In­cor­po­rat­ing tech­nol­ogy into flight train­ing


Flying - - Contents - By John Zim­mer­man

GPS, datalink weather and autopilots have dra­mat­i­cally changed how pilots fly, but you wouldn’t know it vis­it­ing some flight schools these days. Many stu­dent pilots will learn more about VORS and tele­phone weather brief­ings than the tools they will ac­tu­ally use after flight train­ing.

True, the re­cently up­dated FAA Knowl­edge Test ques­tions and the new Air­man Cer­ti­fi­ca­tion Stan­dards are a good start to­ward mod­ern­iz­ing our flight-train­ing cul­ture, but more needs to be done. With new tech­nol­ogy find­ing its way into more cock­pits than ever, a re­sis­tance to change could have se­ri­ous con­se­quences for gen­eral avi­a­tion’s safety record.

Cer­tainly, the basics of fly­ing are re­mark­ably un­changed since the time of Lind­bergh (slow flight still works the same), but these three tech­no­log­i­cal ad­vances have had more of an im­pact than most pilots ad­mit. For one, they aren’t re­served for the lat­est busi­ness-jet cock­pits; por­ta­ble avion­ics and more ac­com­mo­dat­ing FAA in­stal­la­tion poli­cies mean more pilots are fly­ing with ad­vanced equip­ment than ever be­fore.

More sig­nif­i­cantly, GPS, datalink weather and autopilots have af­fected three of the es­sen­tial tasks pilot per­form: nav­i­ga­tion, weather in­ter­pre­ta­tion and au­to­ma­tion man­age­ment. Here’s how. Nav­i­ga­tion Pri­mary flight train­ing used to re­sem­ble Boy Scout camp, with lots of talk about com­passes and map read­ing (or, as we call it, pi­lotage). After that, there was usu­ally at least one les­son on “lost pro­ce­dures,” which might range from read­ing wa­ter tow­ers to ask­ing ATC for a DF steer. Top­ics like this now seem quaint be­cause get­ting lost is nearly im­pos­si­ble in 2017.

Twenty years and 100,000 units after their in­tro­duc­tion, nav­i­ga­tors from Garmin, Avi­dyne and Bendixk­ing have changed gen­eral avi­a­tion cock­pits, adding a mov­ing map dis­play to a huge va­ri­ety of air­planes. In 2007, 10 years after GPS nav­i­ga­tion changed avi­a­tion, Ap­ple changed the world with the iphone. Now 80 per­cent of Amer­i­cans own a smart­phone, plac­ing a su­per­com­puter with a built-in GPS in their pock­ets. Most pilots use an ipad in the cock­pit, which pro­vides a big­ger screen. That means al­most ev­ery pilot has ac­cess to a dis­play that shows where they are and where they’re go­ing — no more math for­mu­las or VOR ra­dial visu­al­iza­tions.

Nav­i­ga­tion hasn’t ex­actly been elim­i­nated, but it has been fun­da­men­tally changed. The new skill is to use all of that new tech­nol­ogy to main­tain a con­stantly up­dated view of the flight’s sta­tus. In­stead of just know­ing where the air­plane is, a mod­ern pilot should have truly 4D sit­u­a­tional aware­ness, from TFRS and ob­sta­cles to fuel burn and air­craft en­ergy state. No­body gets lost any­more, but pilots still run out of gas, over­shoot the base-to-fi­nal turn and stum­ble into re­stricted airspace. Avoid­ing these mis­takes is what nav­i­ga­tion means to­day.


What in­ex­pen­sive GPS re­ceivers did for nav­i­ga­tion, datalink weather re­ceivers have done for weather fly­ing. It started 15 years ago with XM Weather, a seem­ingly mirac­u­lous tech­nol­ogy that could dis­play de­tailed weather in­for­ma­tion from hun­dreds of miles away. More re­cently, por­ta­ble ADS-B and Sir­iusxm re­ceivers and tablet apps have made in-flight weather more af­ford­able than ever. It’s now prac­ti­cal for a 60-year-old tail­drag­ger to have datalink weather on board, and many do.

But ac­cess to more data is not al­ways a pos­i­tive, as any li­brar­ian can at­test. Their chal­lenge used to be find­ing enough in­for­ma­tion given the lim­ited re­sources of a phys­i­cal li­brary. Now the far more dif­fi­cult prob­lem is how to sep­a­rate reli­able sources from phony ones in the end­less li­brary of the In­ter­net.

