GPS – Innovate, Standardize or Both?

June 26, 2008 by Bruce Landsberg

More than a decade ago there were five GPS manufacturers making IFR-approved units. ASF asked for a group meeting, along with FAA, to discuss some level of input standardization. No two units worked the same way so we suggested that core IFR-essential functions be somewhat standardized.

The core functions were Direct To or selecting a bearing from a fix , setting up an approach, missed approach procedure, and holding. Everything else would be left to the manufacturer to innovate. A pilot, once trained on core functions, could fly any box in the IFR system without extensive retraining although they might not be able to use all the clever or advanced features that were built in to every system.

Obviously, we didn’t prevail in what I still think was a common sense human factors approach. Innovation was the goddess of the day and there is certainly merit to that argument. However, there is much to favor in commonality where flight critical operations are concerned. Many pilots do not have a monogamous relationship with an aircraft. Renters, CFIs, club pilots, pilot examiners and other assorted vagabonds who fly multiple aircraft got saddled with a complex and expensive training barrier.

“Legacy” units that are either orphaned by a defunct builder or one who has left the old boxes behind often have scant or way too much documentation. Personally, I find 200 page manuals daunting – especially for an aircraft that I may only fly every few months. It’s tough to find good computer-based simulation to practice or even a CFI who knows how to run an earlier generation unit, let alone teach it. Most installed avionics have a life span of 15 – 20 years and unless one has a generous allowance for upgrades, we’ll be living with a very mixed fleet for some time.

As it stands today, pilots who wish to fly glass models of classic aircraft will spend many hours and perhaps thousands of dollars to get back into the cockpit of an old friend. Flight management systems are wonderful devices that were originally designed for two pilot flight decks, a strong training infrastructure, and the cost is usually on someone else’s nickel.

As we start to see some maturity in the GPS market and even a few new players coming back in to broaden the field, is it time to ask the same question again or should market forces continue to hold sway?

Click here for my column on the topic.

Would appreciate your comments and experiences.

Bruce Landsberg
President, AOPA Foundation

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30 Responses to “GPS – Innovate, Standardize or Both?”

  1. Karl Sutterfield Says:

    Amen. After almost thirty years of flying, in 2005 I wound up in a new G1000-equipped Mooney. I also spent more than three decades writing real-time software. From both perspectives the G1000 is a disappointment, and it’s not unique in that regard. Integrated avionics suites like the G1000 offer a lot of good things, along with some very, very bad ones. Non-standardized – no, let’s call a spade a spade – marketing department-driven, intentionally “anti-standardized” glass cockpits are more than a nuisance: they will drive up the cost of flying by giving FAA an excuse for requiring “type ratings” in otherwise identical aircraft; worse, they will kill people. They probably already have. And it needn’t have been this way. I could go on for pages. In fact, I did: I wrote a seven-page essay on the subject back in 2005, drawing on my then-fresh experiences in our Mooney. I haven’t looked at it since then, but I’d be happy to forward a copy (PDF) if you’re interested.

  2. David Houpt Says:

    I also agree that non standard GPS units is a problem when you fly several airplanes. One manufacture can not have a basic design of units. Take the Garmin line. The 430 -530 line requires different operating inputs than the 480.

    We have gone way past the time where one set of operating instructions will allow us to operate any radio. I can see in the future you will be “rated” on the radio system you have installed in the airplane you fly.

    The good part is with the new GPS and associated electronics we can navigate accurately on our non airway routes. We can tell when we are .01 of a mile off that course. We can fly a vertical guidance course off of satellite that puts you through a window that is smaller than the airplane you are flying.

    As a CNX 80 owner I have rode the learning curve and now navigate to any fix in the USA air system with ease and accuracy never amagined 20 years ago.

    I do not believe we can “get together” on one operating system as there are to many manufactures wanting to be in the lead. We will benifit from this in the long run.

    Dave Houpt
    806494 AOPA Member

  3. Mike Friedman Says:

    Well, I am glad that I am not the only one hawking this position. Pilots had enough trouble going from cockpit to cockpit before the standard “6 pack” of steam gauges became common. As much as I like my high-tech toys, the key to safety in aircraft is familiarity and the current crop of Glass does not provide this. Customizing your interface is great, but there needs to be a standard display and a standard way to perform key functions. I’d go one step further and say that there should be a single button on any Glass flight display which brings it immediately into that standard configuration. In this way, where the plane is shared with renters or co-owners, the previous customization (read “confusion”) can be resolved quickly in any situation. No surprises – ever.

