The Next-Generation Instrument Rating

An all-glass cockpit is an alternative center for learning

August 1, 2004

I'm not a morning person," was all I could say as I campaigned for a later start. It didn't matter. My instrument checkride was scheduled for 8:30 a.m. at the University of North Dakota (UND) campus in Grand Forks.

The big day dawned rather brisk in Duluth, Minnesota, and when flight instructor Josh Olinger and I arrived at Grand Forks, the ambient temperature registered an arctic minus 31 degrees Fahrenheit. I wiped the restless night's sleep from my eyes as I parked the Cirrus SR22 on the snow-and-ice-flecked UND ramp and hightailed it to the operations building. In seconds, I was as hyperaware as if I'd just had a double shot of espresso.

While the airways between Grand Forks and Duluth are well-worn, the fact that I was flying there for an instrument checkride in a Cirrus SR22 equipped with Avidyne's FlightMax Entegra avionics suite was new. Indeed it would be the first such checkride the FAA examiner, Paul Snyder, had given. And I was ready. Yesterday, though, when I took my final stage check — a mock oral and flight test — I didn't think I would be.

I first flew the Entegra-equipped SR22 in March 2003, and initially I found the glass-cockpit symbology hard to get used to. I didn't know where to look for the information I needed, and it was odd reading scrolling airspeed and altitude numbers on a vertical tape. So when I flew with the Avidyne EXP5000 primary flight display (PFD) initially, I craved the familiar and preferred to reference the "normal" standby instruments. The PFD's big horizon was really something, but the significance of its length didn't register until I began my instrument course. All told, it took about 10 hours for me to become comfortable with it and 10.1 hours to feel there was no going back.

According to Alan Klapmeier, president and CEO of Cirrus Design, barely 25 instrument students in the United States have trained for and obtained their instrument rating in glass-cockpit, next-generation aircraft. I am now one of them.

Duluth to Dodge

When Olinger and I sat down for our first ground school session, I was thankful I had about 130 hours in the SR22, for I would hate to tackle an instrument flying course while trying to learn the ins and outs of a technologically advanced aircraft (TAA). According to the FAA, an aircraft is a TAA when the pilot interfaces with one or more computers in order to aviate, navigate, or communicate. Not everyone agrees with that definition. How does the SR22 fit into that? Let me count the ways. The SR22 is a model of avionics integration, with the PFD, the dual Garmin GNS 430s, and the Meggitt/S-Tec Fifty Five X autopilot all talking to each other, the Avidyne EXP5000 multifunction display (MFD) listening to the 430s and the PFD, and the MFD and 430s displaying L-3's SkyWatch traffic information and Stormscope lightning data.

Sandy-haired and youthful at 25, Olinger is dedicated to his craft. He was well versed in the material and blessed with enormous patience. With great anticipation, and six binders worth of Jeppesen approach plates in a carton on the floor behind my seat, Olinger and I launched for Dodge City, Kansas, the first stop on my journey to an instrument rating, which would take us across the West.

The view-limiting glasses went on at 1,500 feet, and in a rather circuitous squiggle, we wended our way to Dodge while working on basic attitude instrument flying.

In the previous year, I had flown almost 20 instrument hours in a non-PFD-equipped SR22. Flying by reference to the PFD, with its big horizon and easy scan, is exponentially easier and less fatiguing than flying by round gauges. It's also quite easy to see small diversions from straight and level with the PFD's wide horizon, or attitude direction indicator (ADI). Another feature I appreciated immediately is the ground track line on the horizontal situation indicator (HSI). This dashed line projecting forward from the airplane symbol on the HSI makes child's play out of course interception and tracking. Just line up the top of the dotted line with the top of the CDI (course deviation indicator) and keep it there for an immaculate interception every time.

A more subtle difference between "glass" and gauges is the way you interpret certain primary and secondary instruments for aircraft control. During level flight, for example, the altimeter is primary for pitch. Instead of using the needle of the altimeter to hold altitude, and thus, control pitch, it was natural and very intuitive to use the altimeter tape and make small pitch inputs to keep the tape from moving.

Dodge to Vegas

It was time to get out of Dodge, so I put the lash to the equivalent of 310 "Old Paints" and we rode off into another virtually cloudless sky. With our intermediate stop at Page, Arizona, a few hundred miles distant, we practiced constant rate climbs and descents, and nailing headings during course tracking both by hand and with the autopilot in heading (HDG) mode.

Olinger harped on me to set the bugs on the PFD for altitude and heading, even when flying by hand. At first I resisted because I copied air traffic control (ATC) instructions to a form on my lapboard, so I saw them as superfluous. Ultimately, I came to appreciate the prompts they offered, and now I set them religiously.

