Safety Publications/Articles

Automation philosophy

Become proficient, not just qualified

"Instructor Report: Broken Glass" (February 2009 AOPA Flight Training), which discussed the integration of advanced avionics into primary flight training, elicited a strong response from readers to the AOPA Air Safety Foundation. Most agreed with the informal consensus among flight instructors that teaching "glass" while trying to teach the basics led to increased training times. Most instructors agreed that the advanced cockpit has its place--but stressed the importance of not shortchanging the student on the basics of stick and rudder. Shannon Forrest's comments summarize the majority of the responses.--Ed.

There is much debate over using a glass-panel training aircraft for primary flight instruction. Many instructors believe that the bulk of training is spent teaching the complex avionics rather than focusing on basic airmanship. The days of a student pilot making pencil marks on a sectional chart and spinning the cardboard E6B to check the accuracy of cross-country planning seem to have vanished. Now, the moving map and associated data windows provide the time, rate, and distance solutions as the sounds of Motown (courtesy of the satellites overhead) play in the noise-cancelling headset.

As an instructor who is responsible for producing a well-prepared aviator, the question of technology is a tough one to deal with. Without a doubt, the newer generation of avionics has the potential to increase situational awareness. Terrain and traffic warning systems, highly salient and co-located flight instruments, and global positioning information all have the ability to enhance safety. But fixation, overreliance, and complacency are the ugly cousins of advanced automation; use the tools improperly or infrequently, and things can go bad in a hurry.

Design philosophy plays a role in the automation paradox. Without a doubt modern airliners and corporate jets are designed around automation. Arrivals and departures have become remarkably complex with the advent of procedures that require tighter navigation tolerances and specialized crew training. If the equipment is not engaged, the approach cannot be conducted. In turn, some operators specify that if the destination weather is below a certain value--in a lot of cases basic VMC--that the pilot must fly an autopilot-coupled approach. Use of the automation has become the standard.

The same is true for the new breed of glass-panel reciprocating singles and twins. For aviation colleges and universities the principle is palatable. After all, many of the students who graduate from a professional pilot curriculum will go on to become first officers in highly automated turboprops or jets. The primary glass-panel experience will most likely pay off in the long run in terms of an easier transition to larger and faster aircraft.

But what about the individual that has no desire to advance beyond the instrument rating? The introduction of the technologically advanced aircraft has changed the profile of the average private pilot candidate. Automation has somewhat usurped skill and experience in the sense that the computer can now do things that the pilot finds difficult or lacks proficiency in. With the right automation a weak pilot can do things that would not be possible in a lesser equipped airplane. Further, the reliability and accuracy of modern avionics perpetuates the notion that the equipment is failure proof.

A dichotomy exists between the practical test standard and the reality of normal operations of glass-panel aircraft. For both private and instrument certification, the standards describe what is necessary for a successful outcome but fail to indicate what level of automation is appropriate. The rectangular course maneuver takes on a whole new look when the pilot is provided with a graphic depiction of the headwind and crosswind component on the primary flight display and a ground drift indication on the heading indicator. Holding on instruments becomes less of a mental challenge when provided with the same information. A student lost on a cross-country and heading for Class B airspace may have the advantage of being able to depict the boundaries on the MFD, averting a violation. Not teaching a pilot to use all the automation available is a disservice.

In order to address training issues the normal system state of the aircraft must be defined. If the aircraft has two independent GPS systems of high reliability and enough electrical redundancy, the loss of GPS navigation capability falls under the realm of abnormal or emergency operations. Previously, the gadgets have always been the icing on the cake. Now, the technology has made it necessary to teach system management. As the industry embraces scenario-based instruction in an attempt to emulate post-training reality, the reality is that the autopilot is going to be driving most of the time. When the interior of an airplane resembles a high-end luxury automobile, an operator expects the same ease of operation.

Teaching failure modes must also be carefully considered. Although information can be shielded from the student by using various devices, most single failures can never be realistically simulated in the actual aircraft. Aside from the fact that a controversy exists over pulling circuit breakers, a lot of items are electrically tied to others and cannot be rendered inactive unless something else goes with them. Deciding what level of failure to induce is challenging. Again, the probability is that aside from something totally catastrophic, some level of automation will always be able to function. By far the best solution would be to use a simulator to master automation and failure modes, while honing basic flying skills in the actual aircraft. To date, however, flight training devices and simulators that replicate the fidelity of knobs, buttons, and functions of glass-panel cockpits are financially out of the reach of many flight schools and independent instructors. To overcome that obstacle some instructors make use of the external power receptacle. Applying ground power enables students to practice operating the avionics with the actual equipment, without draining the battery.

Although automation training philosophies vary among instructors, the majority seem to agree on one point in particular. Becoming proficient--as opposed to qualified--in a glass-panel aircraft requires more training hours than is currently prescribed by the regulations.

Shannon Forrest is crew resource management program manager for FlightSafety International. He is an active Gold Seal instrument and multiengine flight instructor and delivers primary and instrument flight training in the Dallas-Fort Worth area.

By Shannon Forrest

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