March 25, 2013
By Ian J. Twombly
No one can deny that the past 10 years have been a period of rapid development for general aviation cockpits. The past five years have been particularly exciting, with new integrated electronic flight information displays working their way all the way down to light sport aircraft. But with this new technology, the industry is faced with a learning challenge. The vast majority of flight instructors don’t have experience in these systems, and even if they do, it’s usually only one type. And every type is different.
Since the focus of this year’s Get Your Glass Sweepstakes Piper Archer was on the panel, we knew there would be some training challenges. Learning a Garmin G1000 or Avidyne Entegra is difficult enough, but learning the Archer means having to master five different systems from five different manufacturers. And while that may seem extraordinary, chances are most owners who opt in for the Aspen are going to have the same challenges.
For the sake of argument, let’s assume everyone already knows how to operate a Garmin GNS430W. Obviously that’s not the case, but explaining it would take a full dissertation and there’s lots of good information on the Web to help someone master the GPS. The remaining challenges are the Aspen, the Avidyne EX500, the JP Instruments EDM-800 engine analyzer, and the S-Tec System Fifty Five X autopilot.
The EX500 is probably the least of anyone’s worries. The company prides itself on systems that are intuitive and logical, and the EX500 is just that. Besides, it’s a supporting device, so mastering it isn’t critical to flight safety.
The EDM-800 may seem like an odd piece of equipment to discuss when talking about an integrated glass cockpit, but it’s as wrapped up in the rest of the panel as the S-Tec is. Aside from giving fuel flow, CHT, EGT, and other critical engine data, it also gives fuel required to the next waypoint, which it gleans from the GPS. Learning the EDM-800 is not easy. It takes studying the manual before using it to do the basic functions, and then keeping it handy later for advanced operations. But again, because the airplane is still required to have fuel, oil temperature, and oil pressure gauges, it’s not critical to flight safety.
That leaves us with the S-Tec and the Aspen. We went into detail on some of the basic features on operations of the S-Tec on September 4. In the meantime, a few AOPA staff members got the chance to fly the Archer, and each found the autopilot’s basic functions easy to use with a little coaching.
The Aspen. It is the big question mark. Most pilots have some sort of experience with an autopilot or a GPS, making the primary functions of those two units easy to understand. But how many of us have experience with primary flight displays? A relatively small fraction. How would learning the Aspen be for those pilots? The answer was obvious after flying with the other AOPA staff members.
First, you have to realize what it takes to preflight, start, initialize, and check in the runup area on the display. The answer? Nothing. This is not a unit that needs pages upon pages of checklists just to get it to wake up. In that way, it will be seamless to the steam-gauge pilot.
Flying it is the same. A primary flight display is the electronic depiction of the six primary flight instruments. That’s all. So long as a pilot can remember that he or she is looking at a digital steam gauge, life is easy. And Aspen makes it easy. You can turn off the tapes to concentrate on the attitude indicator. Or you can turn off the map information to concentrate on the HSI. Aspen was very smart with its pilot interface, allowing the user to turn off many different features to declutter the display. But when the user gains confidence in the unit, it can be loaded with information that far exceeds the basic six pack.
Watching other pilots fly the unit for the first time is an interesting exercise. Those pilots who are more experienced understand the unit right away with little to no coaching. Inexperienced pilots needed a little more help, but most seemed to understand the unit’s functions by the end of the flight.
To supplement its manual, Aspen is planning to offer some sort of electronic training aid in the future. With the company’s current focus more on certifying and producing its displays, the supplemental training aids are a step behind. But with a little practice, they aren’t needed.
Next week: Where in the world is N208GG?
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