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.

44 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.

    • When I was an airline check airman I always asked for one of the legs to be flown without the flight director on. “Why”, they asked. “Well, the MEL says you can dispatch without a flight director. Wouldn’t it be nice to fly without one for the first time with a check airman onboard to evaluate your capability?”

      There are days when you are required to be a pilot…

  • 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.

    • My 185 has no FD, electric trim or autopilot. Flight is doable without that stuff. Is it harder? Yes, but doable if one is organized and used to it.

      I do like the battery backup on the PFD and MFD and the slaved EHSI. Don’t miss the vacuum system/DG.

  • 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!

  • Pilots new to glass need to be very careful with the design of the ‘little aeroplane.” The old steam gauge gyro horizon or artificial horizon) clearly looked like a model aeroplane whereas with the sophisticated PFD’s have a “little aeroplane” that looks nothing like one. The V-Bar design of the “little aeroplane” is that way in order to fit in a flight director neatly into the ‘wings” of the V-Bar. The crossed needles of other FD’s can hide the true nose attitude although some instructors exhort their instrument students to “look through” the crossed needles to see the actual nose attitude. Even though I have flown the glass cockpit Boeing 737 for years, I still find myself chasing FD needles during engine failure after take off because I lose concentration.

    So what do I do? I immediately refer to the little standby artificial horizon for attitude reference and have no further problem with chasing/overcorrecting two distracting needles and a check pilot shouting “Fly the goddamned flight director.”

    Also pilots need to be aware that the Sky Pointer on a standard airline PFD normally shows which way to correct for an unusual attitude. In other words it always points to the sky. There is no sky pointer on some Garmin (?) PFD and I have seen great confusion in the 737 simulator during unusual attitude training with a pilot losing situational awareness leading to loss of control on instruments as he is faced with conflicting PFD information from what he has been used to on a previous aircraft type.

    • The TACAIR jet I flew in went from a gyro ball to a 2D EFIS display to get civilian ILS. When doing instrument recovery sims I never saw the recovery pointers (even though they were there) and had a hard time with always being shown some part of the sky/ground even at 90 up or down with a big display flip/flop going thru either 90. Gyro ball’s tiny circle at top or bottom, complete with rivets always got the point across that you wouldn’t have much time at that attitude (at least in my aircraft). Now flying ex-Chinese trainer with great gyro ball, but presents as dark over light (pitches opposite to US gyros)…predominate color is still the direction you’re headed and at least when the numbers are upright so is the airplane!

      //

      With all the loss of control issues in the GA fleet, does anyone really think a tiny electronic emulation skid/slip “ball” is better than a big BB in a tube…or is stepping on the ball too simple?

  • I find these sorts of articles quite frustrating. I am quite convinced that a person CAN learn to fly competently with a glass cockpit; that’s not the issue. We must remember, the key issue is not class, but COST. If we might sometimes find a Piper or Beech at an airport, we far more often find a Cessna. Why? Because Piper and Beech did quite well with luxury airplanes and rightly possess fame for such, yet Cessna 152s and 172s provided far more attainable, plain-jane training and transport. They could also stand in for a short- to medium-range flight cross country. All the fancy electronic widgets look a whole lot dimmer when you realize precisely how long you’ll need to pay to use it.

    I would like to see General Aviation thrive; that requires lots of pilots who wish to fly frequently. FBOs need to be able to make money from training, sales, and especially GAS. Such cannot happen right now. I have long felt that most people probably consider flying themselves briefly, realize the cost of flying frequently far exceeds that of owning a house, and walk away. I would like to see General Aviation drop the glass panels and leather seats, thus the need for new planes beginning at a quarter mill a pop. Focus more vigorously on steam gauges and cloth, bring the cost down a loooong way. Most people most need the utility of the cheaply operated airplane, not the James Bond-esque bird that requires greater funding than a mortgage.

    General Aviation can’t thrive when most people have cause to view it exclusively as a rich man’s toy.

    • Glass cockpits do not equal expensive. Maybe 15 years ago, but not now. A Garmin G5 or Dynon is actually less expensive than a new vacuum pump and gyro.

      The key when talking about glass cockpits is to be specific I think. Is it the flight director or the PFD? Is it the cost or the complexity? Too often all these get conflated.

