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Pilots and their gadgets

 

Electronic flight bags, moving map displays, GPS, mini-MFDs, TCAS… the list goes on. It seems the sheer number of high-tech devices increases on an almost weekly basis.

While I embrace technology when forced, I’ll admit to being less than enthusiastic about adding it to the cockpit without a very good reason. Marketers promote their devices as adding, "a safety net," "improved situational awareness," "enhanced flight capability," etc.

I’m sure that’s the case for many pilots, but others are getting themselves into real trouble despite the high-tech help. There is of course a place for state-of-the-art technology in aviation but I frequently question the appropriateness of most of it for the light aircraft pilot.

That said, GPS is probably the best thing to come along since sliced bread. The ability to go direct to fixes (waypoints) is a definite enhancement to our navigation system. However, GPS units lack standardization from one manufacturer to another and therein lies a potential problem.

Often I see problems with pilots going between the Garmin GNS 430 and the King KLN 94 (not to single out any particular GPS unit, these just happen to be in our fleet). Conceptually both GPS units work the same, but each unit uses different steps to produce the same results and recent experience with one unit is likely to interfere with the correct use of the other.

So if you plan to hop into an aircraft with a GPS unit not entirely familiar to you, be aware that the setup and use may be different. You don’t want to be two miles shy of the FAF on approach and find out that you’ve miss-set up the GPS (that’s where the approach will go active).

By the way, if you are wondering how it’s possible to miss-set up a GPS for approach you should tag along with me on a instrument checkride sometime; I’ve seen every way possible to screw it up, and a few ways I didn’t think were possible!

GPS aside, I question the utility of many of the other "gadgets" pilots are putting in their aircraft. Don’t misunderstand my intentions here. If you are a proficient pilot then by all means put whatever you like in the cockpit. But if you are buying equipment to help you out because you have troubles flying without it, then some serious introspection is warranted.

Let’s not belabor the issue with rhetoric however; an example might help get my point across!

So there I was, well… lets just say I was giving a multi-engine checkride on a clear VFR-day flight and overheard an unusual ATC transaction. We were on a long vector for approach and, with nothing better to do, I was intently listening to the other ATC communications transactions.

A Beechcraft Bonanza, N1OOPS (changed to protect the pilot’s identity), calls in to approach control five miles south of the airport, inbound for a landing. On the surface this might not seem to out of the ordinary, until you consider that the airport he’s going to is Class C; generally requiring a radio call outside 10nm prior to entering the airspace. The following takes place:

ATC: "roger Bonanza 1OOPS, squawk 0202."

ATC (About five seconds later): "aahhh Bonanza 1OOPS, did you say you were FIVE miles out?"

Bonanza: "1OOPS, affirmative"

ATC: "Bonanza 1OOPS make an immediate left turn to one-eight-zero!"

Bonanza: "Roger, 180, 1OOPS."

ATC: "1OOPS, do you have traffic at 11’oclock in sight?"

Bonanza: "No, but we have him on TCAS."

At this point, based on what I believe I’ve just heard, I mumbled a couple of choice words for this pilot.

ATC: "Say again 1OOPS"

Bonanza: "Bonanza 1OOPS has the traffic on TCAS."

The rest of the transaction is uninteresting so lets reflect on what we have so far. This guy just busted Class-C airspace, he’s been directed away from the primary airport and the traffic that was inbound on an instrument approach, and he’s apparently using a traffic collision and avoidance system (TCAS) to avoid traffic. Well, that explains everything!

Since he’s got TCAS and can see all the traffic, he no longer has any apparent need to comply with airspace requirements. After all, airspace restrictions are there to keep traffic from running into each other, right? Unfortunately, that’s not the way it works!

Given the cost of installing a TCAS system, one wonders if this pilot didn’t also have a moving map GPS or MFD that would have showed him penetrating Class-C airspace. If he did, something must not have been setup correctly, or he was so busy watching the TCAS to avoid the traffic that he simply failed to notice the other instrumentation. In either case, this is one of those situations that make’s me want to preach "back to basics."

Pilots need to seriously consider the workload presented by additional cockpit technology and the complacency that it may create with continual use. We won’t ever know exactly what our example pilot was using for situational awareness, but what looks like a safety enhancement may be nothing more than a distraction from flying the aircraft!

One wonders why these high-tech gadgets are so compelling to pilots. I learned how to fly without all the bells and whistles and I find the extra equipment to be more of a distraction than to actually enhance my situational awareness. When I’m flying in an all-glass aircraft that is otherwise identical to one of its steam-gauge cousins, I find that I rarely look at the MFD to see where I’m at.

My navaids are tuned in and I select crossing radials and use DME information to verify my position. I know several pilots who really like the moving map MFD feature, but there is a distinct difference between liking it and relying on it.

Pilots continue to loose situational awareness and the most common solution to it has been to offer technology to "help" the pilot. But does this really address the root cause of the problem?

Marketers and pilots alike claim that the technology helps pilots get the most utility out of their aircraft. While there may be some truth to that kind of statement, pilots still need to fully understand how and when to use that technology.

There is, in fact, a time when the pilot needs to stop screwing around with the equipment and get back to flying the aircraft.

That reminds me of the first day I decided to venture out on my own with GPS to practice setting it up for approaches. After about 20 minutes of fooling around with the unit, I realized I had not scanned for traffic during the entire time! My response was "Wow! That really sucked me in!" I suspect that sort of thing has happened to others as well.

So what is the message for this month? I suppose the best advice I can give any pilot who has the money and inclination to buy high-tech gadgetry for their aircraft is to caution them as to its use.

You need to carefully consider the workload imposed by some of these devices, and you need to evaluate your flying skills to ascertain if the technology is taking up the slack for otherwise obvious skill deficiencies.

If you move back and forth between aircraft with different technology, you need to study and understand the differences between each or plan not to use that equipment. And, by far the most important advice, you need to be able to revert back to basic flying techniques should that fancy technology decide to go dark!

This month’s Pilot Primer is written by Donald Anders Talleur, an Assistant Chief Flight Instructor at the University of Illinois, Institute of Aviation. He holds a joint appointment with the Professional Pilot Division and Human Factors Division. He has been flying since 1984 and in addition to flight instructing since 1990, has worked on numerous research contracts for the FAA, Air Force, Navy, NASA, and Army. He has authored or co-authored over 180 aviation related papers and articles and has an M.S. degree in Engineering Psychology, specializing in Aviation Human Factors.