Lifelong learning, continuous retraining, career reskilling – the buzzwords are nauseating, but the concept is sound. These days, most of us need to learn new skills every 3-5 years, whether it’s how to write code or how to work with new machines. The days of graduating from high school or college and having most of the required knowledge for a lifetime of work are gone (if they ever really existed in the first place).
The same is true for pilots, as I have been reminded recently. After logging about 1,000 hours in a Pilatus PC-12 with a combination of round dials and EFIS tubes, the cockpit was recently transformed with a pair of Garmin G600 TXi primary flight displays (PFDs). The bright screens filled with synthetic vision views are simply incredible, and I genuinely feel safer flying behind them, but they also sent me back to school.
This was not my first time flying a glass cockpit. I’ve flown the G1000 cockpit in a Cessna 182 and the Avidyne Entegra system in a Cirrus SR22, but I had never flown glass in an airplane as fast as the Pilatus and I had never flown this particular model of PFD. So I did what any conscientious pilot would do and spent some time reading the manual (long and not terribly helpful) and playing with a simulator (much better).
I quickly came across my first lesson: there’s a difference between getting proficient and learning something new. As pilots, we have to complete a flight review every two years, and most of us have more rigorous procedures than just the bare minimum. That’s good, but it usually involves nothing more than knocking off some rust, and it’s usually done in a familiar airplane and at familiar airports. It’s a process of remembering or polishing, not grappling with new concepts and discovering different ways of flying.
Learning something completely new requires a different mindset if it’s to be done well. Previous assumptions can be dangerous, and old habits might need to die. I found myself trying to apply lessons from other avionics systems, and not always successfully. I would have been better off going in with an open mind, with fewer biases about how the avionics “should work.”
Unlike the flight review, transitioning to new avionics does not require any formal training. Neither the FAA nor most insurance companies demand we fly with a flight instructor or log a certain number of hours solo before carrying passengers, so it’s really up to us as Pilot in Command to make a safe transition. I certainly appreciate that flexibility, but that doesn’t mean training isn’t needed and I wasn’t going to make my first flight a hard IFR cross-country. So after some time on the ground, I planned a series of “tiptoe flights” to ease into the new world of TXi. These were all local flights, in good VFR weather, with a co-pilot. This was certainly the right decision, since I had my head buried in the cockpit for the first hour or two.
After a few of these flights – and some more time with the simulator – I felt pretty good about my proficiency with the new avionics. It was time to fly a real trip. Of course Mother Nature didn’t get the memo, so my first one involved low IFR conditions to a mountain airport and a few summer thunderstorms.
In hindsight, those conditions were just what I needed.
The flight was a relatively short one, from Cincinnati, OH (LUK) to Jacksboro, TN (JAU). Weather was 500 overcast and 2 miles at Lunken, right at approach minimums since the main runway was under construction – another twist. That wasn’t much of a concern because it was mostly morning fog and I knew the tops were low. Besides, this was my home airport and morning fog was a familiar situation there. The synthetic vision on takeoff was still a major confidence-booster, as we could see the hills off the end of the runway and the large attitude indicator made it easy to establish a stable climb attitude.
After a couple minutes, we were on top and in the sun, but our work was just beginning. Our original destination was Deerfield (TN44) a private, 3100 ft. runway on top of a hill at Norris Lake. I’ve flown in there many times before, but there is no instrument approach and the weather in the area was bouncing between 500 and 900 overcast, with scattered rain showers and mist in the valleys. Given the somewhat rough terrain and basic facilities, we decided to change our destination to Jacksboro, a nearby airport with a WAAS GPS approach and a slightly longer runway. Otherwise the temptation to scud run into TN44 might be hard to resist.
As we approached the Kentucky/Tennessee border, a wall of clouds made clear that rain showers were still in the area. I turned on the Garmin radar (another recent addition to the panel) and started painting cells. This was great practice, since I had spent very little time using the radar during my training flights – after all, the weather was great and we never got above 3000 feet. It took a few minutes of experimentation (was it stabilized in pitch and roll or just roll?), but eventually the picture was clear. Showers were everywhere, but it didn’t look like anything more than that. Here was another lesson: you can’t possibly use all the tools on a local flight, so give yourself time to experiment in cruise.
Twenty miles north of Jacksboro, I asked Atlanta Center for vectors to the RNAV approach at Jacksboro. Either I wasn’t clear or the controller didn’t really understand (not all center controllers are up on approaches), so after flying almost directly over the airport, we were cleared back out to the northeast direct to an initial approach fix to fly a procedure turn. That meant lots of last-minute programming on the GPS and a careful eye on the autopilot to make sure it was doing what we wanted. More practice multi-tasking.
Of course, the WAAS GPS drew a perfect procedure turn, making this once-challenging process a breeze. I relaxed just a bit, which is usually when mistakes happen. Sure enough, after passing the initial approach fix inbound, it slowly dawned on me that there was no glideslope. I knew this was an LP approach, not an LPV, because of the terrain and the approach being offset 13 degrees from the runway. What I hadn’t noticed was the lack of advisory glideslope (the +V), because I was so enthralled with the synthetic vision view on the PFD that I forgot to double check the GTN 750 for the approach annunciation. It was another lesson that could only be learned at an unfamiliar airport, with the pressure of real weather added to the mix.
When I finally caught up with the airplane, I had to change gears and fly a truly non-precision approach. I was only a few hundred feet high, so I continued the approach with a slightly higher than normal descent rate. That meant tapping buttons and twisting knobs to adjust the flight director, which of course works the exact opposite of the old avionics. By the time I crossed the final approach fix I was at the proper altitude and on speed, satisfying my stabilized approach criteria.
As I flew lower and lower, the clouds showed no signs of breaking up. Again, the synthetic vision was an incredible aid for situational awareness. I could see the airport marker offset to the left, so I was primed to look left if and when we broke out, not straight ahead. I could see the ridge line off the right wing, reminding me not to turn right on a missed approach. Most impressively, I could see the green flight path marker leading the way to the runway threshold. This is the ultimate shortcut in a glass cockpit airplane – put that marker on the numbers and the airplane will go there.
Right at minimums, maybe three seconds before I was planning to push the go-around button, the runway appeared and we landed. It was satisfying and more than a little exciting, but it was also a tremendous learning experience. In less than one hour on the Hobbs, I had learned a number of valuable lessons about the new avionics, most of them ones I didn’t even know I needed to learn.
So are ground-based simulator training sessions and local training flights worthless? Hardly. They form the base that allow us to build more advanced skills, and are a critical first step. But there’s simply no substitute for flying real flights (whatever that means for you) in real world conditions. That is where the lasting impressions are made.
This shouldn’t be surprising. The airlines have used Line-Oriented Flight Training for decades, with impressive results. They know what most high tech businesses know: an hour of on-the-job training beats a week of theoretical study.