Glass cockpits – don’t make it harder than it really is

The glass cockpit is one of those technological advancements that sneaks up on you. Many pilots treat the Garmin G1000 and other such systems as if they are some passing fad, even though they have been standard equipment on new airplanes for more than a decade. In fact, glass cockpits have been around longer than the iPhone, but while Apple’s smartphone is considered an essential part of daily life, Garmin’s avionics suite is viewed with suspicion by those who’ve never flown it.

Part of the reason glass cockpits are still relatively rare in general aviation is obviously cost – $30,000 is a lot to spend on avionics when the airplane is only worth $40,000. But that is beginning to change, with new products from Garmin and Dynon pushing the price down below $10,000. As this new generation of retrofit glass cockpits makes its way into the general aviation fleet, it’s a good time to elevate the discussion about the relative merits and safety record of such equipment. Right now, the subject is defined more by hangar flying wisdom than hard data.

Bad statistics

For example, the oft-cited NTSB study showing that glass cockpit airplanes are no safer (and perhaps even less safe) than traditional analog cockpit airplanes is now more than ten years old. The accident rate for Cirrus Aircraft’s SR series, the most common glass cockpit airplanes, has changed dramatically in that time. By most objective measures, these technologically advanced airplanes now have a better safety record than the general aviation fleet average (see chart below). Such a trend doesn’t square with the idea that primary flight displays (PFDs) are bad for safety.

More importantly, hardly any of these safety studies control for exposure – the fact that higher priced, more capable airplanes are often flown on longer cross country trips and in worse weather. Quantifying this difference in exposure is difficult, but it’s likely that, compared to a steam gauge Cessna 150, the owner of a brand new Cessna 206 with a glass cockpit might fly the airplane more often, frequently single pilot, and in IMC. Without considering this critical difference, most of the accident rates are just statistical noise.

To get a feel for the accident trends, I read every Cirrus fatal accident report for three years before the Avidyne Entegra was introduced in 2003, then compared it to a three-year period after glass cockpits were standard. Again, the exposure is dramatically different (partially because Cirrus built a lot more airplanes between 2004 and 2007), so calculating a glass vs. steam accident rate is almost impossible, but the individual accidents still offer lots of lessons. Here’s a representative sample of NTSB probable causes before the introduction of glass cockpits: spatial disorientation, poor IFR technique on approach, VFR-into-IMC (more than one), stall/spin (one after takeoff on a hot day, one by a pilot very new to the airplane).

And after glass cockpits became the norm? The causes are depressingly similar: stall/spin, low pass leading to a stall, low level formation with glider in the mountains leading to controlled flight into terrain, in-flight icing, and of course VFR-into-IMC. Buzzing a friend at 50 feet or continuing into worsening weather are bad ideas no matter what the avionics – a fancy panel should neither tempt you to make these mistakes nor be expected to save you if you do.

I did the same exercise for Cessna 172s, where the G1000 became an option in 2005. Once again, glass cockpits have not invented new ways to crash airplanes: stalls and VFR-into-IMC were common causes. With one exception (a Cirrus crashed after the primary flight display failed and the pilot could not maintain control on the backup instruments), the move to digital flight instruments does seem to have slightly reduced the frequency of accidents caused by partial panel flying since there are no vacuum pumps to fail in a G1000.

A definition problem

Aspen Evolution
Is this a glass cockpit?

As the avionics market evolves, another question becomes hard to answer: what is a glass cockpit, anyway? A steam gauge Cirrus with a large moving map, dual WAAS GPSs, TAWS, and an autopilot is pretty well equipped, but it’s not technically “glass.” Similarly, the Pilatus PC-12 began life with 4″ EFIS tubes for the attitude indicator and HSI, plus a GPS and autopilot; the latest models include a 4-screen, flat panel Honeywell Apex system. Is the old version “analog” simply because the airspeed indicator and altimeter are dials instead of screens? How about a 1965 Bonanza with a single screen Aspen Evolution display – is it a completely different airplane with the mechanical gyro replaced?

If all this discussion proves anything, it’s that we are overthinking the whole glass vs. analog issue. After all, glass cockpits were created to make flying easier and safer, not as some conspiracy to kill pilots. The changes simply aren’t that dramatic. The wings are the same on that Bonanza no matter what the avionics are, and so are the flight controls, approach speeds, fuel endurance, and stall characteristics.

