Scraping the Rust Off With Glass

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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.

Comments (32)

I agree with your perspective completely. I fly both glass and steam and while I am comfortable with both in actual IFR, I find the glass more capable and I lean more and more towards the benefits of glass as time goes on and I become more adept at using all of the different features. Having suffered a vacuum failure in actual in the past (with no standby), the better reliability of glass matters more than just a few beats to me. Frankly, I never want to repeat that experience. It is amazing how different partial panel is in bumpy wet clouds then in simulated conditions on a nice sunny day but I digress. I am all for greater reliability and redundancy. Can never have enough. I agree that if you do fly glass, you need to stay proficient at what I call the "programming" aspects. If you do not use certain functions a lot, it is easy to forget them and then get confused at an inopportune time. But do not get me wrong, I have no problem with flying behind steam guages in (but will not fly actual anymore in an aircraft without a back-up vacuum or electric stand-by AI but that is just my prejudice).

Posted by: Ken Appleby | February 6, 2013 10:49 AM    Report this comment

My club owns only steam gauge planes, most with a single 430 or 530W, so I don't have the same history; I certainly agree about not putting the moving map into my scan. The bandwidth it takes to coordinate my mental map with the steam gauges with the orthogonal model displayed on the moving map is just too much (I'm a 200-hour pilot with less than a year on my instrument ticket).

Having a more unified display on the PFD is very compelling, and I look forward to owning my own aircraft with glass at some point in the future.

Posted by: Brad Koehn | February 6, 2013 11:03 AM    Report this comment

I think an important distinction to make when referring to a "glass cockpit" is attitude vs navigational instruments.

The aircraft I fly all have steam-gauge attitude instruments, but also have at least one Garmin 430W. I have flown (and practice in the sim) with no moving map, but I would never depart into actual IMC without it. The situational awareness and reduction in workload it provides me is just too great a safety factor for me to feel comfortable without in all but an emergency (or two-pilot crew).

But as far as attitude information goes, steam or glass doesn't matter to me. Used and trained properly, glass can add to my precision in hand-flying the plane, but aside from the generally higher reliability, I don't think it adds much, especially if you have some sort of backup system (i.e. standby vacuum pump and/or electric AI). The main difference between the two, in my opinion, is whereas with steam you need to use proper cross-checking to verify all the instruments are working properly, with glass you need to know how to either mentally or electronically (in the case of declutter) mask out the information that you don't need. It's easy to get caught up with chasing 10' or 1-degree heading changes at the expense of your sanity.

Posted by: Gary Baluha | February 6, 2013 2:31 PM    Report this comment

I find your thoughts on glass pretty interesting, and for the most part I agree. In aircraft retrofitted with an Aspen PFD, I catch myself looking at the analog airspeed indicator & altimeter, and using the Aspen for an AI and HSI. With the G600 or G1000, I've just about got to use the airspeed & altitude tapes, but am thankful for the alerts and bugs.

I guess, to me, when you can put in an Aspen for the price of an HSI, it is kind of a no brainer, considering all the goodies you get with it. I do kind of miss the steam gauges though.

As far as learning goes, I learned way more about flying IFR with a 2 nav-com setup. I got my instrument rating with a garmin 430 (non-waas). Guess that makes me a first generation techno-weenine getting the rating. When I went back for my commercial, all I could rent was an old tired Seneca 1 with dual TKM nav/coms. It took me about 20 hours to learn to fly THAT ifr, but it was a real positive, if not fun, learning experience.

Posted by: Josh Johnson | February 6, 2013 2:33 PM    Report this comment

The 172 I did the IPC in had two navcomms, no GPS, no autopilot. I had an iPad without geo-ref. I was perfectly happy in it. I learned to do SA that way and some good habits never die. (Thankfully...)

Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | February 6, 2013 4:02 PM    Report this comment

Seems to me for most IFR work augmenting gauge-based navigation with even a VFR moving-map GPS provides at least 60% of the real advantages of a full glass panel.

A lot of the remaining 40% is just gee-whiz purchased at considerable cost.

