Scraping the Rust Off With Glass
Last week, in a moment of temporary insanity, I decided to renew my instrument currency. For Florida pilots, this is sheer sandcastle building, the ultimate act of futility. But I worked hard and paid a lot for those instrument skills, so I suppose getting them back is no less rational than, say, lighting the pool grill with dollar bills as kindling or holding on to those Sears tire chains because you just never know.
Perusing the shambles of my logbook, I was last truly instrument proficient about five years ago. So my pseudo-scientific interest here was to see how much the ravages of time had rounded off the sharpness of my instrument flying. (Not that much, it turned out.) Just to make it interesting, I actually did two instrument proficiency checks, one in an airplane, one in a Redbird simulator. I wanted to compare the two.
Results? Despite disuse, my scan was as good as ever, which didn't surprise me, since a bunch of my total time is actual instrument from having done so much instrument instruction. The noticeable fraying, however, had to do with all the other stuff related to IFR flying—finding the plates, setting up the radios, twiddling with the navigator while simultaneously keeping the scan alive. If that part's like riding a bicycle, the ride can get a little wobbly.
You can, by the way, do the entire IPC in an approved simulator. Although it's more effective training, it's also kind of boring, unless you consider carving out limited mental bandwidth just to accommodate the sim's quirky flight dynamics a fun time. This is true of all sims, of course, including some of the rather expensive types used by the airlines. On the other hand, my sim-based IPC cost less than half of the airplane-based version.
The sim was G1000 equipped and I noticed several things in flying it. First, I realize I don't care one bit whether I'm scanning an electronic PFD or steam gauges. To me, they look the same as far as my ability to control the airplane and imagine my position in space. I have no preference. But that's not to say a G1000 is as easy to fly as a steam-gauge airplane if you're not at least moderately current on it. It gets challenging when setting up procedures or plugging in a flightplan or something oddball, like setting up a VOR course intercept. Those things aren't hard to do, but retaining the knowledge of how to do them can be difficult, at least for me.
I also noticed that I don't scan the MFD much, a habit I acquired from watching pilots try to fly IFR using GNS430/530 navigators like video games with predictably disastrous results. The G1000 PFD has a nav repeater inset that I set up with digital data showing time and distance to fixes. I scan that and glance only occasionally at the MFD. It's old school, for sure, but it works for me.
All of this once again got me wondering about the real benefits of glass. Would-be buyers really want this technology because that's what most of them buy. When steam gauges are an option, say in LSAs, buyers generally tilt toward the glass. I might too, but only because it's a beat or two more reliable. But you pay for that in recurring data costs and, if needed, high repair costs.
Some schools teach primary instruction in G1000-equipped Diamond DA40s and Cessna 172s. This can be a mixed blessing, I'm told. Bruce Batelaan at Europe-American Aviation in Naples told me the trick is to get students to hold the G1000 at arm's distance initially. The school teaches just enough of the basics for radio work, but limits instruction beyond that, at least pre-solo. Even then, he says, students taught initially on glass have an abstract notion of situational awareness. If the airport is at 9 o'clock and two miles and they're asked to point at it, they jab the MFD screen, not gesture outside to the real airport. Also, there's very little question that glass takes longer to master and thus so does the overall training.
In the end, for my kind of instrument flying, I wouldn't want to go back to steam gauges only. Glass represents progress. But I'm not quite convinced that it's anything more than an incremental advance in IFR capability, if that. While I appreciate the reliability, I'm just as glad not to be paying the recurring bills for data. Once a skinflint, always a skinflint, I guess.