by Harold Green
Published in Midwest Flyer – April/May 2020 issue
Normally it is good to keep personal observations out of this column. However, with 60-plus years of perspective, the start may provide a reference point for what is happening today in aviation.
I took two check-rides for my private pilot certificate. No, I did not flunk the first one… I simply took it before passing the knowledge test. The reasons are not germane to this discussion.
The first, in November, 1957, included a then new requirement that the applicant demonstrate navigation by electronic means. At the time, the old Adcock ranges and automatic direction finders (ADF) were available, but generally only in larger airplanes. Till then, navigation in general aviation was only required to be by pilotage and dead reckoning.
To accomplish this new goal, we rented a Zenith transoceanic portable radio and placed it in the baggage compartment hammock of the Aeronca 7AC. With the radio ON and a station selected, the airplane was turned until the signal reached a null, pointed along a wing and said, “The station is that direction.” Passed.
By the time the second, and final check-ride occurred in 1959 (this married, college student had to scratch for money to fly), things had changed. An Aeronca was used for the flight portion of the check-ride, but the navigation portion had changed. The requirement now was that the applicant must select a visual omni range (VOR) station, identify the radial on which the aircraft was located, and indicate the direction to fly to reach the station. The VOR receiver was a coffee grinder-type where you selected the band, turned the crank to the approximate frequency indicated on the movable scale, and watched the signal meter. When the meter peaked, you were on a station, but then it was necessary to identify it via the broadcast Morse code, since you could easily have tuned in a station other than the one you thought. Then the OBS knob was turned until the needle was centered and the radial could be read from it. That was quite an advancement for two years.
As an added perspective, this check-ride included four new things for me: 1) The first time seeing, let alone using, a VOR receiver. While the examiner had a cup of coffee, the FBO checked me out on the VOR on the ground with no power applied. 2) First time flying an airplane with the training wheel up front. 3) First time flying an airplane with a control wheel instead of a stick. 4) First time flying a Piper Colt. The flight instructor at the FBO checked me out in the Colt by telling me what speeds to use on climb out and final with the admonition to keep the nose wheel off as long as possible when landing. No wasted time flying. I didn’t bounce on landing, and the airplane was reusable without repair, so I passed. Since then things have progressed magnificently.
Navigation equipment progressed from low frequency beacons and non-directional beacons (NDB), to VORs and distance measuring equipment (DME), to Lorans and now global positioning systems (GPS). The low frequency beacons are currently and rapidly being phased out, VORs are on their way out, at least as a primary source of navigation and approaches, and Loran has been eliminated entirely.
Transponders, including altitude reporting, have become an almost universal device in airplanes. Transponders now have become the backbone of ADS-B that eventually will permit aircraft-to-aircraft traffic control.
Weather information has progressed from hand-prepared information by a large number of flight service stations, to automatically collected data and computer-generated forecasts. Flight service stations have been condensed into a contracted operation from whence all verbal information is dispensed. Computer programs provide up-to-date weather information and radar depictions are delivered to the cockpit. The problem now is that some people do not recognize that the depiction may be several minutes old, as compared with hours old in earlier years.
Radar coverage has become a staple for flying IFR today. In the bad old days, it was necessary to estimate the next reporting point to within 3 minutes. (You still are supposed to be able to do that in the event radar coverage is lost. Can you? Without GPS?) Today, if we fly out of radar coverage for even a few minutes, there is a sense of aloneness in instrument meteorological conditions (IMC).
With the advent of sophisticated autopilots in general aviation aircraft, coupled with current avionics, it only remains for an auto-throttle to be added to provide, in the technical sense, fully automated flight from takeoff to touchdown. FAA approval being another matter, but that is one of only delay, as reliable and consistent operation is confirmed, and regulations are added or existing ones modified to accommodate the new operations.
Of course, in the intervening 60 years, there have been changes in regulations and insurance requirements accompanying the new capabilities and extended operations. However, these will be left to another venue to explore.
So, what is the purpose of this metaphorical tiptoeing through the aviation history tulips? Hopefully we can compare the load on pilots today with earlier times and maybe see what training is appropriate today, compared with the past.
