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EFIS As Lifesavers?

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Last month, in a survey published here on AVweb, I tried to ignite some discussion about user opinions of the various EFIS systems that are now more or less common for new light aircraft. The results of this survey appeared in the September issue of Aviation Consumer and the October issue of Aviation Safety.

I was trying to learn if users are generally satisfied with these systems—they are—and what did they view as any shortcomings? The list turns out to be relatively short and the complaints minor. In my view, it's not so much that Garmin, Avidyne and others have hit grand slams with EFIS, so much as it is pilots new to this equipment have no expectations so they're, well, easily impressed.

One such reader related a report that's emblematic of a subtle shift in pilot attitudes toward airplanes, their systems and the act of flying. He allowed as how he was flying near mountainous terrain and began picking up ice in an undercast he could no longer climb above. Using his EFIS system, he quickly plotted an escape route to a nearby bolt hole. Without the EFIS, he reasoned, his only choice would have been to descend into the rocks, thus the EFIS had saved his life.

Old-school types such as myself will snicker at this because we know that the pilot saved himself with what he had. In days of yore, we learned to do the same, even if all we had was an E6B, a coffee-grinder ADF and a Navomatic. Before that, the old-timers did it with LF ranges and so on. It's not yet clear to me if EFIS is making survival any more likely, although it may be making decision-making quicker and more informed, thanks to simply having an unprecedented amount of information readily at hand.

At this juncture, I began to realize that general aviation is in a strange but unmistakable parallel universe with the military. Newsweek reported this month that for the first time in its history, the Air Force will soon be training more UAV operators than new fighter pilots. This is the leading edge of a sea change the futurists have been talking about. UAV operators have a different set of cognitive demands and processes than do pilots. Not having your hide on the line for decisions you make—or fail to make—changes the notion of "flying" entirely. So does not feeling your ass slide across the seat in an uncoordinated turn.

Glass panel junkies are in a similar circumstance only to the extent that glass can reduce flying, especially instrument flying, to so many datablocks and pixels. Autopilot usage is encouraged with glass-equipped aircraft, so the exercise becomes more knob twisting than stick yanking, thus the parallel with the UAV operator. The point of departure is that the pilot's skin is on the line—the vehicle is definitely manned.

I make this observation not to suggest any longing for the good old days or to imply that the modern, EFIS-oriented pilot is somehow inferior. To me, it's pointless to grind a moral point on this. But it does seem clear to me that setting aside niggly complaints about how pages are organized, the operating logic and the layout of the knobs, the modern EFIS is fundamentally reshaping the light aircraft pilot's relationship with the machine. It's changing how pilots think and how they assign value to the tools available to them. I once used a back-up vacuum system to bail myself out of a pump failure in IMC. But it didn't save me. I saved me.

This trend of easing the pilot out of the control loop—or at least changing his involvement--has been going on the airlines for awhile, but it's new for light GA. Maybe it's a good thing, maybe not. I have to confess that I sometimes think it spoils the fun.

Comments (21)

"Glass cockpits" have one real disadvantage I have never seen expressed. 10 to20% of people have red green color blindness. This may be in minor or greater degrees of severity and not usually severe enough to medically disqualify pilots and of no problem in flying the aircraftper se. However with the emergence of "glass" which uses various shades of color,scanning for information, especially re/green gradiations becomes a difficult and distracting task which sneaks up on a new "glass" pilot accustomed to scanning the easily read black and white "steam guages" to which he is accustomed. Interpretaion of the colored guages can be difficult and require more concentration for things to make sense. So, pilots beware when transitioning to this new technology which is otherwise safety enhancing. Further, "more heads in the cockpit time" while programing is also ann obvious negative.

Posted by: thomas williams | October 1, 2009 7:45 AM    Report this comment


To add a finer point to yours, much like any overused buzzword, the changes to aviation that "glass" brings seems to have taken on mythical proportions.

The game in aviation is still the same: move the aircraft from one point on the earth to another through the air without hitting anything other than the runway upon returning to earth. That requires some base amount of stick and rudder skills, and knowledge and judgment to determine when and how to use the stick and rudder skills.

"Glass" ongoing mission is to try and present the most amount of information in the most useful way possible so that the pilot can make use of that to drive his stick and rudder skills. All things being equal, more info USUALLY means more informed and often more expeditiously made decisions, which in turn leads to more appropriate and sound stick and rudder use.

