A Surfeit of Data

Harold Green

by Harold Green

These days we suffer from a surfeit of data. There seems to be two sources. Pilots themselves and the advent of more advanced electronics. The even more advanced electronics of the glass cockpit is a subject for a later discussion. This article discusses only about how pilots inundate themselves with data, both paper and electronic. For our purposes, data only becomes information when the pilot is able to access, understand and apply it. The issue is the correct identification and translation of data to produce information.

We have come a long way since pilots navigated with crude road maps and Elrey Jeppeson made crude sketches to aid his airmail flights. We now have very accurate sectionals, enroute charts, airport facility directories, approach charts, etc. With the aid of the Internet, we can print out a great surfeit of data. In fact, a private pilot student planning his/her first cross-country typically shows up with 12 to 18 pages of weather data printed out, NOTAMS, and computer completed flight plans, all on 8.5 X 11-inch paper. In fact, the blizzard of paper never seems to end.

Then, as pilots have done for generations, we purchase a plethora of gadgets to aid us. Up to the point that we use this data, it remains just that – data. After we are able to use it to make decisions, the data becomes information. The dangers of this are that students confuse themselves with all the data. Furthermore, there is so much of it that there is danger of not finding what is needed or selecting the wrong set of data. In the process, typically not enough attention is paid to cockpit organization and orderliness. The result is that they have less information than without the blizzard of paper and electronic input.

One thing many VFR pilots forget is that most of the frequencies and airport information they are going to need is found on the sectional chart. Why bother to copy it again? That vastly reduces the paper load. The best cure for this problem is to organize paper data sources so that all the necessary data, and only the necessary data, is available. This means that flight plans should be concise and on something smaller than 8.5 X 11-inch paper. The typical multi-page printed output of an online service contains information that is not needed during flight. Only that required for the actual flight should be kept readily at hand. If the data is important, then make sure it is readily available in a concise compact form.

Kneeboards should not be a thing of many sections, but rather a simple unit that can be strapped to the leg quickly. A pocket in the plane to hold charts is good. Leave the Swiss Army knife approach to flight bags somewhere that can be accessed during flight, but not with you at your seat. Charts should be folded to enable easy access to the route of flight. It is also good practice to attach a pencil to the kneeboard with a piece of string or otherwise prevent the pencil from falling onto the floor. Picking up a pencil from the floor of the airplane generally requires one to divert attention from the primary task of flying the airplane.

Next, make sure all necessary data, but only the necessary data, is readily at hand on the clipboard or otherwise readily available. All the nice to have, but not critical data should be placed where it can be accessed if needed. Just remember, reaching into the wrong portion of the back seat of a general aviation plane can be as challenging as an Olympic gymnastic event, to say nothing of endangering the flight.

Navaids have progressed to the point that we are doing away with non-directional beacons (NDBs) and long ago dispensed with adcock ranges and beacon lit airways. We now have VORs, DMEs and GPS. Compounding the problems caused by the surfeit of data is the appearance of advanced electronic toys such as the handheld GPS and iPads with all sorts of apps to aid the pilot.

All of these provide great comfort to the inexperienced. Make no mistake about it – they can be of great use when used efficiently and in their proper perspective. However, when the user is not totally familiar in how to use them, they can be a distraction and can cause the pilot to forget to fly the airplane. This is particularly true when the pilot makes a mistake in entry. This results in diverted attention to try to figure out what went wrong and then to figure the best way to correct the error. In the meantime due to the pilots’ lack of attention and probably undetected control input while reaching for something, the airplane has decided to investigate something down below. When this happens while flying VFR, the best approach is to revert to the old data sources until leisurely figuring out what went wrong. Of course in all cases, the best solution is to thoroughly know the equipment so that mistakes are rare and, assuming mistakes will not be totally eliminated, train yourself in “error recovery.”

The classic Nav/Com is very easy to set up. Turn the knob until the desired frequency shows up in the window. Even the backup frequency is easy to set up and flip back and forth. The general objective when navigating electronically is to keep the needle in the center of the OBS. That is pretty much it, even on an instrument approach.

The problem is that the pilot needs to be able to picture his/her position from then on. The GPS does away with that envisioning stuff by showing a magenta (pink) line and the aircraft’s position. That is very nice, however, the novice pilot tends to focus on that rather than on the navaid needle. The importance of this is that the student does not learn to use the VOR, which will be with us for sometime to come. IFR students also want to follow the GPS, rather than the course deviation indicator, even when executing a VOR or ILS approach. This can be illegal, unsafe and the cause of a “busted” check-ride.

GPS units are not so easy to set up, which results in errors. If in Instrument Meteorological Conditions (IMC) and a GPS approach is loaded incorrectly, or sequences in an unanticipated manner, the pilot should immediately decide whether or not to declare the issue to Air Traffic Control (ATC) and perhaps request vectors until the situation is corrected. Again, the best solution is to know the equipment so that errors are eliminated. That is all very well to say. But doing it is sometimes more difficult.

Now exacerbate the situation with an iPad with GPS capability. The pilot, whether VFR or IFR,  tends to compare the sources of data. Which one is correct? Another chance for division of attention. How do you know? Inevitably, the student will trust the GPS because of the pink line. NOTE: Usually the GPS will be more correct with respect to the depicted ground track, but that may not be the important issue if an error in set up was made. The problem here is that attention is diverted from flying the airplane. In addition, many pilots have multiple GPS units on board.

The idea of redundancy is a valid one. However, a couple of points should be considered.

First, for a given task, the more pieces of equipment you have, the more likely you are to suffer a failure. Second, the more different the pieces of equipment are from each other, the more likely you are to make an error, which will result in an effective failure. In addition, the more pieces of equipment, the less attention will be paid to the primary task of flying the airplane.

In summary, whether you are flying VFR or IFR, carefully minimize your data and hence maximize your information. Eliminate the superfluous. This minimizes decision time, minimizes the possibility of error, and maximizes your chance of a successful and uneventful flight.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Harold Green is a CFII at Morey Airplane Company, Middleton, Wis.

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