In fact, when you consider what is new with a glass cockpit, you find surprisingly little:

  • The attitude indicator is much larger (a good thing)
  • The attitude indicator is driven by a solid state AHRS instead of a gyro (a very good thing – and invisible to the pilot)
  • Airspeed and altitude are shown as tapes instead of dials (potentially bad but not necessarily)
  • System annunciations are usually combined into a single place on screen (a good thing)

That’s it.

Sure, there are large multi-function displays, but this is not really new – Garmin 530s were around for many years before the G1000, and early Cirrus models had a large Avidyne map screen without a PFD. Glass cockpits also have HSIs, but those have been around for decades (and are a major upgrade over precessing gyros anyway).

Given those relatively minor differences, transitioning to a glass cockpit airplane shouldn’t be a stressful situation. Consider these four tips.

1 – Focus

The key place to start is mindset: relax. It may be slightly intimidating the first time you sit in the left seat of a glass cockpit airplane, but that’s mostly because a big PFD can present much more information, including winds aloft, nearest airports, and the active flight plan. Remember that information is there to help, and you can turn most of it off if it’s distracting. In fact, you should probably start your glass cockpit flying with most of those extras turned off.

Pilot in G1000 cockpit
Don’t chase the tapes.

One criticism is valid: there isn’t a lot of “glance value” on an integrated glass cockpit. With a standard six pack, you can get a lot of information from the instruments without reading every specific number. If the airspeed indicator is pointing straight down and the altimeter is pointing straight up, you can assume that your airspeed is somewhere in the middle of the green arc and you’re level. Not so with a G1000 – you’ll be tempted to pause and read the exact numbers on the airspeed and altitude tapes.

Some will call this a fatal flaw, but to me it’s just a difference – one whose inconvenience is outweighed by some real benefits. If you find yourself chasing the tapes as they bounce around in flight, consider three more useful habits.

2 – Use the bugs

First, set the bugs on the primary flight display whenever possible. Most glass cockpits have knobs that allow the pilot to set bugs for the altitude and heading, and some even have one for the airspeed and vertical speed. These are used to drive the autopilot, but they can be great reminders for hand-flying too. If your clearance is to fly heading 270 and maintain 3,000 feet, set the bugs for those values and follow them. You’ll find it much easier to monitor heading and altitude by taking a quick glance at the bug than continuously reading the numbers on the screen.

3 – Understand trend lines

Second, get to know how the trend lines work. These are usually magenta lines next to the tapes on the primary flight display, showing what the airspeed or altitude will be six seconds in the future. The taller the trend line, the faster the tapes will be moving, which is your clue that the airplane is not stabilized. This might be OK in a climb, but not if you’re trying to fly straight and level. Many HSIs also include a track vector, a little diamond above the HSI that shows the actual course your airplane is flying over the ground; match this to your desired course and keeping the needle centered becomes much easier. Again, the glance value is more important than the specific numbers here.

4 – Use profiles

G1000 PFD
Fly bugs, trend lines, and profiles.

Finally, learn the most common profiles for the airplane you fly. For example, if you know that 1700 RPM and 10 degrees of flaps equals 90 knots and a 600 foot-per-minute descent, you can configure the airplane at the final approach fix and then make small adjustments to keep the needles centered. You’ll spend less time chasing tapes and adjusting power if you start out with a ballpark configuration.

Don’t make the mistake of treating all glass cockpits the same. They can vary significantly between manufacturers and even models, so you’ll want to spend some time reading the manual for the system you fly. In particular, focus on the different failure modes and the emergency checklists. For example, what does an AHRS failure look like compared to a screen failure? Are there backup options for the AHRS or the primary flight display? How long can the glass cockpit run on the backup battery? PFD failures are very rare, but a good pilot prepares for even the rare emergencies.

Understanding such nuances is especially important since not all glass cockpits are fully-integrated systems like the Garmin G1000. Many newer options, like the Garmin G5, replace a single instrument with a digital display. These hybrid glass-steam cockpits are more affordable than complete cockpits and more reliable than vacuum pumps, but it’s critical you understand which instruments are driven by which sensors.

Too many pilots exaggerate the difference between analog instruments and glass cockpits, as if it requires a completely new pilot certificate to make the transition. That’s simply not the case – the basics of flying are the same no matter what avionics you use. Focus on basic attitude flying, which, if anything, is easier on glass cockpits with their full-screen attitude display. And don’t forget to enjoy the view outside once in awhile.

