Panel with devices
4 min read

Social media platforms like Air Facts Journal, Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, and other online magazines and platforms have largely taken the place of much “hangar talk” in the pilot community. Usually, these discussions are civil and generally respectful. So I was surprised when I posted the picture (below) of my Cessna 182S panel and about 100 pilots vehemently criticized my panel as amounting to an “unsafe distraction.” On the other hand, another 100 or so vigorously defended my panel as safe. So is there a point where random backup technology becomes unsafe?

I’ve always heard that good pilots always have “random backup” in case of an equipment failure. So after I bought my steam gauge, six pack Cessna 182S, I completely changed my panel to include a JPI 830 engine monitor in order to keep an eye on all cylinders—especially a comfort when I fly across the Gulf of Mexico. The instruments you see are all also connected via hard wire to the Garmin GTN 750 and the G500 with real-time synthetic vision. There’s also a Garmin GNS 430 on the panel as well as the Garmin 796 attached to my arm rest, all receiving information from two sources in case I lose power in the airplane.

The King KAP 140 autopilot and all other panel instruments are all listening to a my 750, which incorporates an on-board, real-time WX-500 Stormscope that communicates instant weather info to my screens. And I still have the WAAS GPS information with ADS-B in and out continuously advising me about traffic, terrain, and weather.

Panel with devices

How much is too much?

Also, my Stratus 2S sends separate ADS-B info about traffic, terrain, and weather to my iPad and Garmin 796 as backups—all on separate batteries in case the airplane power fails. The instruments installed in the panel mentioned above pipe the real-time traffic, terrain, and weather information through Garmin Flight Stream directly to ForeFlight on my iPads (which also have synthetic vision). Again, the panel instruments and iPads and Stratus and 796 are all on separate power sources and all of them give me both audible and visual warnings with any changes of altitude, traffic, terrain, and weather ahead from the panel screens as well as the iPad screen clamped to the yoke.

Since my wife is a student pilot, the other iPad is for her viewing, although when landing at a busy airport, I will sometimes use it for its taxi diagram. And if all of that fails, I have a SP-400 handheld NAV/COM to perform an approach. So is this unsafe because of too many “distractions?”

When criticized by fellow pilots as having too many distractions, my response was to consider that the large commercial airline panels amount to as many as four times as much to look at. Obviously, the 777 pilots consider their panels safe for their commercial passengers. Or perhaps I would mention articles about distractions that emphasize the problem was really focusing on one instrument, excluding others with no consistent scan of all your airplane’s instruments.

Probably the most famous accident that was attributable to a distracted crew happened to Eastern Airlines Flight 401, a Lockheed L-1011. It crashed into the Everglades in December 1972. The flight was from New York to Miami. On the approach to Miami, the crew noticed they had an unsafe landing gear indication. The crew diverted to an area west of Miami to troubleshoot the problem. They engaged the autopilot in altitude hold but in the process of troubleshooting, they did not realize that they had disengaged altitude hold by inadvertently bumping the control column on the captain’s side. This caused the autopilot to change the mode to Control Wheel Steering and initiated a gradual descent into the Everglades.

The NTSB finding was that the accident was caused by the “failure of the flight crew to monitor the flight instruments during the final four minutes of flight, and to detect an unexpected descent soon enough to prevent impact with the ground. Preoccupation with a malfunction of the nose landing gear position indicating system distracted the crew’s attention from the instruments and allowed the descent to go unnoticed.” This crash had nothing to do with too many instruments. It was simply a failure of the crew to be certain someone continued to scan all instruments and fly the airplane.

Clearly, all pilots want to emphasize safe practices in the air. But is their issues with my panel “distractions?” Or is their argument against too many instruments that this will cause a pilot to fall into the three greatest errors of any instrument pilot’s scan: fixation, omission, and emphasis.

Rick Spencer
Latest posts by Rick Spencer (see all)
32 replies
  1. Dale Hill
    Dale Hill says:

    Sooooiee Pig, Rick! Good article to emphasize that it isn’t what’s in front of a pilot, but what that pilot chooses to ignore or focus upon to the detriment of the flying of their aerospace vehicle! Had a friend who flew T-38s with me and went on to fly KC-135s. On an approach in weather, he and the other pilot got engaged in a discussion about the approach and the jet flew into the ground because neither of them was flying it. Killed several people, he survived, but was severely burned.

