Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Almost Like Being ...

Musicians and dancers tend to make good pilots, in my experience. For all I know, actors might make good pilots, I've just never had the opportunity to provide instruction to a famous actor or actress and I can't draw any conclusions. I have no idea why Angelina Jolie didn't contact me for flight instruction when she bought her Grand Caravan ... (sigh) ... Moving on, I find that programmers tend to make good pilots, too. What all these folks have in common is that they are practiced at performing a sequence of tasks in time and space.

Several people have asked me what I think of the new $10,000 synthetic vision option for the G1000, called SVS. I've seen the video but I have yet to see the actual unit in person and so my comments are fairly limited. Even so, some fairly obvious observations come to mind.

The "Highway in the Sky" display, something that Chelton Flight Systems has offered for several years on smaller displays, is a great addition to the G1000. The thing I like about "Highway in the Sky" is that is helps instrument pilots visualize, in three dimensions, what they are doing when they fly en route or are flying a departure, arrival or approach procedure. Notice I emphasized instrument pilots. Pilots flying under visual flight rules should be spending the majority of their time looking outside the aircraft, not at pretty colors on the primary flight display. For pilots flying in instrument conditions, the sequence of boxes that appear give the pilot a sense of what is happening and, more importantly, what should happen next. That is very useful indeed.

When it comes to the synthetic vision feature that shows terrain and obstacles, I'm a bit more skeptical. The demonstration videos and screens shots show how the primary flight display renders terrain and obstacles, how the representations change color and provide aural warnings when you get too close to something, and how airport identifiers and runway numbers are displayed.

The first question that comes to mind is "Under what circumstances would the average pilot need to see this sort of obstacle and terrain display?" If you are flying a fixed wing aircraft so close to the ground that towers and power lines are an issue, you're either a military pilot, a crop duster, doing aerial survey work, or you are doing some seriously crazy scud running. In all those cases, you'd better be in VFR conditions and have your eyes outside the cockpit. I guess there are some nightmare scenarios where it could be useful.

Let's say you are in instrument conditions, but you got so confused and so far off the rails that you unwittingly flew close to terrain while in the clouds. This seems unlikely unless you mis-programmed your flight plan because the highway-in-the-sky boxes should keep you out of trouble. Or maybe a controller was vectoring you and mistakenly gave you the wrong heading or altitude, which has happened to me (and others) and seems more within the realm of possibility. On the other hand, having this display might just scare the pants of you while flying the MRY LOC/DME RWY 28L approach because you'll be able to see just how close you come to the mountains on the intermediate approach course!

While the synthetic terrain seems more like a gee-whiz feature, displaying the runway numbers and airport identifiers is a stroke of genius. Any pilot who flies long enough will make a visual approach and line up with the wrong runway by mistake. The NASA database is full of these sorts of reports by all kinds of pilots, including airline pilots. It's even possible to line up on the wrong airport. A good example is mistaking the Hayward Airport for the Oakland Airport when approaching from the East at sunset, something I've seen numerous times with student pilots all the way up to bizjets flight crews who were not familiar with the area.

With the SVS option, the traffic feature has been enhanced to display the traffic on the primary flight display as a yellow ball with an altitude that is in relation to your aircraft's altitude and heading. While I like traffic displays and would rather all aircraft that I fly have them, I also recognize their limitations. The position of traffic shown by a G1000 traffic display is location of where the target was, not necessarily where it is now. While the goal of this new traffic display is admirable, the best way to spot traffic is with your eyes once ATC or your traffic system has alerted you to the general position of the other aircraft.

Too many pilots seem to think that telling ATC they can see the target on their traffic display actually means something to the controller. Unless you have a full-blown TCAS II system and are responding to a resolution advisory, the controller just wants to know if you can see the other aircraft or not. I worry that this type of display will only further some pilot's confusion about their responsibility to see (with their own eyes) and avoid other aircraft.

Overall, I give the SVS option a thumbs up. Of course I'm just a lowly flight instructor and part-time journalist, so the cost of this option is beyond my ken. I do hope to fly a G1000-equipped aircraft that has this option at some point. I understand that the new Grand Caravan's come with the G1000, so maybe one of these days a famous actor (or actress) will contact me for training.

You just gotta believe.


mark neumann said...

The first time I flew into Fullerton, CA, I was surprised when the nearby radio tower appeared out of the smog. Since then a plane has crashed into the tower (the 2nd time that's happened). I think the tower rendering in the G1000 could help prevent this in the future.

Ron said...

I agree with you about the way the G1000 seduces pilots into focusing too much on the screen when it's not necessary.

I've never understood why people who are not in IMC would spend all their time looking at the instrument panel. After all, if you want to stare at a computer screen, you could be at home or in the office, right? You're paying a lot of money to fly, so keep your eyes outside and enjoy the expansive (and expensive) view.

I too have noticed that many -- most, perhaps? -- pilots are also musicians of one sort or another. Flying is a unique synergy of left and right brain activities. I think music comes closest to approximating the physical dexterity, multitasking, brain power, and other skills required.

michal said...

I disagree about the skepticism regarding the synthetic vision. I think it is the greatest thing since Wright Brothers (and GPS itself). With the flight-path vector you know exactly whether you will hit terrain or not. There were simply too many CFIT accidents (even commercial pilots are not immune from them) and this could potentially eliminate or greatly reduce them. Not to mention just tremendous sense of situation awareness - whether over mountain at night, shooting, doing go-around in difficult terrain, etc.

John said...


"The greatest thing since the Wright Brothers?" I have to disagree.

Hyperbole aside, this feature could be useful and it may, as you point out, reduce CFIT accidents. But the fact remains that a growing problem in single-pilot operations is the tremendous number of distractions (aural and visual) that must be dealt with in glass cockpit aircraft.

As an active instrument instructor specializing in glass cockpit aircraft, I see the effects of these distractions everyday. "Eyes outside" is a phrase I repeat over and over to my students. And to myself, too. It's just as easy for the instructor to become distracted as it is for the pilot flying.

Synthetic vision is a great feature for flight simulation since one doesn't face many risks while sitting at a desk.

Whether or not most Cessna owners with G1000-equipped aircraft will be willing to spring for this $10K option remains to be seen.