EFIS As Lifesavers?
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.