Pilot's Discretion: Incorporating Technology in Flight Training

Why a new generation of pilots needs new skills.

Garmin G1000
Flight-training providers need to change their mindset with regard to in-cockpit technologies such as iPads and autopilots.Garmin

GPS, datalink weather and autopilots have dramatically changed how pilots fly, but you wouldn’t know it visiting some flight schools these days. Many student pilots will learn more about VORs and telephone weather briefings than the tools they will actually use after flight training.

True, the recently updated FAA Knowledge Test questions and the new Airman Certification Standards are a good start toward modernizing our flight-training culture, but more needs to be done. With new technology finding its way into more cockpits than ever, a resistance to change could have serious consequences for general aviation’s safety record.

Certainly, the basics of flying are remarkably unchanged since the time of Lindbergh (slow flight still works the same), but these three technological advances have had more of an impact than most pilots admit. For one, they aren’t reserved for the latest business-jet cockpits; portable avionics and more accommodating FAA installation policies mean more pilots are flying with advanced equipment than ever before.

More significantly, GPS, datalink weather and autopilots have affected three of the essential tasks pilot perform: navigation, weather interpretation and automation management. Here’s how.

Navigation

Primary flight training used to resemble Boy Scout camp, with lots of talk about compasses and map reading (or, as we call it, pilotage). After that, there was usually at least one lesson on “lost procedures,” which might range from reading water towers to asking ATC for a DF steer. Topics like this now seem quaint because getting lost is nearly impossible in 2017.

Twenty years and 100,000 units after their introduction, navigators from Garmin, Avidyne and BendixKing have changed general aviation cockpits, adding a moving map display to a huge variety of airplanes. In 2007, 10 years after GPS navigation changed aviation, Apple changed the world with the iPhone. Now 80 percent of Americans own a smartphone, placing a supercomputer with a built-in GPS in their pockets. Most pilots use an iPad in the cockpit, which provides a bigger screen. That means almost every pilot has access to a display that shows where they are and where they’re going — no more math formulas or VOR radial visualizations.

Navigation hasn’t exactly been eliminated, but it has been fundamentally changed. The new skill is to use all of that new technology to maintain a constantly updated view of the flight’s status. Instead of just knowing where the airplane is, a modern pilot should have truly 4D situational awareness, from TFRs and obstacles to fuel burn and aircraft energy state. Nobody gets lost anymore, but pilots still run out of gas, overshoot the base-to-final turn and stumble into restricted airspace. Avoiding these mistakes is what navigation means today.

Weather

What inexpensive GPS receivers did for navigation, datalink weather receivers have done for weather flying. It started 15 years ago with XM Weather, a seemingly miraculous technology that could display detailed weather information from hundreds of miles away. More recently, portable ADS-B and SiriusXM receivers and tablet apps have made in-flight weather more affordable than ever. It’s now practical for a 60-year-old taildragger to have datalink weather on board, and many do.

But access to more data is not always a positive, as any librarian can attest. Their challenge used to be finding enough information given the limited resources of a physical library. Now the far more difficult problem is how to separate reliable sources from phony ones in the endless library of the Internet.

Pilots face a similar struggle: In the span of roughly 15 years, an in-flight weather desert became a massive oasis. Instead of trying to assemble a mental picture of the weather based on a scratchy Flight Service broadcast, pilots today can review animated radar, satellite depictions, metars and so much more. That is undeniably a great thing, but not every weather product tells the whole truth, and many require interpretation. The pilot’s job has thus changed from research assistant to editor. Now the task is to evaluate conflicting information and make a thoughtful decision about how to react. Training for that job requires understanding the basics of weather and how datalink systems work, but also when to trust your eyes over a glowing screen. Most pilots won’t learn these lessons until they pursue an instrument rating, if at all.

GDL 51
New tech should be included as part of the learning syllabus almost from day one.Garmin

Automation

The autopilot has actually been around far longer than GPS or datalink weather, but recent criticism suggests it is the new bogeyman. Modern autopilots are more capable and less expensive than earlier models, and also benefit from increasingly flexible FAA regulations. That means they are not going away anytime soon — nor should they.

When used properly, an autopilot is a safe way to offload some of the demands of being a pilot to a computer, allowing the human in the left seat to focus on other important details of the flight. Unfortunately, there are many examples of pilots who do not use autopilots properly, either unable to fly without them or, conversely, unable to even turn them on. As a result, a surprising number of “loss-of-control” accidents are actually caused by poor automation management. A stall, spin or in-flight breakup is the final result, but the accident chain begins when the pilot asks, “What’s it doing now?”

Modern flight training must address this issue, and telling pilots to ignore the autopilot is not responsible. Like GPS and datalink weather, the right answer is to teach avionics mastery combined with plenty of judgment. It also requires a habit of downgrading the automation when in doubt. If something doesn’t look right, it should be an automatic reaction to undo the last step. Better yet, turn off the autopilot completely and fly basic profiles until the airplane is going where you want it to.

Two Key Skills

Some common threads run through each of these roles. First, it’s important to become comfortable with technology early in a pilot’s career — if you’re raising a kid in a house with a pool in the backyard, it’s better to teach them how to swim than to pretend it doesn’t exist. Maybe the iPad shouldn’t be introduced on the first lesson, but the introduction shouldn’t wait until the last one either (or worse, never be introduced at all). Second, we have to be ruthless about where our attention goes in the cockpit, because we are drowning in information. The question to continually ask is, “Who’s in charge right now?” Technology is a tool, nothing more. Neither the GPS nor the weather receiver nor the autopilot is the pilot in command, but it’s easy to act like they are if our attention isn’t focused on being PIC.

Some old-school pilots are probably ready to chastise me for ignoring the real problem: basic stick-and-rudder skills. Those are indeed critically important, but this tired debate is often presented as a false choice between hand-flying and technology. We can and should teach both, just as a good school begins with spelling class in elementary school and adds software coding class in high school.

The problem for the flight-training industry is that many of these lessons aren’t found in FAA textbooks, and they can’t easily be tested during a check ride. Datalink weather interpretation or responsible autopilot usage aren’t simple tasks that can be evaluated against the Airman Certification Standards. That doesn’t mean they aren’t important.