The Gear Monkey

Musings from up there... and other places

Glass Cockpits

I’m currently recovering from some minor surgery, and out of the cockpit for a few months. During this time, I’m digging up some memorable flying experiences from the past. Don’t worry… multiple paragraphs contemplating the ocean from 40,000 feet will be back soon!

N33°41.30′ W112°5.03′
May 2005

The case of beer feels ice cold against my leg in the relentless heat of the Phoenix Spring afternoon—even through the thick brown paper of the bag it’s in. We are hurrying across the brilliantly shining sun-exposed parking lot through the shimmering air rising from the pavement, moving quickly from the relative comfort of the AC-filled interior of my Jeep to the protection of the double glass doors now just 20 feet away. My fellow flight instructor, Nolan, exhales loudly through pursed lips in an attempt to blow some cool air across his face. I know this doesn’t actually work, but he’s only been out here for two months now—arriving just as the calendar went from “winter” to “don’t go outside during daylight hours”—and hasn’t figured that out yet.

We are entering into the enemy territory of another flight school, located at a different airport than we operate out of. Mostly their presence is made up of nothing more than small dots that we share the sky of the practice area with and the hesitantly uncertain student pilot voices on the radio. Today however, we see their planes up close, parked on the other side of the tall chain-link fence separating the parking lot from the ramp. I note that in person, despite the very glossy advertising brochures, these planes look just as tired and worn as ours. Also, they are all single engine trainers, unlike our multi-engine heavy fleet parked on the ramp at home. However, it’s due to that difference in planes that we got to be here at all.

Three months ago, the chief flight instructor at this school called us up to inquire about adding his multi-engine instructor rating, something we routinely train people for but wasn’t a part of the program at the school he worked for. We put him in touch with our schedulers and a week later he walked through the door and became one of the best students I had worked with during my time instructing. He easily passed his checkride three days later and as he left, he said if there was anything he could ever help us with to reach out to him.

Two months later I got an invite to interview with an airline on the East Coast. Part of the interview would be an evaluation in a full-motion flight simulator where they would test my basic instrument flying skills. Although I wouldn’t be expected to know how to operate the specific type of airplane represented by the simulator, by providing a basic information on how to fly the plane as well as a pilot sitting seat support and cueing me on appropriate speeds and flap settings, I could focus on the basics of flying in an instrument environment. It was likely that the evaluation would take place in an old 737 simulator, whose flight instruments were very similar to the planes I was flying at the time. However there was a small possibility that the CRJ simulator—the plane the company actually flew—would be available at that time, and if that happened, it would be my first time flying a glass cockpit.

In the 737 sim and in many older airplanes, there are six “standard” flight instruments a pilot uses to safely fly an airplane during times when they can’t see outside. Three of these instruments (altimeter, airspeed indicator, and vertical speed indicator) rely on air pressure, and three of them (attitude indicator, heading indicator, and turn coordinator) rely on gyroscopes. Flying during instrument conditions requires a scan—something all instrument-pilots-in-training spend hours practicing and perfecting—to constantly gather information from all six instruments in order to keep the airplane upright, on speed, and doing what you want it to.

Glass cockpits have now become standard in most aircraft. These combine digital representations of all six instruments into a single display screen (either CRT or now more commonly LCD) called a Primary Flight Display (PFD), utilizing a large attitude indicator in the center with airspeed, altitude, and heading “tapes” along the sides. The benefit of this system is that all the information is displayed in one unit, allowing a pilot to greatly reduce the visual area of their instrument scan. Additionally, more information such as course navigation, radio frequencies, and, on advanced systems, either computer-generated or actual terrain overlays of what is in front of the aircraft can be displayed as well. Glass cockpits also include additional screens (called various things by different manufacturers) that can display moving maps, aircraft system synoptics, and video feeds.

This other flight school had a version of the CRJ simulator. I knew this due to their prolific advertising efforts in all the flying magazines. Their version, called a fixed base sim because unlike a full motion sim, the sim cab stays stationary with only the visuals providing a sense of motion, wasn’t as advanced as the sim I’d potentially be tested in during my interview, but could still provide a great introduction into glass cockpits. Although I’d never thought (and still don’t think) that it’s important to get simulated transport-category jet time during initial pilot training, to give myself the best chance possible of doing well at my upcoming interview, I had called my former student and asked if I could come over and spend a few minutes watching as some of his students went through a sim session so I could get a feel for the glass. Instead he offered me and another of our instructors the use of the sim for two hours with one of his instructors, for the cost of a case of beer. I immediately took him up on his generous offer, and now, two weeks later, Nolan and I are making the trip across town.

Thirty minutes after we walk through the front doors and into the pleasant air-conditioning of the lobby, Nolan and I are strapped into two of the most comfortable airplane seats I could have ever imagined. In the cool darkness of the sim, our faces lit by the six display screens in front of us, a helpful instructor walks us through the basics of the symbology, which helps us build up a scan for flying the plane. The two hours “fly” by, but by the end of that time, both of us feel marginally comfortable with making the plane go where we want it to and reading the navigation instruments well enough to at least mostly understand what is going on.

Two weeks from that day, I will be sitting in a similar sim—except that it moves—with the Chief Pilot of the airline standing behind me. I’ll focus hard and put together all the skills I’ve learned: from my very first instructional flight over the hills of West Virginia, to training flights over the bright white sands of Florida’s Atlantic coast, to teaching in the heat of the Phoenix summer, to the dark sim bay at a competitor’s training center, where I got a crash course in glass cockpit flying. And it all comes back. As the Chief Pilot tells me I’ve finished and that I did a good job, I take my hands off the yoke—proud to see that I haven’t been gripping it so hard that I left greasy handprints—and rub my leg just above my left knee, where the skin is cold to the touch—even through the fabric of my pants. Maybe it’s just from the air vent that was pointed there. Or maybe it’s the memory of the case of beer I had carried across the hot parking lot two weeks before.

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