I came out from under the hood at the Continental Divide to behold the breathtaking tectonic transition from craggy mountains and snow-brushed stands of pine to wind-sculpted Arizona red rock. As we approached Page Municipal Airport, the canyons of Lake Powell slid below the right wing as I flew the VOR-B approach to Runway 12. Olinger gave me vectors for my first approach. It had one step-down fix and went deceptively well. It actually seemed too easy. That would change.

After topping off and Taco Bell, we alighted at Las Vegas Municipal Airport in time for dinner. That evening Olinger and I hit an expansive buffet at a strip hotel, gorged on mediocre food, and discussed instrument flying. These accelerated courses are definitely a one-note affair.

Ts and TAA

Turn, time, twist, throttle, talk. "Joshua Approach, Cirrus Two-Eight-Victor is established in the hold, 25 minutes after the hour, 9,000 feet." The "five Ts" were a new mantra, and I flew holds two ways, by hand and by autopilot in HDG mode. The HSI didn't show reverse sensing, so if I forgot to "twist" the course arrow to the reciprocal heading in a hold, things still worked out well.

A recent study of TAA published by the FAA discusses flying what the AOPA Air Safety Foundation calls the "mental airplane" in addition to the "physical airplane." I found IFR flight to be a good mental exercise in visualization and abstract thought, and holds are an example where the technology in the Entegra buttresses the considerable situational awareness already built into the SR22. Published holds appear graphically on the Garmin 430s, the MFD, and the HSI, and they almost can be flown solely by reference to the graphics. With so much good information, the odds of an accidental excursion to the unprotected side of the hold are almost nil.

For non-published holds, visualization (the mental game) is still the key, but with the wind vector and lack of reverse sensing, it's hard to screw up. Once I worked it into my scan, the wind vector — which graphically depicts the wind aloft derived by the GPS — became a crucial bit of information that took much of the trial and error out of finding a heading while tracking a course or localizer. It also was a nifty predictor of wind shear. If ATIS is saying one thing but the wind vector says something completely different, it's a good bet you can expect some shear on the descent.

The option to overlay a moving map, at varying range views, on the HSI was also nice. On most approaches, though, I opted to have only the CDI showing — no map — for the cleanest presentation of raw data.

The little bubble of euphoria I experienced after that easy VOR approach at Page popped loudly on my next effort, a VOR/DME approach into Arizona's Kingman Airport. It had many step-downs and not much distance between them. Scooting along at 120 knots when I should have been at 100, I was behind the airplane and overwhelmed trying to figure out when to look where to find the information I needed — and between the PFD, the 430s, and the MFD, I had a lot of places to look. Afterward, I was frustrated.

This is L.A.

It's just my luck the infamous marine layer never materialized once during the five days I spent getting vectored about in Los Angeles airspace. It was now my duty to file flight plans and find routes into and out of the area, and it seemed that no matter what I filed, ATC had other plans. All this vectoring led to my constantly needing to reprogram the Garmin 430s — adding, deleting, even creating waypoints, often on the fly.

The flight to John Wayne Airport in Orange County was shorter than I expected, but we were zipping along at a respectable 170-knots-plus, getting vectors all over creation. One of the SR22's big selling points is its speed, and when I made the transition from a Cessna 182 it took some getting used to. That speed is now normal — 180 SR22 hours later — so when ATC told us to slow down since we were overtaking an Alaska Airlines Boeing 737 by 20 knots, I cracked a smile while reigning in the horses. Once cleared for the ILS to Runway 19R, I activated Vectors to Final in the 430 and the course arrow autoslewed to my final approach course. I slowed to 120 knots and scanned my approach plate for the relevant numbers.

IFR, I learned, is an exercise in applying specific procedures for specific performance. Unlike many training aircraft that cruise at or slightly above typical approach speeds, the Cirrus must be slowed by as much as 70 knots when approaching the airport environment.

With my speed now stabilized at 110 knots, my altitude bug set for my glideslope-intercept altitude and the heading bug set for final approach course, I waited to intercept the localizer. With power set at 15 inches and zero flaps, the localizer and glideslope arrows appeared in the attitude section of the PFD. No HSI crosshairs here, but with the localizer in two places, the HSI and ADI, it was easy to track. Indeed, having the glideslope scale very close to the vertical speed indicator made for an easy scan.

When the glideslope arrow settled one dot up from center, I dropped half flaps and allowed the glideslope indicator to center. At that point I pulled the power back to 12 inches and we settled into a 500-fpm descent at 100 knots. At this time I also reset the altitude bug to decision height.

