The Glass Specialist

From abstraction to distraction — training our minds for advanced cockpits

July 1, 2006

What does your desktop look like? Whether it's a barrage of icons over wallpaper of your kids (or pet, or airplane) on your PC or whether we're talking about the actual horizontal surface upon which your work gets done, your desktop says a lot about you. And it may say something important about the qualities of a given cockpit system and how you interact with it.

Do you store files on the "top level," with folders containing narrow topics piled around the area or lined up on your desktop? Or do you work on a clean sheet, with a couple of folders containing the bulk of your work, with each file nested within a carefully constructed hierarchy? No matter what system you use, do you spend considerable time searching for files — especially after a vacation from the desktop?

The current "glass cockpit" systems for production aircraft — those electronic flight information systems including primary flight displays (PFDs), GPS/VHF navigators, and multifunction displays (MFDs) manufactured by Garmin International, Avidyne, and Chelton Flight Systems — take some of their function-filing logic from each camp. Depending on your phase of flight, some functions are top level — a button push and you're there — and some can be found within a menu structure.

Understanding this fact may help you transition to a glass-cockpit system more readily. And it may help you understand why, more than ever, you need to become a specialist in your aircraft.

You won't do it like I did it

Because of these changes in operating logic, if there's one thing that will screw up your head faster than an inverted flat spin, it's flying three glass-cockpit singles from different aircraft manufacturers in quick succession.

I set out to gain a sense of the state of transition training for new production airplanes, the suddenly not-so-familiar Cessnas, Pipers, and Mooneys as well as new kids on the ramp like those from Cirrus Design, Diamond, and Columbia. I compared this training, either directly from the manufacturer or an appointed contractor (in Cirrus, Cessna, and Mooney aircraft), with advanced avionics training I've completed using electronic flight information systems and GPS navigators and multifunction displays in otherwise-traditionally equipped aircraft. I went from one airplane to the next, from one glass-cockpit system to its competitor, over the course of a year. And the result?

Because of all this switching around, I'm really not an IFR champion at the moment. Straight and level? Check. Point A to point B? Check. "Bonanza 7236W, New York Center, updated routing for you. Advise when ready to copy." Yikes! Not to mention what would happen if the box did something I didn't understand during a missed approach. And that's possible. This leaves me concerned (disregarding the feelings of any passengers contemplating a flight with me in the soup in the near future).

Immediately upon completing each program, however, I was ready — ready for a dry run, ready to test the waters — in that airplane. Maybe not psychologically ready for a hard deal in the clouds peppered with multiple systems failures — but as ready as a pilot needs to be before entering the most important phase of transition training: practice. When you take over the command of a technically advanced aircraft, you must become a specialist. And to become a specialist, you need to practice. Otherwise, you'll definitely forget where you "put your files," so to speak.

Is the doctor in?

Just as a physician needs an overall understanding of the human body and its internal relationships to accurately diagnose problems, you need a certain level of Gray's Anatomy to understand your airplane as a whole. Now that its GPS navigator alone accounts for an astounding amount of computing power, you've got to know the guts — how the airplane's plumbed and wired, and how to keep a steady supply of electrons flowing. You need to know if the foot bone's connected to the leg bone — or the jaw bone: Some of the connections won't be intuitive until you spend quality time with the electrical-system schematic.

The days of hopping into an airplane with a standard panel and dual nav/com presentation and blasting off into the soup are over, in case you didn't get the memo. Perhaps at some point folks from the various general aviation manufacturers will gather together by the river and decide on a single simple wiring diagram and primary-with-backup alternator-and-battery scheme — then we can all sing hallelujah and bless their names forever. But as long as we operate under the banner of capitalism and healthy competition, that's not likely to happen.

Making it FITS

When the FAA and industry recognized that technically advanced aircraft (TAA) would pose a challenge for many pilots and flight schools to adapt to, they put their heads together and created FITS (FAA/Industry Training Standards) to provide training guidance. Among its principal features, FITS gives a scenario-based structure to ground and flight training — a model syllabus for manufacturers' training programs to follow, for one.

Scenario-based training is not new in aviation, but it is now more than ever the hallmark of a quality training program. Most major aircraft manufacturers use FITS-certified syllabi for their transition-training programs. Skills-based training (or maneuvers-based training) focuses on maneuvers in isolation.

