Proficient Pilot: Biting the bullet

August 1, 2008

Retired TWA captain and aviation expert Barry Schiff started flying in 1952.

When I learned to fly in a galaxy far, far away, an IFR-equipped airplane needed only four flight instruments: an altimeter, an airspeed indicator, a turn-and-bank indicator, and a “whiskey” compass. Period. End of report. The gyroscopic attitude and direction indicators were required later, and the so-called “six pack” of instruments was made complete with the addition of a vertical-speed indicator, which has never been an FAA requirement.

The elegant simplicity of the six-pack is that it allows a pilot to transition from one airplane to another with relative ease; the display of “steam gauges” or “legacy instruments” in one airplane is essentially the same as in any other.

The glass cockpit is changing that. I used to be able to walk into a flight school and rent any airplane, but I recently discovered that I could no longer do that. The only aircraft available that day was equipped with a Garmin G1000, and I had not been trained to use one.

The time had come for me to bite the bullet and transition to glass, a transition that I had adroitly managed to avoid.

Ground school began at Channel Islands Aviation, a Cessna dealer at Camarillo, California. There I was flanked by Mike Phillips and Mike Lozano, a tag team of instructors who took turns applying the pressure. It reminded me of when I attended ground school at TWA because I found myself once again trying to sip water from a fire hose. There is a lot to learn.

Although I had flown the Boeing 757 and 767 and am experienced with the first generation of glass cockpits, modern general-aviation displays have become far more capable and sophisticated.

The G1000, for example, has AHRS, an attitude and heading reference system that utilizes solid-state electronics to sense and display attitude and heading. Sounds nice, but I cannot for the life of me understand the underlying principles. I know that spinning gyros are becoming archaic, but I at least understand how they work. In the case of AHRS, I have to accept its indications, accuracy, and reliability on blind faith.

My first flight in a G1000-equipped Cessna 172SP came after lunch. Most everyone knows that the Garmin glass suite consists of two displays, a primary flight display (PFD) that contains the flight instruments (and lots of other stuff) and a multifunction display (MFD) that shows engine instruments as well as an incredible variety of additional information (such as weather, traffic, and terrain).

My initial reaction to these displays was similar to what I felt the first time I sat down in front of a personal computer: total bewilderment.

The best way to become familiar with the glass cockpit is to first concentrate on the basics—the flight, and engine instruments. Worry about the plethora of other functions and displays later. In other words, learn only what is needed to make a simple VFR flight, and then use a building-block approach to learning the entire system.

Thus far, I feel qualified to fly the G1000 only in VFR flight, and this is the only way that I will use it until I build a few hours of familiarity. After that, I will take some night instruction. Finally, I will obtain the dual needed to become IFR proficient.

There are several challenges even when flying exclusively VFR. First, there is an overwhelming tendency to spend excessive time staring at the displays and not enough time looking out the window for traffic, to see where you are going, and to simply enjoy the flight. It is important not to allow yourself to become obsessed or distracted by the spectacular and substantial display of data.

Second, one must devote considerable time learning the functions of the many switches and buttons. Learning a few at a time makes this challenge less daunting. After a while, the hands and fingers will go to the right places, but this is not intuitive. It takes practice.

Third, there is a tendency to pay too much attention to detail. For example, when referring to a conventional altimeter, we really don’t care much if the large hand reads 20 or 40 feet above or below the target altitude. After all, 20 feet is only one tiny notch away from top-dead-center. But when referring to a digital altimeter that reads 5,520 feet instead of 5,500, there is a tendency to chastise one’s self for being sloppy and to compulsively make a correction. Although this leads to more precise flying, is it really that important during a VFR flight? To me, it is more important to look out the window.

One can learn to operate and use the G1000 with a combination of ground school and flight training, but the least expensive, most efficient, safest, and relaxed way is to operate the system while in a Garmin-equipped airplane with an instructor and using a ground-power unit to provide the electrons.

Learning to use a glass cockpit is much like learning to fly all over again. The big difference, of course, is the incredible amount of flight data available at your fingertips and at a glance. The problem is learning where to place your fingertips, what to do with them, and where to look.

The G1000’s only shortcoming is that it is not equipped with an emergency lever that can be pulled to display conventional steam gauges when things go wrong or get confusing.