The practical test standards required me to demonstrate knowledge of the autopilot, and the FAA examiner asked to see my ability to fly an ILS using it. Managing automation plays a recurring role during training and testing in TAA, and questions probing my attitudes toward, and knowledge of, automation surfaced more than once during my practical exam. Knowing the avionics and systems is a large part of flying this plane. Believe me when I say the pilot's operating handbook and I were good friends by the end of two weeks.

On to French Valley

Over scrambled eggs at a little diner in Torrance, California, Olinger said two words that struck dread in me — partial panel — today's daily special. It was time to approximate and reproduce PFD failures.

Olinger started by dimming the PFD so I could only control the aircraft by referencing the standby airspeed indicator, attitude indicator, altimeter, and the Garmin 430s. In many airplanes, that's still a full panel or more. Indeed, as Klapmeier had told me, Cirrus aircraft were designed so that flying partial panel would be safer than doing so in conventional aircraft — as few pilots are truly current on "needle, ball, and airspeed."

When flying partial panel in the Cirrus, pilots have one approach option: the GPS approach. Under the hood and simulating a PFD screen failure, where the PFD is functioning but the screen is shot, the drill is to pull both breakers to disable the PFD and isolate it from the autopilot. HDG mode is now gone, but GPSS (GPS roll steering) is still available, and vertical speed control reverts to the S-Tec unit in the center console.

With the PFD dark, we practiced compass and timed turns. Without a turn coordinator, a quick mental calculation (15 percent of my indicated airspeed) gave me the approximate bank angle I needed. For example, 120 knots required an 18-degree bank for standard rate.

Timed turns worked especially well for partial-panel, T-type GPS approaches with a 90-degree turn to the final approach course. I found there was too much lag in the GPS track readout during turns to accurately roll out on heading. Instead, starting my timed turn with the turn anticipation indication on the 430 allowed me to consistently nail my turns to final.

Partial-panel unusual attitudes were also unremarkable, and that's the point. Recovering with this new-tech avionics suite feels much safer than trying to regain control of an aircraft two cans short of a six-pack.

And if the chips are really down, the autopilot can even be used to regain control in an unusual attitude. Just sync the heading bug, punch HDG on the autopilot, then hit ALT hold.

Another PFD failure mode we replicated was an ADAHRS (air data attitude heading reference system) failure. In this situation, red Xs supplant the ADI and HSI. On the MFD map page, the little airplane becomes a plus sign and the view defaults to North Up. I found this MFD state quite distracting so I flipped the page over to either the trip page or engine monitoring page. Ultimately, I excised the MFD completely from my scan during partial-panel operations.

From Reno to Duluth

At our downtown Reno, Nevada, hotel, Olinger said he thought I'd be ready for my checkride by the following Tuesday. I looked at him, incredulous, between bites of my $6.99 prime rib; it was Thursday. From Reno, it was 4.7 hours to Rapid City, South Dakota. We flew the departure procedure to the airway, and the second bearing pointer on the HSI, essentially an RMI (radio magnetic indicator), was terrific help identifying waypoints during approach, departure, and en route procedures.

After a quick overnight in Rapid City, Olinger and I headed back to Cirrus Central. On this last cross-country leg, I got to log some flight in actual conditions — a nonevent. The PFD is like a window, and even when my attention was diverted to the MFD or one of the boxes on the center console, I never wandered far from wings level since the prominent horizon usually remained legible in my peripheral vision.

The real thing

After nearly two weeks of reduced sleep, I was in the home stretch, but the weather didn't look good for the cram before the checkride.

With a major snow system approaching, Olinger and I stayed around Duluth to do as many approaches as we could before it arrived. After we finished the first, we requested vectors to the DME arc for the VOR 21 approach. As I was enjoying myself tracking the DME arc, ATC called the visibility at 2 miles, then one mile, then three-quarters of a mile. We quit the VOR approach and requested the ILS back to Runway 9. ATC then advised one-half-mile visibility, ceiling indefinite at 700 feet. We had to land.

Everything I had learned over the past couple of weeks had to come together now. I was on airspeed and the needles seemed cemented in place. At about 700 feet agl, we saw the approach lights. This transition to visual conditions was very different since there was no hood to flip up and the runway was still somewhere out there, beyond our half-mile visibility. I lined up over the lights, hoping to see the runway, which finally loomed into view. I dropped full flaps and landed. Hey, this instrument flying works!

Checkride

After a final day drilling approaches, preparing for the oral exam, and getting through my stage check with only a few stumbles, Olinger and I launched for Grand Forks and my date with destiny.