    Like the previous contributer, I develop real time software and hardware systems for a living. My mantra has always been that computers (yes – your G1000 etc. is just that!) are tools and should adapt to their users, not the other way around. When I read columns in magazines by ace pilots such as Richard Collins describing their confusion and inability to keep current on their flying computers, I worry for the less experienced pilots. Innovation is important, but we have to remember the basics and make sure that our tools are aimed at actual pilots and not video game addicts!

  4. Michael C. Muma Says:

    Bruce et. al.:
    Interesting discussion! I too am a SW developer and have been sadly disappointed in the offerings of the “glass cockpit” manufacturers when measured against the lowly PC user interface. The two major problems with the current “crop” of offerings are inadequate human engineering and standardization. I have a solution for the standardization issue that I have not seen discussed in any writings to date.
    To wit: I believe that all manufacturers should provide a standard portable “personality module” that works in every suite of glass cockpit avionics accross all manufacturers.
    This could take the form of a Flash memory stick or card that the user could configure to his preferences for operating options, routes, destinations, etc. The standardization would allow each pilot to insert his personality module into any glass cockpit system and cause it to perform in the way he has learned and customized his environment to behave. Thus he could fly any hardware/sofware combination he encounteres without retraining and without spending hours inputting the data he had already entered into another system. The data contained in the “personality module” would include the pilots personal data, favorite routes, fixes, etc. This approach allows the suppliers to continue innovation of the hardware and software without obsoleteing the knowledge and training each pilot must invest to use a system. Users could upgrade their individual personality modules on THEIR schedule to add new supported features and capabilities as time and technology permits without loosing the previous investment and capability.
    The second problem I see with the current systems is the penchant of the vendors to try to make the glass cockpits look and behave like steam guage cockpits or some other non-standard reality thus not taking advantage of the current state of computer software and human interface technology. As an example, take the “ABCD…” keyboard in the big iron. This is rediculous in the current reality where everyone uses a “qwerty” keyboarad. Having both means that two proficiencies must be maintained to enter data which is a major cause of errors and ultimately threatens the very lives of the pilots and passengers. Another example of this is the absence of a BACK button on glass cockpits. Every computer use knows how to use one and depends heavily on it using a PC, yet that same human tendency is ignored in the cockpit. Nothing is worse than hitting the wrong button on the GPS panel and having to go through a dozen screens to get back to where the error can be corrected. Add to the normal human error probabililty, the difficulty posed by turbulence and the inability of the pilot to concentrate on the data entry task due to other pilot duties and the stakes become considerably higher. A “back” button would be greatly appreciated!
    Another failing of the current systems is the lack of a – for want of a better term – a “follow-me” button. Pressing this button would instantly bring the GPS presentation to a window that shows the present position and orientation of the aircraft relative to it’s current environment – fixes, airports, airways, etc. Progressing after use of this button would provide not only current data but the set of choices available – e.g. the approaches availaable for the airport in the vicinity where the pilot (possibly gleaned from his personality module) is most likely to want to land. This capability reduces the pilot workload currently experienced trying to twist the knobs one letter at a time to find the airport/ fix and approach desired. The current system is heavily biased toward preplanning and virtually ignores the reality of enroute changes.
    This concept could be developed to considerably reduce the pilot workload and thus enhance pilot confidence and safety.
    Last but not least, the elementry concept of windows (not unique to MS) would enhance the cockpit experience. Different windows could contain different data presentations and in some cases be overlaid – eg. weather over maps – but also be separated – momentarily take the lightning strikes off the picture because it’s obscuring other data of interest. For example, transparent windows could be used to display approach data over the realtime map showing regional weather. Again using the “follow me” button brings essential situation data to the front at any time, and the “back” button goes back to previous windows for reference or continued modifications.
    Bottom line – we are not even close to a user/pilot friendly glass cockpit at this time, so now is not the time to rein in the innovation – however personality modules could be used to great advantage while we advance the state of the art.

  5. C. E. Barber Says:

    While I respect the opinions expressed in this blog, I’d also like to point out that a recent AOPA ePilot newsletter indicated that these “non-standard” glass cockpits and IFR GPS receivers are contributing to the lower GA accident rate. Additionally, the same ePilot that provided the link to this blog entry indicates this improved safety record is lowering aviation insurance premiums.

