NTSB studies glass cockpits and safety

March 11, 2010

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) met March 9 to discuss a new study that looks at the effect of glass cockpits on safety in single-engine piston aircraft. While the staff study found no current safety benefit, comments by board members suggested that as more glass cockpit aircraft enter the fleet and pilots get more experienced, that may change.

The NTSB staff study looked at a very particular subset of general aviation aircraft manufactured during the years 2002 through 2006—a period in which newly manufactured aircraft were transitioning from analog instruments to glass. The study found that there is little in the way of added safety benefit—yet. It said that glass cockpit aircraft were involved in fewer total accidents than their proportion of the test group would predict, but a higher number of fatal accidents than would be predicted.

“That is consistent with what we found in both of our studies of technically advanced aircraft,” said Bruce Landsberg, president of the AOPA Air Safety Foundation. “The key is the mission. As the NTSB staff noted, glass cockpit aircraft tend to be used for more demanding flights involving longer distances and, often, instrument meteorological conditions.”

The NTSB study again echoed earlier Air Safety Foundation reports, saying that pilot training and proficiency with the avionics suite are crucial to deriving safety benefits from glass cockpits. NTSB Chairman Deborah A.P. Hersman noted at one point that glass cockpits may eventually yield a measurable safety benefit as more of them enter the fleet and more pilots gain experience with the systems.

The staff study concluded with six recommendations from the NTSB to the FAA—five of which involved pilot training.

“It’s important to remember that these are recommendations, not regulations,” said Rob Hackman, AOPA’s vice president of regulatory and certification affairs. “It will be up to the agency to decide the best way to respond to those recommendations.”

AOPA will continue to monitor the FAA’s reaction to the NTSB study and recommendations.