Last time we talked about the avionics revolution, the introduction of Primary Flight Display (PFD) and Multifunction Display (MFD) equipment into light, personal airplanes. Flat-screen avionics hold the promise of vastly improved situational awareness, the pilot no longer having to mentally combine input from as many as a dozen different (and frequently less intuitive) indicators and instruments across the width of the airplane’s panel.

Before we get too comfortable with this new age of automated safety, though, consider the following from a general aviation CFI (certificated flight instructor) who also is a senior captain flying an Airbus for a major air carrier (quoted with permission):

I had an interesting experience in my three day (simulator evaluation) on the Airbus. The first two days we are tested individually; on the third day we are graded as a team (a weak copilot can bring down your performance grading).

On the second day, my copilot called in sick. This is not unusual as the stress (bust the ride, lose your job) creates many sick calls at the last minute. On the second day the simulator session is recorded on video. My (replacement) copilot was a reserve pilot who just had to sit there and do what I told him. I was the only one being tested, so he didn’t really have much to do. The instructor/evaluator said my performance was the best he had seen in years. I have learned from playing professional sports in the past, that the worst thing you can do is get overconfident. So I try to ignore compliments like this.

The third day we are tested as a team and a get lot of emergencies that require a lot of work and coordination from both crew members. The worse thing that can happen is to get a weak copilot. Well, my copilot was still on the sick list. So I got another reserve (on-call) copilot. The rules are that since the reserve hasn’t been able to prepare, he cannot fail, regardless how poorly he does. When this happens, you are handicapped. The guy who showed up couldn’t care less how he did. Worse, he had only been on the airplane for three months, so he really didn’t understand the airplane and its systems yet.

The usual procedure is for one to fly, and the other to handle the navigation and systems computers. We both work on the emergencies as appropriate. Well, you guessed it: He didn’t have a clue what he was doing, and didn’t really give a lick. I’m telling him what to do with the computers, the emergencies, and I’m still flying the airplane. Things were going downhill fast.

Finally I turned off all the navigation and communication computers, and flew the airplane (using) raw data — just like my own airplane, with HSI, VORs, DME — and told him to just work on the emergencies (we had numerous). To make a long story short, it went well after that (at least I thought so). At the debriefing, the tester said he had never seen this done before and it was not our airline’s policy to do it this way. I asked if there was anything wrong with my way of doing it… Did we exceed any parameters? Did we bust any regulations? Were any procedures not flown correctly? He said we must use the nav computer system unless it is inoperative. I said as far as I was concerned, it was inoperative as the copilot couldn’t keep up and correcting his mistakes was much more of a distraction than just doing it myself. I also asked him to rate the performance after the computers were turned off. He said it was excellent.

The check airman was an ex-military pilot who wasn’t used to raw data flying. I told him about how my small plane flying and instructing made me feel very confident in raw data. Finally, I asked him if his family was in the back, and the identical situation occurred, what he would have wanted me to do. The check airman then said, ‘You got a very good point. I’m going to record this as a very successful test, but I’m not going to say how you did it.’

Many of you learned to fly before the mid-1980s. If you’re among that group, and especially if you are (or have been) a CFI, you’ll remember that in the late 1980s the FAA put great store in a concept known as “integrated flight instruction.” What this philosophy “integrated” was instrument flying skills and basic, visual flight instruction. It taught new pilots to use instrument-panel indications for reference when flying visual (eyes-outside) maneuvers. The Flight Standards District Office (FSDO) safety counselors (we called them “Accident Prevention Specialists” back then) gave endless seminars on integrated flight instruction. To a great extent, I still believe in the integrated flight concept, especially when flying the airplane to the edge of its design envelope, where every degree of attitude change counts.

But the Feds over time discovered that low-time pilots were flying into each other, or running into obstacles, or not scanning in and out of the airplane quickly enough, or not accurately learning how to deal with instrument failures. Integrated training fell quickly out of favor, replaced with a series of “Back to Basics” pamphlets and seminars by the Accident Prevention folks.

The FAA-Industry Training Standards (FITS) program ( combines government and aviation industry organizations to develop a new way of training pilots for the highly automated cockpit of the future. I attended a Federal briefing on FITS at the American Bonanza Society convention last fall. I was somewhat surprised to hear that (at least in the view of the FAA team leader making the presentation) FITS is planned long-range as a replacement for a lot of the “stick and rudder” skills currently trained and evaluated in the Practical Test Standards. In part this philosophy, according to the presenter, comes about from the amount of time it would take to add training and evaluation of PFD/MFD operation to the existing checkride standards. The FAA echoes many voices in the industry by stating that any shortfalls in “stick and rudder” training would likely come about by teaching a high degree of autopilot management of flight operations.

I fear that we have not completely learned our lesson, and that if we put too many of our training eggs in the automation basket, events will force the Feds to mount a revised Back to Basics efforts in future years.

As I listened through the rest of the seminar, the convention speaker looked further into the future and spoke of completely automated en route flying, with ATC routing changes made completely automatically and without pilot input, and of auto-land systems in light airplanes to reduce the number of landing accidents.

Call me a dinosaur, but I don’t think I’d like a future where I fly like that. I use autopilots, when I have them, to reduce my effort in high-workload times (like folding charts, copying revised clearances or briefing for an approach), but generally I like to hand-fly even on long crosscountry flights. Many airline pilots will tell you they don’t like fully automated line flying, (now the preferred method of many of their employers), and that they feel rusty for lack of hands-on flying. It brings humor to a popular joke:

The perfect cockpit crew for today’s airliner is a pilot and a dog. The dog is there to bite the pilot if he tries to touch anything. The pilot is there to feed the dog.

A personal pilot who learns to fly under the guise of cockpit automation would be in dire straits should something go wrong in flight. Unfortunately, it is unlikely he or she would have the benefit of twice-yearly simulator training featuring autopilot-out emergencies, as do the pilots of highly automated airliners.

If we’re going to add highly technical devices to our cockpits, we need to add initial training, evaluation, and scheduled recurrent training to the current syllabus, not replace existing syllabus items with cockpit automation topics. The current flight training curriculum evolved over time to reduce the incidence of “stick and rudder flying” accidents, and works quite well … although many would argue that we need to return spin training to the basic syllabus. Maybe when PFD/MFD panels become the norm in personal airplanes we’ll need to revise the pilot ratings system. We may offer basic STick And Rudder Training (call it START) in Sport Pilot category airplanes for local and limited cross-country flight, and a 50- to 75-hour Air Traffic Control System rating (along the lines of FITS) to add privileges to fly PFD/MFD airplanes in visual and instrument conditions. The times, they are a’ changin’…

THE BOTTOM LINE: The dawn of PFD/MFD-equipped personal airplanes promises a new era of flying safety, but only if we approach highly automated flight correctly. These non-intuitive devices add safety only when the pilot is well-versed and current in their operation, and is ready to step in with well-practiced stick-and-rudder skills when automation fails or otherwise falls short of the task. By accepting automation in roles that replace basic piloting skills we will usher in false confidence. If that issue is not carefully addressed, I feel it will undoubtedly create more problems than it may fix.