If you think an air show is just about watching aerobatic planes dance around their own trails of smoke, you havent been trying hard enough.
Most people think of air shows as recreation, a time to gawk at airplanes, swap tales with other pilots and eat food that would make a nutritionists eyes roll in disbelief.
But they also offer all kinds of opportunities to become a safer pilot to those who take the time to look.
EAAs Sun n Fun Fly-in in April had a smattering of new gear, loads of familiar products and a comprehensive lineup of seminars and forums geared to homebuilder and factory flier alike. Buried in the chaff were some valuable nuggets that were suitably rewarding.
The electronic wonderboxes first. Situational awareness is easier than ever before, thanks to shrinking circuits and advances in flat panel displays that make powerful color moving maps affordable.
Consider the Sandel SN3308 electronic HSI. The unit takes a standard HSI one step further and adds course data from a GPS, moving map, Stormscope output, and ADF and DME outputs. All this capability is packed into a unit small enough to replace a standard DG.
To reduce the learning curve, the unit can be decluttered to work as a standard HSI, allowing operators to slowly expand their knowledge of the capabilities without dedicating a number of flights solely to training on the unit.
With a handy A-B memory selector, the pilot can set up a view that works, then flip-flop to another view to experiment with. With the touch of a single button, the screens can be interchanged. That means the pilot can fly safely and still learn to configure the screen in a way that makes the most personal sense. In addition the Sandel switches easily between the 360-degree view and a 90-degree EFIS-style arc.
Owners report that the display moves smoothly through turns, without the staccato jumps common in GPS moving maps. Once installation is made and the unit is debugged, the primary safety considerations appear to be the operating ramifications if the projector bulb should fail and the somewhat limited viewing angle that could preclude operating the airplane adequately from the right seat.
Although the Sandel is certified to replace an existing DG or HSI entirely, some owners are installing the existing unit on the right side of the panel to provide redundancy. For a unit like the Sandel that has only been on the market a short time, such an installation represents a prudent expense.
A less radical approach to situational awareness could also be found in the vendor-filled hangars at Lakeland.
Moving maps are nothing new, but advances in technology are enabling the manufacturers to pack ever-more features into ever smaller boxes. Color allows the small screens to display vastly more information before the clutter becomes overwhelming.
This capability, of course, is a double-edged sword. Get a demo of one of the new displays from a salesman and youll see fingers flying over buttons showing how the displays can be customized, changed en route and tailored to the needs of a particular pilot.
What they dont tell you is how long it will take you to learn to operate the thing with half your brain working on keeping the airplane upright and scanning for traffic.
Current options, such as the IIMorrow MX20 and Allied-Signal/Skyforces Skymap IIIC show the direction designers are taking toward improving situational awareness in the cockpit. Finding a spot on the panel for the roughly 5×6 devices might be the toughest part, but getting disoriented will be a much less likely event afterward.
Also part of the mix are the new generation of GPS/comms that include moving maps. As the maps get more popular, the cockpit may soon be overstuffed with maps, like the way kitchen appliances all have clocks.
In addition to knowing where you are, keeping on top of whats around you is crucial – and that includes other planes. The Ryan TCAD series represents a continually improving family of traffic monitoring devices that may have as big an impact on mid-air collisions as the companys more famous invention, the Stormscope, has had on weather avoidance.
At its best, the Ryan TCAD can give you range, bearing, altitude separation and altitude trend to other airplanes that are equipped with a transponder. Unlike the expensive TCAS on big planes, which interrogate the transponders of other airplanes directly, the Ryans merely listen to the replies other airplanes give out.
That means a much cheaper system that, in most circumstances, works nearly as well as those on the commercial jets.
But perhaps the biggest safety feature to be found at a show like Sun n Fun is in the information you can find there.
Worried about hypoxia? Stop by the Nelson Oxygen Equipment booth for a 36-page catalog thats 80 percent information on high altitude flying and 20 percent sales pitch.
Want to know how to work the autopilot on the plane you just bought? The manufacturer probably has a booth and will give you a hands-on lesson.
The forums and seminars that make this a gathering of more than home builders are a place for engine operating tips, lessons on weather patterns, and piloting nuances such as holding patterns and radio technique.
Air shows may not be a place to get serious work done, but when it comes to mixing business with pleasure, theres no better way to come out a safer pilot.