Islands, Whales, Airplanes and Computers...


I am being a recalcitrant student.

"Put the heading bug on the airport runway heading," my friend Bruce says.


"That way you'll know which way the runway heading is," he answers.

"Or," I reply, "I can just look at the compass." To my way of thinking, if I can't remember that I'm taking off on Runway 16, so that a straight-out departure means a heading of 160 degrees-or, for that matter, find my way back into this sleepy, island airport pattern in perfect VFR conditions without a bug on some instrument to remind me which way the runway's pointing-they shouldn't have given me a license.

Bruce sighs. It's been a long morning, as he's tried gainfully to get me to love the Garmin G1000 glass cockpit system in this brand-new Diamond DA-40 that he's arranged for me to fly. I spent an hour in a simulator before even getting out to the airplane, just so I could learn how to use all the various switches, knobs and basic control keys required to operate the G1000 system-which turns a small airplane instrument panel into a computerized flat-panel display like those once found only in high-end business jets. There are precise digital tapes or indicators for airspeed, altitude, and all sorts of engine and aircraft parameters. There are multiple nav indicators, all nicely color-coordinated and integrated into a single instrument. There are pages and pages of information on aircraft systems, airports, weather and frequencies. Terrain alerts. Traffic alerts, although those aren't all that reliable. Wind indicators. Airspace indicators. Trend indicators for every possible form of movement in the book, from rate of turn and airspeed to altitude and GPS track. If I had the patience to find it, I'm sure it would even tell me which FBO had the best vending machines.

It's an amazing system. And while the normal check-out for the G1000, Bruce tells me, involves a day and a half of ground school, that's not so surprising. The FlightSafety ground school for the glass cockpit system in the Challenger 604 I flew a few years ago took more than three days. All that technology takes some work to master.

But if you're flying a Challenger 604-or doing the kind of cross-country hard IFR that a Challenger is built to do-all that technology also makes sense. Challenger pilots, after all, don't spend a lot of time looking out the window. Their world is the instrument panel. And anything manufacturers can do to make that world more akin to the invisible one outside-more intuitive, more visual, more informative and more integrated-makes an IFR pilot's job far easier. On this particular day, however, I wasn't trying to fly IFR cross-country. I'd gone to Seattle for a briefing on Microsoft's newest version of its Flight Simulator product, and I'd ended up with a free day to do some exploring. It was that glorious, short time of year known as the Pacific Northwest Summer, when the spigots finally turn off for a few weeks, the sun comes out and-if you'd never been advised of the region's typical weather, which allows the Seattle Rain Festival to open September 15th and continue through July 4th-you'd quit your job, hock everything and move there immediately. It's no-kidding, honest-to-goodness that beautiful. I'd also heard reports that some pods of Orca whales had been spotted in the vicinity. So I contacted my friend Bruce, who flight instructs out of Galvin Flight Service at Boeing Field, to see if we could take a low-level fun flight up to the San Juan Islands for lunch and look for whales along the way.

I kind of had your basic Cessna 172 in mind for the trip, but Bruce arranged for me to demo a brand-new, G1000-equipped Diamond DA-40 instead. Now, as it turns out, the DA-40 is a pretty good plane for a fun, whale-watching trip to the islands, even though it has a low wing. The control sticks are a little stiff for my taste, and the cockpit can get warm in the sun. But the visibility is pretty impressive with that huge, Plexiglas canopy-even looking down, because the wing is set a little bit back of the pilot's seat.

The Diamond is also a pleasantly simple machine to fly. The long wing makes it a little kite-like in the air, but I didn't think it floated any more than my Cheetah on landing, and it's an easy airplane to control. Levitates off the runway, in fact. And if you took out the G1000, the checklist would be well covered by the basic CIGARS/GUMPS mnemonic. ("Controls, Instruments, Gas, Attitude, Radios/Run-up, Safety" before take-off, and "Gas, Undercarriage, Mixture, Prop, Safety" before landing.)

No, the airplane was a perfectly fine choice for the mission. The avionics system, on the other hand … well, let's just say that, in my opinion, using a G1000 to conduct a fun, VFR island-hopping flight is a bit like using a flamethrower to light your backyard barbecue. Gets the job done, of course, but has far more capacity than you need, requires more attention than the simple matchstick alternative, and also carries the risk of some unintended downsides in the process.

Which is not to say that I don't appreciate any technology, or even Garmin products. I am a passionate advocate for my handheld Garmin 295 GPS, which accompanies me on each and every flight in the Cheetah. And while I've never actually flown with its far-more-capable offspring (the weather-capable 396 or new 496), my guess is that I'd love and use those with even more enthusiasm. I also installed a very high-tech JPI engine analyzer in the plane a few years ago, which gives me graphical and digital information on the well-being and behavior of all four of my engine cylinders at a glance, any time I want-which is especially reassuring any time I'm approaching bodies of water or hostile terrain.

