Wednesday, August 17, 2005

Glass Cockpit

Introduction to Glass-Panel Technology in General Aviation

When referring to the term "glass cockpit" many people, including pilots, might not know what I mean. The term refers to the instrumentation in the cockpit of a plane.

The old-style, mechanical instrumentation, often referred to as "steam-gauges," is comprised of multiple different individual gauges, each with a different function. In a glass cockpit, those are largely eliminated, or relegated to a back-up/ redundancy role. Instead, the majority of the panel is computer screens, with graphical displays of the same instruments, or similar ones with more user options.

Advantages of the glass are numerous:
  • cleaner appearance
  • larger artificial horizon
  • greater redundancy in case of failure
  • more flexible and accurate navigational options
  • programmability
For students who intend to fly professionally, there is ample benefit to training in that environment. When pilots are hired to an airline position, they will be confronted with equipment that the average general aviation pilot has never seen. I'm not highly familiar with the Avidyne glass panel, but the Garmin is an excellent step toward that.

Perhaps the biggest functional advantage of newer equipment in aircraft is GPS technology. The sorry state of general aviation is that most of us fly 30 year old airplanes, with instruments that use 50 year old technology. Sometimes older. Non-directional beacons are still in use, and that technology is from the 1920's. The result is that now, most pilots who rent airplanes also have a hand-held GPS to take on flights.

The downsides to a handheld GPS are size and functionality. They can't be relied on during instrument flight, and the screens are generally very small. A large map screen on the G1000 makes for extremely easy navigation.

Many other functions are built into the system to reduce pilot workload, including flight planning help and fuel range estimates. The real difference is that for the first time, pilots of smaller planes have access to the same types of cockpit functionality that many of the large jets already use. Anyone considering flight school as a path to flying large aircraft should give serious consideration to training in the right kind of equipment. It will cost more, but the benefit is dramatic.