The Great Debate: are glass cockpits better?

Glass cockpits like the Garmin G1000 are standard in almost all new airplanes, and they’re starting to show up in older airplanes as well. The rapid adoption of this new technology brings large displays and reliable AHRS sensors in place of gyros and vacuum pumps. But some pilots are worried that these pros are outweighed by the cost and complexity of keeping glass cockpits up to date. Cast your vote, then share your comments below.

 Remember to add your comments below.

Tags from the story
,

31 Comments

  • I have flown Sportstars with analog and glass. I find that I stare at the glass a bit more than outside. I like the analog because it’s simple and the information is defined and separate. With the glass it’s all there on the one panel and I sometimes have to look for certain information. An upside I see with the glass, is when I forget something it warns me and I can see it in my peripheral vision. But overall I like analog better. Just my thoughts as a recreational pilot in AUS.

    • As a mature age pilot, I find glass hard to read without glasses, this means that I need bi focal and I don’t find that a good result. I would be interested in other pilots who need glasses to fly

  • Before I start, let me say I think glass panels are great. They show a ton of information in a concise manner. I also think analog gauges are great. Generally speaking, it is easier to learn an unfamiliar analog panel than one of the various glass panel packages available.

    Honestly, I don’t believe that it really matters what’s in the panel. Everything has a set of associated compromises and, unfortunately, it seems that whether the panel is covered in LCDs or little round dials, the most frequent compromise is the yoke actuator/button pusher (i.e., pilot). There are pilots that are unsafe at any speed and putting them behind glass isn’t going to change that.

  • There is no doubt that synthetic vision and flight path marker make instrument and night flying safer, and they make it easier to fly precisely. Before synthetic vision became available, I don’t think a glass PFD was any better or safer than a conventional six pack with moving map navigator.

    • We all relate things to our particular world. In high flying fixed wing work glass and synthetic vision are great. But with lower altitudes and VFR work at night you will find at night your are blind with excess light. You cant turn them down enough. OK if you work over the city like most of you do, but dont go out in the country where it is dark, you will be looking inside more than outside. When you offer your opinion, should qualify it with the type of flying you do.

  • I like both. I look at both types of panel much like the way Matt E does. Both have their advantages and disadvantages. I learned to fly in both glass and 6-pack and transitioning between them both was very easy for me. Once I was aware of the location of the instruments and gauges in both types of panel, I transitioned back and forth with ease. If I were to purchase a plane, I would want a glass panel. Ya, they have additional cost on keeping them up-to-date, but there are features of glass that you can’t or don’t get without it. Although I don’t use it now as much as I used to, the flight director feature is amazing. Lean assist is another amazing feature that I still use, and I use it all the time. I understand that some of the results of these features can be achieved by using other instruments and gauges, but the ease of use and more precise nature of digital/glass makes it easier for me to manage my cockpit. In my opinion, managing ones cockpit is most important task a pilot has (other than flying the airplane), and any tool that makes that task even a little easier is worth the expense.

  • The accident stats don’t seem to favor one or the other, so I agree with the comment that an unsafe pilot will be just as unsafe flying behind glass or behind steam gauges. The problem I see is that the glass airplanes are intended to be flown by the autopilot much more than by the human pilot, and simple flying skills tend to deteriorate. “Loss of control” is still a HUGE problem for general aviation, and glass doesn’t seem to have changed that.

  • I got my private in a Cessna 152, and started my instrument in a Cessna 182 and 172 both with steam gages. All the planes were old but well equipped and maintained. None of the planes had an operational autopilot so when I was flying them I thought autopilots were for wimps. During my instrument training I lost a vacuum pump under the hood and a gyro while in the clouds.

    I then started flying a 2 year old Diamond 40 with a G-1000 and a working autopilot. After becoming familiar with the G-1000 in VFR only (approximately 60 hrs. of flight time, and one 16 hr. ground school) I continued my instrument training and completed my check ride in the Diamond and started flying in the system. I now have a Columbia 400 with G-1000 and use the plane for business.

