How are Vioxx and Glass Cockpits alike?

In September the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) pulled the prescription pain killer Vioxx off the shelves and last week its chief rival Celebrex was pulled from a clinical trial. It was learned that these two drugs may have dangerous side effects that were previously unknown. The FDA has now come under fire for allowing drugs on the market without completely testing their side effects. Will the FAA have the same problem with new glass cockpit technology in the near future?

Today you can buy ‘over the counter’ new technically advanced airplanes for General Aviation use. If you have not seen them you are in for an eye-popping surprise. They are indeed modern marvels with their Primary Function Displays (PFD), their Multifunction Displays (MFD), their terrain, weather, and collision avoidance systems, their autopilots, and talking computers. This is a whole new thing – the old way really is like using ‘steam gauges.’ This actually is a quantum leap, but have the new cockpits hit the market too fast? You can buy this ‘drug’ today, but has the training to use the new technology been fully tested?

I say no. Moving from traditional cockpits to glass is more than a checkout. Its not like learning to fly in a Cessna 152 and then getting a checkout in a Cessna 172 after getting your pilot’s certificate. The step from traditional to glass requires a whole new way of thinking and processing information and this is not automatic. If we make this transition without doing our homework, the consequences could be more deadly than taking a dangerous drug. Already there have been a flurry of accidents in aircraft that have been defined as technically advanced. The definition of a Technically Advanced Aircraft (TAA) that the FAA is using today is an airplane that has at least: 1) an IFR-certified GPS with moving map, 2) a multifunction display with weather, terrain, or traffic graphics, and 3) an integrated autopilot. In one fatal accident a VFR pilot in a TAA flew into a bank of clouds. The pilot relied on his previous training to solve the problem. He did what I was trained to do and most likely what you were trained to do when unexpectedly entering clouds – he began a 180-degree, standard rate turn. But in the turn the pilot collided with a ridge top and all aboard were killed. Ironically, just in front of that pilot on his high-tech panel was a button that would have saved his life. It was the climb button on the autopilot. The airplane would have flown out of danger if the pilot had not been caught in a ‘traditional training versus high-tech equipment’ mismatch. Of course, the pilot should not have been down low in deteriorating weather to begin with – but the fact that he was there could have been another training/equipment mismatch in itself. The problem with ‘scud-running’ is that when you are down low it is hard to tell exactly where you are and if you are coming up on rising terrain or obstructions. But a TAA solves that problem. The GPS moving map tells you exactly where you are which eliminates the problem of being lost and this may be an actual invitation to scud-run. In other words, high-tech equipment might allow you to think that additional risks are within your capability.

The FAA has not had its head completely in the sand about the rising market of TAA. FAA headquarters in Washington has pushed forward an initiative called the FAA-Industry Training Standards (FITS). FITS is a voluntary program that is attempting to link new training techniques to the new technology and eliminate the ‘old training/new equipment’ mismatch. Many aircraft manufacturers, glass cockpit manufacturers, and at least one insurance company is on board with FITS. The primary difference between traditional training and FITS is that FITS focuses on scenario-based training using the high-tech equipment and less on maneuvers training. But all this is just getting underway. FITS is the ‘clinical trial’ on TAA that normally would take place before the public had access. Three major university aviation programs are conducting research this year with various types of FITS training. Embry Riddle Aeronautical University, The University of North Dakota, and Middle Tennessee State University are producing materials and ‘best practices’ for pilots to transition to TAA and to learn from the beginning in TAA. Results of this work will be out in 2005. The work at Middle Tennessee has won funding from NASA and will be the subject of future articles here at ipilot.

The problem with Vioxx and Celebrex is not that the drugs themselves are bad, but side effects could be dangerous depending on how you use them. The Garmin and Avidyne systems (just to name two) are wonderful and are not a problem in and of themselves. But there could be dangerous side effects, depending on how you use them. Charles Grassley, US Senator from Iowa, last week said about the question of selling drugs before they are fully tested: ‘The FDA has earned a good reputation with decades of good work, but serious mistakes have taken place and lives may have been risked and lost.’ I don’t want a Senator making the same accusation of the FAA and General Aviation about TAAs someday.

The Bottom Line
If you have not seen or flown a General Aviation airplane that is considered a TAA, you owe it to your self to do so – but this is not your father’s airplane! Remember that making the transition to TAAs will take more than a traditional ‘checkout.’ Learning to fly TAA will not create a difference in how you fly, but a difference in how you think – and ask about the availability of FITS recognized training when you begin.