June 16, 2014

Listen to an NBAA Flight Plan podcast on the importance of mastering cockpit technology.

They are billed as almost miraculous workload relievers – advanced avionics suites which, based upon the flight crew’s input, help guide the aircraft almost from departure to touchdown. But in truth, flight-management systems technologies, especially when newly adopted, can be major distractions for flight crews, cause runway incursions and lead to confusion in flight, according to the NBAA Safety Committee, which has deemed technology management as one of its 2014 Top Safety Focus Areas.

“When pilots step into a new avionics suite, it’s not an evolution, it’s a transformation,” said Gray Stone Advisors Principal James Lara, a member of the NBAA Safety Committee. “In order to make that leap, you really need to have significant study and professional instruction in order to be competent and safe.”

You could read the manual, Lara suggested. However, even for relatively simple cockpit systems, the manual could be more than 1,000 pages long, so reading the manual is often a challenge, Lara said, for pilots whose tendencies are to “kick the tires and light the fires.”

“We have to master the concept of ‘pilots in command’, rather than simply ‘pilots along for the ride,’” he said.

The problem is that with notable exceptions, instruction often does not come bundled with new avionics technology. In some cases, Lara pointed out, such instruction is available from training providers such as FlightSafety International and SimuFlight, as part of a specific type rating. Otherwise, he noted, pilots are usually left to their own devices when it comes to learning the nuances of new avionics suites.

And therein lies the problem, said Lara. “Only the foolhardy think they can jump into an aircraft with a new avionics suite without first going through the instruction required to obtain a full understanding of what it can do and how you can do it.”

A considerable number of runway incursions are caused by flight crews inputting waypoints and other information into their flight-management systems (FMS) while taxiing for takeoff. Further, he noted, a substantial number of clearance deviations occur when pilots – especially those flying without a co-pilot – are forced to make changes to their FMS profiles while in the air.

“If you find yourself asking, ‘What is it doing now?’ You’re behind the curve,” Lara said. “You need to talk with a flight instructor who is an expert in your particular avionics suite to understand what’s going on.”

Not knowing exactly what an avionics system is doing is “a huge yellow flag,” said Lara.

Read more about pilot training issues in the May/June issue of Business Aviation Insider magazine, in an article titled “Pilot Training in Focus.”