Staying in the loop

February 1, 2005

AOPA Air Safety Foundation Executive Director Bruce Landsberg is adapting to TAA.

The hot ticket these days is technologically advanced aircraft, or TAA, as the FAA has dubbed airplanes with at least a GPS navigator, multifunction display, and an autopilot. As the marketplace sizzles, the pilot community is adapting and evolving as quickly as possible. The AOPA Air Safety Foundation was commissioned by an individual donor to take a look at the phenomenon of TAA and comment on the safety, training, and attributes of these machines. While the machines very much live up to their billing, remember that beneath all the glitz they are still aircraft, and we're still dealing with gravity and aerodynamics.

TAA come in three flavors: new designs such as those from Adam, Cirrus, Diamond, and Lancair; new classic aircraft such as the Beechcraft Bonanza, Cessna 182, and Piper Saratoga, where a classic airframe is equipped with an all-glass cockpit or IFR GPS avionics; and retrofit — existing classic aircraft that are fitted with TAA instrumentation. No matter how you measure, it is becoming difficult to buy an IFR cross-country aircraft, new or used, without TAA characteristics.

One promise, which if not explicit is at least implied, is that the aircraft offers a major safety advantage over conventional machines. It's too early in the game to do an airtight statistical analysis but there are some early returns. The ASF NTSB Accident Database contains virtually every U.S. fixed-wing accident for aircraft weighing less than 12,500 pounds from 1983 to the present. Unfortunately, the records contain no clear markers distinguishing TAA from non-TAA accidents. We've asked the NTSB and FAA to note the equipment on board during accident investigations. It doesn't prove anything directly, but does give some insight into the pilot's environment.

To conduct the study, ASF focused on two aircraft models to compare the accident rate of new classic TAA to newly designed TAA. We chose the Cirrus SR20 and SR22, and newly built Cessna 182 models 182S, 182T, and T182T built from 1999 to 2003. We believe these aircraft should be considered TAA because they have IFR GPS navigators with moving maps and autopilots. Why select only new aircraft? Because there is considerable evidence that new aircraft are purchased by a different economic cohort of pilots who use them differently than a third- or fourth-generation buyer. ASF's experience in conducting more than a dozen safety reviews has shown that how an aircraft is used, rather than its make and model, is a better predictor of accident type and frequency.

Each manufacturer produced a similar number of aircraft: 1,171 for Cirrus and 1,003 for the Cessnas. After discarding one Cirrus accident that occurred on a manufacturer's test flight during the period studied and was not considered indicative of normal flight operations, there were a total of 16 fatal accidents in TAA, eight for each manufacturer's products. Rather than attempt to estimate flight hours, a difficult task at best, we compared rates per 100 airframes — it turned out pretty much as a statistical dead heat.

Comparing TAA to non-TAA aircraft we have no data at this point to either support or refute the claim that TAA are inherently safer. Because there are so many factors that go into typical accidents, and because — fortunately — the number of accidents is small, it will be awhile before any determination can be made.

Of more interest were the reasons why these accidents occurred. With the exception of one Cirrus accident with very sketchy information from which no reasonable guess could be made of causal factors, all the accidents closely resembled typical non-TAA accidents. Or to put it more bluntly, whether classic or new, TAA are crashing for exactly the same reasons as not so technically advanced aircraft are. But it's not quite that simple either. There is also preliminary data from TAA-equipped aircraft in Alaska's Capstone Program (a technology focused safety program that seeks near-term safety and efficiency gains in aviation by accelerating implementation and use of modern technology), which, according to the FAA, show a 40-percent reduction in fatal accidents over a several-year period. It is a specialized sample, but that is a hefty decrease.

There is also a section in the ASF study on parachutes in production aircraft, a feature unique to Cirrus aircraft at this writing, which discusses the strengths and some possible trade-offs. Cirrus is to be commended for trying something new, and we're still learning how that affects day-to-day operations. Preliminary results are encouraging.

