The Curse and Blessing of Glass

January 6, 2010 by Bruce Landsberg
Which is better for learning the basics of flight?
Which is better
for learning the
basics of flight?

Over the holidays I had the pleasure of taking several non-pilot friends flying in a glass cockpit aircraft in superb day VFR conditions. I settled into the right side and gave them the left front seat to experience the view as a new student pilot might. We briefly briefed the cockpit, flight controls and flight instruments and I reassured them that we’d talk through everything before doing it.

It became obvious shortly after takeoff that the compulsion of the glowing PFD, that dominated the panel was overwhelming despite my continuous reminders to look outside for attitude, steering reference via landmarks and other aircraft. My friends invariably returned to the tube.

The blessing of the glass was the traffic awareness system. It certainly didn’t catch all the aircraft around us but got most of them. On average, for every one we spotted there was one that remained invisible to three sets of human eyes. There was no question that we were more aware and maneuvered accordingly. At least for me, it encouraged even more outside vigilance.

Two thoughts: For primary training we might consider flying the first few hours without the heavy duty help of glass just to learn the physical side of flight and what the sight pictures are. The next time I’ll cover or dim the PFD and just leave the back up instrumentation for their primary viewing pleasure. All IFR approved glass aircraft come equipped with back up attitude indicator, altimeter, airspeed and even a compass. Imagine!

Secondly, since training aircraft spend a disproportionate time in the most collision prone airspace, flight schools should try to equip their trainers with some sort of collision avoidance system. I’m a big proponent of see and avoid but it has its limits. (We’ll be discussing more about collision avoidance later this year.)

Your thoughts? Agree or no?

Bruce Landsberg
Senior Safety Advisor, Air Safety Institute

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  • Patrick Flannigan

    I don’t think it’s so much the glass cockpit as the preconceived notion of just what flying is all about that students bring to the cockpit. We’ve all seen movies where pilots invariably study the guages with great interest, and so that’s what students do automatically.

    I don’t think glass is hinders out-the-window situational awareness with new pilots as much as it does transitioning pilots. The new technology gives us a lot to look at and the gaze does drift down for more than the recommended 1/3rd inside time in VFR flight.

  • Lynn Farnsworth

    I think that glass cockpits have increased the situational awareness and systems that have voice warnings (Chelton, for example) allow the pilot to reduce the time spent looking inside the cockpit.

    When glass first came out there was distrust of it to the extent that the old navigational systems (VOR etc) were required to be set up and monitored. This increased the work load and reduced the time available to look outside.

    Turning off the glass might increase the time required to monitor the cockpit instruments and thus reduce to outside lookout.

    Glass is here to stay; teach it from the start and new students will be better for it.

  • Jim Bruchas

    As a former Air Force Instructor Pilot in the Tweet and T-38, we encountered “ADI stare” a lot with students in both aircraft. I have encountered the same Issue with any non pilot given the stick/yoke. It is not really the “Glowing PFD” as much as the compulsion to keep the wings level and maintain altitude. I have done the same thing in the Cessna 206 with the autopilot engaged and given them the aircraft and they still fight it. A lot of students also chase the guages heads down. A good technique is after the dollar ride (first flight) we covered up the panel and made them look out. It takes a while for new pilots to learn how to see other traffic and being inside the cockpit effects focus and traffic scan. The outside scan method taught is to look at infinity and they will see relative movement (traffic).

  • Gordon Young

    Glass is good, looking out the window is better. I might be out in the Cub doing lazy eights.

  • Bruce Landsberg

    Good comments – all. And the diversity is appreciated! It might be fun to put down the number of years as a pilot on your comments to gauge generational differences. I’ll go first – at 40 years.

    Also, let me add that I’ve been flying glass in both simulators and real aircraft since it was introduced. This is not intended so much as an anti-glass commentary but more as a how to introduce new pilots and that’s why your thoughts are so helpful.

  • Karen Swanton

    I learned how to fly in the 1970’s and earned my CFI then as well. We still had similar issues with attitude flying.

    The problem is not the pretty glass cockpit, but the tendency to rely on what is inside the cockpit rather than outside of it. For my primary students’ initial training, I would cover up most of the instruments to teach them attitude flying and situational awareness. I would uncover the instruments after they could demonstrate the proper attitude by outside references and show that they could keep their heads up and looking outside.

  • Rebecca Gibson

    I have a clear memory of the first time I was really shown how to look outside. I was on a “stage check” at the 141 school I was attending. I was working on my Commercial certificate, and my demonstrations of Lazy 8’s were not going well.
    “Here, ” the stage check examiner said. “Let me show you something.” I watched while he demonstrated the maneuver and pointed out what the attitude looked like out the windscreen. He then handed me the flight controls. To my surprise, I performed a Lazy 8 with ease.

