Tuesday, March 01, 2005

Will new aviation technology save lives?

The last several years have seen vast changes in the technology available for light aircraft cockpits. An example is the Garmin G1000 pictured above. It's a fully integrated instrumentation and navigation suite, a "glass cockpit" with capablity approaching that of the Q400 I fly. Solid-state accelerometers replace old vacuum-driven gyros for attitude and heading reference, and GPS technology shows the pilot precisely where the airplane and programmed course are. Terrain, traffic, and weather can all be shown on the large multi-function display. These are all things that've been trickling into small planes the past several years, but you've never seen them integrated like this in anything less than a $20 million airliner or business jet. The crazy part is that all this capability isn't much more expensive than the 1960's technology it replaces.

So what we're seeing is nothing less than a revolution in the cockpit of today's light aircraft. There is no doubt pilots will love having all this technology at their fingertips. My only question is: will it make flying safer? My guess is that in the long run, it will not.

My reasoning is this: the majority of GA accidents are caused by lapses in judgement. New technology will provide pilots with a plethora of information, but will not magically provide pilots with the judgement to use that information in the safest manner possible.

As an example: controlled flight into terrain (CFIT) accounts for a large percentage of accidents in IMC (instrument conditions). Pilots flying with the G1000 will be able to see exactly where the terrain is relative to their position - therefore sharply reducing CFIT accidents. Will this terrain depiction, however, lower the total accident rate? Pilots kill themselves in large numbers by flying into instrument conditions they've not been trained for (VFR into IMC). It seems likely that having precise terrain information will entice many pilots to fly into weather scuzzier than what they'd normally venture into, increasing the number of accidents due to VFR pilots losing control in instrument conditions.

Likewise, having downlinked weather radar and lightning strike information is a very useful thing. However, it may well embolden the owner of an aircraft lacking onboard radar to go fly on days he'd normally leave the plane in the hangar. Suddenly visual avoidance and giving thunderstorms a wide berth doesn't seem so important when you can see on your MFD that the heavy rain starts right there. Pilots may find themselves taking chances they'd never take before, which will lead to an increase in aircraft utility - but also an increase in the cases where pilots pay the ultimate price for a lack of caution.

Having traffic avoidance equipment can be invaluable in busy parts of the country. My first summer flight instructing in the Los Angeles basin, I had no less than fifteen near-misses with other aircraft. Still, having TCAS or the equivalent is not foolproof: keep in mind that there are many airplanes out there lacking transponders, which will not show up on your traffic avoidance equipment. Nonetheless, those of us using it tend to be lulled into a false sense of security, and our traffic scan is nowhere near where it should be at low altitudes. Overall the use of this equipment will probably decrease the number of mid-airs, but others will take place because nobody had their eyes outside the airplane.

In short, I think the new technology is a wonderful thing, but it will not make you safer - and the sooner you recognize that, the safer you'll be. The reason so many light aircraft crash is not inadequate technology - it's inadequate pilots. Sure, buy the nicest avionics suite you can afford, and use it - but seek out the best training, learn your equipment's limitations, know your own limitations, and fly conservatively. It's the way airline pilots fly, and the reason we've acheived such a good safety record.