While perusing the flight line at Grapevine recently, I checked out each of the attendees’ instrument panels. I have to admit I was rather envious. I’m pretty sure I wiped up any traces of drool. We’ve had our Comanche since 1989. A light panel update in 1991, another in 1995, and the last in 2002 with installation of a more capable autopilot, and I still have round gauges for everything, and the standard Piper bouncy needles for the fuel and oil. I see all the new glass and the available panel real estate and imagine how much situational awareness this brings to the cockpit. The more information, the better. A look at the price tag then causes a momentary flutter of my heart, but it eventually recovers. There are some definite advantages to Experimental category aircraft and a large wallet, that’s for sure. Then reason starts to set in. With 32 years of experience in that cockpit, and 26 as PIC, I’m incredibly familiar with every facet of it, every nuance, flittering needle, and exactly where each needle should be during every phase of flight. I know what to do if a needle isn’t exactly where it should be.
As an engineer in the aerospace and defense industry, I easily adapt to new technology and love it. While I trust the new avionics, I don’t necessarily trust myself. Will I grow dependent on waiting for a digital engine monitor to tell me something is wrong before I begin to take corrective action? Will I wait for a course deviation alert before I retrim the autopilot? Will I become a bit complacent and trust the instruments more than I should? I truly hope not. I have my first digital upgrade planned for later this spring, but it’s nearly a form/fit/function replacement for a pair of steam gauges. At least I’ll lose the suction gauge. Baby steps. Once the bank account is replenished, we’ll look to digitize the engine and systems status though an integrated engine monitor. On the bright side, I’ll need to fly more to become just as familiar with the new systems and understand their specific nuances. I do look forward to that.
Regardless of whether you have a gleaming new glass cockpit in your Lancair, or a scattered panel from the 1960’s, the point is that you must be able to quickly and accurately interpret the information so you can promptly act on it. Staying proficient can certainly be a challenge, as recent headlines from the airline industry illustrate. If you aren’t 100% familiar with your aircraft’s instrumentation, study the manuals, fly with an instructor familiar with the equipment, find online tutorials, and become proficient. It very may well save your airplane or your life.