    I don’t see any value arguing steam gages against glass, what is important is to be a professional pilot when flying any aircraft. For example here are the rules I strive to live by
    • I always fly in the system regardless of weather conditions.
    • I always get a weather briefing and plan an alternate regardless of length of the trip or weather
    • To stay current I strive to fly six approaches a month, with most of them in actual weather and many at night.
    • I never plan on finishing a cross country flight at night.
    • I consider an non-functioning autopilot a reason for scrubbing a single pilot IRF trip even in VMC
    • I always use the check list, and brief all approaches.

    This is the way my Hal (my instrument instructor) taught me, the way the pilots I fly with and respect do it, and I have been doing it the same way for the past 6 years. When we strive to know our gear, remain proficient with our equipment, and practice abnormal conditions and strive for prefection on every filght we will be a safer pilot regardless of the type of panel.

    • I agree with you in general, especially your statement of striving for perfection on every flight. But a couple of your points raise some questions.

      What do you mean by “I always fly in the system regardless of weather conditions”? If you mean you always fly on an IFR clearance regardless of weather conditions, than you are increasing your risk in many cases. For example it may often be safer in a piston airplane to stay below the clouds VFR than to attempt to find an ice free altitude or attempt to climb through and get on top. Or it may be safer to stay VFR below the bases to visually navigate around TS.

      Also, I’m curious why you won’t fly VFR without an autopilot? Student pilots on solo cross country flights do this every day!

      • Thanks for your comments.
        The comment “I always fly in the system” is for cross country trips, I always file and IRF flight plan regardless of the weather.
        I do that for two reasons. Prior to getting my instrument rating, on cross country trips I would get flight following from ATC. I realize that in VMC that I am always responsible for separation from other aircraft, but it’s always nice when you have an extra set of eyes helping you out. Since I am talking to ATC all the time anyway I figure I would file IFR. Second I fly out of Olympia WA and on some of my trips I’m flying over some desolate parts of the country. By filing someone always knows where I am and if I need help they are just a mike click away. Also my wife and kids like that they can follow my progress on Flightaware.com if I file.
        Regarding your comment about staying below the clouds. I always try to stay either above or below the clouds especially in the winter; never know when the old ice man may give me an express air delivery. I always try to fly above or below the clouds for some of the reasons you mentioned. My preference is above the clouds because when I get above 7,000 ft the ride is much nicer. In addition when you are above the clouds you are able to see where the clouds have vertical activity maybe with a TS hiding inside. I also am very fortunate to have XM weather in my plane so that helps keep me away from the active weather.
        Regarding the question about flying IFR without a working autopilot. I really enjoy hand flying the plane and most of the time I do all my departures and arrivals without the autopilot. Also during a long trip I will often take over from R2 and hand fly the plane for a while. The reason that I won’t fly cross country without a working autopilot is you never know when you may be flying in the weather. I always like to have the auto pilot available while briefing an approach, and looking at charts, getting a PIREP together, or any other thing that may crop up. As a matter of fact I ended up postponing my IFR check ride because I through I had an inoperable autopilot. I got my autopilot checked out and discovered it was operator error. The next day I took my check ride, didn’t use the autopilot at all, but I do have my rules.
        Just so you don’t think my trips are boring, when I make a $100 hamburger run, or fly off to an air museum on a short 50 -150 mile trip I always hand fly the plane. This is technically a cross country trip, but if the weather is nice, I’m not going over the mountains, and the trip will be done during day hours, I will fly without an IRF flight plant and never turn on the autopilot.

    • Flying at night offers (1) usually the best air, (2) less traffic, (3) a fabulous look at the world and a sense of tranquility. And isn’t every trip a cross- country unless you’re in the pattern?

  • For the average pilot it is a struggle to afford even the simplest of airplanes. Yes, sophisticated glass panels are great and offer information at-a-glance simply not afforded by steam gages. The real question here is can every pilot buy an airplane with glass, or afford to replace the gages in their present airplane? The simpe truth is “NO.” So, here we are in the new age of aviation separating further those who have and those who have not… not a matter of whether glass is better than steam gages or not.

    • Thomas I agree with you that some pilots fly with glass panels and some fly with steam gages. My point is that what ever you fly, fly like a professional pilot. Fly like your life and your passangers lives depend on it.
      I would rather be proficient on an older steam gage plane that spend the money on a glass pannel and not be able to afford to become proficent on the new plane with a glass panel.