    Reply
  2. Udo Herpich
    Udo Herpich says:

    Hi there. It might not be a distraction. But for flying this complexity (non) of aircraft and trips, all of it but 1 gps (you choose) and the engine monitor. should simply be very unnecessary for 100% safe operation. You should not be flying this kind of aircraft if you need an autopilot, but ride the airline with a newspaper and a drink.

    looks to me like the need to show off….

    Cheers,

    Udo

    Reply
  3. Karrpilot
    Karrpilot says:

    I have flown a 182 with none of this for 10 years. Basic steam Guage, and a decent Garmin GPS with a moving map display. I am only VFR, and never fly over open water and rarely at night, so my needs are quite less. But even so, I don’t think someone needs all of this to fly an aircraft.

    Reply
  4. Widget
    Widget says:

    I would hate to be stuck behind you while trying to get a clearance, get all this booted up, loaded up and figuring out here to taxi to for takeoff. Looks pretty though. Either that or this is a late April fools joke. On the positive side though, I bet your window glass is perfect because you’ve never used it to look outside.

    Reply
  5. Mark Wyant
    Mark Wyant says:

    Sorry, but as a former airline pilot (AA) of 22 years (including 16 in the 767 300ER flying international) what you have there is complete and total overload. Why so much fear of losing power to the instruments? Has this been a problem for you? I have been flying 45 years and have never lost power to the point I lost all instrumentation. You should spend more time looking out the window and less at all the pretty pictures for safeties sake. In a 182, I am sorry this is silly.

    Reply
  6. Doug H
    Doug H says:

    I would love to know where I can get the windshield mounted compass shown in that picture. I want to do a canopy mount. If anyone knows… Please let me know!!!

    Reply
  7. Dennis
    Dennis says:

    Rick, who cares as long as you follow the 3 tenets of aviation, fly the plane, fly the plane, fly the plane.
    Btw, you panel looks pretty snappy!

    Reply
    • Don W.
      Don W. says:

      You forgot the #1 rule for controlling anything that moves: “Don’t hit anything!”. (That rule is relaxed in the case of aircraft with a stores management system. They are allowed to hit things with their “stores”…)

      Reply
  8. Dick gecko
    Dick gecko says:

    Depends. Mike Patey has a lot of glass in Scrappy, but dedicates each panel to a specific task so he always knows where to look. A hodgepodge of instruments configured Willy-Nilly seems a burden. In some cases you’re like a man with two watches; You never really know what time it is. So you need a third watch as tie-breaker.

    The real test is when everything is going to hell in the plane. Can you immediately rescue yourself by making sense of various UIs & systems?

    Reply
  9. Cary Alburn
    Cary Alburn says:

    I’ve been accused of having the most over-equipped panel in a 172 on the planet, but mine’s the epitome of simplicity by comparison. Sorry Rick—if it makes you happy, that’s fine, but IMHO your panel is a case of gross overkill.

    Reply
  10. 175Driver
    175Driver says:

    You mention in your essay that the 777 has about four times as much info to look at. On the contrary, there are two pilots. 2 of the screens are engine and other system monitors. The other four are a PFD/MFD for each pilot. that is one screen for the flight instruments and one for a moving map. Next is an iPad that is used for charts/weather. That is it. Same in the E175 that I fly. That is all we use for an 80,000-pound jet to get around safely and honestly is almost more than we even need. While extra info helps, in a slower aircraft having that many screens, can pose a distraction. Impressive panel though! Love the 750.

    Reply
  11. Thomas Curran
    Thomas Curran says:

    At least you didn’t mount anything up on top of the glare shield. If you’re worried about failures/redundancy, I’d still get rid of half this stuff & fly with a competent “copilot”….

    Reply
  12. Mike Wood
    Mike Wood says:

    Confucious, he say “Man with two watches never know what time it is”. How in hell do you do a meaningful instrument cross-check with all of this yelling at you?

    Reply
  13. RAY DASILVA
    RAY DASILVA says:

    The Garmin 796 could go, but the rest is what most of us are using to fly today.
    He has a G500; how many of us are flying with Aspen PFD? The 750 is very common. An engine monitor is a must for a single engine. And the iPad with ForeFlight that everyone is using. So, I don’t see a problem; the only overkill is the 796.

