Technique: Spanning two worlds

How instrument training is evolving with glass cockpits

February 1, 2010

With more general aviation pilots flying behind glass cockpits today, the need for glass-specific training has grown tremendously. In the case of instrument training, one of the questions being raised is the possibility of creating two distinct tracks that a student might follow. If a pilot plans to fly a new airplane equipped with a Garmin G1000 or Avidyne Entegra, for instance, it would make the most sense to complete the instrument rating in a similarly equipped aircraft. On the other hand, if a student’s future involves one of the more traditional round-dial-equipped panels, it doesn’t make sense to train in a brand-new G1000-equipped airplane. Here’s the catch: the training a pilot receives in one type of aircraft doesn’t necessarily make him or her competent in the other, and a pilot switching from one to the other without additional training puts himself at greater risk.

Currently, the fundamentals of instrument flying are still taught no matter what your cockpit looks like. The FAA has yet to distinguish between a glass-cockpit rating and a round-dial rating. So the core lessons taught to a pilot in a G1000-equipped Diamond DA40 are the same as one being taught in a venerable Cessna 172 lacking even a basic GPS. However, while the fundamental knowledge might be there, the ability to execute the skills safely in a given aircraft largely depends on training. Thirty years ago a pilot learning in his or her well-equipped Piper Cherokee Six with dual VORs and glideslope along with a DME or even a Loran would have a different experience than a pilot in a 172 equipped with only a single VOR and maybe an ADF. The difference between glass and round dials means the training is even more divergent.

Integrating glass

The first time I flew in a glass-cockpit aircraft was during my first instrument lesson. Actually, it was more of a chance to get acquainted with the airplane, a Diamond DA40, and the G1000. Until this point I had flown only round-dial aircraft, primarily in the Cessna 152, 172, and 182. I had spent some time flying under the hood in both the 172 and the 182 to brush up on my scanning skills before my training started, but had zero formal IFR training outside what is taught in the private pilot curriculum.

Galvin Flying Services on Boeing Field just south of downtown Seattle was an early adopter of glass-panel training. The former director of Galvin’s flight school, Nick Frisch—now director of aviation at the Florida Institute of Technolgy—says the early days of glass-panel training were interesting. Many pilots were buying glass airplanes because of the new technology. “What didn’t really happen is the training systems that took advantage of the technological capability of these systems,” Frisch says.

Training has evolved over the past five years and many flight schools are now all, or nearly all, glass. Flight schools have refined curriculums that cover the potentially overwhelming capabilities afforded to pilots of modern GA trainers.

The fundamentals of flying with precision and interacting with the ATC system are unchanged. But the IFR student in a glass-equipped airplane also needs to manage a greater array of information the new technology provides. Frisch says there are some obvious advantages to the glass panel, but pilots should not think the bright screens and moving maps are going to make it easier. “I would submit that learning instruments the old way is easy, because you don’t have to learn all the G1000 stuff.” So the learning curve can be at least as steep in a glass cockpit as in round-dial airplanes. A moving map eliminates some of the mental math that used to be required to determine an airplane’s position. But an increased amount of information available with the moving map also demands attention. Ideally, with the same amount of work and attentiveness by the pilot, this leads to safer flying. “Generally we accept that better information leads to better decision making,” Frisch says. “In a risk-management environment, better decision making should lead to a lower level of risk.”

With more attention being paid to information processing and management of systems in the cockpit, GA IFR flying is heading down a path the airlines and military started to follow many years ago. Many GA flight schools are adopting some of the same training tools the airlines and military use.

Training the airline way

As soon as I had established myself on the localizer for Runway 13 Right at Boeing Field, I was quickly being blown off course. In addition to the wandering course deviation indicator demanding a large portion of my concentration, a bouncing airplane made it difficult for me to keep the glideslope indicator in the proper place. I’m sitting behind a G1000 panel, and while the situational awareness from all of the tools in front of me is amazing, the screen-wide artificial horizon is a bright reminder of the challenging conditions and my lack of experience.

This isn’t my first ILS approach, but instead of flying under a hood on a sunny day, this time I can see nothing outside. The clouds are solid and the stiff crosswind and turbulence make it challenging. The intensity is cranked up a notch or two.

Eventually I manage to find the proper wind correction angle, relax my grip, and am able to settle onto the glideslope. At about 900 feet the clouds start to thin and I pop into 10-mile visibility with Runway 13 Right more or less in front of me. After some minor corrections to line up on the centerline, I touch down, exit the runway and am finally able to relax for a moment. But the respite doesn’t last long.

