The Pros and Cons of Learning to Fly With a Glass Cockpit
Glass cockpits are shiny, exciting, complex, expensive, and here to stay. Almost every airplane currently in production has glass avionics with an electronic primary flight display (PFD), and many older aircraft have been retrofitted with glass technology as well. Modern civilian aircraft—like the Airbus A350 and the Boeing 787—exclusively use glass cockpits with computers, keyboards, and massive displays. Glass cockpits provide great tools for the experienced pilots who fly with them. However, as you start your flying journey, how do you know if training in a glass cockpit is the right choice?
How to Choose Between Glass and Analog Cockpits
Typically, flight schools have a fleet of aircraft that is affordable to fly, and training in an aircraft with a well-maintained analog cockpit can help you save on your hourly costs. Yet, it is up to you as a student to choose which airplane you want to fly and which flight school will best fit your needs. If you are interested in becoming a pilot, or you are a certificated pilot who is interested in additional flight training and ratings, first consider these questions:
- What type of flying do you want to do? Hobby? Professional?
- What is your budget?
- What type of planes do you plan on flying in the future?
If you plan to fly a Piper Cub out of a grass strip on nice weather days, then learning glass cockpit technology is not the best use of your time and money. However, if you want to fly larger or more complex airplanes as a career, for personal or business travel, or even for fun, then you must understand the pros and cons of training in glass cockpits and be able to weigh them against your personal goals and future flying plans.
Glass Cockpits Are the Future
Just as most cars now come equipped with screens and advanced electronics, general aviation aircraft do as well. Most manufacturers only offer their new airplanes with glass cockpits, and those that specialize in large aircraft will not design their fleet with anything other than advanced glass cockpits. Many packages, such as Pro Line Fusion®, now include full touch-screen display systems, which provide an incredible amount of information to pilots.
It is common for corporate aviation operators to upgrade their existing avionics to the newest technology as well. It increases the value and lifespan of older aircraft. The same is true for general aviation aircraft. It is increasingly affordable and common to retrofit a Cessna 172 with a glass cockpit.
If you are considering an aviation career, learning glass cockpit skills is important. All the airlines use glass cockpits, and most professional flying will be in glass cockpits. In the not-so-distant future, most flight training organizations will conduct all their training in aircraft equipped with glass cockpits as well.
More Training Resources Are Available for Glass Cockpits
The early problems with glass cockpits were mostly due to substandard training. Now, since glass cockpits dominate the market for new aircraft, the flight training industry allocates more resources to the development of training materials for the newest avionics technology.
The safety management systems of airlines and corporate departments have been collecting several million hours of data on glass cockpit flight operations. Most of the data the systems collect are on incidents and potential issues, which the airlines and Part 135 operators use to create better training plans for their pilots.
Pilots have significantly higher margins of safety when they have a wide range of data-driven training tools and resources available to them. That is why airline training requires pilots to practice avionics procedures in flight simulators and computer programs for over 100 hours before flying a jet for the first time.
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Increasingly, these types of approaches from the highest levels of flight training are implemented into ab initio training as well. Starting with the first lesson, Certified Flight Instructors teach best practices learned from decades of aviation safety. That includes cockpit familiarization, which you now can learn using flight simulators and computer programs.
Computer technology is more affordable and faster than ever, and the focus of aircraft manufacturers on glass cockpit technology is reflected in the software and e-learning materials that the training market continues to provide for pilots. There are thousands of educational flight simulator scenarios, YouTube videos, articles, and training documents available online that can help you learn glass cockpit technology.
Glass Cockpits Offer the Best Available Technology and Safety
New corporate aviation jets and airliners boast some of the most sophisticated and advanced technology available today, which has helped aviation become increasingly safe over the past few decades. Pilot training has improved, and redundant safety features in airplanes have prevented many accidents.
According to an MIT study, air travel is ten times safer than 40 years ago, about the same time glass cockpits arrived on the scene. Of course, many other safety measures improved over that time, including Crew Resource Management (CRM) training and the mechanical reliability of aircraft. However, new technology in the cockpit continues to play a significant role in the advances to aviation safety.
One of the most substantial advantages of glass cockpits is the increased situational awareness they can provide. Moving map displays paired with an easy-to-read primary flight display allow pilots to focus their time on decision-making and potential threats. Moving map displays and ground proximity warning systems also have helped decrease the frequency of accidents caused by loss of situational awareness.
