The idea behind avionics is that they should do what we want them to do without causing undo hassle or requiring too much attention on our part, attention we should be giving to flying the airplane. It’s like Facebook, the remarkably successful website that has attracted hundreds of millions of followers by giving them what they want, a simple, easy way to stay in touch with their friends and family. When people complain about Facebook, it’s either that it’s trying to do something apart from that main mission or that some feature is too complicated to use. When it comes to technology, the new lesson is that “complicated” is bad.
We’re finally getting that lesson in aviation. There’s been a trend these past 10 or 15 years among avionics manufacturers to make their products easier and easier to use. The movement has its roots in the world of computers, which is as it should be; today’s avionics are merely specialized computer systems, many of them running subsets of commercial off-the-shelf operating systems. If you want to understand “easy,” think iPad. Apple’s megapopular tablet wasn’t the first such product by a long shot. It was just the easiest and most satisfying to use.
When I say that avionics are “merely” offshoots of consumer systems, I’m being a bit facetious. Computerized avionics systems not only require sensor systems that are exotic by mainstream standards — such as AHRS and air data sensors — but they also depend on software that is required to be orders of magnitude more stable than consumer software, for obvious reasons. A crash on one’s desktop computer has far more pedestrian consequences than a crash on one’s digital flight deck.
More and more “flying” incorporates managing these computer systems, and that has caused a backlash, culturally and operationally. Many pilots who have been flying since before the advent of GPS moving map navigators — which wasn’t that long ago — feel as though the nature and essential craft of what we do has been changed in the rush to leverage technology for improved safety.
The move to make our flying lives simpler and our cockpit capabilities more powerful is not a new one. Modern computer technology has just allowed it to succeed at an unprecedented pace. The moving map is a good case in point. While the modern moving map has really been in our cockpits for only the past 20 years or so, most notably with the ubiquitous Garmin GNS 430 pocket-size FMS, attempts to automatically plot our position on a map began with the advent of long-range aerial navigation in the 1930s, with clever mechanical devices that held maps and were designed to turn navigation data into position information, which after all is what a moving map is all about and what we want. An HSI is really just a Rube Goldberg attempt at doing the same thing using the best available technology of the day. Thank goodness we’ve figured out how to get a computer and a display to do the job far more elegantly.
For decades our cockpits have had a lot of data for us to use as we would. The problem, and it was a big problem, was that the data was presented in a way that was really hard for the average pilot to use. As much as you might feel warm and fuzzy about this antique technology, a VOR indicator is a human factors nightmare. For that matter, VORs are horribly outdated as well, while still being very useful, that is, because they’re still a good backup to modern technology. A VOR, let’s remember, is an incredibly complex system for figuring out something simple: where you are laterally from a fixed position on Earth, the spot in the ground somewhere, next to a busy urban airport or along the side of some remote highway in New Mexico, where the VOR transmitter and its not-so-little building is situated. Moreover, the cockpit technology we employ to make use of a VOR’s signal is equally archaic, a pilot-adjustable spinning card from which we divine in which direction the station is — wait, is that to the station or from it?