Glass Cockpit Blues

The Square Elephant In The Cockpit

Original Date: June 3, 2009

I was observing on an instrument proficiency check in a Cessna 205 and noticed some things that really did stand out. The pilot undergoing the check was highly competent and ran very thorough checklists for all phases of flight. His VOR and ILS approaches were smooth and safe with limited deflection shown on the CDI that he corrected quickly. However the one instrument in the cockpit that caused the most trouble was the GPS. The instructor asked to see a GPS approach in Orange County. The PIC started pushing buttons to enter approach mode on the receiver. And the GPS promptly decided to ignore his request and do something else, like try to enter an approach for a VOR in the area (which to its credit, it gave a message saying “This is not an airport.”).

So the PIC said lets try a different airport, like Lincoln Park. The instructor said okay, enter the approach and fly the procedure. Again the same flurry of typing and head scratching ensued. By now the instructor is fiddling with the unit and flipping through operation checklists to see if there were any shortcuts to getting it to switch modes. After about 5 minutes he proclaims victory over the beast in the black box and then asks the PIC to enter the approach. The PIC tried several times but each time hit a key that ruined the string of info just entered. That or the wrong option was selected, giving us a flight plan to Aviano. All the while, I’m scanning for traffic and telling the potential student in the back seat next to me that flying is actually fairly easy, but operating the avionics is the thing that makes aces feel like aceholes.

We headed south back to Central Jersey Regional and by this time the PIC had figured out a way to get the GPS to accept the approach mode and left the flight plan mode alone for good. He flew a perfect GPS approach to runway 7, broke off and made a ridiculously soft landing. One of those landings where you have to remind the wheels that they’re supposed to start turning because we are in fact on the ground. After the flight, I talked to the potential student about the joys of general aviation, while the instructor spoke to the PIC about the flight. It was painfully clear that while GPS is a great tool (the map mode would have kept us from guessing where NYC’s class B began in case we couldn’t see ground references, but in that case you should be IFR anyway so it’s a moot point) and it can help you fly more efficiently.

However, if you are not completely comfortable using all modes of the GPS, you’re only getting a fraction of the benefit. Even more importantly, with your head down staring at the various modes on your receiver, you’re distracted from the primary task of flying the airplane. Granted this airplane had an autopilot and it had been used earlier, but the instructor wanted to see the PIC hand fly. The PIC got off heading and altitude far more often when messing with the unit than when he was just scanning the horizon. Granted, a person with an impeccable scan will be able to divide their attention perfectly, but the fact remains that you need to know exactly where the electrons are going before you start the engine.

What's it doing now? Direct ZELEN? I don't even know who ZELEN is!

If your GPS has home training software, use it. Don’t just hit the Direct button and stare at the map. That’s a waste of many thousands of dollars of capability. Practice going to a certain airport and then switching to an alternate. Know how the map orients itself and how to zoom in and out. If your GPS can output commands to an autopilot, do some local practice flights with it engaged in good weather. Basically using the full capability of any avionics needs to be second nature. Just as you can spin the numbers on the transponder without a second thought, so must be the operation of any nav gear.

In closing, a word to any avionics manufacturer who may be reading this (hey you never know). Please make your avionics big enough to use without having to train our fingers how to lock onto the right button while bouncing around in turbulence. Yes, panel space is always an issue but most owners would welcome a large knob that does the same thing in all pages (i.e. scan, change letters, change mode, etc), or large buttons that are spaced so that the bouncing finger doesn’t hit the wrong one. Yes, the “spider crawl” method does work but it freaks out passengers. Other than that one issue, I love the color maps and built in nav/coms. Anything to make the average Piper more like an A320….except for the J-3 Cub.
Let’s leave that one simple.

 

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About Christopher Williams
It's easier to lie about being boring than it is to be honest about being extraordinary.

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