Tech Trap

Your panel has become far more sophisticated than the Apollo program. Can you handle it?


So there you are, sitting in your airplane, gazing dreamily at the new GPS, MFD, and autopilot on which youve just spent almost as much as you originally paid for the plane. Now youre faced with an IFR approach-certified GPS interconnected to a two-axis autopilot with ILS coupling and a moving map the size of a portable TV screen.

Maybe youre about to check out in a brand-new C-172 or Piper Archer with a whole pile of ultra-modern avionics, and all the FBOs other airplanes have a pair of Narco MK 12s or King KX-175s. You cant even find the on-off switch, much less tune the comm radio. How do you learn to use all that stuff?

If its your airplane, you might call your friendly local CFI, only to discover that he knows less than you do about it – at least you read the promotional brochures when you chose the components and the four-page quick guides that came with the units. If youre renting from the FBO, the CFI gets a disinterested look and says, Well, you can read the manual. I think weve got it around somewhere in the back room. Or they may sell you a videotape in the pilot shop.

Pilots spend a lot of time and effort learning how to fly different airplanes. Moving to complex aircraft or into multi-engine airplanes presents problems, but in all the syllabi and checkout guides for those situations, there is very little guidance on dealing with new avionics.

This is due partly to the fact that until the last few years, avionics were pretty simple. You turn the device on with the on-off switch, tune the frequency with the frequency knob, and the most complicated change since coffee grinders was learning to use the active/stand-by flip-flop control. The introduction of microchips and flat panel displays to light plane avionics has changed all that.

Unfortunately, the FAA did not act quickly enough as new avionics systems proliferated among the various manufacturers, so there is no standardization in the avionics world when it comes to controls, logic, display, layout and operation. Operating performance requirements and installation certification are standardized, but that doesnt do the pilot much good.

So if your instructor is teaching in new Cessnas with a King panel and youve upgraded with the latest and greatest from Garmin, hes going to be just as confused as you – maybe more so, since hell have King-based habits to break in order to use the Garmin.

Pilot as Programmer
The first order of business is to gain some basic understanding of how you as a pilot intend to use this equipment.

This is an issue that has been faced by airline pilots over the last 20 years – the transition from airplane driver to systems manager.

Almost as soon as the throttles are to the firewall the aircraft is handed over to the autopilot and the pilots spend the rest of the flight entering instructions into the flight management system and monitoring the airplane. The downside of this is that, on occasion, a crew has been surprised by what the system did.

The most glaring example of this was the American Airlines 757 accident at Cali, Columbia. The crew tried to make a late programming change due to a runway switch and unintentionally told the plane to turn left to a beacon 200 miles east. The airplane headed into high terrain and the crew suffered a total loss of situational awareness. They allowed the jet to continue to descend, with no idea they were departing the valley they thought they were in.

Beyond that, there have been an alarming number of airliner incidents and a few accidents in which the pilots were unable to answer some simple questions about the system. Why did it do that? Whats it doing now? Whats it going to do next?

Along with new GPS, were seeing a trickle-down of some much more capable autopilot/flight control systems into higher-end light singles like the Bonanza, Saratoga, Malibu. These systems include capabilities such as altitude preselect, climb/descent rate commands, go-around mode and yaw damping (third axis control). Furthermore, when linked to vertical guidance generated by the GPS, the autopilot can fly the airplane everywhere the GPS tells it to go.

With systems like these, the pilot can release control to the system just after breaking ground and not have to touch the flight controls again until breaking out at DH/MDA. Some pilots have sprung for additional systems such as collision avoidance, thunderstorm locating, and near-real-time uplinked weather data. While these features add capability and safety, they also add to the volume of information the pilot must sort out, process and evaluate.

A modern panel reaches the point at which the sophistication of the systems has substantially outrun the training infrastructure. And unlike the airlines, where most pilots can move from plane to plane of a given type without being able to tell the difference, nearly every light GA airplane has a unique mix of equipment installed.

Climbing the Learning Curve
The FAA has yet to address these issues directly. The closest thing you can find is in the Practical Test Standards, in which the applicant for a certificate or rating is expected to know how to use any systems installed and operational in the aircraft used for the test.

