Technology in the (Small Airplane) Cockpit

When I learned to fly 2 summers ago in San Jose, California, I flew this beauty –

9091L

A 1960s Bellanca Citabria 7ECA.

It’s about as simple as airplanes get – no flaps, constant pitch propeller, tailwheel, center stick, front and back seating, and a 115 HP Lycoming engine with a gravity fed fuel system.

And the cockpit looks something like this (I don’t have a photo of the instrument panel for that plane, so this is a random Google image for a plane of the same type) –

citabria

There is no attitude indicator. No heading indicator. No any kind of navigation equipment. Basic 4-dials Mode-C transponder (required because we were under SFO Class B). 90 kt cruise.

Simulated instrument flying was very interesting. I did all my PPL hood flying with a partial panel!

On the plus side, on the PPL written exam there are always a few questions on minimum equipment lists – is this instrument legally required for day VFR? Is that instrument required for night VFR? etc. Those questions were very easy for me, since all I had to do was to think about the cockpit – if it’s on my airplane, it’s legally required to be there, otherwise it’s not.

I did OK. Flew some cross-countries using my Android tablet for navigation, and passed my checkride.

1 day after I passed the checkride, before I had a chance to exercise the privileges of my FAA license even once, I had to move back to Vancouver… and with that a 1 month wait for the highly efficient organization Transport Canada to issue me a license validation so I can fly in Canada.

As soon as I got the validation (and medical), I took a virtual Google-stroll to the airport to find an airplane to rent… there were a lot of 30 years old Cessna 172s as I have expected, but then I also found out that I can also fly an almost fully loaded Diamond DA40 with G1000 avionics for only about $20/hr more… sounds like a deal to me.

I had never flown a technologically advanced aircraft before, but I decided to give it a try, and I was immediately hooked.

This is the airplane I have been flying –

da40

g1000

2005 Diamond DA40. All composite. G1000 avionics. Way more navigation instruments than I need or know how to use. 2 axis autopilot with altitude hold and preselect. A database of the entire world’s airports and airspaces. Live weather and TFRs from satellite link. Secondary surveillance radar with active interrogation. Fuel-injected 180hp Lycoming engine with variable pitch propeller. 145 kt cruise.

I pretty much just time-traveled about 40 years forward, from a fabric Citabria with barebone instruments to a Diamond Star.

And I don’t think I will ever turn back, if I have a choice. I really like all the additional safety technology provides.

There is a lot of debate in the aviation community about the merit of these glass airplanes, which is what prompted me to write this post.

How has technology made flying safer?

Workload

It is more tiring to fly the DA40 by hand in cruise than other aircraft of the same class, just because it cruises at 145 kt.

On a C172 if your attitude is 1-2 degrees off in cruise, you’ll probably end up climbing or descending at 100 fpm or so.

On the DA40, if your attitude is 1-2 degrees off, you’ll be off the assigned altitude by couple hundred feet in no time (though autopilot will say “leaving altitude” in that case to warn the pilot, if properly set up, even when not engaged).

Yes, hand flying the DA40 is definitely doable, and I have done it a few times, but nowadays I almost always use autopilot in cruise (when I don’t have a passenger to use as autopilot).

That way I don’t have to spend 50% of my mental capacity on flying the airplane, and can focus on other things like navigation, traffic scans, and keeping up with building a mental map of where everyone else is by listening in on the radio, etc.

Computers are good at mundane tasks like keeping an airplane straight and level. Why have a human do it?

Has my piloting skill gotten rusty due to my use of autopilot? I don’t think so.

I still do most of climbs and descents by hand, and those are more difficult than cruising anyways.

Crew fatigue is a common contributing cause of accidents, and autopilots make flying much less tiring.

As an aside, unintentional flight into IMC is another major VFR-pilot-killer, and having autopilot (and knowing how to use it) makes those situations much more survivable. In fact, the new FAA recommendation for people getting into those sticky situations is to use autopilot to get out, if one is available and the pilot is familiar with it.

Situational Awareness

If I have a gradual loss of oil pressure or alternator failure in flight, how long would it take me to notice it?

