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From the Desk of the Safety Office


Michael May, Standards Officer WVFC

Children of the Magenta (with apologies to American Airlines)

Since Garmin introduced the G1000 over 12 years ago, technically advanced aircraft have appeared in ever increasing numbers. It’s difficult to quantify the changes that TAA equipped aircraft have precipitated, but there is no doubt that they have changed the game, and that they are here to stay. Of the 10 most recent additions to the WVFC fleet, 9 of them are G1000 equipped. 6 of our 15 Cessna 172SP’s are now G1000 airplanes, compared to 3 at this time last year. Considering that Cessna ceased production of its 6-pack SP’s back in 2007, we expect this trend to continue.

The G1000 and similar systems provide an undeniable enhancement to situational awareness and overall safety compared to previous generation avionics, but like most major technological advancements, they come with their own set of drawbacks. The airline industry recognized the side-effects of all-glass, highly automated flight deck systems decades ago, and mitigating the risks that these systems inherently come with has been a major focus of their training programs ever since. Which brings me to the title of this article. Back in 1997, American Airlines videotaped a training presentation given to its pilots on this topic, and it is now available for the world to see thanks to the technological wonder of the internet and You Tube, (here’s the link to anyone interested The specifics are more relevant to air carriers, but the overall message translates well to general aviation: Advanced systems can lead to bad habits and complacency as we become increasingly reliant on their capabilities. To quote the American Airlines instructor, “we must guard against becoming children of the magenta”.

Consider all the tasks that a G1000 or similar system will complete for you when you use it for the relatively simple task of flying a planned route on a cross country flight. Once you’ve input the waypoints, it will give you very precise information on distance, time, fuel consumption, groundspeed, airspeed, nearest airport lists that updates in real time, airport information, airspace information, and radio frequencies along your route. In short, it does all your flight planning for you. With a datalink such as XM or ADS-B it will also give you weather, traffic alerts, and TFR’s. Sounds great, right? It is, as long as everything works as advertised and you’ve programmed it correctly. If either of these conditions were not met, you might be in for a surprise if you weren’t paying close attention.

Small errors leading to big mistakes are so common that there is an entire list of phrases to describe them. Is the system telling you that you have 5,000nm and 48:30 to destination? You may have hit direct to PAO instead of KPAO, which is an NDB in Greece (garbage in, garbage out). Have you ever had an autopilot that didn’t do what you expected it to? If you weren’t paying close attention you won’t be anywhere near where you want to be when you check your position (“What’s it doing now?” Or, “Why is it doing that again?” depending on how many times this has happened to you). Do you know which systems and features will be affected if the GPS signal is lost? It’s a lot more than some people realize (In written form, as a maintenance squawk: MFD failed in flight, screen locked up and there were multiple caution messages. Fixed itself after 15 minutes and worked normally for the rest of the flight). For all the instrument pilots out there, how about that time you flew a practice ILS while the CDI was still in GPS mode? (“This is the best ILS I’ve ever flown in my life!” followed by “aw, crap”). There are many, many more examples.

The solution to these sorts of errors is both obvious and elusive. Part of it is developing procedures and habits to catch errors, such as cross-checking inputs, following checklists, and maintaining a good instrument scan. The other part is, to put it bluntly, not becoming lazy and dependent on these systems to do everything for you. That’s much easier said than done, and the aviation industry as a whole has struggled to combat this because of the simple truth that it’s human nature. Being aware of the risk that comes with these advanced systems is a good first step, and making sure you understand the capabilities and limitations of the equipment you’re using can further mitigate the risk. As a WVFC member, you have access to our fleet of simulators (and you get a free hour per month, per simulator) to hone your skills on Garmin and Avidyne avionics systems. Our CFI’s are also available to help and they have a wealth of knowledge and experience – one of them literally wrote the book on the G1000.

As our fleet continues to evolve and grow, advanced avionics will become even more prevalent than they are today. In the hands of a proficient user, they offer vastly improved situational awareness, accuracy, and reliability. Like any other machine though, it’s important to have a good understanding of how they operate, what their limitations are, and how to operate them. These systems get more capable every day, and having this knowledge will enable you to safely take full advantage of them.