  • I have only flown on steam because that’s what I’ve had available to me. But I’ve always made two assumptions regarding glass:

    1. They ARE better for situational awareness, and cockpit management, especially when flying cross-country and/or IFR, where managing a GPS becomes part of the equation. I’ve figured that working the glass only takes a little more effort than a GPS. Though, I guess I don’t know that for sure until I have opportunity to try them out.
    2. To be used properly, they need more training and familiarity of the system than steam. Not huge amounts, but I’m not going to jump into a rental with glass without a transition course and some quality time with an instructor familiar with the system, but if I sit down in a steam-gage plane, I can spend my time figuring out it’s different flight characteristics instead of playing with knobs and buttons.

    The one other comment I might add is that managing a complex peice of electronics like this comes easier to some people than to others. I’ve known pilots that were amazing aviators, but avoided all but the most basic GPS functions. The learning curve will be steeper for those folks when transistioning from steam.

  • A few comments if I may. I did ab initio training for Korean Airlines back in the early 90’s. We had two Cheyenne 400’s. One was “steam gages”, the other was a full EFIS panel. It was striking when we would have a student fly the EFIS airplane one day, and do quite well, and then fly the same student in the “steam gage” environment and be completely flustered in his ability to “try” and control the aircraft. The EFIS provided a huge advantage in aircraft control and situation awareness. Along with that however, it also has it’s own set of distractions and challenges. I grew up on “steam gages” for many years, the EFIS environment is fabulous in comparison for situation awareness, accuracy, and information available to the pilot. At that time, I discussed this with some United Airlines instructors, they mentioned that many pilots who had flown in EFIS aircraft (B757/B767) would attempt to go back to “steam gages” on the DC8 in order to make their captain upgrade…several lost their jobs before United recognized the “regression” and “adjustments” that had to take place in order to return to the steam gage environment. I personally see EFIS as a huge step in the right direction for Aviation.

  • All the situational awareness is great, but come to nothing when pilots fail to look out the windscreen and make appropriate decissions. We do like out gadgets and will continue to buy them. Now we even have to carry an iPad when paper is more convienient and light. No touching needed. I personally have found a good gps with an mfd coupled auto pilot to be ideal along with the standard round easy to read instruments. If I can’t fly anywhere I want to go with that equipment then I should be on the ground.

  • An important aspect of instrument flying skill which is not enhanced by modern displays is the mental process of forming a “picture” of your current position in all dimensions from a variety of sources. This is forced on one when using an ancient “round dial’ panel. Rather than improving situational awareness in my observation many younger pilots not exposed to the older displays struggle to form this mental picture. The spate of loss of control accidents in marginal weather may have some causal factors associated with this loss of spatial awareness.

  • I am an aviation enthusiast and student pilot. Im 15 and my generation is “plugged in” but you know what im a fan of the good old steam gauges. They are simple, easy to use, and they are less complicated and thus less can go wrong.

  • I usually fly my Beech C23 with GNS430 and steam gauges. I do not have enough time flying glass to evaluate it properly. My set up with S-Tec 50 and engine anylizer with fuel flow gives me confidence and reliable back-up. My biggest problem is TOUCH SCREEN. So many times I miss the correct spot and go to an obscure page or frequency. These 68 year old shaky hands just won’t be accurate unless I have knobs and clicks. It’s a personal limitations issue.

  • In 1984 I sold my Mooney and dropped out of flying. After 22 years of dreaming and missing the flying experience I bought a Tecnam Sierra light sport. The Sierra has a glass panel which I found to be more difficult to learn but much more capable once mastered.

  • I think it depends on the mission. For serious all weather cross country an autopilot is very desirable and a glass cockpit might have big advantages. My Citabria has no need for either. My head is outside the cockpit 99% of the time anyway. I know about where the needles on the steam gauges should be and a glance is all it takes. I do go cross county but only on good vfr days. If I get caught by weather I stay in a motel or come back for the plane later. I worry about pilots becoming so dependent on autopilots and Glass that their flying skills atrophy.

