A tale of two panels

I’ve always loved gadgets, so when our flying club purchased a 2005 Cessna 172SP with a G1000 panel (which the club immediately upgraded to WAAS) and autopilot late in 2009 I was thrilled.  I had new toys to learn how to use and to play with—what could be more fun?  A small minority of my fellow club members, however, was less than thrilled.  A few even declared, “Round gauges are better.”

I soon discovered, however, that these few Luddite pilots a) rarely if ever fly cross-country, b) do not have an IFR rating, and c) have never flown an airplane with a glass panel or an autopilot, much less the combination thereof. When such quaint and uninformed pronouncements touting the inferiority of the new technology are uttered within my hearing, I typically reply with something diplomatic like, “You’re out of your gourd!”

Garmin G1000
Better than round gauges, unless you like eight-tracks.

I had initially thought that it would take me some time to learn to be confident with the completely new display of flight instruments that a glass panel offers, and that the “scan” would be just as difficult as with round gauges.  Different, yes—difficult, no.  After only a few flights I discovered that adapting to glass panel flight instruments was not a problem.

The glass panel display was obviously designed with a lot of thought about how the human eye-mind system collects and processes information. As for the scan, I discovered it was actually much simpler.  All of the critical information is clearly visible with hardly any eyeball motion required.  When you are on a glide slope, for example, the altitude, vertical speed, and glide slope indicator are all within an inch of one another and their status can be evaluated at a single glance.

Likewise, the rate of turn indicator, the directional gyro, and the course deviation indicator, the latter two in the form of a HSI, are right there together.  And who wouldn’t prefer a 10-inch-wide attitude indicator rather than one only three inches in length? Regardless of where on the PFD one chooses to focus, that horizon is right there in full view.  Tune a radio or check distance to next waypoint?  You can still see it clearly.

Sure, there are lots of buttons and soft keys to push on a glass panel, but those bring a wealth of information and convenience to the cockpit.  Want the latest METAR or TAF for your destination airport?  A few twists of a knob and a press of the WX soft key put that information right on the MFD.  And if you’re already pretty good with a Garmin GNS 430W or GNS 530W, learning how to operate the essential functions of the MFD of a G1000 system isn’t a big leap.

And then there is the two-axis autopilot (a Bendix/King KAP 140) coupled to the G1000—oh my, how nice that is. I had flown a Tri Pacer in the 1950s that had a single-axis autopilot and it would sort of hold course, sometimes, maybe, but it was far from a precision instrument.  In fact, after trying it a few times I never used it again—I could hand fly a lot better than that darned thing could do.  The new breed of autopilots coupled to modern avionics, however, really work and work well. Watching the G1000 and autopilot latch onto an ILS like a bulldog on a piece of meat and fly the airplane right down to minimums is a wonder to behold. As should be obvious by now, I fell in love with the new airplane pretty quickly.

One of the many benefits of flying a glass panel with a good autopilot came home to me when I flew two cross-country legs just 12 months apart in nearly identical IMC conditions in two different airplanes.  The first leg was on round gauges, the second behind the G1000.  And therein lies the following tale of two panels.

In September of 2009 my wife and I flew from our home in Corvallis, OR, to central California to visit friends and relatives.  We were flying a 1976 C172N equipped with traditional round gauges, a single Garmin GNS 430W, and no autopilot.  We left Palo Alto in the morning of the final day of our trip, popped up through the marine layer that covers the Bay Area most summer mornings, and made our way to Medford, OR, where we stopped for fuel and nourishment.

Passing through the northwest was one of those relatively benign, late summer weather fronts that usually involve clouds and a bit of rain but little or no turbulence and wonderfully high freezing levels.  We departed Medford and shortly after we had climbed to the MEA of 10,000 ft. we were in the clouds.  It wasn’t a particularly bumpy ride but it wasn’t perfectly smooth either.  It took appreciable effort for me to maintain my scan, to keep the wings level, and to hold course and altitude.

Serious IMC
Hard IFR without an autopilot is just plain exhausting.