      • I disagree. I can find a 2019 Cessna 172 online for $391,000 (Controller.com); I can find a 1974 for $68,000 (Trade-A-Plane). Given that both cruise at about 110 knots, the only differences can be luxury appointments, inflation, and…something else. If inflation sits around 2.5%, the 1974 would arguably have sold for about $170,000, not even half the new price tag. I don’t believe luxury appointments cost over $200,000, even on an airplane, so something else must be causing a difference. The only other noticeable difference is…the glass cockpit. That I CAN believe, because even Fortran took…considerable effort. Programming costs money. I get it.
        I’m not wholly opposed to electronics aboard, rather the insistence that they need to be used vice the steam gauges. I thought the moving-map GPS sitting to the right on the panel of the 172 I trained in was useful, a good bird’eye view of where I was. I don’t think such convenience warrants an extra $200,000 on the price tag.
        For General Aviation to thrive, the general public needs to be able to buy a trainer for $50,000 or less (new). Other, more sophisticated, birds certainly will cost more. If we can’t do that, the GA market will never be competitive with other modes of transportation.

        • I have to wonder who in their right mind would pay $391K for a 172. $68K is too much, too, when you could find a a more capable 180/182 for that.

          Glass, even the high end stuff, doesn’t add hundreds of thousands to the price of an airplane. I think that fault goes to the lawyers and litigation thanks to frivolous lawsuits.

          • Manny, for fairness sake, I did a quick check for 182s. Finding a workable 182 for $68,000 seems quite debatable; I find a 1977 for $98,000 (Trade A Plane), a 2018 for $480,000 (Controller.com). Also for fairness sake, we should admit that my appraisal forgot about litigation effects. My bad; 80s product liability lawsuits killed most of the General Aviation market. Cessna got nailed most, yet Piper and Beech suffered by GA association.
            Sadly, that does not change either of our conclusions. If the GA market is to take off again–pun intended–we will need to bring costs down a loooong way.

  • I’ve been reading the later part of this thread and up to this point have resisted the urge to engage in the conversation. But here goes.

    Comparing 172s or 182s built 40 years ago with new production is problematic on several fronts, the least of it being avionics. Have you adjusted the value of the older aircraft for accumulated airframe hours and what is the condition of the engine. We then must look at the basic condition of such things as the interior and the exterior paint. Once all that is established then we can compare avionics, and the capabilities that are available in a G1000 172 to the 1977 one, does it have a dual 430 or 530 & 430. What about ADS-B out compliance, is it able to take advantage of the RNAV GPS approaches that are prolific and by the way add significantly to capability and safety margin, particularly if the system is LPV capable.

    Depending on the purpose of the aircraft one might choose to compromise certain capabilities for cost. Finally with all that looked at as mentioned we must recognize the huge impact and cost of litigation in aviation. The brand new 172 is helping to cover the cost of litigation on that 1977 aircraft, that wasn’t anticipate at the time of manufacture. Further more if you had asked Cessna engineers and marketing, heck all three US GA manufactures (Cessna, Beech and Piper) in 1977, if the fleet would show the durability it has, they would have said no…

    The reality is that glass by all statistical accounts is the cost effective approach to avionics today, even it you want to update the panel of the 1977, 172 or 182 and that doesn’t even consider the risk reduction due to improved reliability and capability. The GA Community has accepted significantly higher risk levels than high end turbine powered aviation, based in navigation and positional awareness capabilities. The real conversation in aircraft used for more than recreational VFR low altitude flying is how do we teach appropriate use of and understanding of failure and reversionary modes of modern avionic systems.

    • For all that I understand your point, Randi, I dispute your conclusions about the NEED for modern avionics. When I finally learned to fly about ten years ago, the school had two planes; they differed primarily in their manner of presentation of flight and navigation information. One had the glass panel approach, the other a standard steam gauge panel with a moving-map GPS in the middle. I recall understanding that ownership aimed to quietly promote the glass cockpit; they charged the same rate for both, though the modern panel cost more to purchase. In the plane I flew, the GPS could be mated to the steam gauges, thus a pilot had the choice of VOR/ILS or RNAV. The difference in navigation capability–and overall situational awareness–was essentially none.

      …I should note too, I’ve hearing this and that about the “wave of the future” for 30 years in cars too. Interestingly, electronic dash boards, hybrid vehicles, electric vehicles, even ethanol- or soybean-fueled vehicles have never caught on, though government has tried pushing each. Even diesel has only caught with OTR trucks and busses, mostly because those applications cater more specifically to business needs. Cost of operating the new, fancy, cool technology always winds up biting itself.

