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!”
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.
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.