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Keeping Control of Avionics and Automation

By Susan Parson

Source: FAA Safety Briefing, Jan/Feb 2020

Garmin avionics

Photo courtesy of Garmin.

Along with “Oh [expletive!],” “What’s it doing now?” might now be one of aviation’s best-known memes. Not so very long ago, most GA airplanes sported the same familiar six-pack of gauges in the panel. Sure, some pilots were lucky enough to have whiz-bang LORAN navigation or maybe a horizontal situation indicator (HSI). As for automation, well, even the simplest one-axis autopilots were not exactly standard issue.

Adding to Your “A” Game

Things are very different today. When pilots ask me what the “aviate” part of the familiar aviate/navigate/communicate mantra means in practical terms, I used to explain that it means maintaining control of attitude, airspeed, and altitude. Today, though, we need to include another pair of “A” words: avionics and automation.

As with many changes, the rapid adoption of jetliner-level avionics and automation is one of those good news/bad news developments. The good news is that these technologies offer GA pilots an unprecedented level of situational awareness on everything from aircraft control/performance to traffic, terrain, and weather. The not-so-good news is that the complexity of this technology can quickly transform a Pilot in Command to a Pilot in Confusion.

We are all vulnerable to this hazard. Programming is generally easier now than it was in the 1.0 versions, but managing modern avionics/automation still requires a substantial amount of heads-down time. The risk for confusion further expands for pilots who don’t specialize in a single brand of avionics. If you flew one six-pack, you knew them all. With glass, though, manufacturers like Aspen, Avidyne, and Garmin all have different ways of arranging buttons and performing functions. Things get even dodgier when you pilot “Frankenplanes,” my preferred term for older birds with a mash-up of newer avionics stitched in.

But wait — there’s more. When everything works right, or as expected, our gadgets tempt us to neglect 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, which means a lot more than knowing your physical location.

It all adds up to two simple facts. First, avionics and automation do reduce some kinds of pilot workload, but they create a whole new set of tasks. Second, a pilot who steps out of the loop by shirking these tasks will inevitably encounter a time when everything is perfect ... until suddenly nothing makes sense.

Garmin avionics

Leading Edge vs. Bleeding Edge

To keep cutting-edge avionics equipment from hurting you, your passengers, and/or your airplane, being Pilot in Command (PIC) now includes more than just mechanical manipulation of stick and rudder. It also means mastery of three key flight management skills: information management, automation management, and risk management.

Information Management. An axiom of aviation training is that the volume of information is akin to drinking from a fire hose. Learning new avionics/automation equipment follows that pattern. Even without diving into sub-menus, a pilot can be drenched in data but thirsty for useful information (e.g., how to find a specific piece of information). To know your avionics means using your preferred combination of apps, simulation software, manuals, and time on the flight deck to understand the system on two levels.

So-called “knob-ology” is the most obvious, and you do need to master the basic functions of each control interface. This part of information management includes both actual buttons and electronic versions presented on a screen.

It is perhaps even more important to master the system at the conceptual level. Knowing how your system is organized is far more effective (and far less frustrating) than attempting to memorize every possible sequence of button pushes, pulls, and turns.

The next phase of information management is learning to meter, manage, and prioritize the information flow to accomplish specific tasks. For this task, you might find it helpful to direct the fire hose information flow into a few conceptual drinking glasses. These include personal preference (e.g., map orientation and configuration) and phase of flight (e.g., map scale for en route vs. terminal area).

Automation Management. The automatic flight control system, otherwise known as the autopilot or more affectionately, “George,” can be a lifesaver. Like a mischievous child, though, George can also make trouble for an unwary pilot. At the most basic level, managing automation first means knowing how the system works (aka “knobology”). It also means knowing at all times which modes are engaged, and which modes are armed to engage. To reinforce this mindset, I always require pilots to read the display out loud. For example: Heading mode is ENGAGED, and aircraft is following the heading bug on the e-HSI to intercept the desired course. Navigation mode is ARMED to capture the desired course upon intercept. Altitude hold mode is ENGAGED to maintain pre-selected altitude of 4,500 MSL.

Keep in mind that George may not be the only piece of automation you need to manage. Depending on the system, you may or may not need to adjust sensitivity of the course deviation indicator (CDI) needle for the appropriate flight operation. Similarly, you may or may not have to switch the active navigation from GPS to LOC for an ILS or localizer approach.

While on the subject of navigation source, sound automation management also requires a thorough understanding of how the autopilot interacts with the other systems. With some installations (especially on the “Frankenplane” retrofits), changing the navigation source from GPS to LOC or VOR while the autopilot is engaged in NAV course tracking mode can cause the autopilot’s NAV mode to disengage.

Risk Management. Pilots who permit advanced avionics and automation to lull them into a passenger-in-command role are likely to find some very sharp corners in this cutting-edge technology. Good risk management of this technology requires that you:

  • Know the limits. Even if the panel of a GA airplane looks more modern than its airline counterpart, there are still limits to what a light GA aircraft can safely do.
  • Never trust; always verify. The magenta line can very efficiently lead you into regulatory or topographical trouble.
  • Stay engaged. One of the best techniques for situational awareness is callouts — even for single pilot operations. Callouts help you make the most of your gadgetry, while keeping you firmly in the role of PIC. They are also a great way to catch your programming mistakes.
  • Set Tripwires. If you find yourself baffled, confused, or in any way uncertain about what the technology is doing, it’s time to turn it off and reorient yourself.

Left Seat = Right Stuff

You had to demonstrate mastery of all the proverbial right stuff before you were allowed to take the left seat as PIC. No matter how capable the avionics and automation appear to be, keep it in its proper place and never vacate your seat to mere technology.

Susan Parson is editor of FAA Safety Briefing and a Special Assistant in the FAA’s Flight Standards Service. She is a general aviation pilot and flight instructor.

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