People own airplanes—or fly airplanes—for a handful of reasons and actually levitating them into the air may not be high on the list. The DNA chain that manifests itself in the urge to become a pilot probably started with those cave dwellers irresistibly attracted to bright, shiny objects. As a class, pilots like gadgets, complexity and mechanical challenge to varying degrees. And the avionics industry has been happy to feed the need.
That’s the context for a note I got from reader Jim Herd earlier this month. He’s contemplating an avionics upgrade to his 1998 Bonanza, but has reservations. “Most of my cronies are between 60 and 80 years old and we have been seriously discussing the pros and cons of a glass upgrade. Those that have done it already report a consistent problem—given their vast experience and advanced years, it is incredibly difficult to successfully make the switch from what they know intimately (burned into their brains over decades) to what they don’t know (glass). Worse, the switch can actually be very dangerous due to mishandling the new avionics in the cockpit and its vastly different user interface.”
In other words, old guys have trouble learning new avionics. This is nothing particularly new, either. And it doesn’t just apply to old guys. I was reading The Aviators recently, describing pilots during the 1930s transitioning into the world of real instrument flying. Many struggled and some failed. When the first glass displays came into airline cockpits in the early to mid-1980s, senior pilots whose experience may have dated to piston aircraft had to learn these systems and some of them struggled, too. The parade marches on.
Reader Herd notes that “there is almost a stigma that anyone who is intimidated by glass and hasn’t yet upgraded is a Neanderthal. No old pilot wants to be accused of that. Heck, it is tantamount to being told to hang up his/her spurs.” I have to admit, this is a new one on me. This has never occurred to me personally and I think it’s the least good reason to upgrade a panel. Nothing wrong with motoring around on steam gauges if that makes you happy.
So what are the good reasons for upgrading? Maybe your old radios are just crappy and don’t work that well. Or maybe you need the additional capability new equipment brings, such as GPS approaches, moving maps and dynamic flight planning. Or perhaps you have a big pot of money and—see above—you just like gadgets. Those are all good reasons, but there’s a piper to pay and it’s not just Acme Avionics. As Herd notes, the training challenge is not trivial and any pilot not willing to do it should probably skip the upgrade. Yes, you get these new capabilities—perhaps some you don’t even need—but it will take work. Maybe a lot of work.
How to rank these capabilities? This gets complicated. My impression is that as pilots age into their 60s and 70s, they take active IFR flying off the table as being too demanding. This is unfortunate, because one way of keeping an aging brain limber is to challenge it with the kind of analytical and abstract thinking that instrument flying requires. Of course, you have to do enough of it to keep yourself from becoming a crater looking for a grid reference. I suppose that hourly number varies by pilot, but I’d start the bidding at 50 hours or more as being the ideal rock-bottom minimum. I’m talking real IFR here, including IMC in weather that’s not too insanely low. If you don’t fly necessary trips in weather, then that might mean what I call avocational IFR; clouds for the hell of it.
Absent the need for IFR capability, gadget lust or the replacement cycle might justify the bother and expense, but otherwise I’m skeptical of doing it for self-esteem reasons to prove to myself that I’m not so far over the hill as to require retirement from flying. Even sans hard IFR flying, a state-of-the-art moving map and all the useful flight data that goes with it certainly has real situational awareness benefits. It’s better to see restricted airspace or terrain on a display rather than blunder into it and better to know how far the airport or some feature is rather than guess. Traffic and weather options are nice to have and so is integrated fuel management.
But the benefits aren’t presented on a platter; training is required. I’d stop short of suggesting we need an industry initiative to either simplify interfaces or devise training specifically for older pilots. It’s analogous to programs to encourage more women to enter aviation. Encourage yes, but at some point, you have to suck it up and do it.
As a competitive edge, some avionics shops offer kick-start training with new installations and upgrades. While laudable, this probably isn’t sufficient to reach proficiency, but it does address the problem many of us have in confronting new technology: where to begin. It’s not too hard to find CFIs who specialize in such training, but again, at some point you have to clear the nest and do it on your own. Otherwise, why bother?
