Safety, philosophy, and the glass cockpit
During a vacation flight in the early 2000s, I realized that the glass cockpit in the airplane I was flying carries implications I hadn’t thought out in advance. Flight instructors, likewise, while they taught me how to use it, never really elaborated on some new and awkward elements in flight management that are triggered by the G1000’s additional capabilities. What I’m leading up to is this: all pilots are trained to recognize conditions that are hazardous for flight. We have the FARs (Federal Aviation Regulations) that tell us not to do unsafe things. But, in addition, flight instructors tell their students to set “personal minimums” that are more stringent than those in the FARs, or that apply to situations where the FARs do not restrict operations but common sense tells us we should stay on the ground.
The short version of this article is that the G1000 offers capabilities that make it seem (and may actually be) safe to violate some of those personal minimums or common sense operating limits, without actually violating the FARs. I’ll begin with a chronological account of my trip.
My destination was Snowville, New Hampshire, a tiny hamlet near the Maine border. There is a fairly large airport at Laconia, NH (LCI), with a runway over 5000 feet long and an ILS. It’s about 50 miles from Snowville. There is also a much smaller airport, Eastern Slopes Regional (IZG) at Fryeburg, Maine, nearer to Snowville, with a 4200-foot runway and GPS and NDB approaches, both of which have minimum descent altitudes (MDAs) on the order of 1000 feet above the runway. This airport has high terrain to the west (including Mt. Washington, highest point in the state of NH), so the approaches can only be practically used from the east.
An aircraft flying north from the Mid-Atlantic states would inevitably be approaching from the southwest and have to do some rather fancy footwork to shoot an approach, and with the high minimums, the weather would have to be pretty good to safely complete the approach. Therefore, I planned to go to Laconia if the weather was at all questionable, and Fryeburg if it was sunny with unrestricted visibility. I also had to pick up my father at Central Jersey Regional (47N), a little less than halfway from Easton, my home airport, to Laconia. Fryeburg is farther, about 15 miles past Snowville from the point of view of an aircraft flying up from Maryland.
The day of my departure, Thursday, September 21, dawned sunny and cool, with no hazards to flight. The outlook for the return flight was not as good, but since that was several days away, I considered the forecast only advisory, and I would see what the weather actually looked like. I failed to consider the dynamics of departing from an airport with such poor IFR facilities, because I was much more concerned with the problem of arriving there.
Arriving as planned, slightly before noon, at Easton, I preflighted the airplane and immediately encountered a problem: the rotating beacon on top of the tail was not working. FAR 91.205 requires, for aircraft certified after 1996 under FAR Part 23 (which includes “my” Cessna 182T), “an approved aviation red or aviation white anticollision light system,” even for VFR flight in daylight. For night and IFR, this same requirement goes back to 1971. The 182 has both strobes and the beacon, and I had no problem convincing myself that these were both “anticollision light systems” and in sunny conditions of daylight, I was willing to just use the strobes the whole time the engine was running.
However, if my return flight was to be in instrument conditions, I wondered if the strobes would reflect annoyingly off the clouds and be a nuisance for me or other pilots; my instructors always made me keep them off till I was ready to take off, and turn them off immediately after landing. I soon discovered that the tail beacon was a new type for just the 182Ts, and the one that had just been installed two days before was the last one east of the Mississippi. So, since this is the only 182T at the field, the mechanics could not cannibalize another plane and could not get me a replacement bulb.
At that point the staff started calling around to the flight instructors, and eventually, managed to make contact with one who knew the manual well enough to confirm that the primary anticollision lights were the strobes, and if they worked, the plane was legal for all operations. Meanwhile, I’d wasted more than an hour.
I was finally airborne about 1330, and arrived at 47N after an uneventful flight at about 1500. I met my father, stowed his luggage, and we were ready to depart. I’d already filed IFR. It used to be that departing 47N IFR was very hard. Calling New York Approach from a pay phone outside the building, they would give you your routing and a void time. They liked to give you less than 10 minutes, and that was barely enough even to draw your route on an enroute chart with highlighter and set up the frequencies for the radios and VORs and still have time for preflight and run-up. For programming a G1000 with the entire route it was obviously hopeless. I was resigned to having the void time expire, then call back for a second one.
However, the equipment has changed considerably. There’s a remote communication outlet (RCO) on the field that you’re supposed to be able to get on the aircraft radio by clicking the microphone four times. Well, I tried and tried, and couldn’t get this to work. Finally I went back inside the terminal and asked the attendant for the phone number. She looked it up and I went outside again. The pay phone has disappeared, and it used to be that cellulars could not get this number if they were from out of state. I dialed the number on my Virginia cellular, and with relief, found that this problem has been fixed. I got my clearance and, since it was sunny, requested that I depart VFR but with my transponder set to the IFR “squawk.”
Fortunately, New York was every bit as relieved as I was to let me do this, because only one IFR operation is allowed at a time at an airport without a tower. With me VFR, they could still sequence IFR arrivals into the field. But all this time we’d been “burning daylight,” and by the time I’d saved the route into the G1000, done the run-up and was ready to take the active, it was nearly 1600; I’d expected only half an hour on the ground and we’d had an hour.
