Standardization Fights Progress


I have flown the Beech King Air 200 many times in the last 32 years here at the magazine but I still needed help to get the big turboprop off the ramp. Starting the engines was easy and totally familiar, I knew the systems and could operate them correctly with a few seconds to locate each switch, and the flight and power controls all fell easily to hand. But loading the flight management system (FMS) took some coaching.

For decades the pilot's barroom boast was "if you can show me how to start it, I can fly it." But these days the bragging needs to be something like "if you can program the FMS, I can get it to the runway and fly it."

Modern integrated avionics have added so much capability to airplanes that their power cannot be overstated. While the fundamental performance of airplanes in each category has grown only incrementally, the capability of the electronics has increased exponentially over the past 15 or 20 years. Along with this avionics revolution has come a steep pilot learning curve. Initial pilot training courses in new business jets have grown by at least a week-two weeks or more in the large cabin jets-just to accommodate avionics training. You may be the best stick in bizjets, but you're still going to need to spend the weeks in school to learn how to operate the avionics.

This vast electronic capability has filtered down from jets to turboprops and now to piston singles. In fact, the capability of a Garmin G1000 integrated avionics system that is now standard in most new production singles is greater in some respects than what is found in many new jets. Part of the reason for those advances in capability in the pistons is the greater complexity of certification in transport category airplanes. It just takes longer to get anything new certified at the transport level. But the major reason the piston system is so advanced is that the most recently designed avionics are the most capable because the technology is moving so fast, and the G1000 is among the newest integrated systems available.

But with this progress comes the problem familiar to any of us who have been forced to deal with information technology-every improvement brings with it a demand for new training and hands-on experience. Standardization makes the best use of the installed base of knowledge, but standardization is the enemy of progress.

This standardization versus progress issue has been an aviation training and safety dilemma for decades. For example, in the earliest years airframe makers would bolt on just about any engine that would fit, and would customize almost any part of the airframe, so few airplanes off the production line were identical. As radios became common, each operator pretty much picked what kind of equipment they wanted so each airplane of the same type was potentially different. There was not even agreement on something as basic as switches, with some airlines insisting that a toggle switch on the overhead move forward for off, while others demanded that position be on.

But looking back, those differences were really quite small. Switches may be in a different position, and one radio may look different from another brand, but it was pretty easy to understand what a switch did once you located it. That began to change in the 1980s when long-range nav systems became common in business jets. They all looked alike, but had enough operating differences that it was hard to change from a Global to a Collins to a Universal without consulting the book. The same thing was happening in piston airplanes with the Loran C, and then GPS systems, which all operated at least a little differently.

But the long-range nav systems were still not too big of a problem because the basic comm and nav radios, along with the DME, remained independent so you always had the basics to fall back on. Then the integrated cockpit came along and the FMS became a true flight management system. Without a reasonable understanding of the integrated avionics system you will find it very difficult to call ground control, much less figure out how to fly the clearance they just gave you.

The industry consoled itself, at first, with the fact that integrated avionics cockpits were going into jets and each required a specific type rating for a pilot to fly. Each pilot would learn the intricacies of the system to earn the type rating so the problem was solved.

That didn't last long. Almost immediately advanced cockpits began to find their way into jets already in production that required no new type rating. For example, the Hawker line of jets has been in production since the 1960s, and you can fly a new 850 model with the same type rating that applies to the original with no required training on the integrated Collins Pro Line 21 cockpit in the current production airplane. And owners began to install advanced avionics in existing airplanes, again, with no requirement for new training. The cat was out of the bag.

Now the lack of avionics standardization spans the entire range of airplanes of all sizes and types. Even airlines can't enforce total standardization. For example, Southwest flies nothing but Boeing 737s, all with the same type rating requirement for pilots. But the airline operates several different models with a wide range of avionics capability so strict standardization is not possible. If a major airline cannot bring complete standardization to its fleet of aircraft of the same type, what can general aviation do about this issue?

The conundrum remains. Standardization will halt progress, but without it, training becomes difficult. The issue is already apparent in basic airplanes such as the Cessna singles, where there are more than one version of the G1000 integrated avionics system. These are airplanes three years old or less, but it is impossible to generalize about exactly how to operate the avionics in a 182, for example. And new software versions will come along regularly, some to resolve issues found in service and others to enhance capability. From the outside the boxes will look the same, but can have subtle operating differences.

I have heard from a number of pilots-particularly instructors-who want avionics manufacturers to just stop making changes. Their point is valid, but if their request was granted we wouldn't have WAAS approach capability, for example. Or the new "one button" go-around logic in the G1000 that automates flying a missed approach. And people who don't already have satellite weather, for example, would be locked out of getting it.

Lack of standardization is a real problem for flight instructors, flight schools, pilots who rent and fleet operators. For those it can be worth halting progress to preserve the benefits of standardization. Often a fleet operator will forgo the benefits of a performance or avionics improvement to maintain standardization. Those operators choose to move forward in long increments by living with the status quo for years, before jumping ahead as a fleet years down the road. But the idea of buying a brand-new airplane with last year's or even 10-year-old avionics capability is unacceptable to most of us.

I remember a story I heard from some Collins engineers years ago when digital electronics were beginning to replace analog circuits in avionics. The Collins guys created their first digital DME for the airlines and it worked great. But they had to quickly modify it with a kind of "turn back the clock" mode to make airline pilots happy. The problem was the new DME would lock on to a station almost instantly, instead of taking the many seconds necessary for an analog DME to lock on and provide a reliable distance. The airline crews often found this new performance unbelievable, so they would write the DME up as broken because it was behaving in a way they hadn't seen. So Collins created a way that at installation the new, very fast and accurate DME could be made to behave like the old ones the airline pilots were used to.

Standardization was achieved, but progress was denied. That apparently made sense for the airlines, but I would rather that each of us as pilots who don't fly for an airline take the personal responsibility to learn to understand and use the avionics in each individual airplane we fly. In that way the burden of progress falls on each of us, but then so do the benefits.