"Glass" by definition is merely the presentation media and will not be replacing human judgment. Advanced systems that rely on the same sensing infrastructure that presentation systems do will continue to lighten the load of stick and rudder to the point where flying may simply only be a form of "distance management", but that is a wholly separate issue.

Posted by: Avi Weiss | October 1, 2009 9:15 AM    Report this comment

At the risk of sounding like an old geezer I remember doing practice approaches in 172s equiped with minimum IFR instruments and no autopilot in 400ft and 1 mile vis and deriving a tremendous sense of satisfaction and accomplishment from it. In more recent times I've been doing lots of approaches to minimums in glass cockpit airplanes on autopilot and experiencing none of those feelings, it's become so easy and shall I say "boring". The increase in safety is great but the "fun" factor has gone down a lot. I am not saying the old ways were better and I would not go back to them, they were just more fulfilling. You had to use your skills more instead of pushing buttons. .

Posted by: michel palacci | October 1, 2009 11:47 AM    Report this comment

Speaking from the standpoint of one who has been flying privately for 46 years, and never having been able to afford a real glass cockpit (other than a Garmin 430 or a 496), it would appear to me that the real beauty of glass is the ability to acquire and present useful information that the old steam gauges simply couldn't. Terrain and surface obstructions, NexRad Wx, on-map AWOS, etc must surely help the pilot make well-informed decisions and increase the airplane's utility. The flight instrument and engine performance data are nice too, although quite readily retrieved from the old instrumentation as well. My concern, however, is more related to A/P use: My experience has been that the more I rely on the A/P, the less skillful I become with the mechanics of just controlling the airplane. A dear friend and retired MD80 captain tells me he was once asked by his copilot why he was hand flying the MD80 from takeoff to altitude, and hand flying many approaches, when the company manual said to engage the flight director after takeoff and leave it on through the approach. He told her "When this thing quits [pointing to the A/P], and I mean 'when,' not 'if,' I want to be sure I can still fly this aircraft." On her next leg, she asked him if it would be OK if she flew it without the A/P. He said "Sure!". After landing she turned to him with a beaming smile and said "Wow! That was the first time a captain ever let me do that. It was the most fun I've had flying in years!"

Posted by: John Johnson | October 1, 2009 2:00 PM    Report this comment

Paul, I'm glad you mentioned your ass as the center of flight. I found with my first flying that my ass was the center of the airspace, maybe the universe itself. That feeling defined flying for me. I'm also sure that my first instructor was the one that hooked up the rest of my senses to that relationship. We had no electricity to intrude on our shared environment. The airplane, ground, and air was "us". With my first solo it became "ME". What a feeling! Fortune allowed a ride in new shiny LSA the other day and even with a glass panel the feeling crept back. That is until I tried to understand the relationship of the screen to the experience. It felt more like flying a computer with my ass flopping around the room. A totally unsatisfying feeling. The disconnect, I'm sure, would fade with practice but maybe the "fun" factor would also fade. Still, that graphic display on a night x-country would be a friend indeed. As for UAV's, just RC's without the thrill. A computer game with real dead people.

Posted by: Larry Fries | October 1, 2009 2:30 PM    Report this comment

For me I need to define parameters or usage for this subject. One is the VFR or IFR need. My aircraft kit provided a windscreen for terrain avoidance, weather judgements, potential runway incursions, and most aircraft sightings. I don't use an A/P, and after maybe 6 hours a day on a computer, the last thing I want to see is a computer when I fly - day vfr. Glass can't be argued for the airlines or business for safety and efficiency reasons, but recreation flying?

But to me, Paul, the biggest reason for the changes you mentioned with glass is, Marketing, or $$. I wouldn't sell a mountain bike to a city-only rider, but glass panel companies will gladly sell a 5k unit to a J-3 Cub pilot. It's actually promoted heavily this way for us recreational flyers. But, it is big business, and helps GA so... but I think it is the main reason for their use where they're not needed. And I also think I have an analog interpretation of most things - my watch is a little clock with arms - so I use (pet peave ahead!) 'New Analog' gauges in my panel, not 'old steam' ones, consciously striving to avoid info-overload at every turn and just enjoy the flight.