Off we went, and for the rest of the flight it was touch and go whether we would arrive at IZG before sunset (about 1900; I checked). This was important because not only have I been including “no night ops” as a personal minimum, but alas, I have not even tried to keep night current, and as I was carrying a passenger, a landing after dark would be illegal. (In reality, the FARs actually say, in Part 61.57(b), “…no person may act as pilot in command of an aircraft carrying passengers during the period starting one hour after sunset and ending one hour before sunrise, unless within the preceding 90 days, he has… [performed three landings during that period to a full stop].”
So, I actually could have been legal landing almost as late as 2000, but I didn’t know it because I hadn’t studied the FARs recently. My plan was to divert to Laconia if I thought I couldn’t have the wheels on the runway before 7pm. This would have created other problems since we had a rental car reserved at Fryeburg. But, the speed of the airplane being quite a bit higher than older 182s saved me from this annoyance, and in quite an orderly little minuet, I descended and maneuvered with a minimum of wasted distance, and we touched down about 15 minutes before the witching hour in ideal, no-wind, smooth air, and with ample visibility from the sun now just behind the mountains.
After we enjoyed Friday in Snowville, Saturday, September 23, dawned gray and misty. My morning call to Flight Service alerted me to the fact that my takeoff from Fryeburg would be difficult, but failed to give me the sense of urgency it should have. (At the time I called, 0800, the field was VFR with a 2500 foot overcast and 4 miles of visibility in light mist. The briefer said it was likely to remain that way for several hours, but by the time we arrived about 1000, it was 900 and 3.) Now, recall that the instrument approaches into Fryeburg had an MDA of about 1000.
I’d been following a common-sense principle up to this point that if a field is below minimums, unless it’s right near a field with better minimums, I should stay on the ground. However, all pilots eventually must come to terms with real-world situations that tempt them to push their policies (this has been discussed in the aviation literature). With my father all excited about getting going and obviously very unhappy at staying another day (and not even sure where we could get rooms for the night), and my own schedule looking bad if we couldn’t depart, I had motivations that triggered “get-home-itis,” a known cause of aviation accidents.
However, I felt there were extenuating circumstances. To begin with, I had the G1000. With the moving map zoomed in to high detail, I knew exactly where the runway was. (I’d had the chance to glance at it while airborne on previous flights and found the runway alignment on the map corresponded perfectly with the real thing I was seeing out the window). If something went wrong below 400 feet AGL, the runway was long enough that a 182 could land on it straight ahead and be stopped, or barely moving, when it reached the departure end. There was barely any wind. Between 400 and about 800 feet, a U-turn and landing in the reverse direction should work, too, even if it was started in the clouds. Above 800 feet we might be farther from the airport, but anything but an engine failure could be coped with by flying to either Portland or Laconia.
An engine failure in the clouds above 800 feet—which might mean that heading straight for the runway might not work, either because the airplane would arrive too high to land or hit terrain in between–was the flaw in my reasoning, and I knew it. But while aviation culture warns us about engine failure on departure, how probable is that, really? We’ve tested the fuel for contaminants by sumping the tanks, checked the fuel level by opening the caps and sounding the tanks; we’ve run up to test the ignition, vaccum pump, and prop governor. We’ve checked the oil level. The airplane is about two years old, fuel injected, and has the warning annunciators in the G1000 to report any out of spec parameters. Bottom line is I decided to depart. But having done the runup, I listened to the automated weather (AWOS) again and it was 200 and 1.5! I decided that was too low entirely, so we shut down and had lunch while waiting for the conditions to improve.
We might not have departed had I relied entirely on the AWOS. But after we finished our sandwiches, the sky was noticeably brighter and visibility was much better (judging by the naked eye). AWOS still reported very low conditions, “varying between 200 and 800” and 2 miles visibility. I guess I just didn’t believe it: to the Mark 1 Mod 0 eyeball, things looked much better. So, we taxied onto the runway and with some trepidation I advanced the throttle. There was 3 knots of wind from the west, so we took off from Runway 32, headed towards the mountains. At this point I should digress and explain that this airport has standard instrument departures. The one for Runway 32 includes a right turn to reverse direction and “cross Sebago NDB at or above 2600.” But, the instructions don’t say when to begin your turn.
Climbing into the clouds, I thought about the mountains ahead and decided to start my turn. But, I also remembered that I’d failed to take advantage of one of the G1000’s features: the terrain display that color codes terrain within 500 feet of your altitude as red, 1000 yellow, and more than 1000 as black. As I turned, I saw through the right side window trees on top of the little hill to the north of the field. From the approach two days before, I remembered there was a lake beyond this hill, and while the trees looked closer than I liked, they were certainly not close enough to threaten a crash.
After straightening out on course for the NDB, I flipped on the terrain feature. A few blobs of red were behind the plane and quite far to either side. Bigger blobs of yellow were about two miles either side–and a corridor of black led straight from our position to the airport behind us and the NDB ahead! A quick scan of the engine indications (all in the green) and I realized the instrument departure from IZG wasn’t so hard after all–and it would have involved even less nail-biting had I turned the terrain view on before taxiing onto the runway. Instead, I’d been looking at the Nexrad display of rain intensities to be sure I wouldn’t run into stormy conditions, but those don’t move so fast that they can’t be looked at from the ground before taxiing onto the runway.
Does this mean that now that I’m behind a glass cockpit with considerably more information available than there was in other airplanes I’ve flown, that I should relax my standards of what is a safe condition of visibility and ceiling for departure on an IFR flight? This is what I mean by “philosophy.”
We were airborne at 1330, while I’d hoped for 1100. We knew there was a strong southerly flow aloft, and indeed it was over 40 knots at our cruising altitudes, 5000 and later 6000. We’d filed for a stop at Danbury, Connecticut. Almost the whole way we were on instruments for real, but the autopilot did most of the flying. (Another philosophical question: logging instrument time while “George” is handling the controls is legal. Is it righteous? The autopilot can fly a lot better than I can, except in turbulence where it overcontrols and slows down the airplane. But, I’m not getting the “sole manipulator” experience that my logbook seems to show; I’m just the “avionics manager.”)
Approaching Danbury at nearly 1600, I found that the wind, almost south at our altitude, was about west at ground level. Approaches into Danbury did not include any to a west-facing runway, and the wind was rather strong. The ceiling was 1200 with 5 miles visibility, and I didn’t feel good about a circle-to-land approach (another of my personal minimums). So I went to the alternate, Stewart International in Newburgh, NY, and did a coupled ILS approach that worked extremely well. By 1600 we were parked at the FBO, but looking at the clock and again thinking about darkness (with poor visibility too this time), I opted to stay overnight at Newburgh.
Next morning I discovered yet another aviation test lay ahead. The aircraft flunked the mag check at the run-up! This hasn’t happened to me in more than a decade. The Bonanza F33A I’d been flying in the 1990s had a pressure compensating fuel system that, according to the manual, didn’t have to be leaned below 5,000 feet. My recent instructors had warned me that the 182 likes to foul plugs if it isn’t leaned on the ground, and the go/no go confusion of the previous day’s flight had kept the plane idling (with mixture rich) for a long time. Worse, on the flight itself, because of a change in altitude ordered by the controllers, I hadn’t quite gotten the engine correctly leaned at either altitude. The “lean assist” feature of the G1000 is one of the ones that are less than intuitive; if you pause with the knob in one position long enough the computer interprets that as peak EGT. I must have been flying with the fuel quite considerably richer than it should have been; this is also suggested by a rather large amount of fuel required to fill the tanks at the FBO.
When I was a student pilot I would have just taxied back to the FBO and cancelled the flight. But, I was fairly sure I knew what the problem was, so I tried keeping the engine at the RPMs required by the run-up and leaning the mixture to burn off the fouling. This took almost half an hour, but it did eventually work; the tower must have wondered if we would stay another night. Of course this was a rather expensive half hour on the ground since the Hobbs was ticking over the whole time!
The wind was even worse at altitude than the previous day; we even saw a reading of 60 knots for a few minutes, but 40 to 50 was more common. The controllers routed us miles out of our way, through Allentown, PA, and Lancaster, then Baltimore. Near the Delaware Water Gap we had an encounter with quite nasty turbulence that threw us over 30 degrees to one side, then pitched us up almost the same amount. Nexrad allowed us to request different headings to get ourselves out of the worst of the rain, which came along with turbulence.
Another digression: the manual says Nexrad is “not to be used for tactical weather avoidance” or words to that effect. Comparing the images on the MFD screen with what I was seeing out the window, I consider that the manual exaggerates. While the image was delayed slightly by the bandwidth of the satellite connection, it seemed close enough for pretty fine grained weather avoidance. However, the conditions were actually better than the day before. About half the time we had ground contact even though the visibility at our level was below VFR, or even essentially zero. At Easton it was clear below 10,000, visibility 8. Astounding! Yet again a demonstration of how weather can vary over a few hundred miles. At Newburgh it was 2500 feet overcast and 5 miles visibility. But breaking up the trip allowed us to arrive at a reasonable hour on Sunday, only a day later than planned.
Here’s the basic temptation of filing IFR with the Garmin G1000 glass cockpit: its improvement in your situational awareness is so great that it seems to allow you to lower your personal minimums and cut the FAR limitations, or commonsense ones your instructors taught you, a lot closer than you would with conventional instruments. Is this OK, or is it likely to create unsafe conditions? Apparently in highway statistics, four-wheel drive just gets you stuck further off the road and deeper in the snow, and anti-lock brakes cause drivers to drive faster, brake later, and crash more often.
Are glass cockpits, also, a temptation to cut safety margins too fine? Or do they improve safety even if you shave margins closer because you have them? Statistics will tell the tale, but perhaps not soon enough to help those of us who have been first to adopt these exciting new technologies.