In my spare time I kept an eye on the moving map, the CDI, and the engine instruments.  It was raining lightly in Corvallis when we arrived.  The ceiling was a few thousand feet AGL but visibility was only a little more than a mile.  I requested and got the GPS approach to runway 35, circled to land into the wind on runway 17, and we were down and safe at 1500 PDT.
It had been a fun trip and I didn’t mind the last hour in IMC at all, but by the time we got the airplane unloaded and put away, and drove the few miles home, I realized that I was exhausted.  The focus required to scan a panel full of round gauges and to hand-fly a light airplane in the clouds for an hour had pretty well drained me.  I went to bed at 1800 PDT and slept nearly 12 hours.  I don’t normally do that.

Now flip the calendar by one year to September 2010.  We had flown from Corvallis to the Bay Area and then to southern California. We left Long Beach on our last day at 0800 PDT, stopped in San Luis Obispo and again in Chico for fuel, a stretch, and a you-know-what, then departed for Corvallis.  This time, however, we were flying the club’s Cessna 172SP.  Shortly after passing Redding, we entered the clouds, again at the MEA of 10,000 feet.  In contrast to the previous year, however, the GPS in the G1000 was commanding the autopilot and the autopilot was keeping the wings level and holding course and altitude precisely.

As anyone who flies IFR knows, those are the three most difficult things to do when hand-flying in IMC, particularly in a lightweight airplane like a C172.  I was not in the least embarrassed that the airplane was flying itself much better than I could have done. With the hard stuff being taken care of, I was free to pay more attention to the engine instruments and the weather ahead as depicted on the MFD, and ensure that the GPS and the autopilot were doing what I had asked them to do.  This last leg of our trip, involving 1-1/2 hours of cloud time, was a piece of cake even though the trip from Long Beach, CA, to Corvallis, OR, had required a total of seven hours in the air.  The ceiling at Corvallis was high enough that we were able to make a visual approach to the airport once ATC had brought us down out of the clouds, and we were on the ground at 1700 PDT.

We unloaded and secured the airplane, and drove home.  Instead of being exhausted, as I was the previous year, I felt relaxed, rested, and ready to party.  The difference was that the G1000 and autopilot had relieved me of the really hard stuff, i.e., the tasks that take intense focus and lots of energy for long periods of time.  One does have to monitor the advanced systems closely, but it is not necessary to strain ones eyeballs or brain to the same extent as when hand flying while doing the round-gauge-eyeball-dance.

A common criticism of glass panels and autopilots is that one has to spend some time and effort to be proficient, and if you don’t know how to use them properly they can be dangerous.  That is indeed true but my reaction to that is, “Well, duh!”

Let me assert that if one doesn’t know how to use an airplane properly, an airplane can be dangerous.  Pilots have to invest considerable time and effort to learn how to fly in the first place so it should be no surprise that upgrades and improvements in the panel require additional investments in training and practice.  Accident statistics so far seem to indicate that some pilots are not doing as good a job as they should becoming proficient with modern avionics, but that is a pilot problem that can be overcome by training, practice, and good judgment.  It is not a legitimate knock on glass panels or automation in the cockpit.

Given a choice, I’ll take a glass panel and autopilot every time and happily spend whatever it takes to learn to use it properly and proficiently. As for the naysayers of glass panels, coupled autopilots, and other modern aviation marvels, I’ve got some really neat eight-track tapes I’d love to sell you.  And for just a few dollars more I’ll throw in an aluminum slide rule and an eight-inch floppy disk drive.  I’ve got that stuff in a box around here somewhere—I think.

Tags from the story
, , ,

26 Comments

  • Good points, but I have a negative reaction to the “Luddite” tack you took with your club mates. You have “always loved gadgets.” Please realize that others’ brains may be wired differently and that for some, these gadgets are a real pain to learn. Lots of people would rather spend time sweeping the driveway than learning any kind of embedded system. I just think that we need to open our minds to the fact that glass doesn’t work for everyone.

    • I think pilots should fly whatever they prefer and are comfortable with. My “Luddite” comment was directed at those who denigrate the new technology while having little or no experience or knowledge of how it works or what it does.