    The improved safety can be attributed to the additional situational awareness provided by the fusion of information like moving maps, traffic, terrain awareness, data link weather, etc

    Equipment manufacturers do follow standards generated by RTCA, SAE and other organizations when creating their products. These standards include GPS/WAAS, moving map, traffic display, terrain display, and weather display. As a matter of fact, both the Garmin 430W/530W series and the 480 are built to the RTCA/DO-229C standard for WAAS equipment as required by TSO-C146a. This standard has around 1000 requirements that must be met, including those related to the basic tasks (direct to, selecting an instrument approach, initiating a missed approach, and entering a holding pattern) and common identification of knobs and buttons. However, as with many things, “standards” can be interpreted differently. (Look how many churches there are that have different interpretations of the “standard” bible!)

    There is no denying this interpretation has lead to different implementations in various manufacturers equipment which can cause training issues for pilots. However, let’s not lose sight of the tremendous benefits associated with IFR GPS receivers and glass cockpits and the improvement in safety that they are bringing to the GA community.

  6. David MacRae Says:

    When the first IFR approach capable GPS units were barely off the drawing board, there were discussion threads on the DOS-based AVSIG bulletin board(remember that?) that indicated that pilots, including me, were seriously concerned at the potential for proprietary interfaces. Those fears have come home to roost. Admittedly the first units had absolutely abysmal interfaces, but the manufacturers cannot say that they were not told that non-standard interfaces for core functions were going to be a problem, and even then 15 years ago, PC interfaces were showing the way to the advantages of a standard presentation.

    Personally, I don’t buy the argument that glass cockpits by themselves have contributed to GA safety. Maybe the onerous level of familiarization required by insurance companies and airframe manufacturers has in some ironic way led to better IFR pilots amoung those that fly a single model of aircraft. On the other hand, glass cockpits encourage too much heads down in the cockpit in VFR weather to be a reason to expect greater safety.

  7. Ralph Says:

    Standardization will come as the field matures. To force standardization now will limit innovation in a rapidly evolving technology.

    Something that *could* be done is to require a “simple” mode on every unit. This mode would reduce functionality to the equivalent of VOR/DME. It’s use would be standard, simple, use big, single press buttons, and it would be difficult to accidentally exit that mode to the “high function” modes.

  8. Dick Lawrence Says:

    Some level of standardization would enhance ease of use and safety. Even learning to use, and then to remain current with the Garmin 430W I installed in my plane was a more daunting task than I thought it would be. I had the foresight to retain my KX155 with GS and DME so I can revert to that when the 430 sends a message that the approach is not active. Why wasn’t it active? Not sure, I had vectors to final for a LOC BC approach activated. It loaded the LOC frequency but never switched it and told me to check the freq. I thought it was supposed to switch it. I was waiting for that to happen just to confirm it would. Maybe my error? Did I touch the OBS button and wipe out the approach? No “back” button on these units. That is one safety feature that should be available on all of them.

    How do I recover during the approach? The reality is that the 430 display shows the path and it is pretty accurate, but not accurate enough, or legal for a LOC BC. The G396, not legal for IFR is on the yoke in front of my nose and is helpful while I go back through steps to get the approach activated on the 430. Also, using the 430 in the manual mode, i.e. dialing in the frequency and switching CDI to VLOC should work,too. In my situation the KX155 backup becomes primary (I always tune it so I have dual ILS displays) and I’ll try to sort it out when I’m on the ground, which I do. Now, if only I can remember that next time I do a LOC BC approach 3 months from now!

    A second point. I do quite a bit of volunteer flying (compassion fights) and have a friend who flies with me and who can use my plane. He is quite experienced- Military and now airlines pilot as well as many small planes. It is somewhat intuitive to him how the 430W should work, but I find he spends a lot of time during our flights trying to fully understand the system. It just isn’t that intuitive. Just don’t hit “enter” when we are coupled to the AP!

    Standardization and a “back” button sure would be nice!