Building on that basis, there’s plenty of tutorial material on manufacturer websites to jolly the training along. Garmin has a good series on the GTN navigator and there’s also a PC simulator. These delve as deeply into the interface as most pilots are going to want to go, I suspect. With its touchscreen interface, the GTN series are among the easiest avionics to use for the capability provided, which is considerable. But only technological savants or the exceptionally patient will make it play satisfactorily without some kind of training. I’ll concede that not all manufacturers provide good tutorials. We could stand some improvement, I’m sure.
Tablet apps are another way to peel the apple. For a fraction of the cost, they provide many of the benefits of a panel-mount moving map (sans communication) albeit also requiring experimentation if not formal training. Again, the major apps have tutorials and tablets offer the advantage of being operable anywhere at anytime. While you’re bored, which for many of us may be several times a day, brandish your phone or tablet and run through the app just to refresh yourself. Yes, this marks you as one of the sociopaths who focus more on a smartphone than people in the room, but welcome to modern life. We all asked for this or we wouldn’t be buying it.
And that gets me to the discipline part of this equation. I’m not exactly a kid and my job requires using several kinds of computer software at high levels. The challenge for me is that I might do these operations only two or three times a year and I inevitably forget the details. To address this, I have my own personal mini-kaizen program of periodic self training using tutorials or knowledge bases. That material is out there in abundance and both easy to find and free. But I accept that the price I pay for having this capable technology at my fingertips is the need for ongoing refresher training.
When I was flying Garmin’s G1000 more regularly than I am now, I did the same with a PC simulator, refreshing myself before each flight. I don’t fly the G1000 often enough now to continue that, but I would if I had to. I find the G1000 to be more difficult than the GTNs, so now I let the demo pilot run the panel. I don’t see any reason why an older pilot frustrated with modern avionics shouldn’t do the same, unless he or she is flying enough not to need it. And who flies 100 or more hours these days? None of the modern avionics systems strike me as unlearnable, but they aren’t as simple as a KX155, either.
Whether the need for constant refreshment is a fair expectation or not resides between the ears. But the undeniable reality is that stasis doesn’t exist. What was true in the cockpit of 1990 is no longer true and there will be a different truth in 2025. Anyone contemplating an upgraded panel should know, going in, that it will require a new mindset to operate it effectively and safely. I would argue that pilots of any age or aptitude can get there with any kind of avionics but it will take varying amounts of effort to make that so. And just as no one could do the work of earning your first certificate for you, so too will no one learn avionics for you.
Fortunately, there’s more help out there than ever to get this done. All you have to do is seek it out. And don’t expect that hard-earned proficiency to be anything but fugitive. As flight instructors, the FAA dragged us through the laws of learning, one of which was the law of exercise. The more you repeat something, the better it sticks. So if you’re flying 25 hours a year, don’t expect much to stick.
Wait a Minute, Bud
While on the subject of avionics, Garmin has reminded me that the prices of its major avionics systems have more or less kept pace with inflation and not spiraled out of control, as have new aircraft prices. This was in response to a comment I made during our NBAA coverage that buyers are exiting the market because of Garmin’s prices. The context was meant to be general aviation all-inclusive, not Garmin specifically. I ham fisted the prose and should have been more precise about it.
The larger picture, in my view, is that with piston sales down 11 percent for the last quarter and avionics sales off over the same period a year ago, that’s an indication that buyers are standing on the sidelines or exiting the industry in general and I think one reason for this is price/value. Potential buyers don’t see the value in new aircraft and are turning to refurbs. Part of this may be temporary economic conditions, but the current economy is not so bad, with growth for the last reporting period at above 2 percent. Based on our reader mail and conversations at shows, I still sense a shallow downward trend in GA participation and it’s related to the cost of staying in it.
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