    • I would say to that “Each to his own!” In my opinion, and only “my opinion” I believe that any enhancement to the ongoing safe execution of flight is a plus in the aviation world. There are always “bugs” to iron out with new innovations BUT, the glass panel has been around long enough to be relatively free of those critters(bugs). Unless a person is a die-hard “Old School Purist” why wouldn’t anyone want to learn a system that exudes greater safety, convenience and precision to flight? I would think that it is a rather sad and somewhat lame excuse of refusing or resisting utilizing the new innovations to flight and being rather either a fear of learning something new or an ingrained laziness of wanting to learn, ultimately blaming it on “New Fangled Things!” If a person isn’t capable of learning something new, then why are they flying in the first place? Of course, if cost constraints are an issue, that is obviously understandable. But if that’s the excuse for not taking the initiative to “Learn” the glass cocpit/auto-pilot system, then that person, I believe, is greatly handicapping their potential for the enjoyment of flight and greater flight proficiency. Once again, there’s nothing wrong with preferring the use of the tried and true “Round Instruments” but I do think that the aforementioned attitude is also very limiting to ones true enhancement of the enjoyment of flying.

  • The author states that pilots who prefer round gauges are Luddites, and then a few sentences later sings the praises of the G1000 HSI display, which is…round.

  • I’m a very low-time student currently on a 16+ year hiatus.
    I work with computers all day and also love gadgets and technology. My problem with glass panels is all of the extra parts involved that can fail.
    With ‘steam gauges,’ there are a few moving parts and very little if any, electronics. Glass panels are, by definition, packed full of all manner of tens or even thousands of small, sensitive components, exponentially increasing the odds that something will fail and at a significantly higher cost to replace.
    You can’t just troubleshoot one burnt-out diode and replace it from a board buried deep in a box.

    • The 2005 C172SP in the article has flown for more than 1500 hours since it first took to the air nearly six years ago. So far the only instruments/avionics that have failed are the backup altimeter and backup attitude indicator, both round gauges, and the vacuum pump that drives the gyros in the backup AI. There have been no failures of the G1000.

  • I think the autopilot is the main, most important difference here. that frees you up a LOT regardless of steam gauges or G1000. also, didn’t “N” model start in 1977 ?

  • No question the flat panel stuff works better in the clouds. Only two problems that I’ve seen so far:
    1) 95% of the people that fly personal airplanes don’t need to fly IFR (because most people don’t really need to go/be anywhere on a schedule) and the flat panel is an expensive distraction for VFR.
    2) Notice that most round gages are still working after forty years. If you think your $50,000 flat panel is still going to work after 40 years, I have an old TV set around here for you. No, better yet, I have a 3 year old cell phone you can have.

    • It is virtually certain that those 40-year-old round gauges have been replaced/rebuilt/repaired numerous times, and replacements often incorporate new and better components even though they look the same in the panel. We really don’t know how glass panels will evolve, except that much of it will be through software improvements, as has already occurred.

  • I chabged to a glass panel (Dynon) when I bought an LSA (CTLS). I flew a no autopilot Cherokee for years and IFR a chore that I do not miss. While I would not go back to “steam gages,” I found the llearning curve a bit steep and I findthat the Glass fails more frequently than older gages. The auto pilot makes long XCs far more comfortable. Bottomline for me is that the flying is more accurate, comfortable, and I believe,safer.

  • Students come in and ask me “Which aircraft should I learn to fly? The Six-Pack or G1000). My Flight School has both. I say that it really depends on your goals. The young, future Airline/Corporate Pilot would do well to learn glass. The older, purely $100 hamburger pilot will do fine with the six-pack. It’s not a matter of better or worse, they are simple different. Match the airplane/panel to the pilot. Me? Give me glass in an IFR environment anyday. A fun day trip for no other purpose than to do what I love doing? An old Luscombe or C120 with just an airspeed indicator, altimeter and turn and bank suits me just fine.

  • Early adopters are by definition apostolic about the new technology they are embracing. I have flown glass since it started to first appear in airline cockpits. I started my flying career on “steam gauges” during the stone age ’70’s. To throw around derogatory names to people who do not embrace technology as much as you do is a disservice to your message. The biggest problem I see with glass is that it gives the user a false sense of security. We become so coddled by its seemingless flawless performance we pilots forget how to think. I have always been one to promote the use of an autopilot when single pilot IFR to reduce workload on the single pilot. However, too much dependence upon the autopilot can cause a pilot to become very stale in basic flying skills. Also, the failure modes of our modern glass cockpits can cause a nightmare scenario if the pilot is not prepared to transition to standby instruments or even to simple pitch and power and the turn coordinator. Even when I fly with glass, I still carry maps and follow along with the flight plan. The nice thing about paper maps, they do not need batteries. If you look at the statistics, glass is no safer than “steam gauges”. Glass can be safer, but it takes effort and practice for the eventual failure.

