Proficient Pilot

Advanced cockpit conundrum

October 1, 2005

Retired airline captain Barry Schiff writes from Southern California.

It used to be that transitioning from one airplane to another required only becoming familiar with the "new" airplane's systems, performance, and handling characteristics. There was never a problem in learning to use the avionics because radios were user-friendly and intuitive; they all operated pretty much the same way.

But this is rapidly changing. The relatively recent emergence and popularity of GPS make transitioning from one airplane to another — even one of the same make and model — more challenging. In many cases, it is more difficult to learn to use an unfamiliar GPS than the airplane itself. This is particularly true when the pilot wants to use an unfamiliar GPS during IFR flight without fear of distraction.

The New Zealand Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) was one of the first to recognize this problem and develop what it considers to be a solution. It began with the premise that just because a pilot knows how to use one particular make and model of GPS does not mean that he necessarily knows how to use another.

It was decided, therefore, that a pilot should demonstrate a required level of competence in a given make and model of GPS during simulated instrument flight before being allowed to use that GPS during actual conditions. After demonstrating such proficiency, the pilot receives a logbook endorsement but only for that particular make and model of GPS.

If that pilot desires to later use another make or model of GPS during instrument flight, he must first demonstrate proficiency and receive another endorsement for that particular GPS. If he is a current instrument pilot according to the regulations, he may demonstrate proficiency with the new GPS using a desktop computer or simulator. Otherwise, he must demonstrate competency during another simulated instrument flight.

Brian Souter, a friend and retired Boeing 767 captain for Air New Zealand who wrote these regulations, told me that the logic behind GPS endorsements is similar to that used to require endorsements for complex airplanes, high-performance airplanes, tailwheel airplanes, and pressurized airplanes capable of operating at high altitudes. The CAA believes that the differences in various makes and models of GPS units are at least as critical during IFR flight as are the differences between certain groupings of aircraft and, therefore, suggest that pilots be required to demonstrate their ability to use them. GPS units are not always intuitive and user-friendly, which strengthens this conviction.

New Zealand's CAA is also concerned with the substantial and critical differences between glass cockpits and what it refers to as "legacy instruments" (what we colloquially refer to as "steam gauges"). Officials there and in some other countries believe that pilots accustomed to flying actual IFR using legacy instruments are not necessarily qualified to do the same in a glass cockpit without complying with a training regimen that leads to the demonstration of competency.

One particular problem associated with transitioning to glass cockpits — particularly during IFR flight — is becoming accustomed to additional button pushing (of both hard and soft buttons) and the potential for information overload.

Perhaps of greater concern are those pilots who receive their initial instrument training and ratings in glass cockpits and later attempt to fly IFR using a six-pack of steam gauges. Officials worry that such pilots would not be sufficiently skillful in determining aircraft attitude and performance trends without the awareness and cues (such as trend indicators) provided by glass cockpits.

Using the attitude indicator in a glass cockpit, for example, is easier than using a conventional AI. This is because the horizon and symbolic aircraft presentations are much wider in a glass presentation, making it easier to quickly detect excursions in roll and pitch. Someone unaccustomed to the smaller AI, it is believed, has more difficulty detecting the onset of such changes.

As a result, Souter says that the New Zealand CAA is entertaining the possibility of issuing two types of instrument ratings. One might be "Instrument-L" for those who demonstrate IFR proficiency using conventional (legacy) instruments. The other, of course, would be "Instrument-G" for those who demonstrate IFR proficiency in glass cockpits. A pilot would not be allowed to fly both types of systems without both ratings.

The New Zealand CAA wants to strike a balance between too little regulation and too much, with safety being the overriding concern. It is possible, though, that an endorsement could be required for each presentation (for example, Garmin vs. Avidyne).

One can, of course, carry the concept of endorsements a bit further. What, for example, would be required of a pilot wanting to fly instruments with a Garmin "1000SP" or "2000XP"?

You can bet that there will be such display-system upgrades in the future. It will not be long before today's glass presentations look like antiquated DOS systems. Anyone who has seen or operated the mouse-activated, drag-and-click systems in the most technically advanced business jets knows what I mean.

I neither condemn nor condone the New Zealand concept of avionics endorsements. It is presented simply to demonstrate one approach to the problem. The challenges created by the revolution in cockpit technology are going to require innovative and imaginative solutions. Hopefully, one of these can preempt the need for regulation.

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