    Later, when I had my first instructing job, another experienced instructor covered the panel with a towel during a checkout. He asked me to hold altitude. After a few minutes, he removed the towel. I had climbed a couple thousand feet without a clue.

    The first lesson showed me that it was possible and desirable to look outside, but it was that second one that changed my whole approach to flying. Learning to fly by reference to the horizon is harder than it sounds. I don’t know if glass is any more mesmerizing than traditional instruments, but I do know that it takes a real effort to discover the nuances of controlling an airplane without hard-and-fast numbers from the gauges. I encourage everyone to make that effort. The result is well worth it.

  • Jeff

    One thing to consider for newbies is that the glass panel is just cool, like a brand new video game.

    I suggest a way to counter this fascination is to “bore” them on the ground in simulator mode to show all that the glass can do before the flight, then it’s not such a big deal in the air. The outside view will then be the cool thing.

  • MikeK

    It’s interesting that you note the backup instruments in IFR-equipped planes. But, now there are glass panels with glass backups. The Aspen products, for example, have dual ADAHRS sensors, so your “backup” (your MFD) looks just like the PFD.

  • Murray

    Interesting. I’m just upgrading my panel with Dynon’s Skyview so the comments are pertinent. I recently spoke to a friend about how he designed the panel for his VFR RV4. With the limited panel room, he left out the attitude indicator, reasoning that the better AI was the real horizon out the window.

    Reflecting on my own VFR habits at 200 hours, I too use the big AI outside the window with glances at altitude and airspeed. GPS makes navigation a non issue.

    I suspect that once I’m over the bells and whistles of the new panel I’ll fall back into the old habits of looking out the window, which now that I think about it, was stressed during my instruction a couple of years ago.

  • Michael Pettinger

    1 year 2 months CFI experience.

    The Glass cockpit is no doubt a “finger and eyeball magnet.”

    As far as introducing students to flying glass the best idea I can think of is find a simulator or even hook up an external power supply to the aircraft, and sit with the student and go over all the features. This way the Glass cockpit becomes less of a “new toy that I want to stare at” and more of a “tool that I can glance at once in awhile.” This was helpful when I was figuring out GPS.

    For collision avoidance I believe there is more to it than simply see and avoid. While at Southern Illinois we often had very congested practice areas and it was helpful to have a single frequency to communicate on with other flight training traffic in the area. Although we still had to watch out for transient air traffic we still knew what the other training aircraft nearby were doing (9 times out of 10).

  • Tom Muller

    I come back to your original comment; should new students spend time with steam guages before using a glass cockpit? I learned to fly in the 70s and got about 150 hours in before familiy responsibility stopped my flying for nearly 20 years. When I was building my RV, I got in another 75 hours or so with steam guages. Since the Dynon-equipped RV was completed 2-1/2 years and 300+ hours ago, I have had limited access to steam guages and almost none of it as PIC. I question my current ability to even find the correct instruments in a steam guage cockpit. Flying with digital guages often means paying unneccessary attention to precision flight. In most cases +- 10 ft altitude, 1 degree of course or 1 knot airspeed will have little affect on the outcome of the flight, but provide active distractions from watching traffic. I need continuous work on my scanning skills because, for a 500-hour pilot who flies weekly, I know I spend too much time head-down.

    Learn on steam – yes? Acting as an IFR safety pilot also seems to help the scan. If you are already flying glass, perhaps it would be good once in a while to do the opposite of IFR practice and block your view of the panel while a safety pilot monitors the glass.

  • Art Fruncillo

    Let’s talk esthetics.

    To my ancient eyes, the old steam gauges look better, work better (especially when it comes to those godawful airspeed and altitude “tapes”) and encourage me to participate in the real joy of flying: looking out and looking down. The traffic alert function is undoubtedly valuable, but not all glass cockpits include that option,

    Meanwhile, the cluttered glass can be an enormous distraction for the low-time or occasional flyer, and perhaps even the seasoned professional who, enchanted by the plethora of information streaming his or her way, neglects to stay heads-up.

  • Alex Kovnat

    For a good perspective on the pitfalls of advanced glass cockpits, see pages 96-100 in the August/September edition of Vertical magazine (; “The Pulse of the Helicopter Industry”). The author, an EMS pilot who flies an EC-135, describes how glass cockpit technology can distract pilots from the basic tasks of flying.

    He doesn’t advocate going back to the days before glass cockpits, but does provide tips and advice that pilots of rotary and fixed-wing aircraft should keep in mind.