Training has become a bigger challenge because you shouldn't simply hop into a TAA that has a different make of avionics than the one you're used to and blast off IFR without some additional information. I've written about the benefits of standardization in the past and won't belabor that point, but what's a pilot to do? The TAA report contains considerable information on the new approach to training. The FAA calls the process FITS, for FAA/Industry Training Standards. FITS are common-sense tactics on flying with a different type of electronics, and the practice resembles what has been taking place at jet training centers for decades. And why not? The cockpits and their functionality are similar to the jets with flight management systems.

There are several ways to skin the TAA training cat but here are my prejudices on how to prepare. Everyone is understandably excited by the glass primary flight and multifunction displays. I find them variations on a theme, and with just a bit of exposure, pilots adapt fairly quickly because "all" they do is display. Admittedly, they display a lot, but you don't have to look at it all at once and can usually eliminate some of the extraneous stuff. Attitude is still attitude, heading is heading, and so on.

The most complex part of the equipment is the brains, the GPS navigator. Program that properly and everything else falls beautifully into place. You'll see the aircraft's exact location on a moving map. Waypoints will sequence automatically and even holding patterns are simple. The autopilot guides the aircraft automatically and life is good. Misprogram the GPS or fall behind and the workload rapidly escalates well beyond conventional avionics. You'll hear words you never heard in the Bible. Some of them may come from air traffic control. It's here that human interaction and malfunction take place. It's also where there are significant differences in the hardware and software.

The training prep is rather straightforward, but it is time consuming and there are no shortcuts. Most pilots, according to an ASF study, found the inch-thick manuals included with their avionics pretty dense. The best environment is to have a part-task trainer or avionics simulator, or to use the unit in the aircraft itself in sim mode and plugged into ground power so you don't run the aircraft battery down. Find an instructor who knows the unit to sit with you for an hour or so and start through the basics. Repeat three times a week until you've learned the core functions. I will admit that finding qualified and motivated help is challenging but unless you're fairly adept at self-learning computerized systems, hold out for the right talent.

The next-best training system is an online simulator or computer program. There are some excellent programs on the new avionics. If the aircraft has an older IFR GPS unit, sorry, but it's going to be tough sledding. If you're buying a retrofitted TAA take this into account and discount the purchase price if you think the core GPS unit is not going to meet your needs.

After learning the basics of the GPS, try a flight simulator that emulates your aircraft. There are some nifty new sims coming onto the market that should do wonders for transition training into new TAA. Barring that, you'll have to fly the world's worst classroom. It's not efficient and may border on unsafe if your instructor is mostly head down and the flight is in high-density traffic. If you must fly to learn the boxes, a couple of caveats are appropriate. Load flight plans on the ground while stopped — not while taxiing, and not just after becoming airborne. Fly when traffic density is low. Consider flying at night in good VFR when traffic is lighter and can be much more easily seen. Work out a procedure with the CFI so that one of you is looking outside at all times. If you can go to the airframer's dedicated school and spend several days with the experts, that's obviously an excellent start. But you'll need to get in the saddle very soon after getting home so as not to lose the skills.

Autopilots deserve special mention because in traditional light-GA thinking many pilots regard them as handy but not essential. TAA pilots need to adapt their philosophy to that used in single-pilot jets. Consider the autopilot as a no-go item, a required piece of gear, just as it is for single-pilot air-taxi operations under IFR.

Having spent several hundred hours flying retrofitted TAA under IFR, my take is that the autopilots are fundamental and that operation without them should be considered an abnormal operation. In safety parlance, that means going through load shedding, setting priorities, and asking for ATC's assistance if the workload becomes oppressive. Obviously, if the autopilot dies while en route it's time for some of that pilot stuff, but don't get overloaded with nav management chores. Risk management is all about margins and when a pilot deliberately reduces the margin by launching IFR with a malfunctioning autopilot he's not managing the risk.

The ASF TAA report goes through each TAA accident brief, and reviews typical technology that you'll find, with benefits and pitfalls to consider. The tools on board these aircraft, when used properly, are wonderful. Mishandle them and there's trouble. If you're in the market for a TAA or going to rent one, take a look at ASF's complete TAA report online and click on the Publications button.