With the paperwork out of the way, I settled into one of the two blue chairs across from Paul Snyder's desk for the oral, and from the dog-eared SR22 POH on his desk and the UND training software on his computer, it seemed he had been doing about as much studying as I had. As Snyder ticked off PTS-required lines of questioning, we discussed standard instrument flying theory, topics specific to the SR22, critical decision making and risk management, and how the specific capability and automation of the SR22 affected the decisions I made.

A couple of questions Snyder asked sparked deliberation: What risks do you see flying a highly automated aircraft? How has flying a fast aircraft changed your perspective on cross-country planning?

We discussed different ways the automation can be misprogrammed or act up on its own, and how such episodes can affect a flight. In other words, how do you handle the dreaded "what's it doing" moment? For example, twice I've had the autopilot fail to capture a preselected altitude and shoot right through it. The only option was to click off the autopilot, fly by hand, and troubleshoot. Another way to really blow one's altitude is to hit the sync button on the PFD while the Baro window is highlighted. This will change the pressure setting to 29.92, confuse things, and make it very easy to gain or lose 200 feet.

Lessons learned? Push buttons deliberately. Watch what happens, then decide if what it's doing is OK. And fly the airplane.

Since the SR22 is an all-electric aircraft, Snyder probed my knowledge of its electrical system. What happens if alternator one fails? What instruments and systems are on the essential bus?

After about two hours, Snyder suggested we go flying. I looked outside his office window at the taxiways brushed with hard-packed snow and wished for a moment that Cirrus had contracted with the University of Florida. Do they have an aviation program?

The flight test itself was an exercise in decision making. And one decision I did make was to fly almost the whole test at reduced power. While the Cirrus SR22 might be at home at 185 knots, it's just as happy in a 135-knot stride. That slower speed gave me the time I needed to reconfigure the airplane, avionics, and myself as the test progressed. One thing Snyder liked was how I used the autopilot to regain composure after times of high workload.

I started to feel pretty good about halfway into the test, and after my last task, steep turns, Snyder asked me to fly him back to Grand Forks, VFR.

Back in Snyder's fifth-floor office, I was presented a shiny, new temporary certificate with two little words I'd worked so hard to see printed there: instrument airplane. I was tired, cold, and hungry, but I couldn't have been happier.

Now that I'm a bona fide, ready-to-fly-with-the-big-dogs instrument pilot, am I qualified to just hop into any non-PFD aircraft and launch into 200 and one-half conditions? On paper, yes. Would I? No. Whether I got my instrument rating in a 2004 Cirrus SR22 or a 1955 Cessna 180, the rating is the same. Ultimately, the instrument rating requires the pilot to place the aircraft at a certain altitude, speed, and heading at a certain time. The style of instruments used is secondary to having the information necessary to do the above.

But every airplane is different. Would I be safe to fly in instrument conditions behind steam gauges without supplemental training? Not yet. Do I need a regulation to make that decision for me? Definitely not.


Jeff Berlin is a newly instrument-rated private pilot and a writer and photographer specializing in portraiture.


How It FITS

The industry and FAA look at advanced technology flight training

The introduction of technically advanced aircraft and avionics into the general aviation fleet represents new training challenges for flight instructors and pilots. This does not mean that accidents are inevitable, nor does it mean that multiple layers of new regulation and training requirements are necessary to address the challenges. It does mean that a thoughtful approach to every flight by every pilot with a realistic assessment of risk and appropriate training is essential.

To that end, the aviation industry and the FAA are currently working on a collaborative effort to develop training curriculums for pilots making the transition to technically advanced aircraft, new avionics and the all glass cockpit.

AOPA supports targeted training for general aviation pilots transitioning to new technologically advanced aircraft with a focus on the avionics aspects of these operations. This type of targeted approach to safety is being addressed by an FAA/Industry group called the General Aviation Joint Steering Committee (GA JSC). The GA JSC is tasked with analyzing aircraft accident causal factors and determining the appropriate intervention(s) necessary to mitigate these accidents. Experts such as Bruce Landsberg, Executive Director of the AOPA Air Safety Foundation (ASF), who serves as a co-chair on the GAJSC, are dedicated to effectively deal with general aviation safety and flight training issues.

Landsberg brings the collective muscle of ASF to the GAJSC process. ASF is the nation's largest organization dedicated exclusively to providing education and safety programs for general aviation and promotes pilot safety and proficiency through quality training, education, research, analysis, and dissemination of information. It performs accident trend research to focus foundation resources on the principal causes of accident and develops specialized training materials and courses for students and instructors.

Working with the FAA in forums like the GAJSC, AOPA, ASF and other industry experts can address differences in the new technically advanced aircraft with targeted training for general aviation pilots transitioning to new technology. — AOPA Government and Technical Affairs