  9. Captain Dick Siano Says:

    Just got through reading all the comments about “glass cockpits” when I had the realization that all the units available today incorporate plastic liquid crystal displays – not glass!
    I really appreciate the suggestions all of you have made.
    Dick Siano
    a 30,000 hours steam guage pilot

  10. Tom Garrison Says:

    I have been looking forward to flying glass for a while now. However, not only are they not standardized but it appears that they are becoming somewhat more user friendly. IE Garmin , Avadyne , L-3, and others. I have decided to wait a few years before I venture into glass. I am one of the renter pilots your article talks about and I would like to see standard glass so I can switch easily from one glass package to another.

  11. Michael C. Muma Says:

    Additional comment:
    After rereading my earlier notes, I realized that I didn’t adequately explain one vital aspect of the “personality module” concept. That is, it would also be configured to emulate a specific hardware/software product at a specific development level. For example, if I am familiar with and proficient in the use of a Garmin 430, and I choose to operate at that level, then my personality module would reflect that. Any airplane I plug it into would then act as if it had a Garmin 430 installed. The displays, buttons, etc. would all be a la Garmin 430. If I upgrade my skills and training to where I am proficient on a 480 (or some other product, or an upgraded version of the 430) then I would upgrade my personality module to that level with the same effect.
    Once having established the personality module as a “standard” the next step would be to provide alternate ways to define the behaviors of the avionics. For example, the Garmin 430 could be defined as “standard configuration A”. When an upgrade .eg. WAAS is to be implemented it would be described as “standard configuration A-1″. Thus a user would have the choice of operating at level “A” or “A-1″ as his needs, training and proficiency dictate. The next totally new concept to be introduced would be designated “standard configuration B” and with appropriate training and proficiency a pilot could update his personality module to reflect that level or style of operation. A given user would be able to select the level of operation desired for a given flight from the set he is currently proficient in. An instructor, for example, would be able to select a specific level to instruct a student at his skill level, but be able to select a different level for his personal use.
    The other advantage of the personality module concept is that it facilitates PC emulation, and planning. A user could do flight planning on a PC, store the plan on the personality module and insert and activate the module on any aircraft available regardless of avionics installed.

  12. Drew Armstrong Says:


    Since we can’t seem to standardize some of the most common things in our daily lives, the side the gasoline filler is on in our automobiles and the multitude of credit/debit card machines at check-out counters, why on earth would you think that the GPS manufacturers would standardize their products i.e forego product differentiation?

    I agree with you but I think we’re charging windmills.



  13. C. E. Barber Says:

    What appears to be lost in all of this discussion is a reality check on how manufacturers create products. When DO-229 was created for WAAS, the standard envisioned a character-oriented display as the minimum. This is because such displays were the norm in both GA and transport aircraft. Additionally, GA products for retrofit installation were designed to fit into panel slots that previously held a LORAN or nav/com. Single-color graphical LCDs with adequate sunlight viewability that were small enough to fit in such products were only then becoming available. Graphical color LCDs with these characteristics weren’t even available. Similarly, such equipment had knobs rather than alpha-numeric keypads because there was no panel space available.

    But look at the technological advances that have occurred. Now there are large color LCD displays used for glass cockpits, some of these installations include alpha-numeric keypads, some do not, based on available aircraft panel space.

    Some military jets have touch screen interfaces and voice recognition; some large GA jets have cursor control devices with mouse-like buttons and trackball. Eventually, these technologies will begin to arrive in small GA aircraft.

    So, how do you standardize the user interface with such a large variety of inputs (knobs, keypad, cursor, touch screen) and output (character display, single color LCD, multi color LCD, different screen sizes).

    Windows PC user interfaces have significant differences (Window 3.1, 2000, XP, and Vista are not the same. Check out the Microsoft help web site and you will find many items have to describe the differences between these software versions even though all of these are manufactured by the same company. This doesn’t even get into the differences between Apple, Microsoft, Linux, etc. user interfaces.

    All the talk about standardization is fine but are you really willing to give up the innovation that comes with technological advances? Also, how much will this standardization cost? WIll the proposed personality module be able to be used across Garmin, Honeywell, Chelton, Avidyne, L3, etc. glass cockpits? How long will it take to develop the standard? The WAAS standard finally arrived at DO-229D after over 12 years of work in the RTCA committee. Are you willing to wait that long for a standard user interface? If so, I’d caution that any product built to such a standard could be obsolete because it will be based on what was known about the technology at the time the committee began its work and not what is currently available to the market.