18 Comments

  • I agree with the premise of this article. It’s still an airplane ‘stupid’ (joke meant). No matter how the parameters of the flight are presented, it still has wings and airspeed and it still stalls and spins, etc. Fly the airplane first and don’t ever get sucked into your instrument display whether steam or glass. I have flown both and I must admit, situational awareness is greatly enhanced by glass, but just remember that it’s only a CGI and…well, you know computers, right?

  • This is a relatively good article regarding the PFD; however, it does not address the issue of decided time between the PFD and the MFD. My contention is that the MFD causes most of distractions when IFR. The programming a flight plan along with getting weather from numerous sources and going to a service like Foreflight for information to program into the MFD for the approach causes most of the problems with the G-1000. Distractions during IFR conditions, especially when you are the single pilot on board is the largest hazard – not interpreting nor using the PFD.

    • You’re right, Harry, but that is not unique to glass cockpits and has been a problem for 25 years. A steam gauge airplane with a Garmin 530 is hardly glass, but I’ve seen pilots get lost in the menus of the GPS. We need to be serious about avionics training – no matter what the airplane. For IFR pilots at least, programming a flight plan and loading an approach are not “nice to have” skills, they are absolutely essential. But I don’t see a lot of attention paid to them.

  • It’s worth noting that many instructors have reported anecdotally that while most pilots transitioning from conventional displays to glass make the transition with the small bumps in the road noted above, it is seemingly harder for those who have always trained on Primary Flight Displays and Multifunction Flight Displays to learn how to integrate the “Basic Six” instruments and cross-correlate the analog displays.

    From a human factors POV, a glance at a color-coded needle on a gauge seems to take less processing time to assess, than a number, which requires a person to read the number, cross-correlate it to what the “correct” number is, determine it’s variance and decide to make a correction, then apply the proper control inputs to make the correction.

    Yet, the overall impact of flying a PFD is indeed a significant improvement. Having flown a glass cockpit equipped GA aircraft for 12 years, with periodic stick-and-rudder flying intervals in a very basic equipped 1969 Citabria, I know that personally I definitely prefer the glass cockpit, especially when conducting flights IMC and at night. (Most of my adult life has been spent in aviation, including several hundred hours in a hybrid analog-digital cockpit aircraft, the Grumman A-6E. This may play a factor in my preferences)

    Thanks for the article.

    • I did a double take looking at your A-6 graphic: nose up attitude, close to ground, gear in transition with the boards out…artistic license or something’s out late! 🙂

  • After 3,000 hours of G1000 time (51 years IFR) I would not want to go back to steam. After 30 minutes of glass cockpit time I did not want to go back to steam. Only thing I would add is you gotta learn the basics, add the nuances over time, and “stay proficient.” It is SAFER. Downside, if something goes on the fritz it’s a lot more expensive to replace than just pulling a single stovepipe instrument.

  • Most glass cockpits will come with flight directors. Over time, blind reliance on the flight director will inevitably degrade your instrument scan since total concentration on that one instrument is required to keep the needles or the V-Bar centred. Flight Directors are an aid only and but not essential for accurate instrument flying. Blindly following a flight director without scanning the other flight instruments becomes addictive. It is vital to keep up raw data instrument flying skills and you can’t do that if rely on the FD to tell you what to do all the time.

    • I agree with this 100% – flight directors are fantastic but they can become a crutch. The issue, as I see it, is that “glass cockpit” has come to be a catch-all term for new technology. But flight directors, autopilots, and multi-function displays have been around for decades. If pilots haven’t learned to use those tools well, we shouldn’t blame the G1000.

  • JZ states:
    “Many pilots treat the Garmin G1000 and other such systems as if they are some passing fad,”
    All pertinent information collected and displayed in one place, easy to understand, easy to use…
    A fad – really !
    The only problem I see is the possibility, for new users, of ‘Magic Fixation’. Once you get over that… well, it’s no fad… it’s the way forward.

  • I like the glass on the plane I now fly, especially the trend line for airspeed.
    After thousands of hours in turbine planes with steam gauges though, I would say that the vertical tape altitude display is inferior to a nice drum style altimeter with a needle for the hundreds of feet.