Glass Cockpit Primary Flight Display (Left) and Moving Map Display (Right)
Glass cockpits enhance ground situational awareness considerably. Systems can issue GPS-based alerts and make low-visibility days much safer. Runway incursions have been on the NTSB’s most-wanted list for decades, but moving map displays now help pilots safely navigate around airports and avoid active runways. With the implementation of ADSB, ground controllers can see aircraft displayed on the ground and be alerted to potential collisions. Just take a look at this live ADSB viewer for KATL. For pilots at unfamiliar airports, having a moving map or ground view display on glass cockpits makes ground operations much safer.
Full Glass Cockpits Are More Expensive
While glass cockpits are the present and the future of aviation cockpit technology and have many advantages, there is still a significant downside to using them during primary pilot training.
Glass cockpits can be expensive.
If you have searched for hourly rates on aircraft, you will notice that training aircraft equipped with full glass cockpits are normally more expensive—sometimes significantly so. Affordable retrofit options can provide exceptions to that rule, but, generally, you'll find that flight training organizations charge more for their glass-equipped aircraft. That is for a few reasons.
- Glass cockpits are typically on newer aircraft, and newer planes have a higher hourly cost.
- Glass cockpit technology is more expensive than existing analog instruments. Plus, repair costs for advanced electronic displays are significantly more than those for replacing standard instruments.
- Flight schools may use their glass cockpit aircraft as a marketing tool for recruitment. They can charge more for the “shiny, new” plane.
If you are flying VFR and only occasionally renting an aircraft for training, then learning the ins and outs of a glass cockpit may not make sense at the beginning.
However, due to recent and ongoing improvements in training, software, and flight simulation, you can accomplish glass cockpit training more cheaply and efficiently. You can practice on a computer at home and in your flight school's flight simulator before using the avionics in a real airplane. Simulator training saves time and money and allows you to learn a new avionics package on the ground instead of tinkering with unfamiliar screens while the Hobbs meter ticks away.
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Transitioning From Glass to Analog Can Be Challenging
Most professional pilots will fly with glass cockpits at the airlines and corporate aviation outfits. However, before that, they may fly older aircraft with analog primary flight instruments. Low-time pilot jobs, including cargo, banner towing, and flight instruction, are often in analog-equipped aircraft. If you are considering flying professionally, you likely will need to train in analog cockpits too.
Many pilots argue that it is easier to transition from analog to glass. Glass cockpit primary flight displays simplify scanning by presenting everything in a single area that is easy to interpret and see. In other words, they spoil pilots. Learning how to adjust to analog instruments can be difficult for pilots accustomed to having all their navigational information and flight data displayed neatly on an electronic flight display. Many older aircraft have navigational instruments scattered across the panel. Transitioning from glass to analog can decrease safety margins as the pilot learns how to see and understand everything happening on the panel and develop a scan.
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Glass Cockpits Can Be Distracting During Primary Pilot Training
Many flight instructors and pilots argue that glass cockpits are unnecessary for flight training and even detrimental during initial instruction. In the beginning, a pilot needs to learn pitch, power, straight and level, turns, and all the fundamentals of flight.
Since screens are shiny and have lots of features, they can potentially distract a new pilot, which reinforces bad behavior. A VFR pilot should spend most of his/her time looking outside, scanning for traffic, and learning how the airplane flies.
Many instructors cover up the instruments for the first few lessons. When I instructed new students in fully glass-equipped aircraft, I often turned the screens completely off and instead had students only use the three analog standby instruments. I saw many students spend far too much time scanning inside, looking at the screens instead of focusing outside.
At the start of your training, glass cockpits can potentially cause more issues than they solve. Plus, instructors may insist on disabling many of the features, which means you could pay a higher hourly rental rate for no reason.
Even so, glass cockpit technology is here to stay. It is the future. The data shows that when used properly, glass cockpits are safer. They increase situational awareness and improve the national airspace system.
If you are learning to fly privately or for an aviation career, it will be critical to train both in glass and analog cockpits. Glass cockpits will be in your future, but—at least for now—analog cockpits will be in your future too. Perhaps in 10-20 years, there hardly will be any analog cockpits left as the prices for glass cockpit technology continue to decrease. However, for now, having a fundamental understanding of analog instruments is necessary.
As you prepare to start your training, take the advice you hear on glass cockpits with a grain of salt. Conducting primary flight training with glass cockpits can be a divisive subject, with technology early adopters and old-school aviators often advocating at opposite ends of the spectrum. Realistically, the arguments on both sides are sensible. It is up to you to decide which avionics configuration you prefer to use early in your training. Your budget, learning preferences, and flying goals should factor heavily into your decision. Fly safe!
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