Technology Transitions – up and down

There have been some unexpected airline pilot retirements lately – unexpected because the captain had not reached age 60. This early retirement was not because of pay cuts or poor working conditions, it was because he or she was asked to move to a ‘glass cockpit’ airplane and the upward technology transition was just too much. Is it hard to teach an old dog new tricks?

Old Habits
I have one of the oldest computer programs where I work, but you know the program I am used too works just fine. Its not the newest, coolest thing, but to use the newest, coolest thing, I would have to relearn how to use my computer and I just don’t see then need since the one I have works well for me. That is the way many DC-9 Captains feel right now. The old round dials have worked fine for their entire career and switching to glass at this point seems like a good deal of unnecessary work. But I have a choice with my old computer program – pilots can’t choose to keep an old airplane if the company is getting rid of them all. So this forces the old captain to relearn his own airplane or turn in his wings. Many are turning them in.

The New Challenge
This is the challenge that many of us who learned to fly in airplanes when the emphasis was on the airplane not the stuff in that airplane: Can ’round dialers’ move up in technology? Answering this question will trigger a lot of upcoming debate. But I also wanted to ask the question in reverse: In the future, will ‘glass pilots’ be able to move down in technology?

Last year, working under a cooperative agreement with NASA, a group of colleagues and I at Middle Tennessee State University began a project that hoped to answer the ‘reverse technology’ question. Here is a quick overview of the project: Using five DA40 Diamond Star airplanes that had been equipped with the Garmin G-1000 systems and autopilots, we began training a group of college students from MTSU’s Aerospace Department with a combination VFR and IFR syllabus. To get into this group, the students had to already be enrolled at the university, already be enrolled in both flight and ground school classes and, here is the most important part, they had to have had less than five hours flight time in an small airplane. In other words, these were beginners with no round dial ‘baggage.’ Every flight lesson that these students took during the fall 2004 semester was in a ‘glass cockpit’ airplane. They learned to fly, from scratch, achieving both their Private Pilot Certificate and Instrument Rating, having never used round dials.

Computer Games Pay Off!
These students were unique in another way. As college freshman this year, they had all grown up with computers in their classrooms since they were in first grade. Most had grown up with computers in their homes. Using a computer to conduct their daily lives is natural to them – so the use of a ‘glass cockpit’ airplane was absolutely no challenge at all. In fact, they don’t refer to this technology as ‘glass’ like those of us from the previous generation of pilots have started calling it. To these students it was the ‘screens’ – as in ‘computer screens’ that they were using. These students sat down in this combination airplane/computer and mastered it in no time – and without using the manuals (much). When I am forced to learn a new computer or program, I sit down with the manual. Inevitably, however, I will come to a point where what the manual says will happen and what is actually happening on the screen are different. At this point, I am at a dead end. But students of the computer generation somehow never reach a dead end. They are able to figure out some other shortcut or route to the solution that is not in the book. Have you ever watched a 10-year old play a video game? They figure out all the shortcuts on their own. It is almost as if these kids are able to ‘think’ like the computer thinks, so they solve the problem quickly and look at you like you’re an idiot for not being able to get through something so simple. Somehow these computer/pilots were able to employ the same logic as the program designer used to every challenge and they breezed right through. Of course, I thought that having students learn the ‘glass’ would be the big hurdle of the project – I was wrong. (A note to parents: you don’t have to tell your 10 year old this if you would rather they do traditional homework tonight, but all those hours playing video games now, will pay off in a big way if he or she decides to become a pilot with this new technology)

But Can They Transition Downward?
But here is one of the questions we must ask: If you train using the ‘screens’ only, can you fly safely in an airplane that doesn’t have them? Our project also takes pilots who have recently become Private Pilots with Instrument Ratings – and done so without ever using round dials – and asks them to fly a 1979 Cessna 152 on a cross country flight. The FAA will have issued them a pilot certificate with single-engine land on it, so it is perfectly legal for them to fly a Cessna 152 with no further training – but can they do it safely?

Round dials do not give you a look at the ‘big picture’ at a glance. The pilot must take the information coming from various round dials and build a metal image of the ‘big picture’ within their imagination. Since ‘glass-only’ pilots have always had the ‘big picture’ presented to them on the screens, they are very familiar with what the big picture looks like. Will these pilots make a smooth transition and just formulate the screens in their imagination as normal? Or, will the fact that the screens have always presented the big picture to the pilot without them having to do any mental work, make it impossible for them to formulate the metal picture on their own? If the screens were a crutch that they cannot walk without, then flying a Cessna 152, without having the big picture in mind, could be hazardous and the technology transition in the downward direction would be unsafe. In that case, would we need some additional training requirement? Today, we have additional training requirements to fly tailwheel airplanes, and complex airplanes, and high performance airplanes, and high altitude airplanes. None of these requires another FAA Practical Test, but instead an endorsement from a flight instructor. Could we soon need a ‘Round Dial’ endorsement for those who learned on glass, but want to rent a Cessna 152 for an afternoon? I don’t know the answer to that question yet – but that is why you conduct research – to try to get some answers. The FAA is also very interested in our answers as well, because right now nobody knows the answers to these technology-triggered questions. I will keep you posted as the project continues.

Note: The project’s official name is: SATS Aerospace Flight Education Research (SAFER). The acronym ‘SAFER’ actually has another acronym within it. ‘SATS’ is the Small Aircraft Transportation System, which is a NASA initiative to get greater utilization from small airplanes and small airports using emerging technologies.

The Bottom Line
We are in an unprecedented segment of change in general aviation. In ten years, anyone who learns to fly will use ‘the screen’ not the ‘dials’- so how do we safely get from where we are today to where we are going?