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Paul Novacek, M.A.S., MCFI
ElectronicFlight Solutions, VP – Product Development
Former NASA Human Factors Researcher

Safer flying comes down to making better and more informed decisions under the pressure of a high workload cockpit. But the quality of a decision is only as good as the information available to the pilot. Any decision in the cockpit is a tradeoff between the current position and the intended goal, otherwise known as situational awareness. Information is important to any decision and gathering that information comes in many forms and from many sources. Modern avionics/cockpit automation contributes to that information gathering by collecting and presenting the aircraft position, any traffic in the area, the proximity to terrain and any local weather.

Most of the accidents in general aviation are caused by distractions, inattentions or various forms of errors. Modern cockpits offer so much information that a pilot is easily distracted by the management of all that information. Additionally, the large display screens are so compelling that much of the time a pilot is looking at the screen or manipulating the controls so that precious little time is left to disseminate that information into strategic planning. So, these seemingly innocuous diversions cause a pilot to miss important cues about the state of the flight and blunder into a hazardous situation, possibly leading to a CFIT or weather related accident. Therefore, the greater competency a pilot has with the avionics, the more time can be devoted to strategic planning and risk management.

Distractions have been found to be major contributing factors in many incidents and accidents. Unfortunately, statistical proof of this phenomenon is difficult to track unless the pilots can clearly recount the facts or a cockpit voice recorder captures the events leading to the accident. This leaves a large gap in an accident’s analysis — often leading to the common “pilot error” explanation for lack of a more telling cause of the accident. Even when pilot error is found to be the cause of the accident, prudent analysis must go further into the cause and investigate the reason which caused the pilot to commit the error. Was it a perception problem where the pilot acted upon incomplete or false information; or was the pilot overtaxed with an unfamiliar procedure? These and many other scenarios take precious time and mental ability to accomplish, adding to the amount of distractions present in a modern cockpit. The FAA is aware of the large role that distractions pose on safety. They actively promote flight instructors to provide distracters during flight training, therefore forcing a student to prioritize issues and not let small problems become big ones. The FAA Examiners are also instructed to introduce distracters to determine if a pilot is competent enough to handle them.

The better trained and more experienced pilots have very little trouble with complex tasks because they have been exposed to them before. The inexperienced pilot will always have difficulty adapting to a new airplane or instrument system — it’s just part of a normal, although steep, learning curve. But the pilots’ who have received comprehensive training on the new equipment will have a much shallower learning curve and better mastery of their equipment. Which therefore, leads to fewer accidents because of fewer distractions.

Much of the focus on these new Technically Advanced Aircraft (TAA) centers around the newly certified aircraft with advanced display systems, such as the Cirrus or Diamond. But the focus really needs to be placed on the specific advanced cockpit systems, which applies to a much broader spectrum of aircraft. The FITS team has identified any aircraft that contains a GPS navigator with a moving map, or equipped with an autopilot as a Technically Advanced Aircraft. It includes aircraft used in both VFR and IFR operations, with systems certified to either VFR or IFR standards. This effectively places a 1947 Bonanza with an installed Garmin 530 GPS in the TAA category, to which the FITS committee recommends a comprehensive avionics training syllabus.

But many are aware of the problems that need to be addressed before a modicum of safety is achieved. Most of the naysayers sight the degradation of skills that accompany an over reliance on this new equipment and the apparent reliability issues, but the real problem is the inability of new pilots to interpret and absorb the vast amount of information being thrown at them.

The media is of course currently focused on the shiny new airplanes and all their wondrous gadgets, but some manufacturers of these large PFD/MFD displays, notably Honeywell’s APEX system, are going after the retrofit market, which is much more difficult to control. The FAA Capstone program already saw many training difficulties with a retrofit market and found that getting the training into the proper hands was more problematic than originally envisioned.

An aircraft manufacturer, such as Cirrus, forces the new owner to complete a training program, thus ensuring that the pilot receives at least the minimal amount of training on the new cockpit display systems. The retrofit market on the other hand has none of these built-in safeguards. A pilot can walk into an avionics shop, have a GPS, moving map and autopilot installed without ever receiving training. Sure, the avionics shop manager may explain a few functions and the owner’s manual is provided, but research by this author revealed that the manuals are rarely understood and the instruction from the avionics shop manager is too brief and woefully inadequate.

Currently, a single entity has not taken the responsibility to provide the necessary avionics training. There are many opportunities in the chain for avionics training, such as the avionics manufacturers, avionics shops, flight schools and OEMs. Each have provided limited resources for avionics training, but the overwhelming consensus from pilots is that these limited resources are not adequate and accidents due to misusing avionics are on the rise. Research studies have found that a clear source for avionics training is not available and a pilot must gather resources from many different sources before a clear picture of the avionics operation emerges.