I try to glance at engine instruments every 10-20 seconds, but I know I have gone for couple minutes without glancing at them in very high stress situations – eg. flying a long final into busy airspace, being 5th in sequence and looking for 4 planes in front, while trying to maintain 60 kt (stall warning constantly blaring) in strong crosswind because the airplane in front is a C152 flying a 50 kt approach, taking care to not stall, all while configuring the airplane for landing and looking for a VFR checkpoint I am not familiar with.

I am a creature of probabilities, and in those situations, my chance of dying from a mid-air collision is much higher than my chance of dying from a loss of oil pressure, so I prioritize accordingly.

But wouldn’t it be nice if there is a computer that is constantly checking those things for you, and will give you a nice audible warning if anything is wrong?

G1000 does that.

It also monitors the integrity of input sensor data (presumably by cross-checking), and will put big red crosses over instruments if there is any doubt, just so the pilot won’t use wrong information.

Sure, it’s slightly annoying that it always warns about loss of oil pressure while idling the engine on the ground, but I would still rather have it than without.

Could something like that have saved Air France Flight 447?

There is also real time weather available (METARs, TAFs, satellite overlay, position of recent lightning strikes, etc), with obvious benefits.

Traffic

Every pilot in Vancouver has a story or two.

Not fun stories. Stories of close calls.

Every year, 1 or 2 pilots die in Vancouver from mid-air collisions.

It doesn’t matter how good the traffic scan is – every pilot will get a few close calls if they fly enough (a few hours is usually enough).

It’s a scary place to fly, especially since unlike in the states, Vancouver Terminal doesn’t offer flight following, and everyone is on their own.

A series of mid-air collisions and close calls starting from the 1956 accident over the Grand Canyon led to regulations that made collision avoidance equipment (TCAS) mandatory on commercial flights, but for another few decades those equipment were too expensive to be installed on small airplanes.

That started to change couple years ago, as more and more small airplanes are now equipped with traffic avoidance systems, including the DA40 I fly, and I am very thankful of that, as a Vancouver-based pilot.

It’s an active secondary surveillance radar, which basically means it can see all transponder-equipped aircraft. Integrated into G1000, it can display all those traffic on the moving map tagged by their relative altitude, and issue audible warnings (in ATC traffic advisory format) when another airplane gets too close.

Obviously it doesn’t relieve the pilot of the duty to see and avoid, but it’s still very nice to have.

It has already helped me see a few airplanes that I probably would have never seen, including one time when another faster airplane was coming up from behind, and ATC didn’t give us a warning until they were way too close.

There is no way we would have seen that guy.

You could say my traffic scan is not good enough, but I’d rather be alive than dead even if that’s true.

Mid-air collisions are one of the leading ways to die in an airplane, so I always use everything I have at my disposal to stop it – that includes my eyes, my passengers’ eyes, ATC, and now TAS.

In the future, hopefully TASs won’t be necessary once US NextGen ATC services become widely available (traffic maps are much cheaper to implement using ADS-B). Hopefully we will see much wider adoption then.

But until then (and in Canada, which apparently has no plans to implement ADS-B), TASs are very nice to have.

Today

Virtually all airplanes being made today have glass cockpits, so technology is taking over the GA world whether we like it or not, and rent on glass airplanes is already getting pretty close to rent on older airplanes.

In places like SF bay area, there are so many G1000 (and Avidyne) airplanes that they don’t really cost much more than 1970 spam cans to rent (though they are still quite a bit more expensive to buy).

You could say we don’t need technology as long as we keep our eyes open at all times, but that’s much easier said than done, and flying for couple hours in one of the practice areas in Vancouver on a sunny Saturday afternoon may change your mind.

Everyone makes mistakes sometimes, and technology makes mistakes less deadly, on average.

New small airplanes now have almost as much technology as Boeing 747s from just a few years ago, and for some reason some people are saying that’s a bad thing and is totally unnecessary. I beg to differ.

Sure, they tempt some people into doing things they would not otherwise have done, like flying into IMC without proper training, but the same can be said for almost all safety features, and history has proven again and again that we cannot stop Darwin.

If cars don’t have seat belts, I probably would drive much more conservatively than I do now. Why isn’t anyone arguing for the removal of seat belts?