Modern avionics are a safety boost for general avitaion in many ways, but some pilots unaccustomed to high-tech cockpits give in to dependence and distraction and lose track of basic airmanship. Add the high performance of today´s "technically advanced aircraft" (TAA) and certain accidents actually become more likely.
"We call it ´heads down.´ You´ll see both pilots with their heads down and nobody´s flying the aircraft," says Greg Darrow, senior director of sales for Pan Am International Flight Academy. "What happens is, by the time you´ve programmed it, you´re already past that point and now you´re high."
Also, says AOPA Air Safety Foundation executive director Bruce Landsberg, technology gives pilots a confidence boost so that they enter more dangerous situations than they otherwise would.
Every TAA has at least a moving-map display, an IFR-approved GPS navigator and an autopilot, but almost all offer far more, such as primary flight and multifunction displays. Weather, airspace, terrain, traffic, engine monitors and checklists are at the fingertips of pilots where once there was only a "six pack" of steam gauges. As of July, more than 5,700 general aviation aircraft met the definition of a TAA - 90% of deliveries.
An ASF study shows many safety benefits for TAA, Landsberg says. "You don´t hear about people getting lost much. They´re involved in many fewer manoeuvring accidents." He says there are three fuel management accidents a week in general aviation, "but in TAA it´s virtually non-existent because they have far superior monitoring systems. If the pilot doesn´t have to do anything to get the benefit, that´s a huge improvement."
Where judgment is needed, such as navigating around weather, TAA pilots can get over-confident. On the bright side, TAA accounted for 2.8% of the GA fleet between 2003 and 2006, but only 1.5% of the accidents (57 out of 3,783). But 44.4% of fatal accidents in TAA were weather-related, compared to 16% of fatals in all GA accidents. "We have incidents of people trying to scud-run these things through mountainous terrain using only the GPS database," Landsberg says.
Add unfamiliar handling, performance and landing requirements of speedy new aircraft and factors behind the disproportionate landing and go-around accidents in TAA become apparent. Pilots think they are more familiar with the aircraft than they are. "We´re getting into the soft side of psychology here. Risk tolerance adapts to the equipment you have available," he says. "The airlines went through the avionics learning curve in the 70s and the business jet community followed. It´s our turn now."
Indeed, flight schools are adjusting courses to meet the times. Simcom Training Centres instructs students to fly pistons, turboprops and business jets. Senior vice-president and managing director Tracy Brannon says: "In general, for owner/operated TAA, we have extended our initial training programmes by one to two days. Pilots with no previous experience of glass are, most often, requiring the additional training." Tools such as "panel posters, colour illustrations, desktop simulators and cockpit procedures trainers are all used for this purpose", he says, adding: "For our average customer they have gained enough experience to recognise the dangers associated with gadget distraction." Pan Am International Flight Academy says its ab initio students do struggle more with new avionics. "What really good instructors will do is constantly ask the student: ´Where are you and where are you going?´," says Darrow, also a training centre examiner for the Federal Aviation Administration on 757 and 737 simulators.Pointing to a related problem called "button flying", Darrow says: "Just because you push the buttons doesn´t mean that the aircraft understands what you told it."
Even students who grew up with computers can switch aircraft too quickly, says Landsberg. "If you start in a Garmin [cockpit], you have a pretty high learning curve to fly with an Avidyne. No two packages perform the same way, and for that we have both the FAA and the manufacturers to thank," he says.
The ASF report stresses that more training should be done with online and in simulators to ensure familiarity. Some of those needs are met at Asf.org, which sees 17,000 course completions each month in 20 different online courses.
Even after flying practice, ASF recommends additional ground practice. "Wait longer than one week to get back into the aircraft or into a simulator and much of the retention is gone without additional instruction," the report says.
Landsberg says: "The technology has changed, but the pilot hasn´t." Pilots need to know their aircraft physically, mentally, and what the limits are of both it and its pilot.