Posted by: Dave Miller | October 2, 2009 8:04 PM    Report this comment

Paul, after 22 years on the ground I am flying again thanks to the new Sport Pilot and Light Sport Aircraft rules. I agree with you that things have changed a lot recently, but I have a problem with your terminology.

In the Light Sport and Experimental world the term EFIS refers to a device that supplies flight instruments, similar to a six-pack, and very little else. The most popular such device, made by Dynon, also offers an HSI but for the most part these things don't provide any navigation information.

Your story about the pilot who was saved by his electronics and many other stories about current flying seem to be a lot more about the new existence of GPS systems rather than electronic gyros. The GPS devices provide a wealth of information which just wasn't available in light plane cockpits 20 years ago, but they also require the pilot to become a full time GPS operator at times when he should really be flying the plane. It offers so many options and new data such as airport information, airspace boundaries and frequencies, weather, terrain, and navigation planning that the pilot gets buried in playing with all this stuff.

My bottom line is that you are completely correct that the world for pilots has seen a huge change, but I think it is the GPS that is responsible. That means anyone who brings a portable GPS aboard an old airplane still has all the same problems keeping his attention on flying the plane.

Posted by: Paul Mulwitz | October 5, 2009 6:13 AM    Report this comment

When it comes down to it, the real benefit of glass can also be had without glass; a good MFD and data sources that provide Wx, terrain, traffic, Nexrad etc. gives the pilot just as much info as the fancy integrated systems. I would even argue that learning on a steam gauge aircraft so equipped, integrating the info management into the training, would make one a more proficient instrument pilot than one who learned on glass alone.

Posted by: Andy Manning | October 5, 2009 8:05 AM    Report this comment

The race to automation since the advent of the automated aircraft in the 1970’s/1980’s, has created a generation of pilots, many of whom are "autopilot dependent" who would have a very difficult time hand-flying an IFR approach to minimums in difficult conditions, that a 1960’s/1970’s pilot would have handled without problems.

We train pilots how to handle engine failures, but it would appear that the training provided to pilots as regards how to handle autopilot failures is inadequate, or the industry attitude toward automation has prevented many of the universe of professional pilots from being able to properly diagnose failures of the automation or their own monitoring failures, and the accidents demonstrating that fact continue to accumulate.

Posted by: THOMAS OLSEN | October 5, 2009 1:30 PM    Report this comment

To add to the problem, an instrument scan is a perishable commodity. Most operator’s current policy on automation prevents pilots from either creating or maintaining the hand-flying skills it takes to confidently handle a failure or mishandling of the automation.

The policies of manufacturers and operators that require their crews to operate the aircraft almost solely through automation has overcome what should be a well developed sense of self preservation by pilots. The autopilot should be monitored as closely as you would a brand new copilot who is new to the airplane.

Autopilots may be more reliable than new hand flying copilots, but that doesn’t relieve the pilots of their basic responsibilities to control the speed and flight path of their aircraft to a safe landing.

Posted by: THOMAS OLSEN | October 5, 2009 1:34 PM    Report this comment

In the "good old days", a pilot would never have allowed a fellow pilot to do anything close to what the pilots of Colgan 3407 (who failed to monitor basic instruments, in this case airspeed, and allowed the aircraft to stall in level flight) or the Turkish B-737 crew in Amsterdam where the power went to idle due to a spurious signal from the radar altimeter and the aircraft continued for 100 seconds, without intervention by the pilots, until it stalled.

We must ask, why did these pilots think that the autopilot was so perfect that these pilots could think that they could ignore the airspeed of their aircraft during a critical phase of flight? The failure to properly monitor is a symptom of what must be called “autopilot dependence”.

Posted by: THOMAS OLSEN | October 5, 2009 1:38 PM    Report this comment

Basically, there are a significant number of fatal accidents where something was wrong with the automation, or the way the automation was handled, and the pilots either refused, or waited too long, to take the aircraft off the autopilot to properly control the flight path manually to prevent the accident. If the pilots were confident of having requisite hand-flying skills, and took the proper action to control their aircraft, there is little doubt that most (perhaps all) of the automation related fatal accidents in the last 30+ years could have been prevented.

