Musings (rambling?) on aviation safety…

by glmotorsports

I’m still a very low time pilot, just flying light singles, and not very often at that. As a result I’ve ended up encountering some odd contradictions in that the equipment that should help me be safer is actually an impediment to my flying. Those of you with higher hours per year will probably think I’m insane, but here’s the problems I’ve seen.

Autopilots: I love the idea of a good autopilot, in fact I probably fly 99% of my simulated (Microsoft Flight Simulator 9, with VATSIM for ATC) with the autopilot. Obviously there’s some extra need for it there with having to type to ATC (I don’t have a microphone) and the general lack of feel for what the airplane is doing since my simulator experience is distinctly non-motion (well, except for when my chair collapses under me ’cause I’ve gained so much weight recently!). However, in the real world the autopilot is strongly desired by the general aviation population as a safety device since the result of a crash is worse than just a black screen. Yet, I find it a real problem to use the autopilot. I’ve developed a strong distrust of autopilots having had multiple failures with them on just the handful of flights I’ve actually used one. It seems to me that the stress of monitoring a device that could suddenly turn on me and try to kill me is worse than just flying the airplane. I do a better job staying ahead of the airplane and staying ready to fly approaches when I don’t use the autopilot (quite contrary to the usual advice to have it on gear up to gear down for low time pilots).

TAA (Technologically Advanced Aircraft), specifically G1000 equipped: I finally had the chance to do some glass panel flying, and it was a lot of fun! I love the idea of less moving parts to fail and all the electronic redundancy. It’s also great having the nice large MFD with the GPS, weather, and traffic all overlaid onto it. Not a big fan of the engine instrumentation on the MFD though, it’s definitely harder to read (at least in the daytime, I concede that at night it would be easier since most steam gauge engine instruments are all but invisible at night!). The large PFD is very attractive as well. No one should ever manage to get the airplane upset with a horizon that huge! Unfortunately, the big downside is the multi-use buttons and the difficult to read heading/altitude information. Instead of a quick scan, it’s more of a “bounce around, stopping to have to try and decode the various digital readouts”. I find it’s quite a bit more effort to pick out a tiny number representing an altitude, read it, and determine if it’s changing versus just watching for the sweep of a needle. I recall reading how the automakers in the 80’s found digital readouts to be a problem for that very reason. Why are we resurrecting this bad representation for our aircraft? With the large high resolution screens, we can certainly do better. While an airline pilot flying day in and day out might stand a chance of adapting to it, it seems like a huge safety lose for the infrequent aviator.

Light twins versus singles: I’d really like to get into a twin as I have some trips I’d love to that involve longish water crossings. Obviously 2 engines introduces more opportunity for failure, and single engine operation is quite limited for a twin, but cruising just a couple thousand feet above one of the Great Lakes is certainly better than going into it. Extra capacity to carry FIKI equipment sounds nice as well, but at my few flight hours I’m not going anywhere near anything remotely resembling ice. Other than the second engine, the biggest thing I’m looking for is the co-pilot side actually having a decent panel, which some of the nicer singles also offer. An engine out really isn’t my biggest concern. I find myself MUCH more concerned about losing too many instruments on an IFR flight, even though I’m comfortable with, and even enjoy, partial panel practice. Around here, ceilings are the usual problem. Often hovering around 1000 feet. I’m OK with going engine out gliding down to out under the clouds, then making an emergency landing. I’m quite concerned about losing my instruments in the clouds, losing control, and popping out with only 1000 feet to go, which is not nearly enough to right a seriously upset airplane. A second engine plays into that as well, giving better redundancy for the equipment that powers the instruments (at the cost of new control issues if one engine goes). Seems like the case can be made that more engines could save your life if you are a frequent flyer, otherwise they’ll probably just help you spend money faster with equal or worse outcomes than a decent single.

Perhaps it all comes down to trust in the machine. Being a software developer, computer hardware guy, and a car guy exposes me to the worst that machinery has to offer, resulting in a distrust of the equipment. What says you?