Aircraft owners today are investing tens of thousands of dollars on high-tech avionics equipment but leave the shop with minimal training and a set of manuals they are expected to decipher on their own. The result, more often than not, is that the pilot never becomes fully competent in the proper use of the equipment.

Some say that the owner's manual is a good teaching guide, but most manuals fail in this respect. Only the minimum is required by the FAA as a flight manual supplement, which is commonly not read or fully understood. Many avionics flight manual supplements were either not added to the flight manual as part of an installation or are missing. Besides, the flight manual supplements just provide procedures, not the needed information as to when to use a specific procedure.

This situation forces the pilot to try and learn the avionics while flying the aircraft alone, which only results in more time looking down in the cockpit and less time to see-and-avoid other traffic. Consequently, an airspace incursion may occur because of the concentration needed to learn the avionics.

Many excellent flight instructors admit to knowing very little about advanced avionics systems. Few of the instructors teach avionics well enough to proficiency. The main concern is proficient operation of the aircraft within the air traffic system. But then the training should go further and teach the autopilot or navigation systems. The majority of instructors believe that time is wasted by teaching the avionics when the pilot could learn the avionics through the flight manual. But, those manuals are sketchy at best, especially autopilots. Only the bare minimum is required by the FAA as a flight manual supplement. A thorough training program is necessary if the pilot wants to get the most out of the new avionics equipment.

The NTSB and international accident records contain numerous accidents attributed to misusing the avionics. Many high-profile accidents were directly caused by the pilots entering the wrong waypoint or their unfamiliarity with the different modes of a flight control system. Additionally, aircraft incidents (non-fatal) caused by misusing the avionics are on the rise. The NASA ASRS safety database is strewn with reports of pilots missing an altitude or blundering into restricted airspace because of a lack of understanding of how to properly interpret and use the avionics system.

A few studies over recent years have identified that general aviation pilots only know how to use about 20-30% of their avionics capability. Corporate pilots fare a little better because they have professional requirements to attend training at least once a year, but they too have trouble gaining all that’s available from their avionics.

There have been a few studies on the problem over the past few years and the results are not surprising. Pilots are not using their avionics to anywhere near their full capability. The results vary slightly, but pilots are generally using their avionics to about 15-25% of the unit capability.

Many accidents have been attributed directly to a lack of training of the onboard avionics and the lack of avionics instruction given by the flight instructor, whose knowledge of the avionics is also lacking. Case in point. A 2002 accident in a Cessna 172S (NTSB# ANC01FA100), the pilot was unaware that the autopilot was engaged and attempted to override the servo force, activating the automatic pitch trim function which drove the trim to its full up-stop (a condition that no human can counteract for very long).

The pilot had limited experience in the airplane that was equipped with an integrated flight/nav/autopilot system. During cruise flight, the airplane suddenly pitched upward. The pilot pushed forward on the control yoke, and noticed the trim wheel moving in a nose up direction. She used the manual trim wheel to trim the airplane nose down, but the airplane still pitched upward. The pilot began to exert forward pressure on the control yoke to keep the airplane from climbing, and asked her front seat passenger to help push forward on the control yoke. The pilot made a "mayday" call and decided to make an emergency landing at a 2,200 feet gravel surface airport. … The airplane collided with trees at the departure end the runway. The pilot said she did not know if the autopilot was on or off, but she did not consciously select or use the autopilot, and did not even know if the airplane was equipped with electric trim. The pilot said she remembered seeing 7000 displayed in a box located above the transponder (the autopilot computer). The pilot said she used the radio transmit button on the left side of the pilot's control yoke, but did not use any other switches (autopilot/trim disconnect) on the yoke. … The pilot did not receive any instruction from the operator, or from her flight instructor about the autopilot system, and the pilot did not familiarize herself with the autopilot system. … Post accident testing of the autopilot system did not reveal any malfunction.

The NTSB determined the cause of the accident as:

The pilot's inadequate remedial action to disconnect the autopilot during an uncommanded altitude deviation while in cruise flight. Factors in the accident were activation of the autopilot; the pilot's lack of familiarity with the airplane's autopilot system; her failure to attain the proper touchdown point during an emergency landing, and delayed go-around resulting in an overrun and collision with trees; the operator's insufficient training standards for the airplane, and the pilot's flight instructor's failure to provide adequate upgrade/transition training in the airplane.

All this evidence can only lead to one conclusion, that pilots need to be properly and thoroughly trained in the operation of their advanced avionics. The media and pilots alike concede that traditional training methods are not sufficient. Of these traditional methods (video, classroom, paper manuals and simulators), each has its merits, but often their individual limitations prevent thorough understanding and absorption. The only delivery method that provides the conceptual and comprehensive training needed for a Technically Advanced Aircraft is a computer-based and dynamic delivery method. It provides a convenient, comprehensive and dynamic training environment that gets the information to the people that will gain the most benefit, the pilots.