Thursday, June 28, 2007

Horse before the Chart


A recent bulletin describes changes that will go into effect by October 25, 2007 which will modify the coverage area of IFR low-altitude en route charts published by the FAA's National Aeronautics Charting Office. The total number of charts will increase from 28 to 36 and will result in a larger scale for each chart, allowing for the depiction of RNAV routes.

On August 30 of 2007, the states that are included in two regions of the Airport/Facility Directory will also change: Mississippi will move from the Southeast Region to the South Central Region, New Mexico will move from the South Central Region to the Southwest Region. You can read the full details here.

This brings up the interesting topic of electronic airport information stored in GA glass cockpit systems. I once had a discussion with a factory-trained instructor who claimed that pilots flying his company's particular brand of aircraft did not have to carry current charts or even an Airport/Facility Directory. "It's all in there" he said, pointing to the multi-function display.

Many of these systems (G1000 and Avidyne) do indeed supply a lot of good information, but there are still some big holes. You can find out lots of good data on runways and communication frequencies, but you still have to look in the good old A/FD to find information about important facts like traffic pattern altitudes, direction of traffic patterns, and noise abatement procedures. My opinion: Flying without current paper charts and a current A/FD is a dumb thing to do.

On a recent flight in a Cirrus, I had a chance to explore the feature set of a Garmin 396 handheld GPS. The lesson was to go to a bunch of different non-towered airports to practice pattern entry, landings and takeoffs with high density altitudes. The plane's owner programmed the airports into the 430W's flight plan and I entered the same stuff in the 396. A side note: If mobile phone manufacturers have figured out how to provide a rudimentary, full keyboard for the folks addicted text messaging, why or why can't an aviation GPS manufacturer put one on a handheld GPS? Having to push buttons and spell out an airport identifier a character at a time while mentally singing the alphabet is kooky.

As we approached each airport, I watched the workflow the Cirrus owner went through to prepare to enter the traffic pattern and land. He had created a cheat sheet in advance, using his A/FD and paper charts, that contained the relevant frequencies, traffic pattern altitudes, runways, and traffic pattern directions. Approaching each airport, he would consult his cheat sheet, tune the AWOS or ASOS, set the altimeters, tune the traffic advisory frequency, begin his descent procedure, and start making traffic calls on the radio. For more than one airport there was no surface weather available, so he overflew the field and looked at the windsock.

Since I wasn't flying, I twiddled with the Garmin 396 and was surprised to find that I had access to almost all of the necessary information in just a few button pushes. Since this 396 had XM weather enabled, I could get the METAR for the airport. If no surface weather was available, the 396 automatically displayed the surface weather for the closest reporting station with no prompting at all from me. I was surprised to see the 396 even knew about the direction of traffic patterns. Yet it wasn't perfect. Turns out its database had not been updated and it didn't have the recently changed CTAF for one of the airports. In that particular case, the way I was alerted to the correct frequency was by a NOTAM broadcast on the AWOS frequency. The pilot flying had the correct frequency because he had consulted the latest edition of the A/FD.

So don't throw out your little green book just yet. It still has plenty of good information, though it, too, can now be viewed in a digital, on-line format. Not all browsers are supported at the moment, you milage may vary, no salesman will call, void where prohibited ...

2 comments:

flyaway said...

Recently, I saw a presentation by someone from the FAA. She has a Garmin 496. She had had a 396 and got tech fever and picked up the 496 and couldn't say enough about it. Oddly enough, I recently bought a Garmin Forerunner 305 GPS/heart rate monitor watch for my running/biking/boxing. I figure that's about my investment limit in Garmin tech right now but the aviation GPS units really look neat. On that same subject, how easy is it to get distracted/focused on what it can do while you're trying to fly? I can easily see how it can be difficult to stay disciplined and not mess with it too much.

John said...

It's no question that GPS units in a single-pilot operation can be a distraction, whether they are handheld or panel-mounted. But paper charts can be a distraction, too.

I teach student pilots a few different styles of VFR diversion procedures, based on what I've learned various examiners want to see on check rides. Slowly circling over a landmark while calculating a magnetic course, distance, time and fuel required to an unexpected destination is also a huge distraction.

With a GPS or glass panel, the seductive PRETTY COLORS! factor is always there, waiting to distract you. Having an autopilot and a traffic alert system helps, but ultimately each pilot has to develop productive habits with regard to visual scanning and keeping their pilotage and dead reckoning skill sharp.

On the other side of the coin, performing a diversion with a GPS is easier, quicker, more accurate potentially less distracting than doing the calculations by hand.

Even before the advent of GPS, there was the debate about how much student pilots should be taught to rely on the steam gauge instruments in the plane. The FAA came up with the integrated instruction concept to provide guidance on how to teach student pilots to use the aircraft instruments while still keeping their heads outside the cockpit. GPS and glass cockpits have just extended the debate.