It's still "Aviate, Navigate, Communicate," just with a lot more options and some new techniques for getting the job done.
by Jeff Van West
If you're lucky enough to already own an airplane, then you probably settle in behind a six-pack of steam gauges to traverse the national airspace system. If you're a pilot who rents or borrows late-model airplanes - or if you're shelling out the dollars for a brand-new machine - then there are LCD screens in your future.
Primary flight displays (PFDs) and multi-function displays (MFDs) are the standard from new, high-performance machines down to many of the light sport aircraft. Setting aside the debate on their utility vs. their cost, the question of what it takes to make the switch from steam gauges to flat panels is unanswered for many pilots.
I can't speak for everyone's experience, but with only 25 minutes of prior PFD experience (on a Columbia 400 demo flight) I attended Cirrus Design's three-day transition training program for the Avidyne Entegra-equipped SR22 and Diamond Aircraft's three-day transition for the Garmin G1000-equipped DA40. Going through the programs back-to-back was a bit like learning to swim by leaping into the English Channel. It was fun though, and revealed details of making the switch that instructors say apply to many pilots.
Read Up Step one is wading through all different books and manuals on the airplane and its systems. (My suitcase was nine pounds over the airline limit just due to books for the two classes.) Don't bother showing up for the training unprepared.
You won't remember all the symbology or what buttons to push for what screens without flying the real airplane. Read and learn what the system can do overall rather than memorizing every function. For example, to find the weather at your destination in flight, you need to remember that it's listed on the Trip page of the MFD, but that requires you remember that there is such a thing as a Trip page and that your flight plan is listed there, which requires that you entered a flight plan ... you get the idea.
Once you get practice moving though different screens and options, you'll be able to find the function you're looking for in flight. Well, usually. If you're not a book person, there are DVD programs and computer-based trainers that help immensely as well.
Do memorize things like the recommended speed for the downwind. Your brain will be full enough on systems without also sweating over how to fly the physical airplane.
Organize the Onslaught John Sjoblom, my transition instructor at Cirrus, summed up the information overload of transitioning pilots: "The most common thing I hear is 'OK, where am I supposed to be looking now?' " As he said this, John opened his eyes wide and looked left and right as if waiting for the next item on the panel to beep, flash, or change color.
There is, at first, too much information on the displays. Like so many things, cutting it down to size is a matter of organization. The Cirrus has four separate LCD screens at your disposal. What goes on the PFD is fairly set, but it can display distances and bearings to several waypoints. John used one of these for a constant distance to the airport while I flew from waypoint to waypoint on the approach. I could see I was one mile from the FAF while he could make a traffic call at nine miles from the field without doing any math. For the upper Garmin GNS 430 John put the default Nav screen with numeric readouts rather than the moving map screen I was used to, but with a 10.4-inch MFD moving map this setup made more sense. He left the lower GNS 430 on the dedicated traffic (Skywatch) page on every flight. This system helped me know where to look for what information.
The MFD played multiple roles, and was the closest thing to a digital copilot I've ever had. During taxi, it showed a Jeppesen airport diagram with a moving aircraft symbol. During runup and takeoff, it showed the Engine page with details on all systems and warnings if anything got out of limits. For digital checklists on the MFD, we checked off completed items on the list, reset the list (to remove the checkmarks), and then advanced the list one step before changing screens. Next time we rolled to the checklist screen the correct checklist was waiting. Similar standard organization of screens happened in cruise and descent on the Cirrus and a similar flow helped on the two screens of the DA40's G1000.
This information flow training is one of the less glamorous, but most important concepts in scenario-based training, which virtually all the factory transition programs use. As you use each screen or function in the context of a phase of normal flight (a normal flight is a possible scenario), you link the how-to of the technology with the "when-to" and better utilize the vast resources at your disposal.