    Reply
  14. Michael Klein
    Michael Klein says:

    I have the same panel configuration in my 182P with the exception of the 796. The issue of “losing power” is a moot issue, as all those digital instruments have built-in battery back-up for up to four hours. I concur with our colleague that the 796 is not necessary. Regarding all the negativity,I’m reminded of a comment from a patient when I was an active duty physician in the USAF. He was a retired WWII B17 pilot, who made 21 bombing missions in the ETO.
    “ Doc, when you’re catching a lot of flak, you must be right over the target.”

    Reply
  15. Hank Kamerman
    Hank Kamerman says:

    Hi Rick,
    Certainly a nice assortment of technology. It gets much easier to use when you fly with it fifteen days a month. Airline pilots do it all the time. Even with all their experience when the Magenta line disappears and the auto pilot goes to sleep you see their lessenig flying skills become apparent. The ability of pilots disappear when they fly less and use the magic more. I have only been flying and evaluting for over forty three years and my contemporaries feel the same as me. Hone your skills and remember you must always fly the airplane first.
    H.

    Reply
  16. Bob T
    Bob T says:

    Knock yourself out when it comes to technology. Just make sure you’re not using it as a crutch. You should be able to hand fly an approach to minimums in rain and clouds if necessary. And if the tech malfunctions, don’t try to fix it in the air. Land and sort things out. I’ve seen way too many pilots go into a flurry of button-pushing when their autopilot does something unexpected. Cut it off and hand fly.

    Reply
  17. Dave
    Dave says:

    Fantastic panel for a cross country flight be it VFR or IFR. One draw back that I have experienced as an instructor is that in the circuit and even in the practise area is the student with his head down reading the glass instead looking outside and supplementing the see and be seen with only necessary glance at the glass panel info.
    Sure good to have ADS-B but not every one has one at some airports and what about the guy who has not turned it on or it is not working.
    Eyes outside to survive.

    Reply
  18. Rich
    Rich says:

    “So is this unsafe because of too many “distractions?” hell yes! Too many inputs for the brain under stress to sort. It’s a simple piston-engined single, not a 777.

    Reply
    • Bibocas
      Bibocas says:

      I think that all negative comments are a truly injustice for someone that tried to write something to this website that invite us, pilots, to write to the community of pilots and didn’t forget to use the final phrase he had used. Was that a show off? I do think so.

      Reply
  19. Rob Reider
    Rob Reider says:

    Seems to be overkill, Rick. From the viewpoint of the picture, it would seem that there could be some issues in reaching the controls.

    In my RV-7A I’ve got all that stuff but it’s all Garmin and everything talks together seamlessly. I use my iPad to dump a flight plan into my 650 and then everything else has it. I do have a Sentry Plus ADS-B receiver that I have as a tertiary backup (after the 650, dual G3X touch, and a G5) but it is out of the way and serves primarily as a CO detector.

    It’s fun to have all that stuff but I’m not at all sure that it would be helpful in an emergency. Perhaps figuring out what would be necessary to handle and emergency and then set the rest aside.

    Reply
  20. S. Johnson
    S. Johnson says:

    Just because its all there in the picture doesn’t mean you have to monitor and look at it all the time while your flying. Lets give this guy the benefit of the doubt and praise his trust fund.

    Reply
  21. Wild Bill
    Wild Bill says:

    Pilots are often attracted to technology, it’s part of the mentality, after all it’s machines that enable us to fly, and technology can be a great enhancement for safety, but this looks extreme. Is this over compensation perhaps? Has risk management become risk aversion? Maybe decay of skills has created a need to enasure that any failure of one piece of gear requires relying on another piece of tech gear, and another, and another? What about basic piloting skills? I’ve seen a lot of younger pilots become mindless slaves to the magenta line… often with great resistance to learning any of the basic pilot skills such as pilotage & ded reckoning, leaving them with no real backup. In the cockpit, no one is coming to save you, it’s up to you, your training and hard work, to keep you alive.

    Reply
  22. Steve Yucht
    Steve Yucht says:

    Rick, you obviously use your tech well and are not distracted. Your rationale for redundancy is excellent, although most people don’t take it to your level. Don’t be discouraged by others but do listen. Screens do suck us in but as long as you stick with your scan including outside, know when to keep your scan outside (approaching and in the pattern) then this is not an issue. The “old timers” are correct that we shouldn’t be dependent on technology, but without a doubt properly used and trained for, technology makes us safer the 99.99% of the time that it is properly working.

    Reply

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