Modern Avionics: Beneficiaries and Victims

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About five years ago, when I was doing some research on used airplane prices, I had a disquieting revelation. When late-model Cessna 172s were listed, they were inevitably described as G1000 Skyhawks. It was as though we had crossed some invisible divide and the venerable old Hawk–really not much changed from the original collection of aluminum and rubber Cessna stamped out in 1956–was now relegated to second fiddle; a mere conveyance to squire a radio from Point A to Point B. The act of flying had suddenly become subservient to a device whose sole job was to efficiently (and expensively) abstract what was once the most fun you could have with your clothes on. A trend was maturing.

I actually first noticed it nearly two decades ago when I began instructing people in the then-emerging moving map GPS navigators. Standard practice was to clap the airplane on autopilot and then bury two sets of eyes in the boxes menus and pages. At the time, it seemed like fun, but now Im not so sure. What I did not foresee is that an almost religious devotion to further abstraction and complexity in the design of these devices would have a hand in making flying ever more unreachable for many and a frustration for more than a few.

The other day, my colleague, Larry Anglisano, and I were dissecting why it can be such an agita-inducing pain to fly a G1000 airplane. Neither of us are exactly Luddites, since Larry has fixed these products and taught people to use most of them. Ive flown them off and on since they first appeared more than a decade ago. Ive evaluated all of the training courses, too. Off and on is the key phrase in the foregoing. Glass systems like the G1000 arent exactly hard to operate, but they have a definite learning curve and an unforgiving requirement for regular usage to retain proficiency. For some reason, G1000 sharpness seems as perishable as dead trout in August.

But because they are undeniably more expensive to install, own and operate, the regular usage part gets reduced to occasional usage and then less and then none at all, further playing into the trend that flying new airplanes is increasingly a game for either the very rich or those devoted enough to spend heroic proportions of their income on aviation. These expenses seep down through every level, from purchase, to training to rental checkouts.

And in return for this, whats the payoff? Moderately better autopilots, some improved reliability, marginally improved situational awareness over a portable GPS-maybe none at all over a tablet app-nice weather displays, dancing engine bars and traffic detection that may or may not actually enhance safety. Overall, no measureable impact on safety, economy or efficiency. (Yet, at least.)

All advancing technology is a tradeoff and so it is with glass. Im not arguing for a return to steam gauges by any means and dont mistake this for a debate about digital versus analog. I am merely noting that weve paid a price for these advances that I, for one, didnt see coming 20 years ago and which Im convinced has dented growth in aircraft sales by driving prices. As consumer electronics matured and developed, they became cheaper and more inclusive. A Somali goat herder can afford a cellphone. Modern avionics are just the reverse; in certified form, they tend toward more exclusivity every year.

Glass does something else: It changes the rules of engagement. When I fly a new airplane, it sometimes feels like Im doing so on Novocain. If Im marginally current on the G1000, which is usually the case, then I have the accompanying demo pilot operate the EFIS. But this is exactly wrong because it disengages me from the totality of operating a modern airplane and, to an extent, hobbles the ability to evaluate it accurately for a reader or a viewer. The reality is that flying something like a new Cirrus is much more mentally demanding than it was 12 years ago. That applies to the Skyhawk, too, or any other airplane with big glass. Although it should not be, the mental meld with the avionics is, increasingly, a dominant part of the flying experience and one that requires more ongoing cognitive maintenance than a GNS 430 ever did. But theres little evidence to suggest that this unavoidable attachment to the avionics does much for safety and perhaps not even for the enjoyment of flying.

You might argue that this was true when iron gyros replaced a compass and turn needle and when LF ranges displaced the watch and pencil. Theres truth to that, but even in high-tech 1940, when we momentarily didnt need the gyros, we still looked out the window more than we worshiped the abstraction that gyros introduced.

There will be no turning back, either, only an acceleration into the virtual world which will become the reality of flying for many. Redbird has acknowledged the idea that simulators could be their own end; you might go to the mall not to train for how it will be in a real airplane, but to fly a sim for the sake of flying a sim, perhaps competing with others in networked contests of skill. Heres a video glimpse of what this might look like. You can see how it could be effective training or just diversion. Im not sure if that appeals to me, but I cant say it doesnt, either. Last week, my dinner grew cold while I was absorbed in a competitive game on the tablets theyre starting to put in Chilis these days. But flying it aint.

All of which serves to frame for me something I couldnt quite figure out. I fly our little Cub a lot. Never go anywhere worth mentioning and the only technology that intrudes is a scratchy radio and the occasional iPad. And the more I fly it, the more I enjoy it, which is a bit puzzling considering how easily bored I am. But the Cub represents for me the reason I got into flying in the first place: Its the change of perspective that comes from looking out the window. A real one. I like to see the houses get smaller. I like to see how dirty my neighbors swimming pool is.

As the virtual world gallops forward, the next generation of pilots will likely be people who dont much care about shrinking houses or how ground fog snakes along a river on a cool fall morning. They wont draw the distinction between the real world and a digital designers convincing rendering of it. I place no value judgment on that, but just acknowledge its inevitability. There is no point but to embrace this reality and move on. Otherwise, we all risk devolving into cranks who yell at the kids to get off the lawn.

Throughout the history of advancing technology, there have been brief pauses, revolts of sorts, in the headlong dash to whats next. The mind-numbing tedium of factory work and the office labor that supported it ignited the Arts and Crafts movement at the end of the 19th century. A resurgence of manual craft labor was seen as restorative by some, moving author T.J. Jackson Lears to offer an observation that applies yet today: Toward the end of the 19th century, many beneficiaries of modern culture began to feel they were its secret victims.

I doubt if we’ll see the Arts and Crafts equivalent in aviation, my romance with the Cub notwithstanding. With our appetite for expensive gadgetry, weve made ourselves too small, too rarified and too exclusive for that, as we produce ever more expensive, albeit impressive, products that ever fewer people can afford. There are inklings that the industry has realized this and is struggling for alternatives, at least in avionics. BendixKing has pledged an interest in less expensive and easier-to-operate avionics. But none have appeared yet. Aspen will shortly roll out a modest version of its glass system at an attractive low price. I hear the pledges, like everyone else. But as the AEA show opens this week, I hope to see actual products. If other people feel what I feel, theres a niche there.

Then the question becomes, will the inhabitants of our asylum really respond to cheaper and lesser with sufficient enthusiasm to grow the herd? Or will we, in our moneyed taste for driving avionics into ever more dazzling automated renderings of whats beyond the windows, ignore the modest but perfectly capable avionics that lower prices portend? If so, well continue to be both the beneficiaries and the secret victims Lear was writing about.

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