Now, one could argue that the G1000 offers that same information. Well, yes. But here's the thing. It's so eager to offer me all sorts of information I don't want, that getting the same info I can find at a glance in the Cheetah is actually harder with the G1000. In my Cheetah, with two quick glances, hands still on yoke and throttle, I can see exactly what my oil temp, oil pressure and all four cylinder status levels are. To get that information in the G1000 requires finding the correct button and scrolling through two different levels of system pages.

Could I get used to that? Of course I could. Just like I could get used to doing what many of my VFR pilot friends apparently do with the G1000s they use … which is ignore most of it, especially with regard to the Primary Flight Display. "It's there to serve you," one friend explained. "But you don't have to be served." But if I'm ignoring most of it, someone needs to explain to me why I'm buying it in the first place-other than the fact that it simply comes with most new airplanes, these days.

The bottom line, I think, is that the G1000 and I simply have two different philosophical approaches to this thing called flying. The G1000 is designed entirely around and for precision. All those numbers telling you you're four feet off altitude, 10 rpm off target power, and that your current bank angle will deliver you five degrees past your target heading in a supposedly standard-rate turn … allow far more precision, with far fewer mental gymnastics, than traditional round dials. And, again, if you're flying an instrument approach to minimums in the soup, with hostile terrain nearby, that precision is an incredibly good thing.

But one of the reasons I choose to fly VFR is that I want the freedom of the sky, not the precision of an instrument cockpit. I don't want to have to focus my attention on all those numbers all the time. I want a simple cockpit that gets me the critical information I need but doesn't get in the way of my looking outside and exploring the sky-at whatever bank angle, altitude (within VFR limits, of course) and speed resonates with me on any particular day or moment. And while I certainly could-and did-use a G1000 for just those reference purposes, I actually found it more difficult and annoying than a traditional cockpit-for a couple of reasons. The first is simply that all that technology truly does require more button-pushing, checklist-checking, updating and adjusting than my Cheetah's basic dials.

The second reason is a bit more complex, but it's akin to the reason I don't run road races anymore. I go for a run most evenings of the week-not only for exercise, but also because I love being outside, feeling my body moving, and taking in the breeze and scents of the world-all of which clears my mind and leaves me feeling happier and less stressed at the end of half an hour. I don't worry about split times or precise competitive performance. I just enjoy the run. Put me in a road race, however, and I'm not a strong enough person to withstand the temptation to compete. I suddenly care very much how fast I'm going, because I have an outside measure-the person running next to me-of how I'm stacking up against a target pace. I run faster, try very hard to achieve the goal-and end up forgetting to have any fun.

In other words, for those of us who struggle with latent perfectionist tendencies, the G1000 presents a terrible temptation to succumb to our competitive natures and lose sight of why we fly in the first place. With round dials, I can hardly distinguish if I'm 10 feet off altitude. With the G1000, it's glaring me in the face every time I look at that digital tape, and I have to fight the tendency to want to fix it. All those nifty little map segments, trend guides and target numbers can also be seductively mesmerizing, perhaps for some of the same reasons that video games are so addictive. It's a risk and issue that even my friend Marty, who helped to develop the G1000 training course for King Schools, acknowledges. "It can happen," he says. "And if the technology itself becomes the focus, instead of just helping you focus on the thing you really wanted to do with the airplane, then that's an issue, both in terms of safety and the romance and enjoyment of flight."

So. The risk is there. But I also discovered that it's possible to get past it. On my flight up to the San Juans, I actually managed to ignore the target altitude bug, the heading bug, the trend lines and all the stuff I didn't want to mess with. Taking off from Boeing Field, I leveled off at an altitude that looked about right, glancing at the GPS map periodically to make sure I was clear of airspace as I gazed down at the gorgeous houses that line Lake Washington and the layered green fields of the valley farmland surrounding Harvey Field and the Arlington Municipal Airport.

I checked the EGT page briefly as I headed out over the water into the islands, struck once again by just how beautiful this little pocket of the world is. I glanced at the GPS again to make sure which island in the group housed Friday Harbor Airport, but then found the runway easily, just by looking outside. Bruce's friend Todd, who's based at the airport there, loaned us his car to drive into the town of Friday Harbor itself, and Bruce and I had a delightful lunch on the outside deck of the Downrigger restaurant, overlooking a postcard-perfect harbor tucked in among a pine tree-laden coastline of picturesque coves and points.

Taking off from Friday Harbor, I stayed low and cut across the Strait of Juan de Fuca, weaving left and right to look for whales. We didn't find any, but the flight home, along the Olympic Peninsula and Seattle's stunning harborfront downtown, was still beautiful. Even with all that cockpit technology, the sky and scenery were still accessible-especially in a plane as open as the Diamond. I just had to work at keeping my eyes on the prize, not the trend lines. The horizon, not the altitude bug. The gifts of the world, as it were, instead of the distracting details that, if truth be told, always threaten to get in the way.

It was not, perhaps, the lesson Bruce intended me to learn by checking me out on the G1000. But then, one of the delightful, if challenging, quirks that makes life such a worthwhile adventure is that we don't always end up where we initially think we're headed. Even with a Garmin G1000 on board.7