This means you can take your instrument rating practical test in a Cessna 172 with only VOR/LOC/ILS and legally go out the next day in a Saratoga equipped with a flight director/autopilot system and approach-certified GPS, and use it to fly a coupled GPS overlay of an NDB approach using the ADF as a backup/monitor.

So how are you going to learn how to harness all this magic? There are many risks inherent in the leap of faith just described. Your problem is first determining what training you need, and then how to get that training for the systems installed in the plane you are going to fly. The first step is figuring out what you need to learn. Then you need to find somewhere to go for that training.

There are several layers of skills youll have to master in order to operate the high-tech systems in your airplane. First, youll need to learn each box individually, then how they work together, and finally how to integrate that knowledge into your cockpit technique – the transition from pilot to systems manager. Along the way you have to know failure modes and how the failure of one box might be reflected in the performance of another.

Learning how each individual unit of modern avionics in your plane operates by itself is about on a par with learning how to use a PC. Modern avionics generally come with very thorough documentation in the form of manuals and cockpit quick reference cards. If youre having equipment installed in your plane, its a good idea to pick up the manuals when you drop off the plane for the installation, and spend the down time reading the books. All of the manuals that come with the equipment have good introductory sections on the basic theories of operation before they get into the unit-specific information.

For GPS, most manufacturers now have PC-based simulators that you can download free from their web sites for evaluating their units and practicing with them once youve bought it. Also, once you have the unit, you can purchase a docking station for home use from Lone Star Aviation. Priced at around $300, these stations allow you to remove your GPS from the panel, carry it home, plug it in, and do anything youd do in the airplane, from loading flight plans and databases to practicing in-flight operation in the ground simulator mode. Theyre available for nearly every popular panel-mounted GPS.

Autopilots seem to be the least well-documented system in the airplane these days. Not only are autopilot manuals often not up to modern standards for electronic systems documentation, but they are usually split between a generic manual and an Aircraft Flight Manual Supplement, which is a separate item and often contains the important specifics about how it operates in your plane.

There are a number of sources for training programs to help you. First, several manufacturers offer either seminars, videos or computer-based training systems. Lancaster Avionics, Inc., in Lancaster, Pa., offers customers a training program on the operation of their new units consisting of several hours of ground school with one of their technical experts. Bob Reed, a recent purchaser of a King KLN-94 for his Grumman Tiger, said the 2 hours of training he and his partners received there was very thorough and informative, aiding him in getting going with the system.

Second, a number of commercial providers, such as ASA, also have training products. And there are some training specialists who offer special GPS training courses or tutorial systems. In most cases, you can find out a lot about those programs on the Internet.

But what happens if you are renting from an FBO, and dont have access to all this support? First, its important that you demand from the FBO the manuals for the systems. If the FBO doesnt have them, you have three choices – get them yourself from the manufacturer (many are available online, usually free), sit in the plane and learn them yourself on the ground by experimentation (a bad option), or find another FBO.

Beautiful Self-Reliance
Some of this falls back on you during your checkout in the airplane. If there are advanced systems in it, you should be willing to pay for the time it takes an instructor to explain them to you. This might take a couple of hours of ground time, and another half hour or so in the air over and above the normal checkout. As always, you dont get what you dont pay for, so make sure the instructor is aware of your needs. Also, make sure the instructor you get knows what hes doing with the equipment – you dont need to be learning the wrong things as he stumbles his way through the process.

If the instructor isnt comfortable with the gear, thank him nicely and tell the Chief Instructor you need another, more systems-knowledgeable instructor to teach you the equipment.

If youre purchasing a plane that already has the equipment installed, you can still take advantage of the manuals and other documentation that should be with the plane. If there is installed equipment without manuals, make sure before you buy that you can get them from another source. This isnt much of a problem with new equipment, as manuals are readily available from the manufacturer (often free, to encourage their use as a means of defense against liability in the event of a problem). Older systems may not be so well supported, but to be honest, you really dont need much training material to learn how to use a KX-155.

The Tangled Web
The next step is learning how the equipment fits together – which feeds what, how the interfaces work, etc. The place to go for that is the Aircraft Flight Manual Supplement for the installation. The FAA requires avionics shops to put together an individualized manual of a dozen pages or so that lays out the linkages between boxes. This will identify which switches to flip to get, for example, the autopilot to follow the ILS instead of the GPS. It will also specify which optional features are or are not operational, such as pressure altitude feed from the encoder, or fuel flow data from the engine analyzer.