Something is wrong here that needs to be fixed, and further automation is not the answer, because the automation will inevitably fail for one reason or another.

Posted by: THOMAS OLSEN | October 5, 2009 1:43 PM    Report this comment

GPS/Moving Maps are the biggest "safety" items in the new age. The next step will be synthetic vision.

EFIS is just an in-between stage.

Posted by: Mark Fraser | October 5, 2009 2:11 PM    Report this comment

What, exactly, does "EFIS" mean? OK, what does "EFIS system" mean?

Posted by: Jeff Gorss | October 5, 2009 3:07 PM    Report this comment

Electronic Flight Instrument System. Essentially television screens (some small, some not so small) that contain the normal flight instrument information as well as having at least some capability to display engine, weather, checklist and terrain information.

Usually these devices are hooked up to very capable autopilots. There is also another term (perhaps archic) and that is Automated (Automatic) Flight Guidance System (AFGS) which would include the EFIS and its marrying up with a capable autopilot.

Posted by: THOMAS OLSEN | October 5, 2009 3:15 PM    Report this comment

So, "EFIS system" is "Electronic Flight Instrument System system"?

Thanks, Thomas. The point was, I'm just trying to get people to think about what acronyms mean.

Posted by: Jeff Gorss | October 5, 2009 3:31 PM    Report this comment

I have seen an ATC rated pilot who could not coordinate "stick and rudder" in a T-6 even with repeated attempts. He washed himself out of his training but returned to his flying career. What does this say about the "quality" of modern pilots? Fly for fun or money or "defence". It seems to me that those who see flight as a job should have to demonstrate basic skill and pride first. When systems fail the pilot should not. The "relaxed" training, at the primary level, has robbed the new generation of the pride of true airmanship. Glass in the front office should give comfort and reassurance. If it does more than that the pilot is behind the curve and in danger. Glass is super but should not replace skill or fun.

Posted by: Larry Fries | October 5, 2009 4:14 PM    Report this comment

Learning how to fly is especially problematical where the training aircraft have "glass". This only means that the training time is used up trying to learn how to operate the "glass" than learning how to fly.

Unfortunately, the schools advertise their "glass" airplanes as some kind of advantage in learning how to fly. I think that future accidents will show that this is not the case.

Then there are those schools who are more concerned with preventing lawsuits (which is not a bad idea) rather than providing their students with a rich, demanding and varied training experience.

Bad Scene!

Posted by: THOMAS OLSEN | October 5, 2009 4:26 PM    Report this comment

Sorry, Should read ATP rated pilot. Thomas, I agree and wonder about the airmanship of CFI's. Where are the "geezers" who truly understood what control of the aircraft means? Why did the stall and spin control become unnecessary? As a realm of flight and a basic demonstration of control of the aircraft, what can a CFI use as a judgment of safety and skill? Consider for a moment the unskilled drivers on the road. Even with "navis" and electronics a patch of ice or sand creates carnage. We don't know what we don't know. They claim the systems do a better job than the pilots. Is that a comment on the quality of the pilot(s) on board? I hope not. Right, Sully?

Posted by: Larry Fries | October 5, 2009 5:32 PM    Report this comment

"I have seen an ATC rated pilot who could not coordinate "stick and rudder" in a T-6 even with repeated attempts....What does this say about the "quality" of modern pilots?"

It has more to do with the quality of modern aircraft. Airplanes d esignedin the 30's and 40's were notoriously quirky to fly and control harmony was just not designed in. Modern airplanes are a delight to fly and most can be flown around with feet flat on the floor.

I think the ease of flying modern planes makes pilots flying skills lazy, not instrumentation. Fantastic instrumentation makes other skills rusty.

Posted by: Mark Fraser | October 6, 2009 11:02 AM    Report this comment

Modern autopilots are very precise - just like the computers that make them work. However, they are not flexible like human pilots. So long as the conditions and operation of the electronics are as good as the designers of the hardware and particularly software expected things will go well. As soon as something unexpected comes up the computers fail to adjust and just screw up or quit working at all.

Put another way, electronics do a great job of keeping exactly on the planned course or altitude but when they stop working correctly they are an extreme hazard. I'll take a competent human pilot any day over a computer.

Posted by: Paul Mulwitz | October 6, 2009 11:19 AM    Report this comment

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