As we go through this, it is necessary to make one thing very clear. Although obviously on the far side of the average age of pilots, I am not against the new technology. Quite the contrary, I believe the outlook for safety and utilization is greatly increased due to the new capabilities offered. The concern is to ensure that pilot capabilities to handle unanticipated situations are not lost or that we don’t place too much faith in our new toys without the ability to recover from inevitable failures.
Keep in mind that failure rates apply to a flight. That is, the probability of failure is based on the duration of the flight. However, over the life of the equipment, a failure is virtually 100 percent probable. Further, the more pieces of equipment involved, the more likely the failure of something on any given flight. Yes, the newer equipment is much more reliable than in the olden days. Were it not, given the amount of electronics in the plane today, it would not be probable that a flight of more than an hour or two could be accomplished without a failure. Therefore, it is well within reason to say that most of us will encounter one or more failures in our flying career.
The issue then becomes twofold: 1) How to recognize and isolate a failure. 2) What to do to circumvent the effect of the failure. For our purposes, we will only talk about instrument flight because VFR flight is definitely a piece of cake with modern avionics. That’s because our attention does not need to be so focused on reading and interpreting instruments, since we have visual contact with the real world.
For a mind experiment, we will assume a cross-country flight of about 3 hours with an early morning departure, marginal en-route summer weather, and an instrument flight plan. We will compare the operation of the “legacy” equipment with the new or “newbie” equipment. Legacy equipment includes two VORs, and no autopilot or DME. Newbie equipment includes a fully technologically advanced aircraft (TAA), including autopilot, coupled to the navigation equipment.
Using legacy equipment starts the night before by checking the weather as a basis for evaluating tomorrow’s weather. If there is any marginal weather, particular attention is focused on it. The next morning, the weather is checked again to see if the forecasts are holding true, and often they are not. The night before the best route was selected using victor airways, en route charts and knowledge of general weather patterns. Along the way, those areas likely to be useful in the event of the need to head for VFR conditions were identified.
Then the approach and en route charts to be carried were selected because carrying the charts for the entire United States involved a lot of paper and a lot of weight. Generally, these included the route, including any known alternates, and weather considerations, about 200 nautical miles either side of the route.
In the morning prior to the flight, weather was checked again and compared with the forecasts of the night before. Thirty minutes to an hour prior to desired departure, the flight plan is filed.
The flight plan could have been filed the night before if certain of departure time and route. If the flight departs from a towered airport, the clearance can be picked up via radio. If not, it will be picked up by landline telephone and a void time, along with initial heading, altitude and departure frequency, will be assigned, along with the admonition to contact FAA via landline if not airborne by the void time. Of course, picking up the clearance in the air, conditions permitting, was also an option. The clearance is read back, the time is noted, and the flight begins.
Today, the procedure is much simpler. The weather is checked using one of several available software packages on an iPad or similar device. The weather is more accurate than yore and interpreted with the text in readable characters without the mysterious symbols of yesterday. A route forecast is readily available. The software will pick a route after the starting point, any route mileposts, and the destination. The filing can be handled by computer as well. This can take place just a few minutes before departure. Approach plates and en route charts are included with the software. NOTAMS can be checked readily and the software will automatically include them, as well as flag any temporary flight restrictions (TFR).
After obtaining our respective clearance and reading it back to ATC, once airborne, we climb to our assigned altitude.
Legacy has filed for as high of an altitude as the plane and pilot are capable. This is desirable since radar is not that good in identifying individual build-ups in these early days and altitude means you can hopefully see light between the build ups. Legacy then, after carefully recording the departure time, establishes track on the assigned airway and hopefully finds a cross VOR radial to establish position and provide a basis for computing groundspeed. This process will be repeated several times throughout the flight.
Newbie, having programmed the avionics with the flight plan, takes off and turns on the autopilot, then watches as the plane climbs to the assigned altitude. The system notes the takeoff time and estimates the time to the next checkpoint.
Both flights encounter the forecast weather. Legacy and Newbie both check with the air route traffic control center (ARTCC) to find out what they are showing on radar. Newbie gets a much more accurate response than does Legacy. In addition, Newbie has a relatively recent weather radar depiction on the multi-function display (MFD).