Posted by: John Wilson | February 6, 2013 5:04 PM    Report this comment

Visit this page after say 100 hours using the same kind of looking glass. The more you use it the more you understand the vast amount of info gleaned by parking your eyes in the right spot. I don't think you will stay a skinflint

Posted by: Neil Keller | February 7, 2013 2:37 AM    Report this comment

Uncertified glass found in LSA and experimental panels is a very different thing from G-1000. The typical Dynon EFIS doesn't require regular updates since it only provides attitude and other flight instruments. Mine also provides a glass HSI which appears on the same screen with the attitude instruments along with engine RPM from the other screen - EMS. This is a very inexpensive setup (much less than certified steam gauges) which I find very nice for VFR flight.

I don't do IFR, so I can't comment on how well it works for that. I just wanted to comment that in the uncertified world glass is the low cost choice. It replaces fancy industrial age needles and gyros with low cost digital technology.

Posted by: PAUL MULWITZ | February 7, 2013 5:36 AM    Report this comment

I'm an experienced CFII and all my previous students were trained on steam gauges. Recently I trained an owner of a new G1000 equipped aircraft for his Instrument Rating. This was an eye opener for me and I had to change my whole attitude towards glass displays. The training was relatively easy and the examiner allowed full use of all the electronic toys plus an Ipad for planning and w&b. I found that mental situational awareness was lacking because the displays made it easier to keep track of position. Following the check ride I put my student in a Redbird sim with steam gauges and worked him with partial panel scenarios and situational awareness problems. I'm concerned that a Pilot receiving a "Glass" rating will fly "steam" airplanes and not truly be up to the task should problems occur.

Posted by: Michael Young | February 7, 2013 6:27 AM    Report this comment

Michael - I wonder if your fears are justified. It sounds a lot like worrying a person who learns to drive with an automatic transmission will have problems shifting gears on a standard. This may be a real issue, but if you are talking about someone who owns his plane it seems unlikely he would trade it for another with steam gauges. If he did, I would hope he would also get some training in flying on those antiques.

This might be a very different problem for a renter or professional pilot. They might face a strange plane with unknown equipment every time they go to the airport. For owners it is much more likely they will fly their own plane than try to take on an IFR flight in a plane with different equipment from their own.

Posted by: PAUL MULWITZ | February 7, 2013 6:57 AM    Report this comment

" It sounds a lot like worrying a person who learns to drive with an automatic transmission will have problems shifting gears on a standard."

Might be a bit worse. If you can't shift gears or stall the car, pull over. If you lose the SA bubble entirely in IMC and you can't get it back, you're in deep doo. Someone accustomed to SA mainly through moving map may be somewhat likely to experience this. Where the glass gives you everything at a glance, steam and needles require drawing the pictures in your head. Very doable, but it requires the experience of having learned that way.

The opposite is also true and probably just as bad. If you're not current on the G1000 or any other EFIS, you can get way behind on it, say if given a re-route or a new approach assignment while close into the airport when things get busy all at once. Sudden stress-induced tunnel vision can turn you into an instant moron.

That's why I'd take another two hours at least of G1000 refresher before launching into IMC. On steam, I'm ready to go.

Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | February 7, 2013 7:15 AM    Report this comment

I also got my instrument rating in a 172 with 2 VORs, and ADF and no DME. If you can create a picture of where you are in your head, this is all the equipment you need. I did a fair amount of flying in actual with this configuration and thought nothing of it.

I also have watched instrument students get hopelessly lost and almost out of control with their finger hovering over buttons on a 430/530 trying to remember how to change the VOR frequency. The remedies for this problem are practice and time-slicing.

However, I occasionally fly a Seneca with the Aspen AI/HSI combination with synthetic vision and while not a full glass cockpit, I feel it adds a lot to the situational awareness of the flight. I like having the GPS and VOR pointers in one place, and the made up view of the runway is pretty nice when flying an approach to minimums.

What I don't get are the pilots that strap an iPod to their kneepad and a 496 to the yoke and don't know how to load an approach into the onboard 430.

Posted by: Jerry Plante | February 7, 2013 7:59 AM    Report this comment

My planes seem to eat gyro instruments and vacuum pumps. Give me the reliability of those electronic instruments any day. And most planes have dual everything redundancy. As for the display, it can be either round gage, or flat, just as long as what's driving it is electronic.

