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Decisions, decisionsDecisions, decisions

Glass or steam? Instructors debate one of your first choices as a student.

Two single-engine trainers sit on the ramp. From the outside, they are seemingly identical. But inside, one has a panel lined with round dials and the other has two digital screens. Which will prepare you better for the real world of aviating?
Decisions, Decisions
Aviation writer/photographer Budd Davisson flies a Pitts S–2A with round-dial instruments.

Stick with steam

Train in what you’ll fly.

By Budd Davisson

It’s hard to pinpoint the moment that glass cockpits in light airplanes, especially trainers, became the norm. It’s been at least a decade. Today, it is rare that an airplane comes out of the factory with those now-archaic-looking steam gauges. At the same time, it’s rare that an individual can climb into an airplane from the 1990s and have it be talking in 1s and 0s. Therein lies one of the possible disadvantages to learning to fly with a glass cockpit: There’s the high probability that almost immediately after earning a private pilot certificate, a pilot will buy or rent an older airplane that will be loaded with dials and needles and finds his or her eyes aren’t used to scanning an instrument panel.

One of the beautiful things about glass panels is that all the information a pilot needs to fly and navigate is right there in front of him. He needs to search for nothing. And then there is the old-school analog panel where the pilot has to search for everything. If digital panels do such a good job of presenting information, why is there even a discussion as to whether analog or digital is better?

It isn’t a question of which is better. The discussion is about the differences and is necessary because much of today’s training is being done in glass cockpits, while there are still a lot more analog panels flying around out there than there are digital wonder-panels. The transition backward to steam gauges is sometimes more of a challenge than expected, and it’s something every new-age pilot will have to go through.

Steam gauges came about in a logical way. The Wright brothers had no instruments. Initially, they didn’t even know what it was they would need to know. That, however, changed quickly. Almost immediately, they began to wonder how fast they were going. So, the airspeed indicator was designed and that started the “instrument race.” As airplanes advanced, so did the need for more information and each bit of required information gave birth to another gauge. The result was that steam gauges ran from one side of the cockpit to the other and keeping track of all of them meant the pilot’s eyes were always in motion. This panel-wide scan is natural and unconscious to the steam gauge pilot. Not so glass-born aviators. So, when transiting into an older airplane, they are presented with the need to continually spread their attention across the panel in a disciplined, rhythmic manner. Initially, this isn’t part of their habit patterns, so it feels foreign. That effect fades quickly, but the early challenge during a digital-to-analog transition is definitely there.

One of the other disadvantages to some glass displays has to do with touchscreens and the difficulty in controlling them in turbulence. That has been designed out of later models, but, as originally designed, a finger had a difficult time getting the right input at the right time. It’s like texting on a rollercoaster.

Some glass displays are also difficult to read in some sun conditions. This is also being addressed in later-generation displays, but it’s a bummer when you can’t read the airspeed, for instance, on final because of sun glare.

It’s also a bummer in a glass cockpit when there’s an electrical failure. Electrical failures are bad enough in analog cockpits: the radio is gone, ditto the nav lights and all avionics. In a glass cockpit, when the electrons are no longer flowing, nothing works. This is why glass panels usually have airspeed, and often, altimeter steam gauge backups. And a compass. At that point the glass cockpit is down to the approximate level of an analog partial panel. A steam gauge panel really doesn’t care if it has electricity or not, because it will lose none of the engine instruments nor any of the flight instruments (assuming it doesn’t have an electric turn and bank indicator).

Is analog better than digital? That depends on your definition of “better.” Both do the job well, but right now there are many more airplanes out there with steam gauges than with glass cockpits. Transitioning from glass to steam takes a bit longer to feel comfortable. Of course, going from steam to glass can take even longer for some folks. The good news is that if you can’t figure out the computer in your new airplane, corner the youngest line boy in sight and he’ll bail you out. That same young man may have never seen a manifold pressure gauge or an airspeed indicator with needles.

AOPA Editor at Large Dave Hirschman flies a Van’s RV–3 with Garmin G5 avionics.

Go with glass

It’s the way of the future.

By Dave Hirschman

Those of us who take pride in our Zen-like power to control airplanes by the old needle-ball-airspeed method tend to regard mastering this skill as a character-building experience that all pilots should suffer through.

But for a student pilot today, conquering the turn-and-slip indicator is about as useless as knowing how to hand-crank an automobile engine. It was a necessary skill at some time in the twentieth century, but it’s just not relevant anymore.

Student pilots should seek out the kind of training that advances their aviation goals, and they should do what excites them. If you wantto fly for the airlines, or the military, or corporate jets, it makes perfect sense to seek out trainers with relevant technology—and that means glass panels—from day one. If you’re a computer nerd who gets excited by the latest technology, go for it.

Glass panels are more reliable, offer better situational awareness, and allow you to fly with greater precision than steam gauges. And you can become just as good a stick-and-rudder pilot with a glass panel as you can with any other kind of indicator.

Glass panels do have one major drawback for pilots, whether they’re students or not, and that is that they’re so visually enticing, and our eyes are so naturally drawn to them, that the colorful boxes are like Medusa’s hair, a siren’s song, or Natalie Portman, or a wreck on the side of the highway. We just can’t help but stare.

But that’s true of analog gauges, too.

Students (and especially their instructors) must summon the self-discipline to look outside. Resist the temptation. Avoid being mesmerized by the colorful display. Get your head outside the cockpit whenever it makes sense.

Also, the digital-to-analog transition isn’t as bad as it sounds. The best instrument student I ever had learned to fly in a Garmin G1000-equipped Cessna 172, and then jumped to an old analog 172 for instrument training (because it was a lot less costly and more frequently available). She mastered the old parlor trick of the instrument scan quickly and easily, and I was surprised how little the switch mattered to her.

When I asked her about it, she pointed out that G1000 pilots have a “scan,” too. There’s no shortage of information to process, and you’ve got to know where to look to get the information you want. Your eyes just don’t have to travel quite as far.

Budd Davisson rightly points out that electrical failures are a burden in all aircraft. But these days it’s increasingly common for even backup instruments to have digital representations—so a pilot’s fallback position is simply shifting his or her gaze from a large display to a small one. That’s like shutting down your iPad and watching a video on an iPhone instead. Not a major crisis.

Touchscreens have already become such mainstays of modern life that you have to reach way back in the memory banks to recall a time we didn’t have them. The bigger “problem” (if this even rises to that level) is that pilots are constantly reaching out to non-touch primary flight displays and multifunction displays and leaving smudges all over the screens.

Budd’s point about steam gauge airplanes dominating the current piston aircraft fleet is well taken. But there are some hopeful signs it won’t always be that way.

New and welcome changes at the FAA are allowing low-cost, highly reliable avionics into existing certified aircraft without a technical standard order (see “Remove Barriers to Aircraft Modernization, Says AOPA,” p. 17), and companies like Garmin and Dynon are churning out all-in-one digital instruments such as the D10A and G5 as fast as they can make them. If current trends continue, we’ll see a flood of new, modern panels across a broad range of airplanes—and that’s going to be tremendous.

Who knows? You might even see one or two of those smart little boxes in Budd’s Pitts S–2A panel one day. If/when that happens, Budd and his many aerobatic students will wonder how they ever got along all those years without them.

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