    • Dave,

      As usual your comments are spot on.

      I also started in glass with some of the earlier airline products, and really ended up with the 2 tube EFIS and 4 round dials as my favorite presentation, like the 737, 757 had. I don’t care for the “full” system, like the 747 has or the G1000, but prefer a partial system without those damn tapes.

      Unfortunately there are few options for the partial system, but the Aspen comes close. It’s still dirt simple to interpret a round gauge with a needle… don’t even have to know how to read . And the maps, trend and air data stuff is great.

      As for paper maps… I don’t carry them anymore and would argue with all the electrical backups available, one would have a reasonable expectation of success with an electrical failure. Now, I do carry plates where I would expect to land as a back up.

    • david, I truly appreciate your well educated opinion. I too learned to fly wihtout GPS or glass panels…I did fly a Bonanza A36 Barron 58TC with Rnav and autopilot yet found over using the autopilot unless single handed in IFR defintley took away from my flying skills. I too appreciate what you say about paper charts as I carry current charts with me as well as 2 GPS on X-C’s. I’m truly amazed how many pilots I know that don’t even have the charts (much less current ones) onbaord which I believe to be illegal. I have flown the West US so much I can identify every airport in VFR wihtout a chart but things do change and pilots using all the greatest in new gadgets still need to remember and practice how to aviate and navigate old school just in case the any systems Glass or round fail…Thank you for your wise comments…

  • I personally do not like the G1000. The instruments (air speed indicator, altimeter, etc.)in this system have a fixed pointer and a moveable scale. The numbers are always in an up and down motion. I prefer a fixed scale and a moveable pointer. While flying with an autopilot does make life easier, I do all of my practice approachs without an autopilot. Autopilots do fail, and I don’t like to be completely dependent on them. If Garmin would alter the instruments to function with a fixed scale, they would have a top notch system.

    • I do my practice approaches both with the autopilot and without so I stay proficient with the autopilot and hand flying, and can confidently use whichever seems most appropriate at the time. As for the moveable ribbons, I find them easy to read and understand, but maybe that’s must me.

  • I am a student pilot currently in college so my flying has been put on hold for a while, both for time and financial reasons. I love the idea of technology in flying but personally i like the ‘six pack’ over the glass. There is no doubt in my mind that glass packs all the safety and reliability factors that have been proven over and over, but in my opinion the six pack gives airplanes character….i was a flight sim pilot for years before i started flying and to me i would much prefer looking at an altimeter than looking at a computer screen in the middle of my panel, but thats just me.

    everybody is different, and have different budgets, but thats just my 2 cents.

  • While I love the high level of situational awareness that the G1000 offers; as an instructor I prefer that students learn in a 6-pack and then do a checkout in the G1000 if they choose when they get their Private Pilot certificate.

    Main reason is that primary students (especially students who have been poking around on simulators) initially try to look WAY too much inside the cockpit. As an instructor I spend the first part of their training getting them to look OUT of the aircraft. I like them to be able to fly by visual reference – by the way, flying a steep turn as a visual reference maneuver is the best way to assure you will fly it perfectly. All the gauges have lag in response time on the 6 pack.

    So, my two cents – get your Private in the steam gauge (lots more choices of places to rent aircraft from when you travel, if you don’t own your own aircraft)and then when you’d like to transition to ‘glass’, make it so. Getting your PPC with ‘steam gauges’ will save you some money too! I’d much rather see a new Private Pilot with some ‘extra’ money to get some fun flying adventures under their belt.

  • I find the glass panels to be overly complicated and hard to find the info you need at a glance. I like the round gauges better, but… I think the glass panel would be ok if it more closely mimicked the round gauges.

    Imagine a glass panel that displayed a traditional six pack. The benefits of both types.

