President's Position

The love bug

June 1, 2000

Last month those of us who depend so heavily on computers for communication were out of touch for a day, as the world became aware of an e-mail virus spreading around the world. My personal salvation was the fact that I was in a Washington, D.C., hotel room preparing for testimony before the Senate Commerce Committee, and was putting final touches on my statement instead of logging onto AOPA e-mail that fateful morning of Thursday, May 4. When I arrived at a meeting after the hearing, everyone was buzzing about the damage it had done to their computers.

One of the icons of the aircraft-manufacturing industry was with me at the time, and he proudly pointed to his appointment book in a well-worn, traditional briefcase (without a computer pouch), stating, "This is a good reason for doing it the old way."

Technology dramatically changed all of our lives during the last decade of the twentieth century. And, the very weekend following the "ILOVEYOU" virus, the future of aviation technology was presented to me. Avionics manufacturers, dealers, and installers support a trade organization called the Aircraft Electronics Association. I attended to give the keynote speech at the opening meeting, but my schedule provided the opportunity to attend a two-hour session on new products and browse the exhibit hall.

I wanted to compare what shop owners and installers thought of us pilot/owners, and also give them feedback on AOPA members’ opinions on their industry. For their opinion we used the perception analyzers—instant, wireless polling devices that members attending my Pilot Town Meetings use to provide instant interaction. Some 300 AOPA members were surveyed by telephone the week before. We selected from among those of you who are owners and instrument-rated pilots.

Many of you tell me that today’s new breed of avionics is just getting too complicated. It seems like I have heard that at home and work about the personal computer, as well. Avionics dealers and owners answered almost identically, with some 50 percent of each stating "perhaps" and 35 percent saying "no."

Who has the responsibility for training an owner who buys new equipment? Among our members, 38 percent felt that the manufacturer had that task; half of the avionics shops thought the same. Next, AOPA members took more of the responsibility for training, with 34 percent indicating that it was the pilot’s job to train himself. Contrast that with 11 percent of shops that thought pilots should bear that burden.

Many of us have taken our aircraft in for a repair or installation, and found out during the process that at least one item in the avionics stack also needed repair—even though "it was working fine before I brought it in!" The answer to this one was really lopsided; 98 percent of the shops agreed that usually happens, yet only 25 percent of our members surveyed felt that they got word of something else wrong. Looks like the avionics shops are more sensitive to this than we thought.

I was somewhat surprised when we asked both members and shops what they considered to be the most important factor in selecting a dealer. I thought that price would rank much higher, but quality of the work came up as the top ranking, with 45 percent of both groups agreeing. Next, 43 percent of the shops thought that the shop’s reputation was important, but only 19 percent of our members agreed. Price turned out to be in the single-digit percentages for both groups.

A question that is constantly asked within the pilot community and our AOPA Air Safety Foundation proved to be quite interesting. "Are new avionics causing a loss of pilot navigation skills important to safety?" Two-thirds of the avionics shops said yes, and 69 percent of our members answered affirmatively.

Just as we have become dependent on e-mail for our basic business and personal communication, pilots appear to be concerned about their reliance on technology with regard to safety. This awareness is a positive. If seven out of 10 members feel this way, perhaps they will anticipate some new gee-whiz box’s going out in flight. Even more important, perhaps they will fine-tune their basic skills in anticipation of such. It’s almost like my experience with the executive and his handwritten appointment book on the day of the e-mail virus.

We must share this concern for continuing general aviation’s outstanding safety record, and improve on it. The new avionics on the horizon will create an environment that requires even more pilot vigilance in order to use them for support, without becoming totally dependent. Color displays will be as commonplace as computer screens are in most offices. Primary flight instruments and engine gauges will all be displayed. Terrain mapping, ground-proximity warnings, collision-avoidance information, lightning strikes, radar data, and near-real-time weather all may be displayed on these computer-like screens. AOPA’s technical staff has been working for several years, as the GA pilot’s advocate, on protocols, certification, and delivery system issues all associated with this new avionics age. This technology is already being demonstrated in the FAA’s Capstone project in Alaska.

With all of these new capabilities starting to become available, owners and renters will be seeking airplanes to fly that contain these avionics. It is still incumbent on all of us to ensure that if a "love bug" virus were to invade some of this high-tech equipment or the global positioning system, we still have the basic navigational skills to continue on a safe flight. The next time your head is down in the cockpit programming some new gadget, think about that fateful Thursday in May when e-mail was stopped.