Posted by: Rich Bond | February 7, 2013 8:21 AM    Report this comment

I learned instrument flying on steam gauges, no GPS either. In later years began to use the Garmin 430, then a 530, then Avidyne screens in a Cirrus, and now instruct as a CSIP in Cirrus aircraft with the Perspective system. The SA challenge with steam gauges makes for a pilot who knows where he's at and what's happening. Glass takes away, for the most part, that need to "have the moving map in your head". I agre with Paul that attitude flying on glass or steam isn't much different. It's doubtful that once you've flown glass you'll go back to steam, with the exception of renters in some cases. But, most rental airplanes these days will probably have a Garmin 430 which gives good SA capabilty without too much "knob twisting knowledge" required. So in reality, the old steam gauge guys will be best off if the glass fails and the "map in the head" capability will hopefully still be there. Learning that skill cannot be done when the glass fails, and I've had both screens fail in the past (VFR fortunately).

Posted by: Ray Mansfield | February 7, 2013 9:12 AM    Report this comment

The glass probably reduces the need for imagination of position on the part of the pilot. I think the long term cost is going to be high though. There are a lot of mechanical gyros out there that have been spinning for 40 years with minimal cost. I have doubts that there will be any G1000s in 40 years. It also doesn't take much imagination to estimate what it will cost to replace those.

Posted by: Stephen Phoenix | February 7, 2013 10:12 AM    Report this comment

Has anyone actually conducted a valid experiment about pilot proficiency when using glass vs "steam gauges?" After all, when all the hype either way is over, it is the results that count.

Posted by: Unknown | February 7, 2013 10:35 AM    Report this comment

"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." This is a little scary where I fly VFR in busy airspace. Are they looking outside at all? Its bad enough that the airline folks never look outside at low altitude, at least they have TCAS.

Posted by: Jim Lo Bue | February 7, 2013 11:21 AM    Report this comment

I am not sure what this says about glass vs steam but a couple of years ago an IFR student and I had a complete vacuum failure in actual IFR conditions in a steam guage equipped Cessna 172 with a Garmin 430 as the number 1 radio. We declared an emergency and since the weather ws better at an airport about ten miles away I decided to go there. Vectors for an approach to our departure airport would have carried us nearly as far anyway. Approach was giving us vectors to XYZ airport and as we had been practicing partial panel recently I figured this would not be too difficult. Wrong! We were all over the place. I took the controls and had the student do the talking while I flew. This helped but we still wandered all over the sky. No unusual attitudes or loss of control but I just couldn't stay on heading. We told ATC that we wanted the GPS approach to XYZ and were cleared to the initial fix. As soon as I loaded the approach we had that pink line and instantly it was if we had the gyros back. Just keep the airplane symbol on the pink line and you must be straight and level and on course. If the symbol wanders even a bit it is easy to correct. I did keep the Garmin on a small range so that it would be instantly recognizable if I started to wander. The result was a near perfect approach to a gentle landing.

I guess what this says about steam vs glass is that the pink line can be a life saver even when you think you are proficient at partial panel.

Posted by: Donald Purney | February 7, 2013 11:26 AM    Report this comment

Jim, This isn't something that affects just glass-panel pilots. With the popularity of tablets and the capabilities of the apps they run, they're very nearly their own PFD+MFD. I have noticed that many of the pilots who use these systems spend an inordinate amount of time looking inside, rather than outside.

I remember the phrase from some economist, "a wealth of information leads to a poverty of attention", and I think it holds true for aviation as well. And in general, I think it's human nature to try and get as much information as possible. Glass panels (and tablet computers) make this information gathering easier.

Posted by: Gary Baluha | February 7, 2013 12:28 PM    Report this comment

You know what? They're both pretty good. Think back to the days before the standardization of the 6 pack of flight instruments. Every time you got into a different plane, you had to figure out where everything was located. Then there were the DG's that mimicked the whiskey compass - turn right for big numbers, left for little numbers. No, I don't remember four-course ranges.

Posted by: C HULL | February 7, 2013 2:17 PM    Report this comment

I guess I'm just too old to be interested in glass. (I don't have an autopilot, either, but that's just a question of economics.) The idea of having to spend a lot of time and money just to get proficient at something that won't give me new capabilities just doesn't appeal to me. Maybe it's safer, but I won't be safer during the learning period, and there are no simulators close by available. My GNS-530, by contrast, improved safety from day one. Forgot to set the gyro heading? Revealed by the first two screens before I got far enough off course to show up on the VOR's. Getting too near a tower in MVFR weather? The terrain warning screen comes up. Not to mention there will soon be a GPS approach to my home airport, which I will be able to fly. It wasn't cheap, but I could see the benefits from having flown with hand held GPS units, and the 530 was that in spades. A G1000 may well be just as great a leap forward, but it requires a leap of faith, something that's dangerous in aviation these days (maybe always was). And I don't care for my charts on the iPad, either--paper is easier, but it saved me a bunch of money, so I went with it. If I didn't have a 530 I might be more appreciative of the ancillary functions of Foreflight, but my iPad is only WiFi, so I can't take advantage of the weather features without paying more.

Posted by: DAVID CHULJIAN | February 7, 2013 2:27 PM    Report this comment

It appears that many, if not most, pilots miss the greatest benefits of 'glass' avionics. I fly a King Air B200 with Chelton EFIS. The 'glass' PFD provides a FLIGHT PATH VECTOR that shows where the center of mass of the airframe is progressing. On an ILS is terrible side wind conditions? Fly the FLIGHT PATH VECTOR symbol onto the synthetic vision runway numbers. No guessing, no bracketing, just put the flight path vector on the runway numbers and you'll hit it.

That's the easy part. For currency, I never use the Chelton (if it craps out I want to be confident that I can manage without). I have an FAA certified BATD, without synthetic vision, etc., with which I challenge myself with all kinds of approaches, holds, etc. using only the steam dials.

Works for me (so far). Please look into the extrodinary benefits of having a flight path vector if you think glass is good.

Posted by: Charles Clark | February 7, 2013 3:28 PM    Report this comment

It appears that many, if not most, pilots miss the greatest benefits of 'glass' avionics. I fly a King Air B200 with Chelton EFIS. The 'glass' PFD provides a FLIGHT PATH VECTOR that shows where the center of mass of the airframe is progressing. On an ILS is terrible side wind conditions? Fly the FLIGHT PATH VECTOR symbol onto the synthetic vision runway numbers. No guessing, no bracketing, just put the flight path vector on the runway numbers and you'll hit it.

That's the easy part. For currency, I never use the Chelton (if it craps out I want to be confident that I can manage without). I have an FAA certified BATD, without synthetic vision, etc., with which I challenge myself with all kinds of approaches, holds, etc. using only the steam dials.

Works for me (so far). Please look into the extrodinary benefits of having a flight path vector if you think glass is good.

Posted by: Charles Clark | February 7, 2013 3:28 PM    Report this comment

Paul, As it happens I'm originally from a country where one's driving license is restricted if you test on an Automatic Transmission. Guess this is not an automobile blog! I never implied that my student would switch from glass to steam without proper preparation. Obtaining an Instrument Rating on either glass or steam would allow a pilot to fly the other without additional training.

Posted by: Michael Young | February 7, 2013 9:53 PM    Report this comment

There are many who have steam gauges just to meet the regulations, and use MFDs like dynon-skyview + a certified gps 430w. However, when they usually fly, they fly with the dynon-skyview. So I'm curious if someone has actually done IMC (as opposed to IFR in VMC) with something so equipped and if so how did it go?

Posted by: Naresh Sharma | February 8, 2013 3:14 AM    Report this comment

Paul,I realize it's slightly off the subject, but I was under the impression that the full IPC could not be completed in the Redbird. You could do everything but the circle to land which had to be done in the aircraft. Has this changed?

Posted by: ANDREW ALSON | February 8, 2013 6:15 AM    Report this comment

Gray area, according to the flight school I flew with. The Redbird has the visuals to make the circle realistic, so the CFII and school deemed it adequate. (Me, too.) Others may not.

Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | February 8, 2013 8:22 AM    Report this comment

I revolted against glass, especially the Aspen, when I realized it would cost an extra $5k just to have the privilege of using my 300A autopilot's heading function. And with the 430, the HSI function is really not needed. Then I realized after the cost of installation (remote interface box, heading fluxgate, etc) there were maintenance costs associated not only with database updates but also periodic battery replacement. I never understood why they put airspeed and altimeter on the Aspen because you have to have the steam gauge in the panel, anyway, sitting right next to it. And my brain is a better analog processor than digital processor, so I get more in the glance to steam airspeed than I do trying to figure out the airspeed number on the tape. And after I got burned on my MX-20 MFD going obsolete only 7 years after I bought it I realized repair parts for glass won't be around 20 years in the future like bearings are.