  • From the standpoint of the presentation of information, current-generation glass displays are superior in almost every way – with one glaring exception: airspeed information. Just because a raster display can imitate a mechanical vertical-tape display, doesn’t mean that it has to – or even that it should.

    Think about that “old-fashioned” radial-motion pointer on a round-faced background. Enhanced with colored bands and bars, that ancient display conveys both absolute value AND rate-of-change information at a single rapid glance. And you can see it from the other side of the cockpit, with ease. Unlike most moving-tape displays, the mere angle of the pointer tells enough about the value of airspeed – you don’t really have to “read” the numeric value, to know (with ample accuracy for almost all operations) your airspeed, the direction in which it’s moving, and the rate at which it’s changing.

    Moving-pointer on fixed-scale vertical displays have been tried, and they offer similar-to-steam-gauge intuitive presentation of information. But they’re rarely used; the moving-scale presentations are overwhelmingly more common.

    Think of how many/most EICAS displays are presented – an array of good old-fashioned radial pointer displays, abetted by companion “fine-resolution” digital displays. The radial pointers typically are set up so that some “o-clock” position means “all is well,” regardless of the type of information being displayed. This vastly reduces the time that it takes to interpret routine information, and it instantly alerts the pilot to anomalous values without resort to arithmetic.

    Any flight instructor who’s ever strained to read a vertical-tape airspeed display at a bad angle, from the opposite side of the cabin, in less-than-optimum lighting conditions knows exactly what I’m talking about.

    On the other hand, I’m fascinated that we continue to utilize a traditional (albeit electronically-generated) HSI display, whose original design was constrained by the limitations of mechanical devices. Let’s face it – with a moving-map display overlaid with your desired ground track, you have no use for an HSI-style “pictorial navigation indicator.” How quaint that moniker seems today.

    So, I vote for glass – with appropriate use of radial-dial display of some information.

    As for managing the modern navigation systems… At least in the bad old days, any pilot could slide into any airplane with a VOR head and/or an ADF display, and quickly utilize the beasts – there was no operational difference between Brand X and Brand Z. Of course, we’ve completely lost that with modern glass navigators. Unless you’re planning to navigate with your eyeballs and a sectional chart (not a bad idea, but not always practical), you need what amounts to an instrument-panel type-rating, just to get from point A to point B.

    Who are the victims of all of this “improvement?” Renter pilots, for one – they’re becoming an increasingly rare breed. Be careful what you ask for…………

  • I am a VFR pilot recently back in the game after 8 years off. i have about 100 hours in mostly early 1970 style cessna (152 and 172). I am used to planes where the paint is pealing, several compnents do not work, interior is patched together with duct tape, etc.. I recently got checked out on a 2007 172SP with the garmin g1000 and autopilot. What a thrill. I spent an hour in a simulator to get the basics of the G100 and then probably another 3 hours in the plane getting checked out on the plane for rental. It has restored the thrill and enthusiasm for flying. Besides the fact that every component in the plane works, it is faster (180hp), more responsive, looks great inside and out, and the g1000 with autopilot is amazing. The round gauges are all there for backup but quickly forgotton once you have that glass panel in front of you. It is safer from on-screen traffic alert to the airbags in the seatbelts. I had been pondering purchase of an older 70’s c172. i will now stick to rental of the newer one when possible and wait till when or if i can get one with the g1000. in full disclosure i am a computer guy so the interface is inuitive for me. First hour in the Simulator was overwhelming but after the first hour in the plane with the instructor i had the basics down. It did suprise the instructor that i caught on so quick. I have yet to climb back into my home FBO clunker and it is going to be difficult to do so. I plan on picking up an iPad and WingX-Pro to at least bring some of the current technology into the cockpit of the older planes.

  • For those interested in a steam gauge equipped glass panel, Genesys-Aerosystems has two sizes of glass panels with the steam gauge display. Models IDU-680 and 450. They both can function as a PFD or MFD. Also, the digital displays are not as cluttered as the G1000. The original company that developed these, had some installed in Piper PA-32R Saratoga’s. Genesys bought them out. According to the brochure, they are STC’d on over 740 airframes.The displays are top-of-the line and easy to use. Gary

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *