Posts Tagged ‘ GA ’

Steam Vs. Glass

In aviation, there are are two different kinds of avionics.  Both of them present the same information, and both actually use essentially the same sensors.  The difference is that one of them is far more expensive…though to be fair, it has been argued (generally successfully) that it has increased situational awareness to previously unheard-of levels.

I am talking about the difference between “steam” and “glass.”


"Glass" Cockpit

I want you to take a good look at these two cockpits.

On the “steam gauge” layout, you have the eight most basic instruments–each one of which you can cross-reference when you are in the clouds to give you the information you need to find out if you are climbing, diving, rolling, losing or gaining airspeed, and if you are on-course or not.  The radios are stacked to the right, and you can tune each one to the  exact frequency you need.  This was the technology for essentially eighty-plus years.  It worked well for that entire time.

In the “glass” cockpit layout, you’ll notice that every one of those gauges is gone.  In fact, there aren’t any radios to tune, either.  And how will you know you are on track?

The answer is easy–we refer to Steam Gauges as such because they are outdated by about fifteen years now.  They are still completely functional, but the latest and greatest technology (as in, “Glass Cockpit” technology) has helped to usher in the safest period in aviation history, and here’s why.

We have gone from referring to instruments as individuals (the “attitude indicator,” or the “airspeed indicator,” in the steam gauge cluster) to referring to them as units called the PFD and MFD (Primary Flight Display and Multi-Function Display).  The PFD sits on the left of the two screens, and gives the pilot every single piece of information he or she needs to fly the airplane.  It shows a horizon (ground/sky colors), airspeed (along the left side, displayed as a vertical ticker tape which rolls up or down, respective to the airspeed), the altitude (along the right hand side, displayed as a ticker tape which rolls up or down), whether or not you are on-course, which compass direction you are headed, and the list goes on and on.  It shows every piece of information that steam gauges do…but it does it on one screen, all in one place.  If your airspeed or altitude is falling, your ticker tape will show it more clearly and obviously to the eye than a steam gauge will.  If you are pointed more toward the air than the ground, your entire PFD will display blue (the sky), and you can adjust accordingly (push the nose over)–something easy to overlook if you have seven other separate instruments glaring you in the face if you get into hot water.

The MFD sits on the right side of this glass cockpit, and displays many of the things that several other steam gauges do, and some that they don’t.  The MFD displays the info of the engine parameters, a visual depiction of the direction you are headed and the terrain you are flying over, the radio frequencies you are tuned to, and the navigational aids you are using.  As is probably easy to see, the glass cockpit gives you moving-map GPS location detection, and will show any waypoint (or airport) you program into it.

The main reason that glass cockpits are wonderful is pretty obvious–they are pleasing to the eye, and they aggregate and present all of the necessary information in a way that is far more cohesive and intuitive to the pilot than having to look at (and interpret) six or eight separate gauges would be.  Glass cockpits are effectively bringing to the private, General Aviation (GA) and Experimental Aviation (EA) markets a relatively affordable way to increase situational awareness.  Big-time companies like Garmin have been involved for plenty of time, but smaller companies like Dynon have entered the market, and are providing glass cockpits at decent prices.  Many EA or GA installations can run between two and five thousand dollars per unit, but systems like the Garmin G-1000/3000/5000 will run easily into the multiple-ten-of-thousands of dollars.

So, there you have it.  If you knew this stuff already, I probably didn’t tell you much that you don’t already know.  If you didn’t, glass cockpits are pretty much where aviation is, and is already headed.  Hell, some Experimental Aircraft owners run their entire avionics systems on some specialized apps for the iPad–it has the accelerometers and GPS tracking to provide some situational awareness, but not all…and  EA owners are focused on saving the cash, so this works out beautifully.  Whatever route you decide to choose, each side has pros and cons, so start your homework here before you decide to shell out the extra $20 to $50 an hour for flight time with them.

Whichever side you choose, it will be worth your while–trust me.  Happy flying!


Flight Planning By Hand: Becoming Obsolete, Or Already There?

I have to admit that ever since I was a flight student beginning ten years ago, actually planning the flight was an understood, extremely lengthy necessity.  Depending on the length of your trip, you had to sit there with your whiz wheel and plot out exactly what time you would cross your checkpoint, which was illustrated by a highlighted line on your necessary-but-obnoxiously large sectional chart.  (Not my personal chart here.)    You have to (by law) carry your sectionals with you in the aircraft, and if you’re flying IFR, you have to have approach plates (pieces of paper with the approach information on them) for every approach listed at a particular airport.  This gets particularly cumbersome for pilots because each airport could have as many as three or four approaches per runway. (Remember–if you have a runway with a compass heading of 36 (due north), you also have a runway 18 (due south).  This means that if you have four approaches for 36, you also must have four approaches for 18–eight pieces of paper for the same piece of asphalt!  Now imagine flying into an airport with three or four runways (or, in fact, six or eight runways)–you’ll have to carry upwards of thirty pages of approaches just to shoot an approach there.

