Loyal reader majroj forwarded me this link to an NTSB study on glass cockpits in general aviation. The term "glass cockpit" refers to integrated computerized information screens that augment and take the place of traditional instrumentation and paper documentation both. Instead of the pilot having to look at a paper chart then at separate instruments showing things like altitude, heading, airspeed time, and angular displacement from a selected line, they look at a high resolution screen that combines all that information and computes time en route and descent profile. Twelve years ago these were new shiny toys that some airlines had, and I remember a "hilarious" joke a friend and I had about installing such screens in a tiny two-place airplane. Now they are commonplace. After the initial learning curve, having that much information available seems to represent an enormous decrease in workload and increase in situational awareness. But the NTSB (the agency that investigates air crashes in the United States) didn't find the evidence supported that supposition.
The study compared aircraft of similar age and performance capability, but unfortunately did not control for the fact that people who invest in glass instrumentation use their aircraft differently. The aircraft with conventional instruments were involved in more accidents overall, but fewer fatal accidents, a predictable outcome when it is revealed that the conventional instruments are in airplanes used for flight training, which involves frequent, short, local flights used for flight training, while the glass cockpits were in aircraft flown less frequently but in long distance IFR flights in less ideal weather. Training accidents tend to be runway excursions and botched landings: embarrassing, expensive, but less likely to be fatal, while an accident on an IFR cross country is more likely to involve CFIT or loss of control in icing and thus kill someone.
The study report acknowledges the problem with the comparison, but doesn't appear to have made an attempt to control for it, which is unfortunate. I'd be interested to see a head-to-head comparison of similar flying with and without the modern tools. The integrated screens are fantastic, but the two big dangers I identify are catastrophic failure and tunnel vision, when the pilot gets so caught up in the avionics that they miss the big picture. Ask me if I haven't done that, in the last couple of weeks, and you'll just get an embarrassed mumble from me. People can literally fly into the side of a mountain or mumble mumble bust their assigned altitude while trying to make the little pink line point in the correct direction. When you learn to use conventional instruments, you learn how failures manifest and how to identify them by cross-checking with other instruments. You learn to disregard bogus information from failed instruments, perhaps using exactly the same technique as your flight instructor used to simulate failure in training: putting a post-it note over it. Once the misleading information is removed from your scan, it's gone and you can make decisions using only the believed trustworthy information remaining.
When the information from all the different sensors is processed and presented together, you don't have as smooth a way of removing the faulty information. The computer tries to make sense of conflicting data and while there are circuits and algorithms designed to remove unreliable data from the equation, the loss of control in Air France 447 is probably related to integrated displays reaching incorrect or ambiguous conclusions about the state of the aircraft.
My hypothesis is that if a study were done comparing the safety of similar flights by pilots of similar experience before and after glass cockpits in small GA aircraft they would find an initial increase in safety, followed by a return to pre-glass accident rates, or even worse accident rates. That is, initially they would increase safety, but then people would start taking greater risks. It appears that psychologically people have a certain level of risk tolerance, so if you make something safer, they'll find a way to make it more dangerous again.
The issue the NTSB identified is training. Just because a GPS display requires less interpretation than a VOR, doesn't mean that it needs less training and practice to be proficient and safe in its operation. Probably the opposite. It needs more initial training and more review to get and stay proficient with just one part of that formula, a complex GPS system. I started a while ago documenting my progress towards proficiency with the G530, but I never finished, and am especially guilty for not raving at more length and detail about Max Trescott's GPS and WAAS Instrument Flying Handbook, a book which I highly recommend to anyone using or teaching on the G430/530/1000. I'm never going to finish learning how to use this instrument, but I will post some more about it and the book.
I picked up my unrepairable camera and went to a store look for a replacement. I took out the broken camera and practiced holding and shooting with one hand, to remind myself how small it was and easy to use. I pressed the on button, and pointed it at things. See, easy to balance, and my thumb doesn't change settings while I'm holding it. And I can see my feet in the formerly broken screen.
"Can I help you?" asks the camera counter guy.
"I, uh, came to buy a replacement for this broken camera, but ..."
"Now it works?"
He looks at it, takes a picture of my happy-my-camera-works smile and agrees that it works.
I guess while putting it back together after determining that they couldn't fix it, they accidentally fixed it. I know it probably won't last long, so I look at the cameras for sale, but none is as tiny. The company doesn't make that kind any more. Anyone have a Canon Power Shot SD10 they are not in love with? Or one that works really well, and which they would like extra batteries and a battery charger for?