Legacy makes the decision to divert from the planned route to circumvent the area that ARTCC indicates is active weather. Newbie asks permission to divert from the route to avoid the weather. Newbie then, recognizing that the weather depiction can be as much as 20 minutes old, circumvents the adverse weather and proceeds to the destination. In this scenario, both reach their destination safely. Newbie is certainly under less stress due to more accurate and current weather information, and as a result, probably flew fewer miles than Legacy.
Now let us assume that at about the time they needed to divert due to weather, each had a significant failure. Legacy loses the vacuum pump, while Newbie loses the Primary Flight Display (PFD) and autopilot (AP).
Legacy now must fly via compass heading for direction, and needle and ball and airspeed for aircraft control. Assuming Legacy has received proper training, this is a tense situation, but is survivable.
Newbie now must use a backup system to fly the airplane. We assume the autopilot is inoperable, so Newbie must now fly the plane manually and with reference to the GPS or VOR. Again, assuming proper training, this is a survivable situation. However, now the workload on Newbie has gone up significantly since it is now necessary to program the GPS step by step.
As each nears their destination, the difference in the workload on both becomes apparent. Legacy, after determining the destination weather and approaches in use, selects the appropriate approach chart, sets the radio/navigation frequencies, and will probably receive no-gyro vectors from approach to either an Approach Surveillance Radar (ASR) or normal approach with assisting vectors. Once set up, Legacy only has to fly the airplane in accordance with the appropriate approach requirements.
The workload for Newbie has also increased. The appropriate approach must be entered into the Multi-Function Display (MFD) or on the iPad. In addition to selecting the approach, the transition must be selected, the approach loaded, and when appropriate, activated. In addition, the course deviation indicator (CDI) must be set to the appropriate mode: VLOC or GPS. Since there are several steps here and the tension is high, there is an increased risk of erroneous entries. When this occurs, it is necessary to backtrack to correct any error. This adds to the tension and hence increased risk. There is a potential further problem for Newbie. If, as is all too often the case, Newbie has been focused on the GPS magenta line without reference to the outside world, it is all too easy to become disoriented when necessary to reference flight to the actual geography.
In both cases, the key to success is the training of the pilot. Legacy has been trained from early on to fly with a minimum of instruments. In fact, flight in IMC with only needle and ball and airspeed is probably something done many times in training. In the case of Newbie, the training is also rigorous. However, one thing that has become apparent when instructing those folks whose training has been exclusively in technically advanced aircraft, is that they tend to relate to the GPS without reference to actual geography.
How can the instructor know if the student is focused on GPS to the possible exclusion of geo awareness? One technique, while on a cross-country flight, is to ask the student the route and time to a different destination, the location of which should be known to the student. If the first thing the student does is to check the GPS, the student is probably not maintaining appropriate situational awareness. If, on the other hand the student gives an approximate bearing and an approximate distance and then checks the GPS for detail, this is a good thing!
The upshot of all this is that today’s avionics information/control systems make life a lot easier for single-pilot instrument operations. In the bad old days, the pilot needed to be able to fly the airplane with minimum instruments while maintaining communication. In the good new days, the question is how well the pilot has been trained to operate with minimum equipment.
In practice, it would not be inappropriate to take away everything but the needle and ball and airspeed. No, that is not likely to happen in real life, but the goal is to build pilot competence and confidence in an emergency. Too often emergency training is based on equipment configuration, rather than pilot capability. Maybe we should change that. Perhaps we should find that equipment failure point at which the pilot cannot function properly and train to extend that point and ability.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Harold Green is an Instrument and Multi-Engine Instrument Instructor (CFII, MEII) at Morey Airplane Company in Middleton, Wisconsin (C29). A flight instructor since 1976, Green was named “Flight Instructor of the Year” by the Federal Aviation Administration in 2011 and is a recipient of the “Wright Brothers Master Pilot Award.” Questions, comments and suggestions for future topics are welcomed via email at email@example.com, or by telephone at 608-836-1711 (www.MoreyAirport.com).
DISCLAIMER: The information contained in this column is the expressed opinion of the author only, and readers are advised to seek the advice of their personal flight instructor and others, and refer to the Federal Aviation Regulations, FAA Aeronautical Information Manual and instructional materials before attempting any procedures discussed herein.