EFIS Safety Study: Hardly a Surprise
After I read the NTSB's findings on glass cockpits and safety, I felt the urge to stifle a yawn. My initial reaction was, is this all there is? My next reaction was to try to recall if glass displays were ever pitched as significant safety enhancers. Maybe I missed school that day or perhaps the notion that EFIS displays are just naturally safer has become so intuitively ingrained that we don't even discuss it anymore. I wouldn't have been a bit surprised if the study—which involved very few accidents as these things go—revealed a negative safety benefit for EFIS.
Either way, the NTSB's findings confirm my own research into the subject. I'm currently poring over Cirrus accident data to gain some sense of how this airplane—which really pioneered EFIS for everyman—fits into the overall accident picture. My initial findings are in tune with the NTSB's work: The Cirrus accident rate is about in the middle of GA in general, but the percentage of accidents that are fatal is higher than it is for other models. The boilerplate reason for this is that the airplane is used for different types of missions that involve transportation flights in challenging weather. That may be true, but a number of Cirrus accidents occurred on flights that don't meet this profile.
Another way of looking at the NTSB's report is to turn it on its head. Accepting that the Cirrus is often used essentially like a business jet is, it has significantly more exposure to high-hazard weather than other models. Yet in that high-hazard environmental, the Cirrus (globally) has turned in an accident rate similar to the fleet in general. Following that logic, the airplane as a system may in fact be statistically safer. "System" includes the airframe, the pilot and the EFIS. I'd add another element to that: the Cirrus Owners and Pilots Association, whose members have a dramatically lower accident incidence than non-COPA members.
I've always felt that EFIS for EFIS's sake is overblown. My view is that its real benefit is in training pilots to fly on instruments, not necessarily keeping them current. As an instrument instructor, an abnormally high percentage of my total time is instrument time in actual IMC because I did that instruction in the northeast and mid-Atlantic states where the weather abides the serious IFR student. I've never trained a student using an EFIS panel and I'd like to hear from instructors who have.
Given the centered, logical scan opportunity inherent in a PFD, I've also always assumed that it's just easier—and perhaps safer—to fly behind a glass panel, operability and complexity issues notwithstanding. I'm not so sure that's true, however. I was recently offered the left seat of an Entegra-equipped Cirrus and we launched into really low IMC. At the time, I was way out of currency, but with a qualified CFII in the right seat, I figured this would be the perfect laboratory to test my EFIS-easy-scan theory. I figured that a couple of thousand hours of steam-gauge IMC time was bulletproof insurance.
We disappeared into the overcast at 200 feet and, just as I predicted, I had the headings and airspeeds nailed. It was an illusion, however. When I transitioned into the more dynamic maneuvering of the approach, I made a complete hash of it—headings all over the map, yo-yo descent rates—all the stuff of a rusty, undisciplined scan. So much for bulletproof. I doubt I would have done any better on steam gauges, but at least for me, EFIS didn't offer sufficient magic to overcome lack of recent training, despite my expectation that it might.
I continue to believe that glass panels represent real progress and offer the potential for lowering accident rates. But like every other new technology, it takes time to integrate the advantages into daily operations—maybe a lot more time than anyone thought.
The all-purpose bromide that we need better training is just part of it. Our publications have written widely on the various EFIS systems and, frankly, I have found many of these articles to be quite irritating. They tend to deal with flyspeck minutiae at the expense of the big picture and often tell the reader how to adapt to the machine's software foibles while losing sight of the basic idea of flying the airplane in clouds. It's as though the purpose of flying is to twirl knobs and try to digest a lot of cool data that's not even relevant to getting there.
So I don't expect much out of "improved training." Frankly, I am more intrigued with the basic attitude that causes a pilot to join an organization like COPA and remain engaged with it as a means of sharpening proficiency. The give-and-take and informational exchange with like-minded pilots clearly has more efficacy than another dreary acronym like FITs or TAA or whatever the hell the industry comes up with next.
When you think about it, things like this have to do with personal responsibility. With the right attitude, even high-risk flights can be conducted safely and most of us can figure this out without someone else dreaming up special training.