      Where I see General Aviation struggling most is the insistence that commercial- or military jet-looking electronics are essential. They aren’t. I don’t object to having electronics in the plane, yet when a hand-held GPS or smartphone which can be mounted to the dash will provide the same capability for far less, I don’t believe the glass panel justifies its cost. Again, for GA to grow, it needs to be accessible to the average person.

      • John, A careful reading of my post reflects that individuals make choices as to how to outfit their aircraft based on desire, anticipated use and the like. I’m good with that. Blaming the high cost of new GA aircraft on modern avionics systems just isn’t accurate. The relatively high cost of new S.E. GA aircraft is because of many factors, modern avionics not really being the driving one, but an easy one to point at as it is the only one where it is easy to see the difference from legacy gear.

        The high cost of aircraft is based in the materials required for structures. The power plants are also costly, driven by a variety of things, but mostly volume and liability. Price out a new in the crate O/IO 360 or better still a IO 540. You can easily buy a high end car for the price. Why, the answer lies in home many are made each year, the potential liability claim(s) that is associated with each engine. I can go on and on.

        As other have said below, GA participation is only partially about cost, and granted it is expensive, but it always has been. I’ve been in the aviation and defense industry for well over 30 years, I’ve flown everything from a Citabria 7ECA (initial solo) to USAF C-9s, C-5s, C-130s, F-15, and a host of GA, SE and MEL aircraft as well as the Boeing 737NG and the Cessna Citation 560XL series configured with panels as varied as it gets.

        As much I wish it were otherwise, aviation will always be more costly mile per, pound per pound moved, then terrestrial based transport.

        Times are different, interests of the current generation are different, and certainly those all play a part in the level of piston single engine GA. In this Gal’s opinion, those are factors on par with the liability issues and cost, and those far exceed the impact of the “cost” of modern avionics.

        Thanks for the thought provoking, discussion inducing article and comments!

  • John,

    I agree with most of what you say but you have to understand that there is a difference in expectations between pilots. Some want to fly primarily VFR, some add a bit of IFR capability but have no intention of flying hard IFR or using the airplane to be someplace at a certain time on a specific date. The latter are the ones who mainly see the benefits of glass and they are real. As I noted in my earlier post my airplane has a transitional panel, much like the one you described, and it works quite well for an old pilot trained on steam gauges. It doesn’t work as well for someone trained on glass who has a problem with situational awareness and who expects the airplane to do most of the flying, including coupled instrument approaches. The safety benefits of glass are real, the extra cost is real, the cost of maintenance and updates for the data is real and the user interface issues are too, so if you need it or want it you justify it. If not you don’t.

    • Seems to me that does not demonstrate the benefits of glass panels per se. Rather it demonstrates the degree of change in mindset that the GA community needs to better address. If a person definitely needs to go from one place to another on a given day, or if they want the plane to mostly fly itself, …chances are they need to find a commercial flight instead. Where most GA planes are Cat I, not Cat II or III, they tolerate turbulence and other phenomena much less readily. Put differently, the average GA plane might not be able to take the trip even with the glass panel because the weather exceeds the plane’s capabilities. GA does well where it might appeal to a person’s skills and sense of freedom. When straying from that mold, the liabilities add up too quickly.

    • I also find this very telling: I remember seeing a comment about how glass panels have been available for 20 years, at least. That sounds about right. I find it very telling then that we still have articles like this being written. If the glass panel cockpit idea did that well….I think we wouldn’t be having this discussion. I think the GA community could do itself a huge favor with a change of mindset: Rather than badgering some of us “old farts” (well, I AM middle-aged now at least…) to “get with the program” and agree to fly glass, accept that the wider market isn’t terribly interested in all the whiz-bang–expensive–technology. I suspect manufacturers might be surprised by the response.