  • I am a TAA flight instructor that has been teaching glass cockpit for 10 day instrument training programs, as well as to new student pilots for the past 4 or 5 years. Get over it people, old timers included, glass is the future. The situational awareness, traffic avoidance, terrain avoidance, fuel planning and useage awarness rivals any conventional panel. Yes in VFR we still need to look outside the aircraft, guard and use the appropriate communication frequencies, seek ATC services whenever possible and not become complacent. IFR there is no question that Glass is safer! One last thought, when all else fails, back to the basics. I am a big fan of teaching advanced technology failures, and going back to raw data and needle ball and airspeed approach!

    • John:

      Not all of us are instrument pilots or even want to be. Some of us old timers simply prefer to fly our vintage airplanes on balmy days by looking out the window, occasionally glancing at our steam gages. As long as we keep buying them, they will always be around. We don’t have to get over it.

  • One distinction worth considering is glass cockpits vs. autopilots. The two often get combined, but they are separate and I think the autopilot (especially a good one with a flight director) offers a huge safety advantage. That happens to come included with most glass panels.

  • Everything depends on what is your goal. For General Aviation, the G1000 is a sound improvement without doubt but as professional involved in training of future Airline pilots, I have several reserves.
    The G1000 is not consistent with an EFIS/ECAM of an airliner. As it is based on a GPS calculator, we do not have the “Rose modes”. It makes difficult to train in “raw data”. Not impossible but too complex. May I underline that the typical airline entry test is done in Raw Data and it is also the basic downgraded mode.
    Too much time spent during the training to learn a tool which is after useless because different from the industry.
    A key point also is the surveillance of automatisms in a Glass cockpit which is as Airbus says ä golden Rule”. The FMA (Flight Mode Annunciator) of our Glass cockpit has nothing to do with the G1000. So training with the G1000 presents some flaws regarding our final objective.
    Airlines complain that current generation of Cadets have poor basic skills and their spatial orientation is below standard of previous generations.
    I do prefer prepare the cadets on conventional avionic up to their Licence and IR check ride then to introduce a capsule “Introduction to Glass Cocpit- Automatisms management”. This capsule is done with some computerised tools and on the FNPT II MCC representing a generic airliner (A320 or B737).
    We are converting the time used for learning the G1000 into this capsule.
    Aircraft manufacturers should be wise to keep in production some conventional avionic aircraft, because in the training industry, I am far to be alone thinking that way.

  •  I notice that there are few if ANY respondents “debating” the issue here, who belong to that rarified tribe of full time ATP rated,commercial airline employed,  pilots  .  I suspect that is because they are too busy flying and/or have no choice in the matter of whether glass is better than “steam gauges”.

    One needs to consider the different worlds and flight operations of the commercial airline industry which tends to be, 1) “all weather”, 2) fixated around demanding time schedules and 3)  has, arguably a  “service ‘-based mentality”) -versus that of  “general” aviation which is (or should be)  1) weather DEpendent, 2) time? — ever heard the word, “mañana?”  -and  3)  the only “service” that counts is how easy is it for ME ( not my passengers) to get from the airfield to the restaurant, and whether the food there will be up to MY demands.

    Note that in the multi-million dollar, all weather capable aircraft of the commercial airline industry –  there are multi-layered redundancies throughout multiple systems (engines, hydraulic, structural, crew, and avionics ) in order to meet the demands of both  commercial operating environment and public ( read customer) safety. 

    With the additional safety provided by system redundancy as a prerequisite  for every commercial airline flight, “glass” cockpits 
    may indeed improve situational awareness in IFR or transoceanic operations.  In those “offices” there is always at least one other set of eyes ( copilot, first officer) scanning systems in addition! 

    In my situation ( and I suspect that of  the overwhelming majority of readers here) flying is meant to be first and foremost FUN, not a job and not subject to the demands and stresses of weather, time or service. 
    All my IFR operations are pre-planned, and then only of low risk since the aircraft and systems are low capability too. 

    Not until affordable general aviation aircraft are manufactured with multiple redundancy, all weather capability and with a similarly qualified copilot at hand,  ( i.e., never) – will I fly more demanding flight profiles, because I don’t need to and because I want it to remain fun! 

