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Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Glass Panels vs. Steam Gauges: Who wins? Who cares? Who needs 'em?

I'm in my late 30s; firmly in the Gen X category. I grew up playing video games starting with the Atari 2600, and I got a Commodore 64 when I was 9, so I've been soaked in technology for most of my life. In my former life, before I became a flight instructor, I was an IT guy. So you'd expect me of all people to be crazy about glass panels and gee-whiz technology.

The plane I got my private certificate and instrument rating in was a 2006 172SP, so it had a pretty Garmin G1000 glass panel. I'd say that I'm well above average in handling the complexities of glass, and I'd venture that with all the hours I've spent studying and teaching the G1000, I'm about expert in it now. I've flown Avidyne glass in hard IMC with relative ease.

I got my commercial (and multi), CFI, CFII, and MEI certificates on steam gauges. So, to get to the point, I've got a pretty fair amount of experience on both sides of the glass/steam debate. On one end, I've seen Garmin Perspectives that almost put a 787 to shame, and on the other end, the very first plane I ever flew hardly had enough to even be called steam, although it did have a 496:

Flight Design CTsw from the good old days back when they still offered a non-glass version.
There's a lot of brushed metal on that panel, isn't there?

This picture was taken during my second solo cross country, once I had the plane roughly stable enough to dig out the camera for a while. It was six years and almost an ATP certificate's worth of hours ago, so forgive the 80 feet I'm off altitude in the couple of minutes I took snapping pictures. (The old CTsw didn't trim out as nicely as the newer CTLS does anyway.) Somehow back then I knew I'd remember this plane even years later, even though I had no idea how many times I'd use this quick, fun snapshot as a training picture.

All the planes I've ever flown, from the CTsw above, through the six-pack 172s and Apaches and Seminoles, to the tricked out Cirruses with G1000s and Avidynes, have one thing in common: they all had more gauges than they needed. Yes, even ol' N40HA above. That little bird probably came closest to not being overkill, but it had the biggest attitude indicator on the planet! That's because its attitude indicator was the planet, and its attitude instrument filled the entire windscreen. You can't get more HD than that.

A panel like this one below was good enough to take Rinker Buck all the way across the country decades before GPS was even invented:

Piper Cub (from Wikipedia)
(As a side note, for a really good true story, you can read about his account flying that record-setting cross country as a teenager in Flight of Passage.)

Talk is cheap, so here's me putting my money where my mouth is and showing a student that a plane doesn't know what it's got up front and it doesn't care: pitch plus power equals performance no matter what. This means anyone can fly all the way around the pattern and land without having any glass at all, even me:

So, as you can see, the only instrument you need to fly an airplane is a piece of cork with a wire sticking out of it to show you your fuel level. If you have a watch, you don't even need that. You can take the weight you save on all the pretty bells and whistles and use it to bring along a couple of extra sandwiches to feed any aviator's most important instrument: the brain. A decent glass panel will help a good pilot be even better, but even the best glass in the world won't turn a bad pilot into a good one.

1 comment:

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