Safety Publications/Articles

Broken glass

Do advanced avionics help flight training?

At AOPA Expo in San Jose, California, last November, CFIs had the opportunity to gather at a roundtable session. AOPA attempts to get CFIs together at these events in an effort to pulse the flight training industry. If CFIs are nothing else, they are opinionated and we always come away with fresh views on how things are going in the field.

One topic that came up this year was the proliferation of glass in training airplanes and the effect it is having on primary flight instruction. The general consensus among the instructors present was that glass-panel training aircraft are a detriment to flight training. This came as a surprise to some in the group because we've all been hearing the hype about how the general aviation fleet is going to be revolutionized with the advent of glass cockpits.

Four years ago, as glass panels were just gaining a foothold in popular GA airplanes, the AOPA Air Safety Foundation conducted a study on accident rates in airplanes so equipped. Our concern was that with a new type of airplane out there, we would see a new type of accident occurring. Disturbingly, however, after careful examination of all the accidents that occurred, we saw no common thread. In fact, just the opposite was true. Pilots were crashing new airplanes for all the same reasons they had always crashed airplanes. The problem was, these airplanes were far more expensive than the older ones they had replaced. One problem area was balked landings. A handful of airplanes each year were lost in poorly executed go-arounds, frequently flown by low-time pilots, usually with low time in type as well. We had to wonder if basic piloting skills had been overlooked in favor of teaching pilots the operation of the gadgetry.

One common complaint of many of my 40-something colleagues is how complex cell phones are. In fact, my wife showed me the other day that she'd taken several dozen pictures of the inside of her purse, not realizing that the phone even had a camera function! Granted, my teenage daughters seem to be able to take advantage of every single feature on their cell phones, but most folks in my age range seem to just use the basic voice and messaging functions. The complexity of the additional features inhibits their use for many.

One concern voiced at the CFI roundtable session was that flight instruction has become focused on learning to operate the boxes rather than learning to fly the airplane. My own experience giving instruction in aircraft equipped with new-generation avionics has been less than successful. I find that the distraction of having to teach incredibly complex panel functions takes up the bulk of the teaching time. This leaves the student sorely lacking on basic stick and rudder skills. One of my students is the proud owner of a new Garmin G1000-equipped airplane. Now this particular aircraft type has a few unusual landing characteristics that I would love to explore in detail with this relatively low-time pilot. Instead, I find the majority of time we spend together during the preflight, the lesson itself, and the post-flight debrief is focused on making the boxes do what we want them to do. The NTSB accident database for this specific type is resplendent with landing accidents where the airplane was landed nosewheel first. With enough proper instruction, I am confident that we can reduce the risk of this happening. First we have to get through the distraction of the glass panel.

Lest I be considered a Luddite, I am in full agreement that a pilot headed toward a professional flying career would be remiss in learning in something other than an airplane equipped with the latest and greatest in avionics. Making the step up to a regional jet, or even the rarefied air of a Boeing or Airbus cockpit, is considerably easier for the glass-trained pilot than for the steam-gauge aviator. I just question the wisdom of training the strictly-for-pleasure pilots to operate features of an avionics suite that they will rarely, if ever, use in their normal flying.

Gone are the days when training aircraft were equipped with a single or a set of Narco, King, Cessna, or Rockwell nav/coms, maybe an automatic direction finder (ADF), distance measuring equipment (DME), and an audio panel. Although there was a different look and feel to each product, if you were familiar with the operation of one manufacturer's equipment, it was a sure bet you could easily pick up the operation of any of the others in short order.

Now, a CFI fluent in G1000-speak may be limited to teaching in only aircraft equipped with that avionics suite. For many instructors, particularly those of us who engage in freelance flight instruction, the sheer cost of obtaining specific avionics training in each different avionics manufacturer's equipment prohibits us from becoming cross-platform CFIs.

ASF is interested in your comments on this topic. Does the advent of advanced avionics help or hinder flight training? Drop us an e-mail.

Jonathan J. Greenway is chief flight instructor for the AOPA Air Safety Foundation. Formerly a captain and check airman for American Airlines, he has been an active CFI since 1980 and has approximately 13,400 hours.

By Jonathan J. Greenway

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