Plan for the Darkness Normal flight only lasts for the first day of training. After that, the syllabus takes you into bad weather and system failures. The key in these abnormal and emergency scenarios is still organizing your remaining information and resources. Systems knowledge is critical here. When the PFD goes dark in the Cirrus, you're on backup flight instruments and you have no conventional CDI.
The autopilot can still fly an approach for you, but if you use it, you want a full-procedure GPS approach with no procedure turn, rather than an ILS. With no CDI, the autopilot can only fly using GPS steering - which bypasses the CDI - so it can fly a perfect DME arc but not a localizer and glideslope.
When the PFD goes blank, you always lose something. In the Cirrus Avidyne system, your new scan is between the backup instruments and the only remaining CDI - the one on the GPS.
The G1000 can display the PFD on either screen, but it switches to backup (reversionary) mode and can't display items like the moving map and winds aloft.
Items can be linked in unexpected ways and your systems knowledge is what ensures a good scenario outcome. With the DA40 G1000 installation, losing the number two GPS/NAV/COMM also disables heading, navigation, and altitude hold modes on the autopilot. The Cirrus two-alternator, two-battery electrical system automatically isolates critical items, but it's up to you to prioritize non-critical things, such as whether you want an MFD now for weather information or flaps later for landing.
One of the biggest "problems" of making the switch from steam gauges to glass was forgetting that some of the features of the glass cockpit were even there to use. A scenario designed to get me at low altitude beneath ice-laden clouds had me doing a simulated scud-run back to the airport. With extensive prodding from the instructor I realized I could put the dedicated Terrain Awareness Warning System (TAWS) page up on the MFD with azimuth lines showing exactly what heading change would avoid rocks and cell towers and by how many degrees. There's the scenario-based training advantage again. Next time I'm in a similar situation, maybe I won't let myself get caught at low altitude with few options. But if I do screw up, the experience of scud-running is linked with using the TAWS so I stand a better chance of staying off the six o'clock news.
Master the Differences John Kellner of Empire Aviation, who did my DA40/G1000 training ,had a few great tips for mastering the digital instruments. "Many people have trouble flying a constant altitude looking right at the altitude readout. I tell them not to look for 3000 feet but to note the position of 3100 feet and 2900 feet above and below the 3000. This is easier to do at a glance." He also described pilots desperately trying to get engine speed at exactly 2000 rpm for run-up. "You never used to worry about that with analog gauges. Doing run-up at 1980 rpm is just fine." Religiously setting heading and altitude bugs help, too.
Sometimes all that information makes you smarter than you should be. Flying a hold in a strong crosswind, I looked at the holding racetrack depicted on the PFD and thought, "Cool, I'll just fly with enough wind correction to hold the charted outbound track and then fly with enough correction back to hold the charted inbound track." Of course, that doesn't work because when I turned inbound my crosswind became a tailwind, groundspeed increased, and I blew through the inbound holding course.
I knew better but was lulled by the pretty picture into thinking that "double the inbound correction on the outbound" didn't matter in the brave new world. I got it sorted out the next time around and now have a system that combines my old skills and the new bird's-eye view on the moving map. I do like that the system starts the timer for me, though.
Make it Your Own Customization is the final step in using the new technology well. Once you know what buttons make what lights flash and have a plan when some of the screens go dark, you can tweak what screens show what information and create procedures that make the most of the new technology in combination with your old skills. The G1000 can actually store individual pilot profiles, so you can customize my screens to your liking and then reload them with a keystroke after someone else has changed things around.
Once you have real experience with one of these glass cockpits, they are easy to use, but currency may be a problem. I know I could jump in an old 172 or J-3 having not flown one for two months and feel comfortable and competent after 10 minutes. Not so a new SR22 or DA40 with the glass panel. Unless I'm working with students regularly in these machines - or find enough dollars to operate one of my own - it will be back to the books before spinning the prop. At least, that is, until they come up with the digital copilot to remind me which button to push next.
Jeff Van West is a CFI in Portland, Maine, and Editor of IFR.