  14. Helge Skreppen Says:

    Let us not forget that the GPS is a navigation system that is first of all supposed to get us from one point to another point. At least that is what I hope was the original idea. The VOR system is doing this very well. So why have we not developed a GPS as simple to use and operate as the VOR ?. Instead the GPS has grown into an “Information System” as elaborate and as “complete” as a “Handbook” on aviation matters. To further complicate the design of “The GPS Aviation Handbook”, the design and layout is different from creator to creator. This may work reasonably well with two pilots up front. However, for a lonely 172 driver at night, low on gas in bad weather trying to find a place to land the last thing he needs is a list of restaurants or taxi cab phone numbers which may very well be the first thing his clumsy fingers on small buttons jumping up and down is able to produce. Note all the elaborate comments that have been provided. On a simple point to point standard navigation system there would simply be very little to comment on.(VISTA should not be more relevant to an airplane navigation system than Swiss cheese, so why talk about it?) Sorry to say, we really got off in wrong direction on designing GPS for navigation. Sometimes I wonder if pilots were involved at all from the beginning or if PC designers and Record Management designers were the ones in charge from the beginning.

  15. George Wilhelmsen Says:

    I’m a bit surprised at all the calls for standardization of cockpits. I agree that to force standardization now would tend to lock up the advances that we could otherwise gain as technology, testing, and the reliability of the new systems, interfaces, and devices evolve and develop.

    Consider this: if we standardized in the days of text-based GPS and LORAN receivers, where would we be today? In some small part, the latest product lines are a good mixture of what worked best on yesterday’s equipment.

    As someone who has time behind the G1000, the Avidyne panel, and the Chelton panel, as well as the Bendix/King IHAS line, I haven’t had any difficulties in working any of the panels. I have found them to be fairly intuitive for the most part, and easy to learn the minor nuances that might be present. While each of the units has their particular strong points, I’d say we would be condemned by future generations for trying to standardize, since it would work against forward progress.

    Try this on for size: standardize now, and touch screen technology – well, that won’t be the standard. Remote keypads to make data entry easier? Nope – that won’t be available. We’ll be stuck where we are. Traffic integrated with weather and terrain/obstructions? Maybe, maybe not. Bar code scanners to allow for entry of SIDS, STARS and approach procedures? Hey, that doesn’t exist today, so it won’t be the standard.

    Look at what is coming to market. Insight’s new G3 engine monitor has so many features it is literally an “oh my GOD” instrument for pilots, and that’s just an ENGINE MONITOR! There is Aspen’s new drop-in ADI/HSI and moving map with tapes, and their MFD.

    We have had new glass panels and innovations every year. Every year, I can honestly say that I think that the folks at Garmin, Chelton, Avidyne, and Bendix King, Aspen and all the others (and thanks to UPSAT for getting over the C146a hurdle) have worked to make our planes safer and easier to fly.

    We have too much to lose in this case. Let the manufacturers be. Pick the suite and system you like. And to those who don’t like what is out there, innovate something better – since there is no standardization, you are not only allowed to do that, but requested to do so by your fellow pilots, who haven’t seen what you are thinking about, but would really like to!

  16. Paul Mikolajewski Says:

    Thank you for this article. I recently researched this topic for a graduate term paper. I found that there is no evidence that lack of standardization among cockpit displays is causing accidents. Furthermore, a search of the ASRS database revealed only few incidents where standardization or consistency of interfaces could be identified as the main culprit. Analysis of a few human factor principles, such as information access and information priority (Shvaneveldt, Beringer and Leard, 2004), does seem to indicate that we are paying a high cognitive workload price for the variety in display interfaces.
    I reviewed existing regulations and guidelines, such as Part 23 and the General Aviation Manufacturer’s Association (GAMA) Publication #12. I concluded that market forces and not regulation will curb the artistic freedom of interface designers and manufacturers. Pilots and owners, like airlines, must demand that aircraft fleets look the same on the inside. Of course, because of the libertarian nature of GA pilots, this may never occur. We like to have a choice in our toys. We have never bought into anything that was made easy by design (ex. Aircoupe) and perhaps learning to fly a new airplane is made more exciting by a few new gadgets in the new cockpit.

  17. Edward Pasquale Says:

    We are facing numerous interfaces as a direct result of the complexity of the new equipment. The FAA published the technical standards to be met, and the manufacturers each designed a way to accomplish this feat. Each has strengths and weaknesses.

    Although it would be nice to have a common set of commands for different brands, this would be impractical for the manufacturers to produce – unless the published standards required it.