Pilots face a sim­i­lar strug­gle: In the span of roughly 15 years, an in-flight weather desert be­came a mas­sive oa­sis. In­stead of try­ing to as­sem­ble a men­tal pic­ture of the weather based on a scratchy Flight Ser­vice broad­cast, pilots to­day can re­view an­i­mated radar, satel­lite de­pic­tions, metars and so much more. That is un­de­ni­ably a great thing, but not ev­ery weather prod­uct tells the whole truth, and many re­quire in­ter­pre­ta­tion.

The pilot’s job has thus changed from re­search as­sis­tant to ed­i­tor. Now the task is to eval­u­ate con­flict­ing in­for­ma­tion and make a thought­ful de­ci­sion about how to re­act. Train­ing for that job re­quires un­der­stand­ing the basics of weather and how datalink sys­tems work, but also when to trust your eyes over a glow­ing screen. Most pilots won’t learn these lessons un­til they pur­sue an in­stru­ment rat­ing, if at all.


The au­topi­lot has ac­tu­ally been around far longer than GPS or datalink weather, but re­cent crit­i­cism sug­gests it is the new bo­gey­man. Mod­ern autopilots are more ca­pa­ble and less ex­pen­sive than ear­lier mod­els, and also ben­e­fit from in­creas­ingly flex­i­ble FAA reg­u­la­tions. That means they are not go­ing away any­time soon — nor should they.

When used prop­erly, an au­topi­lot is a safe way to off­load some of the de­mands of be­ing a pilot to a com­puter, al­low­ing the hu­man in the left seat to fo­cus on other im­por­tant de­tails of the flight. Un­for­tu­nately, there are many ex­am­ples of pilots who do not use autopilots prop­erly, ei­ther un­able to fly with­out them or, con­versely, un­able to even turn them on. As a re­sult, a sur­pris­ing num­ber of “loss-of­con­trol” ac­ci­dents are ac­tu­ally caused by poor au­to­ma­tion man­age­ment. A stall, spin or in-flight breakup is the fi­nal re­sult, but the accident chain be­gins when the pilot asks, “What’s it do­ing now?”

Mod­ern flight train­ing must ad­dress this is­sue, and telling pilots to ig­nore the au­topi­lot is not re­spon­si­ble. Like GPS and datalink weather, the right answer is to teach avion­ics mas­tery com­bined with plenty of judg­ment. It also re­quires a habit of down­grad­ing the au­to­ma­tion when in doubt. If some­thing doesn’t look right, it should be an au­to­matic re­ac­tion to undo the last step. Bet­ter yet, turn off the au­topi­lot com­pletely and fly ba­sic pro­files un­til the air­plane is go­ing where you want it to.

Two Key Skills

Some com­mon threads run through each of these roles. First, it’s im­por­tant to be­come com­fort­able with tech­nol­ogy early in a pilot’s ca­reer — if you’re rais­ing a kid in a house with a pool in the back­yard, it’s bet­ter to teach them how to swim than to pre­tend it doesn’t ex­ist. Maybe the ipad shouldn’t be in­tro­duced on the first les­son, but the in­tro­duc­tion shouldn’t wait un­til the last one ei­ther (or worse, never be in­tro­duced at all).

Sec­ond, we have to be ruth­less about where our at­ten­tion goes in the cock­pit, be­cause we are drown­ing in in­for­ma­tion. The ques­tion to con­tin­u­ally ask is, “Who’s in charge right now?” Tech­nol­ogy is a tool, noth­ing more. Nei­ther the GPS nor the weather re­ceiver nor the au­topi­lot is the pilot in com­mand, but it’s easy to act like they are if our at­ten­tion isn’t fo­cused on be­ing PIC.

Some old-school pilots are prob­a­bly ready to chas­tise me for ig­nor­ing the real prob­lem: ba­sic stick-and-rud­der skills. Those are in­deed crit­i­cally im­por­tant, but this tired de­bate is of­ten pre­sented as a false choice be­tween hand-fly­ing and tech­nol­ogy. We can and should teach both, just as a good school be­gins with spell­ing class in ele­men­tary school and adds soft­ware cod­ing class in high school.

The prob­lem for the flight-train­ing in­dus­try is that many of these lessons aren’t found in FAA text­books, and they can’t eas­ily be tested dur­ing a check ride. Datalink weather in­ter­pre­ta­tion or re­spon­si­ble au­topi­lot us­age aren’t sim­ple tasks that can be eval­u­ated against the Air­man Cer­ti­fi­ca­tion Stan­dards. That doesn’t mean they aren’t im­por­tant.

Flight-train­ing providers need to change their mindset with re­gard to in-cock­pit tech­nolo­gies such as ipads and autopilots. They should be in­cluded as part of the learn­ing syl­labus al­most from day one.

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