      • Well John now “you’ve gone to meddlin”! This isn’t about what makes sense economically or whether the capability of the airplane is enhanced or not by the avionics it has installed. There should be no question that the situational awareness enhancement provided by GPS and by a full blown glass panel are real. This isn’t about what you or I think about the way other people decide to use their airplanes this is about the reality that high end GPS and glass cockpits are EXPENSIVE and that’s the reason the market hasn’t adopted them more widely. In the experimental world, where glass cockpit like displays have been available at a much lower price point for a number of years, this tech has been broadly adopted. There’s no reason to think that as the FAA agrees to allow this experimental tech into certified airplanes that the market will grow. Don’t fall into the trap of downplaying the real benefits of modern tech because its expensive. The benefits of it are real and if another guy wants to have a mostly self flying 172 like the airlines do, so be it, we don’t disparage him for that. I’ve heard this mantra for most of my life, I’m old, and I’ve been involved in aviation for most of my life, that what the world needs is a cheap airplane and everybody will want one. That’s simply not true, on any given day 95% of the population is either ambivalent about GA or opposed to you’re flying your little airplane over their house, and that’s a fact. Expense has very little to do with it. Plenty of people spend the same amount of money on cars, RV’s, Bass boats and collections of ___________________. The cost of the airplane and the cost of gas isn’t what keeps GA from growing, it’s the choices we have to make to decide to participate or not, what we have to give up in order to play with airplanes is what matters.

        • Hmph!! Well, before I agree to be relegated to smoking my old corn pipe with my button nose on the back porch, I think I’ll reach for that old silk hat again.
          I find your analysis to be well-intentioned, yet prone to reflecting…a sales pitch. One I’ve heard too much. This IS all about what you and I think about glass panels or not. This IS all about how you or I view how that other guy uses his airplane. Someone can readily grow disgusted with the call for cheap planes, especially when we can all see others shell out big bucks for RVs and boats.

          For GA to continue robustly, we need literally thousands of pilots. Those folks who want our planes away from their homes need to be persuaded that…they want to fly too. We need to persuade people that rather than a cool RV or boat, they’d rather go fly someplace. Trade the fishing hole for the wild blue.

          For any of this to happen, we need aircraft available that an average blue-collar fellow can reasonably aim to fly. For now, we have plenty of planes built before the mid-80s. When those wear out, FBOs will need replacements. Looking online, I see a Cessna 172 ($390,000) as the cheapest entry. For the aviation world, that’s a relatively basic trainer. FBOs who wish to use that for newbie pilots will need to charge pretty steep prices merely to break even, never mind profit. Expense may not be the sole determining factor, yet it will have a distinctive role. Those steep prices will be a sore blow to even a small family of four. Rather than seeing GA expand, I see most people more likely priced out of the market.
          Maybe the experimental folks will keep things going. Maybe. Such has a habit of being…experimental…not able to sustain large numbers of participants for long.
          We can’t expect a niche of a niche market to sustain the overall sector. It simply hasn’t happened that way.

  • Its obvious by the responses that one size doesn’t fit all. A glass Cirrus or an Airbus leaves me cold, so I fly a 185 and used to fly Lockheed, Douglas and Boeing, steam and glass.

    For ADS-B, I finally settled on a GTX 345 connected to an iPad with Foreflight and a GNS 530W via Flight Stream 210. My vacuum pump died…again…and the gyros were old and weak. Got rid of them and the vacuum system. Replaced it all with two G5’s and a GMU-11 magnetometer. The 185 is now perfect for our requirements…short field, high DA work, long range tanks and a big useful load with the occasional IFR and LPV, ILS or VOR approach. The cost was reasonable for the added capability, and we love it, yet there are those who wouldn’t own it or fly it for anything.

    I think the best answer is variety and innovative private enterprise. Let the market decide what sells and what doesn’t and who wants to fly and who doesn’t. If someone really wants to fly, they’ll find an option that suits them financially and otherwise.

  • Back in 1947-48 a lot of smart people lost a lot of money because they thought if the price was right most people would want an airplane. I didn’t work then and it won’t work today. It doesn’t matter how inexpensive the airplane is to buy or how cheap gasoline is because on any given day only about 5% of the population has any interest in flying that doesn’t involve buying a ticket. That’s a fact. Blaming the lack of growth in GA on the price of airplanes is ignoring the obvious fact that it takes a lot more resources to operate, keep, insure and maintain an airplane than almost any other form of recreational or transport vehicle you can name with the possible exception of a high end boat or race car.
    As related to the original thread regarding glass cockpit avionics they are expensive yes but they aren’t necessary to allow us to operate an airplane for recreation or simple transportation so to claim that they are the reason new airplanes are so expensive is, as others have pointed out, ignoring obvious facts. Some pilots want them, some can afford them and some can’t but high priced Avionics is not why GA is in decline.