    As an instructor who has worked with the first version of the G1000, I can tell you that the latest version has several major interface changes that present a challenge even to veteran G1000 pilots. And there will be even further advances in the near future as these systems mature. Training on the specific panel is the only way to keep up in these times of innovation.

  18. Bob Richards Says:

    It was interesting to read your comments about user friendly GPS,over 15 years ago I had lunch with Phil Boyer at Simcom where I oversaw the Cessna program.We discussed how to start teaching GPS in class and simulator,one of the comments I got from him was how frustrated and angry it made people when trying to teach IFR GPS in 2 day AOPA week end schools.It used to take 7-10 days to teach a turbine aircraft initial course to competent pilots,we now have airplanes that are so complicated it takes 4 wks and your barely competent whe your done.This goes beyond GPS into human factors ,look at how long it takes to get checked out in a Cirrus 3 full days with 10 hrs of flying ,its afixed gear airplane with no prop contro! ! ! If it doesn’t make an airplane simpler or faster or carry more or safer why are we doing it???One thing I have noticed is Cirrus pilots always seem to like tech”bluetooth,PDA ,laptops in flight”and other gadgets and thats who the plane is marketed to.The greatest safety device I have seen is a moving map with obstacles depicted and that is a relativly passive form of tech.(We have a Cirrus,PC12 and HS125-800 all are glass)THanks

  19. Pi Says:

    Greetings ladies and Gents

    You have to be an engineer to maximize your GPS investment. A simplistic approach to user friendlyness would be appreciated….for example a voice recog. system would do nicely……..

    Best Regards


  20. Mike Allen Says:

    I believe many contributors to this (highly valuable) discussion may be unaware of the reason why avionics manufacturers have not standardized presentation and operation of their GPS offerings, in the same way as they have previously standardized presentation and operation of (for example) ADF, ILS displays.

    For several decades major airlines have funded and vigorously supported an avionics “form, fit and function” standardization body, the “Airlines Electronic Engineering Committee” (AEEC, administered by ARINC) that has produced a large volume (hundreds?) of standards on presentation and operation to guide avionics manufacturers. Airlines have consistently specified in their purchase requests, that avionics products MUST satisfy these standards. Vendors have had no choice but to conform.

    GA versions of ADF, ILS and similar systems were direct copies of the same systems. Consequently the standardization constraints on presentation and operation, imposed on avionics vendors by the airline community through AEEC, benefited GA.

    Avionics specifications and standards specified by FAA and by RTCA have traditionally not ventured into areas that FAA and RTCA anticipated AEEC would address. Consequently, FAA and RTCA specifications in the GPS arena developed in 1988-1995 period, omitted issues relating to user presentation and operation (with one or two safety-related exceptions).

    Airlines are not concerned about presentation and operation of GPS systems, because airlines feed “raw” GPS data into Flight Management Systems. Hence there are comprehensive ARINC specifications that require GPS vendors to present GPS data to FMS systems in standarized manner; but no airline-supported standards for presentation of GPS data to pilots, and for operation of GPS avionics by pilots.

    Unfortunately FAA and RTCA have not (yet) “taken up the slack” in the standardization area they traditionally yield to AEEC. Thus Marketing departments of competing GPS vendors have not been constrained by a powerful and united bloc of buyers, to standardize presentation and operation of their products.

    Until AOPA or similar entity creates and effectively supports an equivalent for GA of the AEEC for airlines, sellers of GPS products to GA customers will not feel the pressure to standardize presentation and operation of their products for GA customers, that THEY READILY ACCEPT AND CONFORM TO from their airline customers.

  21. Gabor Nagy Says:

    Well said.
    I’m a 700+ hr private pilot with ASEL, IFR and helicopter ratings and I recently started working on my Cirrus SR22 checkout.
    As someone with 20+ years of computer graphics an user interface experience, I’m very disappointed with the Avidyne / Garmin (or the G1000) glass cocpits.
    They are easily among the worst user interfaces I have ever seen in my career, from a usuability and human factors point of view.
    I can fly the airplane VFR fine, but I’m the IFR “button-ology” is an exercise in frustration.
    And I’m a computer nerd!

