Flight Training – Are Glass Cockpits Safe?

DHC-8-402Q Flight Deck

Additional training may be required in glass cockpits - (photo: Bradon Farris)

Technically Advanced Airplanes (TAA) are planes that are electronically engineered with advanced avionics, better known as “glass cockpits.” Featuring multiple electronic displays, including Primary Flight Display (PFD) and Multifunction Display (MFD); these aircraft offer the promise of increased performance and safety levels. But are they safe?

Many question whether the capabilities of the glass cockpit offer a false sense of security, ultimately putting the aircraft and its passengers in danger. The major concern is a lack of pilot training. To some in the aviation industry, glass cockpit training has failed to keep up with the technology.

The FAA introduced the FAA-Industry Training Standards (FITS) program to emphasize the need for “real world” training. The FITS program established a Private/Certificate/Instrument Rating syllabus in TAA, but is  still working on ways to successfully implement the training.

Pilots must be trained to operate dual electrical systems and to understand how the equipment works, how to detect component failure, and how these systems effect the safety and performance of the aircraft. Glass Cockpit Flying, a new book by Robert Littlefield, explains the differences between glass cockpits and traditional “steam gauge” cockpits and offers pilots  tools and tips to safely operate a TAA. Littlefield, who is a Gold Seal Flight and Instrument Instructor, is also an FAA FAASTeam Representative, a Master WINGS holder and a former Designated Pilot Examiner.

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) found in a study of single engine planes, that glass cockpits were no safer than planes with conventional instruments. The study concluded that planes equipped with glass cockpits had a higher fatality rate. Due to complex systems and aircraft to aircraft function variation, pilots are not always equipped with all the skills they need to safely operate a glass cockpit aircraft. The NTSB made the following six safety recommendations in a report on March 10, 2010:

1. Enhance training requirements and pilot knowledge
2. Require manufacturers to provide the necessary information for better management of system failures
3. Add training elements regarding electronic primary flight displays to training materials and aeronautical knowledge requirements
4. Add training elements about electronic primary flight displays to pilot flight proficiency requirements (initial and recurrent)
5. Support equipment-specific pilot training programs
6. Inform the general aviation community of the importance of reporting defects and malfunctions

Ultimately the safety of the glass cockpit does not rely on the aircraft itself, but in the pilot operating it. Systems will malfunction and things will inevitably go wrong; but a properly trained pilot will have the knowledge and tools to deal with such in-flight challenges.
Sources:

http://www.generalaviationnews.com/2011/02/15/are-glass-cockpit-airplanes-unsafe/
http://www.ntsb.gov/pressrel/2010/100309.html
http://www.aopa.org/asf/publications/taa_1_6.pdf
http://www.faa.gov/training_testing/training/fits/research/media/Lessons_Learned-2007.pdf

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