If you can perform a power-on stall and recover with minimal fuss and loss of altitude, great. You pass. However, good instructors have been giving their students scenarios since flight instruction began. Instead of the power-on stall checked off at altitude, the instructor at least discusses the concept during initial climbout — putting the maneuver in context, with appropriate pilot actions in addition to the basic stall recovery. Welcome to scenario-based training. With any luck, you've been its proud beneficiary for years.

Scenario-based training is hard to "can" — while skills-based training can be knocked out like pats of butter. But with the complexity of computers and the sheer number of separate pieces of avionics equipment in our aircraft — as well as robust electrical systems and capable autopilots, plus traffic, data-link weather, terrain, anti-ice, and engine monitoring systems — there is simply more to monitor in the average light aircraft than there was before. With moving maps and primary flight displays, we are perhaps less likely to call upon our abstract instrument interpretation skills — but we have to expend more brain power understanding the electrical diagrams and failure modes of each airplane (and not just by model, but by equipment installed).

The scenarios have in some cases changed completely — instead of setting up an intersection hold with two VORs and plotting out the entry on your lapboard, you now have to program the hold into the navigator, after which the picture is drawn for you.

But responding to a given scenario promptly and appropriately remains just as critical to flight safety as returning the airplane to level flight after a loss of lift.

Therefore, less time is spent in traditional backup modes (such as partial panel — referring to a partial "six-pack" of analog instruments), and traded for time spent in failure scenarios that involve codependent systems (electrical system, PFD, MFD, GPS navigator, autopilot, and audio panel).

Maneuvers training must still be addressed, however, since almost 40 percent of all GA accidents take place in the landing phase, one realm of flight that still does not involve programming a computer to execute. Another 15 percent occurs during takeoff and initial climb. Some pilots are more physically adept than others — and some more mentally nimble. So in all, a transition-training program has to address both the physical (landing the airplane, reconfiguring it, and making coordinated turns, climbs, descents, and glides) and the mental (systems knowledge, scenarios, and thorough understanding of failure modes) — and cannot shortchange either.

What to expect

Essentially two types of pilots arrive at the factory to pick up a new aircraft: those who will fly that aircraft VFR and those who will fly in the IFR system. (Subsets of these categories exist, and perhaps high-performance aircraft owners are more heavily weighted toward instrument-rated pilots, but for our purposes here I'm simplifying things.) You're probably one of these two types of pilots, but perhaps you'll show up at the local flight school for a checkout in a new airplane. Or maybe you've bought a used, yet relatively new, airplane, and must secure transition training from an instructor to meet insurance requirements (or your own common-sense requirements). Either way, you might plan your training to reflect the course the manufacturer provides or recommends for its new owners. In fact, because many qualified instructors receive their training in the glass-cockpit aircraft either directly from the factory program or from a chief instructor who took the program, the transition program provided to you could very well follow the same syllabus.

When taking a manufacturer's program, each pilot goes through a two- to four-day course, depending on the pilot's certificate and experience level; programs for instructors typically last at least two days longer to cover training scenarios. The syllabus divides lessons into ground lessons, including time on a PC or hardware simulator, and flight lessons. The ground lessons will cover the aircraft itself (both to review and for critical information on updated components, such as the electrical system) and then introduce you to the displays and navigator(s). Once you have some basic understanding, you'll start on scenarios, and flight lessons.

As a VFR-only pilot, you will likely spend more time on maneuvers skills and VFR scenarios, with VFR-into-IMC scenarios addressed as part of this package. Flight into instrument meteorological conditions by VFR pilots is a common accident cause. As an IFR pilot, you will likely spend less time on aircraft handling (though some IFR pilots will have poor physical skills and need more polishing) and more on IFR scenarios (with some VFR scenarios sprinkled in). Keep in mind that the number of instrument approaches in the United States that pose specific challenges to an IFR pilot is probably double the number of runway environments that pose unusual challenges to the pilot flying VFR. And IFR pilots need to be conversant in both.

You aren't going to make up for years of poor primary private and instrument instruction in a three-day transition course. But you need to be exposed to a variety of scenarios that involve both the physical and the mental sides of the airplane to help ascertain if you need further instruction — or just more practice — prior to solo flight in VFR and/or IFR conditions.

Knowing the KOEL

One of the first things you learn when transitioning to any glass-cockpit aircraft (or one equipped with latest-generation avionics, for that matter) is to add a good-size cockpit reference manual to the list of required documents for flight. And the pilot's operating handbook (POH) takes on another practical component — not only does it contain the standard information on the aircraft, but also a section called the kinds of operations equipment list (KOEL). The KOEL helps you determine whether an inoperative component to the avionics system (or any other component on the aircraft) is required for the flight at hand. These references have been a part of many POHs for sometime, but now more than ever, you need to be familiar with them.

