Know Your Panel

The importance of learning a new avionics system before flying as PIC.

Cockpit Panel

Cockpit Panel

Before the introduction of Loran, GPS and integrated glass panel avionics, airplanes were commonly equipped with one or two VOR systems, perhaps an ADF and sometimes a very handy piece of equipment called DME. Transitioning to a new panel mostly required finding the avionics master switch and figuring out how to enter the digits associated with the VOR, ADF or DME stations into the boxes. But navigation required skilled interpretation of the data provided by the round gauges.

The advancements in avionics technology has made flying a lot easier by providing a lot more information in a format that requires much less interpretation on behalf of the pilot. The systems provide the exact location of the airplane on a moving map and, in many cases, traffic, weather and terrain are also displayed in a format that is very easy to understand. But while the changes in avionics technology have provided pilots with a lot more information in a format that is easier to read, it has made the transition from one airplane to another less streamlined.

There are several scenarios that could put you in the position of flying in an airplane that is equipped with avionics that you're not entirely familiar with. Perhaps you rent from a local flight school that uses a variety of airplanes with a wide range of avionics. You may have scheduled an airplane that suddenly goes down for maintenance and your only option is to fly in an airplane of the same type that has a different panel. Another possible scenario is that you've purchased an airplane with avionics you're not familiar with. Or perhaps you're an instrument rated pilot who has agreed to take a trip with a fellow VFR-only pilot in his or her airplane (see Peter Garrison's Aftermath column called Interfaces).

Whatever the scenario is, don’t be tempted to jump into an airplane with an unfamiliar avionics panel, particularly if you’re going into the clouds. This is particularly true for advanced glass cockpits.

If you have never flown an airplane that is equipped with a PFD in lieu of round gauges, it is not enough to have an instructor explain how to enter a flight plan or load an approach. Just think about it. When a new airplane manufacturer delivers an airplane to a customer these days, the airplane includes a few days of transition training. Much of that training covers avionics. In fact, Cessna’s G1000 training alone, which I completed a few years ago, is 2.5 days long. So don’t expect to jump into the airplane and go for a quick flight to figure it all out.

On a basic level, it takes a while to get used to reading numbers on a moving tape on a screen rather than interpreting needles on round gauges. But basic scan differences on the PFD aside, learning how to navigate the software can be even more challenging. You need to learn which buttons do what and which menus include what information.

If you have experience with glass, the transition to a different system will be easier. But while the basic PFD layout is very similar from system to system, the actual operation of the PFD and MFD functions can vary greatly. Keep flying with an instructor until you feel certain that you can operate the system without having to pull out the instruction manual.

I also find that the complexity of operating these systems requires recent experience. Even though I have several hundred hours of G1000 time, it takes some time to re-familiarize myself with the knobology if I haven’t used the system for a few months.

When it comes to avionics, times have changed. The new systems make flight safer, but only if you know how to use them. No longer can you switch from one panel to another without transition or recurrent training. Whether your panel is equipped with Bendix/King, Garmin, Rockwell Collins, Aspen Avionics, Avidyne, or avionics from any other supplier, make sure you learn how to make the systems do what you need them to do before you jump into the cockpit as the pilot in command, particularly if you’re planning on going into the clouds.