“You did pretty good on that one, but remember the winds tend to change direction as you descend down the glideslope,” instructor David Cowan said. “You have to do a better job of correcting for the changing wind.” We had a quick conversation regarding the approach—what went right, what went wrong. Then the view outside changed instantly back to gray, the G1000 showed an airspeed of 100 KIAS, and I was back at 2,000 feet with a different crosswind, once again trying to intercept the localizer—this time, down to minimums.

Despite the intensity of the approach, and the focused concentration, I’m actually sitting only about 20 feet from the front desk at Galvin. It’s mid-June, and the weather outside is clear and sunny. But sitting in the simulator, an exact replica of a Diamond cockpit with the G1000 and nothing but gray on the wrap-around screen filling my peripheral vision, I’m fully engaged in instrument meteorological conditions.

Simulators are nothing new in pilot training. But in GA, especially instrument training, there have been some major improvements made in recent years. No longer are students sitting in a chair holding controls that feel nothing like those of a real airplane and staring at fake round dials. Today’s GA flight training devices can approach the fidelity of simulators that have been the backbone of airline and military training for more than 20 years. And though full motion may still be out of reach for most flight schools, wrap-around screens and exact replica cockpits can do an amazing job of putting the student in a very realistic environment. For those still skeptical, spend a few hours in one of these sims, experience multiple failures under challenging instrument conditions, and you’re likely to change your mind.

With an exact replica of the G1000 panel as well as every switch, knob, and button, the entire cockpit is just like the real airplane’s. And as the airlines and military discovered long ago, in a simulator you can produce failures and emergencies that could never be replicated in a real airplane.

Frisch has been teaching in simulators for more than a decade. He believes simulators not only provide the ability to safely practice scenarios that would be difficult and/or unsafe in an airplane, they are even more valuable for those that can’t be done in an airplane. “Anything that you can do in a sim that you cannot do in an airplane has infinite greater value,” he said. This includes scenarios such as multiple failures, at night, in IMC. Others simply may not be practical in a training program—for example, waiting for difficult weather conditions with strong winds to expose an IFR student to something more challenging. “It’s not a question of the number of hours,” Frisch says of the time a pilot may spend training in smooth conditions in a real airplane. “It’s a question of whether you’re prepared and you’ve practiced, or you’re not.”

And of course there’s the simple matter of time. In a simulator it’s possible to pack in more approaches or other instrument training maneuvers than could be done in a real airplane. It is common to fly several approaches into a single airport in an hour, complete with holds. And when the next lesson took place in the real airplane, the procedures were second nature; if a variable was tossed in by the actual weather or ATC, it was much easier to handle the changes because the procedures in the airplane had been rehearsed so many times in the sim.

But those fundamental skills don’t necessarily transition to round-dial airplanes. Judy Colburn is a former designated pilot examiner who gave many checkrides in both types of cockpits. She says several additional hours of training are needed for a pilot going in either direction between glass and round dials.

“We’re in this period of transition and you can’t just jump from one to the other.” Colburn says the pilot going down the professional path might have to become proficient in both.

Analog flying

Of course, for the instrument rating a minimum of 20 hours still must be flown in the actual airplane. Cowan is a Master CFII-MEI and veteran aviator who has been a bush pilot in Canada, a charter pilot in North Carolina, and an early instructor in the G1000 and other glass cockpits. He has found that learning to fly in a glass cockpit can be complicated. “There is so much more information that you didn’t have in the older airplanes.” But he also teaches in a way that emphasizes the fundamentals. “I see people get so engrossed in the bells and whistles,” he says. “They forget the basic stuff.”

During much of my instrument training, the moving map was simplified to show only traffic in the area. Cowan fully embraces all the information available on the G1000, and teaches his students how to use all of it. He’s just careful to make sure they still know how to fly the basics as well. “You have to fly the needles,” he says of the skills an IFR pilot must use to properly fly airways and approaches. “You can’t fly a magenta line.”

This is one of the challenges many pilots face when learning to fly in a glass cockpit. The temptation to navigate by following the magenta line on the moving map, with constant direct-to corrections, is always there. But as I learned, the extra information available in the glass cockpit is not a substitute for the fundamental skills of instrument flying. Whether it’s the moving map, the navigation database, or the flight planning abilities, there was still no substitute for keeping the needle centered and the glideslope indicator right in the middle.

Jason Paur is a freelance writer and pilot living in Seattle. He is the aviation correspondent for Wired magazine .