They make binders full of these approach plates, which are printed on the kind of uber-thin paper that Bibles are printed on, but still you must carry them with you in the aircraft wherever you go.  Think of it:  If you have to carry fifteen pounds worth of approach plates (not uncommon), that’s fifteen pounds of fuel you couldn’t, and while two gallons of fuel probably won’t make the difference between making a trip and not making it, it’s still nearly always better to have more fuel than not.

About twenty years ago, a FedEx saw the need to reduce to reduce the rediculous amount of paper in the cockpit, and had the technology to do it.  It began with a laptop, but from the loins of that idea came nearly every pilot’s best friend:  The Electronic Flight Bag (EFB).  This is basically a handheld computer (which is not always in a bag, despite the title) that has all of these approach plates and sectionals stored on a hard drive (typically as PDF files), and can quickly call up any approach plate or sectional (or section of a sectional) to accurately give you only the information you’ll need to safely fly your route and approach.  Many other companies picked up on the idea, of course, and now there are EFBs of every option and price range.  Most often nowadays, they are linked to satellites and provide a GPS location of your aircraft over the ground (in the form of a moving map), as well as real-time precipitation overlays which show your proximity to  any weather in the area–a real help to pilots, as a good percentage of accidents are, in fact, weather-related.  Many times also, they give you the option of filing or cancelling a flight plan online while you’re still in the air–even just ten years ago, you had to do it by phone from the ground.

So.  As a student, you’re taught to do everything by hand–starting from the absolute basics.  I believe this is still the smartest way to teach people to fly initially, particularly since the new student (I can tell you from experience) needs every understanding of how to keep from getting lost or in hot water up there.  It’s easy to do–if you are not sure of your position over the ground, it is easy to wander into a military munitions test zone, for example, without knowing it.  All of a sudden you’re face-to-face with a pair of F-16s, and have no idea why.  They have this form that basically looks like a flow chart of information, on which you would fill in the blanks with the information needed, and make calculations down to the minute  about when you will cross your checkpoint.  Very time consuming, but worth the lessons. 

So the basics are the way to start off.  But I posed the question to all of my pilot friends on Facebook:  With the advent of these EFBs, is it even worth it for the average General Aviation (GA) pilot to plan trips on paper anymore?  The answers I got summarily sided with EFBs.  One of my buddies who flies 757s even told me flat out, “I haven’t planned a personal trip on paper since I left (college).”

Another factor regarding flight planning ease and organization has been linked to price.  Garmin is one of the foremost authorities on GPS and avionics technology, and their EFBs range in price from around $2500 on up, depending on options.  Also, in most cases, you have to have a subscription to update all of these chart files that ranges from two hundred to five hundred dollars a year, depending on the provider.

But finally, things are getting easier (and cheaper) for GA pilots.  Technology is accelerating the ease of teaching (and further, the accessibility) of GA to many people who previously had not considered it to be on their radar (no pun intended).  One product in particular perked my ears up the second I saw it:  The Apple iPad.  I would never have considered buying this oversized iPod, this laptop-that-isn’t-a-laptop, except for one feature that it has–a huge, beautiful, bright, HD screen, and the ability to display and navigate pictures quickly, concisely, and with great versatility.  Obviously in the context of this article, it’s plain to see what (to me) is the iPad’s most obvious purpose.

The iPad-as-EFB will be realized soon enough, as Apps are being made available for pilots, by pilots at lightning speed.  These apps supplement all of the other programs that have forced an aviation cross-country trip to be more fun than work–websites like and let you put in your cross-country planned airports, and they literally give you nearly every detail you’ll need to make the trip.  They link you directly to current weather reports, special advisories, pilot reports (PIREPS)…these websites will even take the current winds and calculate your airspeed and times for you.  They’ve effectively done for pilots what the TI-83 calculator did for trigonometry.  And for a “mere” nine hundred bucks for the unit, twenty bucks for the app, and people making sectional PDFs available online (which you have access to in the air) for free, the Apple iPad is now top on my list of discount-GA-Pilot EFB choices.

I think it’s clear that paper-planning trips is a thing of the past (again, unless you’re a student–you need to have those skills to fall back in if your electronics quit on you to safely fly).  And of course, we flyers need to have safeguards in place against complacency, as complacency causes accidents.  But do you feel these new technologies will promote complacency, or will they actually make people more aware, more alert pilots because they have more information in a far more organized way at their fingertips?

%d bloggers like this: