Notice the cool primary flight display (or “PFD”)? Notice the yoke just below it? Notice that there’s no hand on the yoke?
What you can’t see in the picture is that there hasn’t been a hand on that yoke (or the one in front of the other pilot seat) for more than 20 minutes. And, yes, the airplane has been flying at about 4,500 feet MSL (about 3,500 feet off the ground (or “AGL:”) for most of that time.
I’m training to transition to a bigger, faster, more sophisticated airplane, the Cessna 182T with the Nav III package. The “Nav III” means that it’s set up with the Garmin G1000 glass cockpit, complete with GFC 700 autopilot and more additional bells and whistles than you can shake a stick at.
This particular airplane (N976CP or CAPFLIGHT 2027) belongs to the US Civil Air Patrol. I’ve been through both VFR and IFR checkrides with CAP and now it’s time to fly the bigger iron. As many of you know, while a Cessna 172 has four seats, you can’t really take off and fly with four regular-sized humans and full fuel. In fact, the heaviest I’ve flown with CAP in a C-172 was with a 170-lb pilot, 200-lb. Check airman, and 200-lb me in the back seat. And fuel only to the tabs (which means leaving a lot of gas back at the airport).
The C-182 allows CAP to take off and fly missions with four normal-sized humans on board and enough fuel to fly a real search and rescue mission. You can fly it at 90 knots and 600 feet above the ground looking for downed aircraft or fly it at 135 knots at 10,000 feet getting places or getting back.
And the best thing about the airplane is the avionics. The Garmin G1000 is a fantastic system that minds a lot of the more mundane things about flying the aircraft so that you just manage the system and are able to think ahead to the search area or the next intersection or approach.
Most primary and instrument flight training is all about hand-flying the airplane. And that’s good, because you have to be able to hand-fly the airplane. But that also makes it very different when you’ve earned all of your basic certificates and ratings and then sit down to fly this sophisticated go-places and find-people airplane.
The expectation is that you’ll give the airplane to the autopilot at 800 feet off the ground on departure and take it back only upon reaching minimums on the approach. That means that (a) you have to trust the hardware and (b) you have to know how to use the hardware. Both are counterintuitive for a guy who’s been hand-flying the airplane for more than 200 hours with very little autopilot experience. Then you take that guy and put him in an airplane that can fly to airline transport pilot (“ATP”) standards all by itself.
The key is understanding what to ask the airplane to do, how to ask the airplane to do it, and how to manage the airplane so that it keeps doing what you expect it to do.
There was an old joke in flight test circles in the mid 20th century when autopilots and guidance systems were just coming into their own. “The airplane comes with a dog. The pilot’s job is to feed the dog. The dog’s job is to bite the pilot if he tries to touch anything.”
I can understand how some test pilots and, later, some general aviation pilots might adopt this grudging attitude about sophisticated avionics and autopilots. But the fact of the matter is that managing an aircraft with a system like the G1000 is a new and additional skill that’s not easy to develop. You have to become a manager of the airplane in addition to being able to fly it. It requires an additional and higher level of understanding of your mission.
And it takes a lot of training. I did a full day of classroom training and then four hours on the ground before flying the airplane for the first time.
But I’m excited about the platform and getting to the point of mastering it. It’ll be an additional capability in my bag of tricks. It’s always better to be able to fly more airplanes than fewer airplanes. And I’ll be a more effective CAP mission pilot when that time comes.
And, even if I didn’t want to fly for CAP, the fact of the matter is that it looks like glass is going to replace many of the round gages in new general aviation aircraft going forward, so you’ll have to get used to glass at some point if you plan to still be flying 20 years from now, especially if you want to be able to use the rental fleets around the country.
I’m really excited about glass and about this aircraft. It’s going to make me a better pilot and make the Civil Air Patrol an even more effective resource for communities, states, and the nation. Two more training flights, then the Form 5 checkride for the airplane. I can’t wait!
And, by the way, as a Civil Air Patrol pilot, I fly this 14-month-old, 450-hour gorgeous airplane for about $30/hour dry (and fuel runs about 14 gallons/hour – call it $56/hour at $4.00/gal.). You can’t rent a beat-up C-172 wet for $86/hour! And I only pay to fly CAP aircraft when the Air Force isn’t paying for my flights. And the Air Force pays for a fair amount of flying.
If you’re a US pilot and not in the US Civil Air Patrol, what the heck are you thinking? Truly! What the heck are you thinking? Check out www.gocivilairpatrol.com for information and a unit near you.
I can’t wait to complete this training. I’m learning a lot about the glass cockpit, I’m serving my community, state, and country, and I’m having way too much fun doing it.