  • *shakes head* Avionics may not be an exclusive problem, yet neither have they helped. I’ve read articles about electronic avionics since my teens in the 80s. Hand-held avionics have been available since the 90s. Major manufacturers, Cessna, Piper, Beechcraft, have sold glass-panel cockpits exclusively since 2001. Yet I see no evidence that the market has expanded at all, now here we sit in 2018, still reading articles about how glass panels…offer so much. Even the article admits that cost of avionics poses a significant deterrent. T’would seem there’s a disconnect here.

    It’d be interesting to see what would happen if one of the manufacturers, Cessna especially, would make an option for a standard cockpit for say, five years. I’d like to see if sales would go up.

  • All these things ( wizbang avionics) are great in their places. But they are no more than tinsel on a Christmas tree when it comes to flight safety. When trouble strikes – electrical problems, ice, turbulence, bad weather, system failures – basic flying skills have to be ready to be moved immediately to the forefront to take over. Just like resorting to basic human survival elements (food, shelter, clothing) after natural disasters strike, pilots must be able to resort immediately to flying basics – pitch (angle-of-attack), power, airspeed when failures occur. In that regard, a Cirrus, or any other airplane, is exactly like a Wright Flyer from 1909. What killed pilots then will kill pilots today: “He was concentrating on his toys and components and forgot about the wing! That’s why he crashed.” Pitch, power, airspeed – food, shelter, clothing. If you don’t cultivate the basics, your body will be cultivating daisies. The pilots of Air France 449 forgot about this. Throw the garbage out and get back to stick and rudder basics.

  • Concerning AF 449 : did those pilots have backup manual flight controls?
    Any theories of why the pilot flying wanted to climb?

    • Khalid, when their pitot tubes froze over those AF pilots were essentially left without a pot to piss in. The air data computers were temporarily rendered useless, which in turn rendered their flight instruments useless – garbage. The young co-pilot may have been looking at false data that led him to believe the airplane was descending – which would logically lead him to pull back on the control stick. But for unknown reasons – maybe primal fear – he continued to hold the stick all the way back until the airplane had reached the lower altitudes (10,000 feet or so) in a deep stall. By then it was too late to recover. So in this case a “natural disaster” struck: Ice-covered pitot tubes which rendered the instruments untenable. In other words, the crew lost their house… What did they need to do at that point? To make sure they had food, shelter, and clothing so they could endure the catastrophe. How did they need to go about that? Return to the Wright brothers’ days by throwing the garbage out and grabbing ahold of the basics: Pitch, power, airspeed. If you have unreliable airspeed you fly by attitude and power settings only. Set the power to that EPR or N1 (or RPM) that you know will give you a safe airspeed at that altitude, establish an attitude (usually around 2 to 3 degrees up in a jet airliner) that will maintain close-to-level flight. There are charts for these numbers in every airplane’s performance manuals… So essentially, they should have done next to nothing for a little while. The airplane was flying just fine on its own – let it continue without you making any unorthodox inputs. In other words, would there EVER be a time at FL370 – or any altitude – when you would pull the yoke all the way back in cruise flight and simply leave it there in the hopes of correcting a problem? No. Only God knows now why the co-pilot did what he did. Do what is logical to do first. Get back to basics. Throw the garbage out and rely on pitch, power, airspeed.

      • And that is a major issue with Airbus computer interface with the flight control system.

        I have had the same issue with the pitot tubes being overwhelmed with water while in the intertropical convergence zone (ITCZ) flying an atmospheric research DC-8. While we were capable of handflying the aircraft, the autopilot never disconnected during the loss of airspeed indication.

        The Airbus generation of aircraft will lull the pilot into thinking the automation will carry the day, but alas, the automation-dependent pilot can very easily be let down when the situation calls for him/her to be a pilot.

      • Huh? So far as I know, your pitot tube freezing affects your airspeed indicator, not your altimeter. Based on the IFR flying DVDs I’ve watched, pilots should be cross-checking instruments to make certain they know what’s up. If the airspeed indicator doesn’t move or doesn’t move as expected, I should think a cross-check with attitude indicator, altimeter, and compass would be in order. Especially if these are showing a rapid descent whilst one has the yoke in their lap, I should think someone would recognize a stall, thus pushing the yoke forward.
        Thus, I would not expect a frozen pitot tube to be capable of causing a disaster. Not unless the static hole(s) (for the altimeter), gyro (for the gyro compass), and magnetic compass have all failed too.

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