That being said, nothing beats getting proficient on the 430 and learning all the shortcuts. I just bought an Elite PC sim with 430 module to keep my scan and 430 skills sharp, and it's MUCH better than the 430 software-only simulator, both for scan and knob twiddling, especially when setting up an approach, executing a missed or quickly setting up a hold at any arbitrary intersection and nailing the hold entry.

But it's all about staying proficient. Both the glass and steam tell you the same thing. It's just a matter of using the data properly.

Posted by: David Rosing | February 8, 2013 10:33 AM    Report this comment

I'm satisfied with either steam or glass. It all comes down to training and proficiency. Whether it's a Cessna 150 with just one VOR or a full glass panel, I'll make the approach and feel confident in both situations.

My concern and is also the concern of industry is that if we have too much electronics, such as auto pilot, where we essentially sit back and watch the aircraft shoot an apporach, that if we had to take over and maunally fly the aircraft using steam gages, many of us couldn't do it. There lies the problem.

And electronics do fail, more than one thinks. (And if you are an owner you know what that also means ($$$)).

Regardless of what you fly, be proficient, and always be prepared for an equipment failure, as it will happen sooner or later.

As we say when flying helicopters, it isn't if it's going to fail, it's only when it's going to fail.

Being prepared makes the difference.

Posted by: John Pollock | February 8, 2013 10:40 AM    Report this comment

My 1981 172RG had a 6-pack group of steamers 2 NavComs, and an ADF. For IFR training in 1987 my instructor's opening gambit was to cover stuff up. At least 50% of my training was partial panel, and she made sure most of it was in actual IMC. Later on when an auto-pilot was available, I understood how important this can be in single-pilot IFR. Still later I had an older 210 whose steam gauges were installed with a scatter-gun (no auto-pilot though). However, since I owned the aircraft my scan was as good as it ever was with the 6-pack, but I always hand-flew when possible. In the race between AP and GPS, the 530W won and was a welcome source of info, but as others have said the button-ology is the biggest challenge. My limited exposure to glass suggests that there is sufficient difference between setups that specific aircraft familiarity is a must, whereas, the steamer info varies little, and is more intuitive.

Glass is here to stay along with its costs, but I would rather conduct initial training in a conventional steam gauge environment, and then make the transition to glass where the scan is more of a gaze and the button pushing something that needs significant practice even before heading out for the first time.

No aircraft now, so I'm where Paul was on currency. Partial panel skills are always good to have. They will provide an under-pinning to recovering my IFR currency when I get to it. Needle, Ball and Airspeed forever... :-)

Posted by: David MacRae | February 8, 2013 11:26 AM    Report this comment

Glass cockpits are definitely impressive when watching them in action. The problems I see now are reliability and cost. From an engineering standpoint, they are an improvement due to their lighter installed weight. But from a user/pilot standpoint, I wonder. There is the cost of database updates, something most steam gauge installations do not have. From a reliability standpoint, I am not so sure. I have flown 2 different generations of glass along with "steam gauge" with a GPS nav system. The C208B with the steam gauges was much more reliable than the latest (Pro-line 21) glass system I fly now. At least if a specific gyro goes out I am legal to fly VFR in a "steam" gauge installation. In the glass system that I fly now if an ADC or AHRS or MFD or reversion panel quits the plane is grounded period no matter the weather (POH limitation). The other issue I have is with the training it took to learn the glass system versus the actual information received. Since my company does not want to pay for all of the database updates for the additional fancy features, what I am getting out of the glass system is not much more than I get out of "steam gauges" and a GPS (430 or 530 or king 89b or 94). In cold weather instead of a gyro that takes forever to spool up, now I have electronic displays that will not illuminate or an AHRS that will not function until warmed up with external power or a warm hangar. Continued. . .

Posted by: matthew wagner | February 8, 2013 6:49 PM    Report this comment

continued.. The Pro-line 21 engine torque gauge installation has a lag in it that takes time to get used to when setting (PT6) takeoff power levels, something separate torque gauges don't. Correct me if I am wrong but I believe Mr. Robinson of Robinson helicopters was once interviewed in a magazine article was asked why he did not select glass avionics in his latest model at the time and he said it was because they are not intuitive to use. I fully agree. In the end it is a pilot preference one way or the other.

Posted by: matthew wagner | February 8, 2013 7:05 PM    Report this comment

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