For example, you need to have both handy in order to determine the best action following any alert or fault in the Garmin G1000 or Avidyne FlightMax Entegra — this stuff is not intuitive for most pilots, at least not yet. In one example, during a day-VFR flight in the local traffic pattern, I had an alert letting me know that backup paths were being used in the audio panel in the G1000. Huh? I recognized the red X's through the Nav 1 and Com 1 boxes at the top of the PFD screen and switched to the number-two com — but any additional meaning to the alert message was a mystery. So we referenced the KOEL and the required Garmin cockpit reference manual. In the end, we treated the fault as we might a number-one radio failure in a traditionally equipped airplane, but following the flight we grounded the airplane for maintenance.

What to demand

You can spend your first flight lessons practicing maneuvers and VFR scenarios, and this allows you time to get to know the airplane and to ascertain where you should go next. There are pilots who need more work, and those who are ready for the next level. Eventually you will get there. As you progress, make sure you're seeing more complex scenarios and failure modes.

If you're an IFR pilot, ask your instructor to take you through any really gnarly approaches nearby (or in the sim — this can be just as valuable if approached in context, within a properly set-up scenario). These approaches will show how the avionics interplay — and you want to see the approaches or situations that bring out the boxes' worst. Any IFR pilot should be able to punch his way through a standard T GPS approach. It's not a ding on the airplane, or the box, or the autopilot, or the IFR system — usually what makes an approach ugly is a combination of factors.

We base pilot training on worst-case scenarios, but what I've seen so far with FITS training doesn't have enough worst-case stuff, perhaps because of the time constraints involved with scheduling pilots into training who are also taking off work to pick up an airplane. Or perhaps this is because the worst of what the integrated systems will dish out remains to be seen. More reason to practice, practice, practice!

Get out of jail free

Perhaps the most important part of your practice has its roots in the best training sessions. These are the moments when you are taught what I call the "get-out-of-jail-free cards," the buttons you can push to return to a page you understand, the escape hatch that gets you out of whatever nested menu you buried yourself in. Some of the simplest ones are:

  • Pressing the CLR button on the G1000 or Garmin GNS 430 or 530.
  • Pressing the Map button on the Garmin GNS 480.
  • Pressing the Back soft key on the Avidyne Entegra.

Beyond these lie fail-safe methods only found through trial and error in the system. I recently participated in a Garmin GNS 480 seminar given by Judy Cadmus of Avionics Unlimited in Brandywine, Pennsylvania. During the labs we worked our way through scenarios while teamed up in pairs on a demonstrator 480 unit. One pilot in the session offered that loading the approach in "Vectors to Final" mode was his preferred way of dealing with several approach procedures that proved otherwise stubborn to execute elegantly. We also got a lot of mileage out of identifying multiple entries of the same fix on an approach and determining which one we needed to go direct to in order to make the approach flow seamlessly.

The only way to really use and understand these workarounds and escape routes is to practice them, and, to a certain extent, to screw up. Get buried. Find the menu that's written in Mandarin. Make the magenta lines turn yellow. Set a direct-to course for Tatooine. Then play your card and see if it really works. Hopefully you'll try this in VFR conditions first. When you know your cards work, you'll have confidence that the next random New York Approach clearance won't trip you up. And you'll have enough brain power left to control the airplane when it's time to land.

E-mail the author at [email protected].

Links to additional information about training in glass-cockpit aircraft and on specific avionics may be found on AOPA Online.


Glass Cockpit — Friend or Foe?

The AOPA Air Safety Foundation creates TAA accident study

The AOPA Air Safety Foundation's seminal contribution to knowledge of accident causes in the brave new world of glass is Technically Advanced Aircraft: Safety and Training special report ( available online). This publication is the first to take an unvarnished look at the phenomenon of glass-cockpit aircraft from a safety perspective. It includes an overview of TAA safety, safety implications, conclusions, and edited NTSB reports. The publication also reprints articles from AOPA Pilot magazine and Aviation Safety Reporting System reports, and provides information on suppliers of datalink and avionics displays. The review of TAA accidents cited in this study shows that the majority are not caused by something directly related to the aircraft but by the pilot's lack of experience and a chain of poor decisions.