through A380s. Flight instructors, drill them into your students from the very first flight lesson. I generally believe that glass cockpits in training aircraft are overkill or even counterproductive for early flight training. I may very well revise that opinion, however, if their use results in a new generation of professional pilots who start their careers with a healthy and balanced approach to automation.

I hope Sam doesn’t revise his opinion. In fact, at the risk of sounding like a broken record, I’d take it one step further and suggest that every pilot should learn to fly in the most stone-simple tailwheel airplane available. They’re economical. They put the focus on primary flight skills most likely to atrophy later. They simply will not abide poor airmanship. And most of all, they’re fun to fly. Isn’t that why we got into aviation in the first place?

Unfortunately, the trend is headed in the opposite direction — even Cubs come with glass panels these days! But as far as I know, they’re still making them with an “off” switch, so the hope for a better training experience will continue to spring eternal.

Junk In, Junk Out

The introduction of computerized displays (also known as “glass panels”, or in the FAA’s parlance, Technologically Advanced Aircraft or “TAA”) into general aviation cockpits can mean serious consequences for those unprepared to deal with the complexities involved.

Sure, there’s a lot of power and capability present in those computers. They can provide you with wind speed and direction, beautiful color moving maps, an entire continent worth of aeronautical data, and so much more. Terrain databases, traffic alerts, sophisticated autopilots, GPS roll steering, highway-in-the-sky, and so much more. Things we probably haven’t even though of yet.

Amazing stuff. Of course, it can be a bit daunting for those who haven’t reached a particular skill level with the glass. Information overload is common, even in experienced pilots. I see this a lot in the latest generation of G1000 panels; there is so much information on the Primary Flight Display that it can get overwhelming.

As always, the weakest link in the cockpit is usually the guy flying the plane. One thing pilots of all experience levels have to watch for is what I call the “junk in, junk out” syndrome. The computers will do exactly what you tell them to do. If, for example, you input SLI as a waypoint and aren’t careful, you can end up going to South American instead of Seal Beach, because there is an identically named navaid on that continent. All it takes is a wrong button push and poof!, you’re on your way.

This kind of thing is common with intersections because they use five letters. Key in DRIFT instead of DRIFY and you’ll end up east of Philadelphia instead of south of Long Beach, CA.

I’ve done this several times myself. The only way to prevent it is to double check that the courses and distances make sense.

Computers have the ability to smooth and simplify our lives. They also have the ability to cause major problems. Anyone who has ever cc:’d an email to the wrong person(s) can tell you about that.

In aviation, they can cause funny things to happen even outside the cockpit. Here’s one such example: a friend of mine runs a well-known aviation weather site, and his system choked on an odd identifier. Turns out someone at the FAA cut-and-paste into the wrong window, and his laundry list of personal tasks ended up in the FAA’s international NOTAM system.

You’ve gotta see this NOTAM that popped up a couple of weeks ago, and it just tripped up our decoder today…

This is for ICAO identifier “MIKE” — which as far as I can tell is just a guy named Mike!! :-)

Wish this was just a joke, but it’s actually in the FAA’s international NOTAM system!!!!!

0014/09 – 0014 NOTAMR 0009 0013 A) MIKE PART 1 OF 2 B) WIE C) UFN E)

THINGS TO DO LIST IN NOVEMBER 2009 AT:
1607 JAMES ISLAND AVE., N.M.B.
BRING: MESUREMENTS OF: OUR BEDROOM SET, ETC.
TURN ON THE HEAT VICE A/C.
MASTER BATHROOM/KITCHEN PAINT: CLOSET/WINDOW MOULDING.

I OWE JOE/JOE FOR PALM FERTILIZER/TRIMMING, IF DONE??
BUY: GRILL, PRESSURE WASHER AT LOWE’S (NMB), NEXT SPRING (2010).
10 AZALEAS, OR FLOWERS (NMB), NEXT SPRING (2010).
CURTAIN ROD FOR UP-STAIRS BATHROOM??

TO DO: ME, HANDY-ANDY, PAINTER??
STAIN/OR WAX BANNISTER?
SPARE BEDROOM: PAINT INSIDE TRIM IN CLOSET.
CLEAN UP THE PLANT IN THE GARAGE, NEXT SPRING (2010).
FERTILIZE LAWN/PLANTS, NEXT SPRING (2010).
HANDY ANDY, NEXT SPRING (2010).

(ED) CAULK/PAINT OUTSIDE WHERE NEEDED.
INSTALL SHELVING IN ALL UPSTAIRS CLOSETS.
RE-HANG BALCONY DOOR LIGHT FIXTURES.
LAUNDRY ROOM: INSTALL CABINET/SHELF ABOVE.
CLEAN OUT THE GARAGE DOORS: BRAD/BRADY, CHRIS DOORMAN.

(AUGUST 09)
CALL EXTERMINATOR FOR APPMT: 843-365-5120 (CONWAY PEST CONTROL)
CALL A/C TECHNICAN FOR SEPT. CK ON HEAT PUMPS, NEXT SPRING (2010).

You’ve gotta admire the guy’s level of organization. His home sounds lovely. Now if he could just do something about those “fat fingers”…

Are Needle, Ball, and Airspeed Obsolete?

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.