Did I Miss the Revolution?

Cirrus Design may have fired the first shot in the personal aviation revolution — integrating airline-style, CRT flat-screen avionics into light airplanes with the phenomenal SR22 composite single.

At the same time, the corporate and commuter world filled the gap between airliners and the Cirrus upstart, with MFDs (Multi Function Displays, combining engine monitoring, navigation and weather avoidance on a single screen) and PFDs (Primary Flight Displays, tremendously enhanced displays of information previously combined mentally from several sources in an instrument scan). Meanwhile the aftermarketeers began offering retrofits of CRT panel technology into the existing corporate fleet. Raytheon Aircraft began offering CRTs as a factory option in its King Air turboprops.

Suddenly a manufacturer couldn’t compete without this new technology in the cockpit. Although Cirrus installs the Avidyne system in its airplanes the folks at Garmin have been highly successful at securing orders from Eclipse and Adams Aircraft for their new light jets. The Garmin 1000 package is now featured in the Diamond light singles and twins, even in training roles; rumor is strong that the G1000 will soon be an option in new Beech Bonanza and Barons. Cessna designed the panel of the Mustang light jet around the Garmin system, and stunned many in the industry when it announced the futuristic panel is available as an option in new production Cessna 182 and 206s — at a price lower than the cost of a conventional, “steam gauge” instrument panel and avionics package.

It suddenly occurred to me that we’ve seen a revolution in avionics over just that last few months. By all indications, very soon no airplane designed for Instrument Flight Rules (IFR) travel will ever again be offered with the familiar “basic six” flight instruments (Attitude, Heading, Airspeed, Altimeter, Turn-and-Bank, Vertical Speed) and a separate avionics stack. All new planes will feature some sort of integrated, computer-based flight management system.

But was it a bloodless coup? What might the sudden change to PFD/MFD avionics do to personal aviation as we know it?

Real Pilots
Time was when almost all airplanes had tailwheels. Tailwheel airplanes generally take a lot more pilot skill, especially on takeoff and landing but also for proper coordination in flight-partly because of the reduced stability that comes from lack of the “vertical stabilizer” effect of a nosewheel handing in the breeze, and partly since the generation that spawned the majority of tailwheel designs didn’t know as much about control harmonization as the engineers that designed later planes. There’s a certain nostalgia (which I share) for the tailwheel airplanes, mostly centered around the “you ain’t a real pilot unless you fly a taildragger” emotion. This somewhat irrational response is one reason the Cessna 150/152 will never go down in history as one of the greatest training airplanes, despite having so tremendously shaped our current generation of fliers. Once the norm and still the sentimental favorite, now it takes a special CFI endorsement to fly these “basic” airplanes, and insurance costs have made it all but impossible to find tailwheel instruction and rental. What was “conventional” is conventional no more.

Or consider the four-course radio range. Developed in 1928, the radio range system was the first non-visual means of navigation along prescribed routes. The pilot listened on a scratchy radio headset (often in a noisy, often open cockpit) on prescribed frequencies for a Morse code signal. A dot and a dash (code for the letter A) would designate being on one side of the airway; a dash and a dot (the letter N) signaled he was on the other side. When the two codes merged along the airway’s centerline the two Morse code streams would merge into a stead signal-being “on the beam.” The pilot would use knowledge of his (or rarely in those days, her) initial position to pick which “leg” of the four-spoke beacon to follow, and could fly point-to-point based on charted four-course airways. No wonder so many early pilots went deaf! Airliners routinely followed four-course audio signals for instrument approaches as low as today’s precision approaches.

Although the four-course system began to be replaced by the familiar VOR (VHF Omni Range) system during the Second World War, the last four-course station was on the air into the 1970s. Captains of the piston airliner era, all retired now, will still tell you you aren’t a real airline pilot unless you can fly a DC-3 (not coincidentally, a taildragger!) to a “200 and a half” radio range landing.

My point? We may be rapidly racing toward a day when we’ll be telling the next generation of personal pilots “you ain’t real” unless you can fly behind an attitude deviation indicator (ADI, or artificial horizon), a heading gyro, a turn-and-bank gyro and a surrounding cluster of pitot-static instruments.

The “situational awareness” provided by ultra-modern PFD/MFD avionics has the potential to increase personal aviation safety. There is significant concern, however, that the level of sophistication of these devices is such that they may detract from safety-with the pilot running into something, or failing to respond to some other problem with the aircraft or operating environment while absorbed in the task of programming and running advanced avionics. We’ve already seen this in GPS operations, and misprogrammed PFD/MFD leading to Controlled Flight Into Terrain (CFIT) in airliners. The problem is so acute that the FAA is actively working on regulations for pilot qualification in PFD/MFD avionics (see Jeff Pardo’s recent “Keeping Up with Today’s Aircraft“). The industry seem to be compensating for this by proposing essentially full-time autopilot flight management.

Meanwhile we’ll see a move away from bulky instrument vacuum systems and backups. We’ll have to rethink our approach to electrical failures and fires, which currently almost universally call for shutting off all power at the first sign of electrical trouble-a move that will instantly turn off all the instrumentation in a PFD/MFD panel unless there are battery backups (that might make fighting an avionics fire impossible). We’ll still have to teach “raw data” flying with an electric attitude indicator, altimeter and airspeed indicator (current certification requirements call for these backups in flat-screen airplanes), but pilots will have to make this transition with very little experience using the instruments; they won’t have the vital benefit of a turn-and-bank information if their inexperience leads to an unusual flight attitude, and most airplane manufactures are putting these “afterthought” instruments centered and down low on the panel where they do not fit well into an instrument scan.

Yet the PFD/MFD revolution has seemingly already succeeded. Like the tailwheel pilots of today, ten years from now we’ll probably need a special FAA endorsement to fly IFR using traditional “steam gauge” instruments. The new world of avionics will likely price many of us out of the cross-country market-the avionics themselves are cheaper than all the system requirements of traditional systems, but most aren’t retrofittable into existing airframes, meaning only new, high-dollar airplanes will be PFD/MFD equipped for instrument flight.

BOTTOM LINE: It looks like the future of cross-country, personal aviation will involve autopilot-managed flight with great situational awareness using flat-screen avionics technology. But emotionally, I think we’re taking another big step away from the fun and freedom of flight most of us envisioned when we first learned to fly, at a price putting many recreational pilots out of the IFR environment. Intellectually, I’m not convinced we’re not creating more problems than we’re fixing by putting too many of our airplane system and pilot education eggs in one basket. Realistically, as a pilot and a flight instructor I need to consider the post-revolutionary world of modern avionics.