April 7, 2006
BY DAN McELROY
Some pilots in the airlines never could - or would - transition to glass. Some went halfway through training and were taken aside and offered a chance to go back to their previous airplane instead of busting the transition and being let go. These stories were never made public. It wasn't that the pilots weren't good, they just could not make the transition.
Early glass cockpits were more complicated than they needed to be. If a design engineer could figure out how to take the temperature of the number three ball bearing, on the number two compressor fan, of the auxiliary turbo-compressors' second stage, during climb, he wanted to display it to the pilot. Then, the FAA would get that piece of information and during the type-rating oral would harp on what the limits of that temperature were and why the pilot needed to have that displayed at all times.
The design engineers were giving us more than we needed and giving the FAA ammo for something that was irrelevant. The engineer felt important for coming up with this gee-whiz information and the FAA felt important for testing the pilot on something that they could corner him on. But the pilot was left having to sort these gee-whiz items from the important things during critical times. This was not a good time during the advent of computers in the cockpit; this was not what it was supposed to be.
It took a few generations to get sorted out. Just because the computer can detect something does not mean the pilot actually needs to know it, at that moment in time, anyway. The McDonnell Douglas MD-88 was a little this way. The airplane used to be a DC-9. Bigger engines, a little stretch, some new glass displays, and it was "modern." The cockpit was so full of non-integrated things that to add autobrakes Douglas had to build a little aluminum box and rivet it onto the back of the center pedestal to have a place to mount the switch within reach.
I had about 9,000 hours of experience before checking out in the "Mad Dog" and even with that experience under my belt the transition training felt like trying to take a drink from a fire hose. So much information, so fast, and to do what? To try to keep the pitch, roll, yaw, airspeeds, and altitudes that were the same as with the old steam gauges. It took about six months of flying 75 hours a month before I truly felt comfortable in this airplane.
Next, for me, was the Boeing B-777. The transition was easy. I enjoyed checking out in the B-777 because I knew what to expect from glass, but more so because the cockpit designers knew what was important and when it was important. Every fuselage door is displayed in the cockpit on a big airplane.
On the MD-88 this was displayed on an overhead panel. If something new came up on that panel, flashing caution lights illuminated in front of the pilot and copilot on the glare shield to them to look up at the panel. This was distracting at rotation speed in bad weather.
In the B-777 a door warning light will not be displayed to the pilots after 85 knots in the takeoff roll. The system knows the pilots want to know this information but it also knows they don't want to know it until later. After either 400 feet or 20 seconds, whichever comes first, the messages start coming through. The takeoff is now safely accomplished and the display tells you that "The 2 Left Door" switch sensed the door is ajar and you can decide when to call the flight attendant to check it out. The only "distractions" the airplane will give you during rotation are for wind shear and engine fire/failure. Everything else is "biased" out the airplane is stable.
The B-777 is designed throughout its systems to be "smart" like the above example. While taxiing out with all airplanes, the pilots do control checks. The triple seven "knows" that while taxiing if the controls start to go to full limits the pilots must be doing this check and the "controls page" comes up on the synoptics screen and you can see each surface going to its corresponding position that you are commanding. It goes away a few seconds later, all without the pilot having to do anything special. The trend vectors for speed, altitude, power, and turns are prime examples of the next generation of glass. (See " Flight Directors to Trend Monitors.")
Another example: I would pull up to a gate and see a mechanic standing with a black box under his arm. I would ask what it was for and he would say: "Your XYZ had a failure in channel A and it had to shift to channel B." Then I would say: "We did not get a message in the cockpit." He would say: "That is because the airplane knew there was nothing you could do about it, so it sent us a message instead."
Technology in the cockpit finally arrived. It reduced the workload, not increased it. This is the type of system information that I am looking for in the Eclipse. It is not easy to take a DC-9 and make a glass MD-88. They did the best they could at the time. It is not easy to take radios from multiple manufacturers that were not designed to talk to each other and make them communicate.
The Eclipse 500 project came from a clean piece of paper with all systems, radios, and actuators talking to each other. It was designed with this in mind from day one. Other new VLJ designers are building new airplanes but not integrated ones. Just because you take some aluminum or fiberglass or fancy composite and come up with a shape and put jet engines on it does not mean you have come up with a new generation airplane. You need total integration from the beginning. You do not take an off-the-shelf component and expect it to work with other off-the-shelf components automatically. Eclipse created integration software and combined it with smart components to ensure that all systems talk to one another. This reduces pilot workload and enhances pilot safety. That's real, total integration.
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