Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Do all the latest digital gadgets make one a better, safer pilot?

The other day while sitting at a traffic light, I watched a young driver texting furiously in between glancing up at the traffic signal. Amazingly the driver did not miss the change from red to green by many milliseconds but……it made me wonder how many pilots were doing the same thing while at the controls. Talking on the cell phone, texting, getting the latest stock results or some such other nonsense. How many milliseconds did I have to avoid that bogey (errant plane) streaking across my path? Just enough, because I wasn’t doing any of the above. It doesn’t take much distraction to miss a frequency from center, or an urgent call from approach to turn immediately or descend or climb. You get the point, one must pay attention.

Yes, your full undivided attention is required to safely navigate the current skies. Tempting as it may be to watch a video, do a sudoku or read a magazine, your eyes need to be on your primary flight data: altitude, heading, attitude and airspeed at least once a minute. The rest of the time you should be looking out the windshield for traffic or just enjoying the scenery. Even while flying on autopilot, regular checks of the above must be made. Autopilots do fail, often at the worst times.

Some time ago at a local air show at Rock Hill Airport (UZA), I was looking at the cockpit setup of a new C-172. Some of the new fancy models cost just under $300,000 and still only go 120 knots. I couldn’t get over the Glass Displays. Two large screens that could be filled with all kinds of data such as: GPS data, satellite radar, nav data and who knows what else. All the above in addition to the basics listed above. What struck me between the eyes was the paucity of “raw data” or basic instruments. Directly under the two mega- screens are three normal sized dials. The airspeed indicator, artificial horizon and altimeter. Where is a back-up vor/ils gage? What happens when something goes haywire with those two big screens? Are you prepared to go back to the basic three gages above?

Well those are some of the questions I ask when I read about pilots flying into the ground while executing an ILS approach. Do you have the latest correct approach plates out in front of you clipped to the yoke? Does anyone still know what an NDB is? OK I’ve been around too long. Maybe, but I warrant it is easier to go to a fancy big screen with follow the arrows type game plan if you once thoroughly understood the old fashioned way. So what I’m saying is: when you have the ability to navigate the airways and land at minimums on the old gages maybe then you can transition to the big screens.

To summarize. Flying is an activity that requires a lot from participants sometimes, with periods of tedium at others. But, it should never be dull or boring. If it becomes so, rather than turn on your digital toys, land the plane and park it until you are ready to seriously fly. And please don’t ever forget the basics.

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