Technology and automation applied to an actively-managed flight can magnify its safety and efficiency, but when applied to a non-managed flight, they can very efficiently get you into very big trouble. That’s because regardless of how good they are, today’s avionics and handheld devices do not have sufficient intelligence to do more than exactly what we command them to do. If we issue the wrong commands because of inattention or incomplete understanding of the technology, the flight will potentially go off track in every possible way.
With that in mind, it is clear that flight instructors have a critical role to play in teaching pilots — both first-time applicants for a certificate or rating, and recurrent training clients — on how to make safe and appropriate use of the technology at our disposal.
Knowledge is Key
Improper understanding and/or poor management of technology can quickly get a pilot into trouble. I learned this lesson several years ago when my GPS programming mistake was about to command the autopilot into a 180 degree course change and a 1,000 nm deviation from the intended flight path. It seems I had wrongly selected the identifier for my intended destination, Augusta, Georgia (AGS), by accepting the system’s presentation of AUG, which is the identifier for Augusta, Maine. The GPS didn’t know the difference. The autopilot would have obediently pointed the nose in the opposite direction. I would have found myself confused and disoriented — “what’s it doing?!” — while also doing some serious ‘splainin’ to an equally befuddled air traffic controller.
Knowledge and experience with each specific device is the key to avoiding this particular technology pitfall. A flight instructor is responsible for teaching not only the technology itself, but also for teaching the risks associated with its use while actively managing the risk inherent in instructional activity (especially one that involves any significant “heads down” time — more on that topic later). That means that both you and the pilots you teach need to know the equipment cold.
This process starts well before you climb into the airplane. When you teach the use of GPS moving map navigators, for example, consider assigning “box familiarization” homework that you will discuss during the preflight briefing. That homework should include both the manual and, if available, online simulators. Unless you already know the specific technology well, you need to do the same homework yourself.
Next comes the knowledge check. Before you go to the airplane, be sure that you both know how to navigate the mechanical structure (aka the “knobology”) and the library structure — that is, how to efficiently find and display the information you need for any given phase of flight. You and the pilot you are training need to know the gadget’s normal and abnormal operations, so you can avoid those pesky and potentially dangerous “what’s it doing now” situations. You need to know what the technology can do for you and, equally important, what functions are simply beyond its capability.
Another preflight tip is to clearly establish your game plan. As the instructor, you need to have, and brief, an instructional plan of action for the technology you intend to teach — activities, exercises, locations, etc. While you might improvise in later stages of training, skip the surprise factor for a pilot just starting.
It’s also important to have some version of what our military friends brief as “knock-it-off,” which is a phrase that anyone in the exercise can use to immediately stop the action and reset. If you find yourself baffled, confused, or in any way uncertain about what the technology is doing, it’s time to knock it off by turning it off to reorient yourself. That certainly applies to the autopilot, but it also includes panel-mount, hand-held, or tablet-based navigators if you don’t understand where they are taking you, or if you have any doubts about the safety of the suggested course. Never forget that the magenta line, especially if coupled to an autopilot, can guide you direct to anywhere … including direct through regulatory obstacles such as restricted/prohibited/controlled airspace, man-made obstacles, or natural ones such as terrain.
Another tip: Even if you don’t have cause to trigger your knock-it-off plan, consider creating one so as to firmly instill this concept in the pilot you are training. An ancillary benefit to this technique is giving the pilot opportunities to hand fly, and to quickly resume control of the aircraft in unexpected situations and circumstances, such as a missed approach.
Heads Up; Eyes Outside
I’ve heard moving maps described as both an eyeball vacuum and a time warp. From personal experience, I can attest that both are true. Several years ago, I had just finished an enjoyable GA glass cockpit flight with an FAA colleague. During the postflight discussion, he made the following observation. “When it comes to programming the avionics, you know these systems as well as anybody I’ve seen. But you probably don’t have any idea how much time you spent heads-down. There was a lot of traffic out there today.”
That got my attention, which had admittedly been sucked into the vortex of the shiny multi-colored, whiz-bang gadgetry at my disposal. It was sobering to realize that, without even noticing, I had allowed all the pretty toys in the panel to distract my attention far too much and for far too long from the serious business of see and avoid. I’ve never forgotten the lesson, nor have I ceased to mentally replay my colleague’s cautionary comment whenever I fly.
As I began to instruct more frequently in glass cockpit aircraft, I noticed that the eyeball and attention vacuum effect of the glass panel technology was not unique to me. My fellow pilots similarly fixate not just on periodic programming requirements, but also on monitoring the myriad bits and bytes of flight information on the various glass cockpit displays.
In an effort to offer them the kind of awareness my colleague gave me, I sometimes used a stopwatch to provide very specific feedback on how long they really spend in the technological time warp. The attraction to technological distractions is even greater now that so many of us have acquired extremely capable tablets stocked with equally capable flight planning, managing, and monitoring apps.
Yes, TIS-B and the growing proliferation of ADS-B equipped aircraft will certainly help with traffic spotting. Still, please don’t allow pilots you train to lose the see-and-avoid habit.
Who’s In Charge Here?
Our highly capable gadgets tempt us to shirk not only our see-and-avoid responsibilities, but also a vast swath of the flight management work. They lull us away from the discipline of critical thinking and true situational awareness, a term that implies far more than a position check on the moving map. When teaching technology, therefore, instructors need to instill habits that will keep pilots in control and in the loop.
Let’s start with control. If you have ever watched 2001: A Space Odyssey, you will remember the story of the spacecraft’s domineering computer, HAL 9000. HAL asserts that he is “foolproof and incapable of error.” At least initially, the crew is content to believe in HAL’s infallibility and let their computer run the show. Even if you haven’t seen the movie, you can probably guess that this decision leads to a bad end.