Reading the AFM Supplement will help you in this area, but remember that its probably not going to be as good a piece of material as the manuals from the manufacturer. It will generally be produced by the installing shop on a word processor without the nifty graphics you see in manufacturer-produced documentation.

But at the end of the day, it really comes down to setting up an organized plan for getting yourself up to speed in your plane on your systems. If youre buying a new plane with a lot of equipment installed in it, you are fortunate that airplane manufacturers have taken a tip from the automotive industry.

Chrysler figured out about 1980 that there are economies of scale to be had by offering only a few standard packages of equipment rather than making each item an individual option. As a result, what comes off the line at Piper or Cessna is usually equipped with a standard set of avionics, available at one of perhaps three different levels of sophistication. And even if you add equipment, its likely that only one line of avionics is offered.

That works well, since manufacturers are often teaming with training outfits such as SimCom to produce free training courses that are included in the price of the airplane. In these cases, the training organization is prepared to teach you the systems that are actually in your plane.

For those who fly club or FBO rental planes, the West Valley Flying Club in California is an example of how systems training can be promoted. In a program co-sponsored by UPSAT, WVFC offers training on the GX-60 IFR GPS/comm systems in their airplanes. Theyve specially qualified several of their CFIs for this training, and offer members rebates on their flying time during that training – up to $50 off three hours of Archer time – as well as free copies of the UPSAT GX-60 video training tape for anyone completing one hour of flight training on the system, and the Deluxe Simulator for completing two hours of training.

You could talk to the management at your rental source to get them to develop a similar program. Point out the revenue advantages of doing so, including the added instructor utilization, not to mention the safety benefits of getting people into the cockpit with a CFI more often.

But what if you are buying an airplane from Joe Pilot, who had the installation done a box at a time over several years, or are getting an installation from a shop that offers ground training on the individual boxes but not flight training with the integrated system?

Your best bet is to get a specialized training program set up by an instructor who knows these systems. The problem is, such instructors are hard to find. The list of training organizations accompanying this article has a couple of outfits, but this list barely scratches the surface. No doubt there are many more out there.

Searching for a good instructor to train you on these systems is likely to require the same techniques as searching for a good flight instructor for certificates and ratings – and probably will be more difficult, as given the declining experience level in the CFI force, there are not many CFIs out there who have the training and depth of knowledge on these systems to train you properly, especially if the panel is particularly complex or includes some unusual components.

Hands Solo
You may be reduced to teaching yourself. The important issues are to build yourself a personalized plan of attack, and to use a building block approach. Learn one function or capability at a time.

The Transport Canada GPS Instructor Guide can be used as a road map to laying out a course of training, identifying each function of the system and all the task elements necessary to use that function. Make sure youve learned each one before you try to integrate them.

For example, learn how to program routes into the box on the ground, and how to get the system to drive the autopilot (as well as how to turn it off) before you try to make routing changes in flight with the autopilot coupled.

If you do go this route, a buddy system is a good idea. Find someone to be there to read the book in flight while you fly, take the flight controls while you check the book, or keep a good visual lookout while you are head down in the cockpit looking for switches. If you have a partner in your airplane, you can share the work and teach each other.

Try to get that buddy to go through all the classroom or PC-based simulator training so he is as familiar as you are with the gear. Learn the layout well enough to pass a blindfold check.

Most important, learn the system in good VMC, in a low-traffic environment. This is really not the time to be in the middle of the SOCAL Approach area dodging tons of traffic in smog-reduced visibility. Learn to answer those three questions we talked about earlier.

There is much more work to be done throughout the industry before the average pilot can handle an advanced avionics suite. There is a serious need for better training materials as well as CFIs who know and can teach these systems. There also needs to be a way to identify them.

But this is a start that should help you get the most utility – and safety – out of your avionics package.

Also With This Article
Click here to view “Avionics Training Sources.”
Click here to view “When!”

-by Ron Levy

Ron Levy is director of the Aviation Sciences Program at the University of Maryland Eastern Shore.


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