    Until that time, an analog gauge system ( whose “system software” is ALWAYS current ) and a handheld GPS unit for additional situational awareness will serve my needs and demands admirably. 

  •  I notice that there are few if ANY respondents “debating” the issue here, who belong to that rarified tribe of full time ATP rated,commercial airline employed,  pilots  .  I suspect that is because they are too busy flying and/or have no choice in the matter of whether glass is better than “steam gauges”.
    One needs to consider the different worlds and flight operations of the commercial airline industry which tends to be, 1) “all weather”, 2) fixated around demanding time schedules and 3)  has, arguably a  “service ‘-based mentality”) -versus that of  “general” aviation which is (or should be)  1) weather DEpendent, 2) time? — ever heard the word, “mañana?”  -and  3)  the only “service” that counts is how easy is it for ME ( not my passengers) to get from the airfield to the restaurant, and whether the food there will be up to MY demands.
    Note that in the multi-million dollar, all weather capable aircraft of the commercial airline industry –  there are multi-layered redundancies throughout multiple systems (engines, hydraulic, structural, crew, and avionics ) in order to meet the demands of both  commercial operating environment and public ( read customer) safety. 
    With the additional safety provided by system redundancy as a prerequisite  for every commercial airline flight, “glass” cockpits 
    may indeed improve situational awareness in IFR or transoceanic operations.  In those “offices” there is always at least one other set of eyes ( copilot, first officer) scanning systems in addition! 
    In my situation ( and I suspect that of  the overwhelming majority of readers here) flying is meant to be first and foremost FUN, not a job and not subject to the demands and stresses of weather, time or service. 
    All my IFR operations are pre-planned, and then only of low risk since the aircraft and systems are low capability too. 
    Not until affordable general aviation aircraft are manufactured with multiple redundancy, all weather capability and with a similarly qualified copilot at hand,  ( i.e., never) – will I fly more demanding flight profiles, because I don’t need to and because I want it to remain fun! 
    Until that time, an analog gauge system ( whose “system software” is ALWAYS current ) and a handheld GPS unit for additional situational awareness will serve my needs and demands admirably. 

  • There has been a couple of fatal accident in the past couple months here in Alaska and ones in the past such as the one involving Senator Ted Stevens here in Alaska, where I wonder if Synthetic Vision could have saved the day.

    Steven’s airplane crashed straight into rising terrain, (the screen would have displayed RED terrain and clearly diminishing AGL information). One fatality where the engine failed over water, the pilot forced to descend through clouds, couldn’t see a nearby island that he was visually trying to locate on the way down, (and may have landed near or on the beach) and then there is the latest one were a sightseeing DeHavilland DHC-3 Otter turboprop crashed against a granite rock face of a cliff, 800 feet above Ella Lake in marginal conditions….

    I know there were times that during heavy rains, including while coming up the ALCAN in my Kitfox it was nice to be able to more clearly define the sides of the mountain canyons with Synthetic Vision we have to fly through up here, vs the vague grey blending into the rain presented out the window.

  • Good question, i got my private on the GI bill in 1976, Navy in country Vietnam 1968, so now 71. Flew 10 yrs renting Beech Sierras & Bonanzas; quit for 20 yrs working & raising my children. Started back in 2006 w CAP, wife of 41 yrs died in 2008 & 2010 bought a 2005 Cirrus w Avidyne system. I loved the transition (wear glasses), passed my IFR ck ride at 71 yrs Friday June 13. In fact the glass panel probably saved me on it.
    I will fly by hand frequently even though the Cirrus prefers auto pilot & always use it for IFR approaches.

  • I am an industrial I&C engineer and believe new electronics are a good thing in that they provide more information, can be reconfigured easier than analog, can be displayed to suit the highly trained operator, generally are more accurate and faster to respond. The bad that comes with them is intensive and continual use training I.e. You no longer just jump in and fly and you have to assume near total replacement every 8 to 10 years as manufactures do not support the product much past that. New devices are almost totally dependent on manufacture updates and data to be useful. The old analog devices still work well after a general cleaning for 40 years. It’s great if you like the glass, just be prepared for continual usage training and replacement cost.

Leave a Reply

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