  • John
    What is you opinion on handling a Glass Cockpit with a failed autopilot, flight director and electric trim system ?
    As you know these are all integrated in the G1000 setup.

    • Well, they are sort of integrated – not necessarily more so than a Bonanza with a flight director, autopilot, and electric attitude indicator.

      There are multiple failures to consider: display failure (you can push the red button to fly off the remaining display), AHRS failure (many airplanes have dual AHRS now), alternator failure (backup batteries should give you enough time to safely land). That is pretty good redundancy. Yes, you could lose the autopilot but I don’t know of any GA airplanes with dual autopilots so that’s a risk we all take.

      • I’m thinking more about the workload in a G1000 airplane where everything is functioning except the autopilot / flight director.
        Your thoughts ?

        • I think that’s easier – HSI means no resetting the DG and the huge horizon (or synthetic vision) makes basic attitude flying easier.

  • I love glass-like (including portables) stuff for bird’s eye situational awareness. Where it gets tripped up is in interface. Most steam gages present same info same way and have similar/same knobs to control. Each instrument has an obvious function. Each glass system has a unique presentation and interface. Fly the same panel, frequently, not a problem and much goodness comes with it. Fly each system infrequently, then maybe there’s a place for steam gages until glass systems achieve standardization (not holding my breath). My compromise is to augment steam with a portable for bird’s eye SA. By having my portable with me nearly 24/7, I have opportunity for in-depth learning of the menus/display (by the way, I believe the outcome of this constant interface experience is almost completely overlooked by aviation industry/academia).

    Other human factors improvements (some better than others). Show me multiple colors only when it matters. Monochrome means all is well, show me red (or whatever) only when something is a problem or out of range. I don’t need a display where it looks like someone puked crayola for normal ops. All indicators/needles should line up for normal. If you must have tapes, they should always show full dynamic range of indication (including alt/asp) with current value indexed along scale and magnified for readability.

    Different missions drive different needs, don’t be afraid to pick what works for you. Calling pilots geeks or dinosaurs helps no one.

  • I went with two magnetomer driven G5’s, a GNS530W, a GTX345 and an iPad with a Flight Stream 210 interface when converting to ADS-B in my 185. My vacuum pump died and the gyros were getting old.

    Does this make me a geeky dinosaur?

  • I have a transitional panel in my Bonanza, KSN 770 (MFD/GPS navigator), Electric HSI, air AI, electric turn coordinator/autopilot and the remainder steam gauges. I learned to fly on steam so that part is all familiar to me but the one thing I think has changed for the worse is the interface with the GPS whether its part of a glass panel or not. The Bendix King KSN 770 is arguably the best and most intuitive use interface on the market today but even it will swamp you with buttonology at times. Back in the day we only had to tune the freq and build the three dimensional image in our minds. For some that was hard, for others not so much. I’m an Architect so I live in a three dimensional world but I realize at lot of people don’t so the presentation from glass and semi-glass is an improvement it’s just that it takes so much more time and mental bandwidth to work with it.

    So I guess put me in the dinosaur camp.

  • Good article! The key, it seems to me, is learning the system(s) you fly, and learning how to prioritize there use. Information is power, but on the flight deck we need to know what is useful at what point in time and what is of little or no value. One of the challenges to PFD/MFD configured systems is sorting through this and knowing how, what and when to prioritize.

    For instance the G1000 HSI has the ability to display multiple course guidance and bearing points. In most cases, you should have more than two displayed at a time, as additional pointers other than the primary navigation solution in use, and the next segment solution (if different) are relevant. The additional needles are a distraction and can lead to confusion. Knowing how and when to display what, and how to get what you need quickly is key.

    I civilian soloed in a Citabria, USAF initial solo in the T-37 tweet and finished UPT in the T-38 Talon. I’ve instructed in legacy 172s and other similar aircraft, G1000 Archers, A 530/430 Arrow, a Avidyne equipped Seminole and a I’m type rated and instructed in the DC9, B737, CE560XL, and spent 13 years flying/instructing/evaluating and test piloting the USAF C5 from it’s classic configuration to it’s Full Glass configuration. Full glass configurations require more specific knowledge, than a classic 6 pack and simple radios, but the available power is well worth learning the system(s). Glass and hybrid configurations offer greater safety when well understood and used, and it is the future of IFR aviation!

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