    The lack of consistency between manufacturers is bad enough, but
    it appears as if manufacturers have not even bothered talking to human-computer interface experts, let alone doing any usability studies.
    Don’t even get me started on having to enter identifiers with 2 dials, instead of a QWERTY keyboard.
    Or, having to go into some deeply hidden menu to have the MFD show the flight plan from GPS2, instead of GPS1.
    There should be a single switch in plain view for such a fundamental feature.

    I’m convinced that the current breed of GA glass cockpit designers would be employed at Apple Computer’s user interface design teams for about 10 seconds before Steve Jobs would kick them out, screaming.

    Fighting a bad user interface in a safe and cozy environment on a home computer is one thing. Fighting one in hard IMC is a whole different ball game.

    Avionics manufacturers really need to get their act together and hire/consult people with human-computer interface PhDs and have the systems test-flown by “Joe-Skyhawk”.

  22. Rowland Hill Says:

    GA manufacturers were forced to put the engine controls and gear and flap controls in standard locations and orientations in the cockpit. Did accidents still happen? Yes. At the same rate? Probably not.

    I am a professional pilot with over 5,500 hours until I became a professional programmer to pay the bills. I am dismayed by the multiplicity of GPS user interfaces on GA aircraft.

    I was a FlightSafety instructor at the time that glass cockpit, INS, Loran, and units navigating off of Navy Communication stations started being delivered. It was understood that one training course was required to teach a pilot to proficiency in the airplane and another course to teach proficiency with the navigation system.

    If a person trains on and flies one GPS interface, developing easy familiarity with it, that is one thing. Flying more than one is an accident waiting to happen. Especially at the end of a long day.

    GPS does have the advantage of being satellite based rather than ground nav station based. With the resources (dollars) applied, any runway can have a precision approach. But, please, some standardization and simplification of the user interface. Not everyone flies the same airplane all the time.

  23. Karl Sutterfield Says:

    I’m surprised by the number of commentators who fall prey to the logical fallacy known as “false choice” or “false dilemma”. In this case, it’s the notion that standardization in anything will stifle innovation in everything. That won’t happen simply because we need not choose between the two: we can standardize selected behaviors while leaving everything else open to innovation.
    It’s important to understand the difference between restrictive and permissive standards. Restrictive standards are rare in computing – and integrated avionics suites are just specialized computers – precisely because they do stifle innovation: developers complying with a restrictive standard _may_not_ add features which are not called out in the specification. But no one is suggesting that we adopt a restrictive standard for glass cockpit avionics. To do so would be bizarre (in the sense that clinical psychologists use the word), so let’s move on…
    Permissive standards not only allow innovation, they encourage it by accelerating the growth of the market for the product. Prominent examples are TCP/IP networks, the SCSI bus, and USB. The more predictable, interchangeable, and affordable the products in any market are, the more people will buy them. Predictability, interchangeability, and affordability are all enhanced by industry standards. The third leg of this syllogism should be obvious.


    Arguments against standardizing key features of avionics systems, especially safety-related ones, sound like the parochialism that dominated the early history of the computer industry.

  24. Jose Says:

    I also agree that standardizing at least the basic inputs is essential to safety. A VOR or ILS is drop-dead simple to operate because they all work the same. Using a glass cockpit is like flying blindfolded with a very capable co-pilot who only speaks Swahili and doesn’t care if he or she dies in a fiery crash. Except that some of them only speak Arameic. And the others only speak Tonga. And as a renter, you never know which one is flying with you.

    The only valid argument against standardization is that it would allow a pilot who is familiar with one brand’s equipment to easily buy and fly equipment made by a different company. Perhaps stockholders don’t want that, but it works both ways, and even stockholders would benefit by allowing pilots to transition easily.


  25. George Wilhelmsen Says:

    In reply to Karl Sutterfield’s excellent comments, I have but one question:

    Where have you ever seen the FAA offer “Permissive standards”?

    My argument would be that there is no such thing. The FAA doesn’t offer options, it offers cold, hard edicts. “An alternative means of compliance may be approved upon submittal to the local Flight Standards District Office.” Ever try that option? Good luck – if it isn’t approved or backed by tons of paper, you can pretty much forget it.

    So, over to you. Can you provide an example of this “Permissive standard” in use by the FAA?

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  27. Vijh Says:

    Going through the 280 page novels …err… manuals… on the ground and then fumbling with pushes, twists and keys soft and hard before regaining the sense to forget about it and fly the plane, I wonder how these systems would be if, say, Apple designed them.

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