If you are learning to fly finding out the advantages and disadvantages of a glass cockpit is crucial to ensuring you get maximum benefit out of it.
Knowing what a glass cockpit is, is the first step to being an expert at operating in one. Whilst initially, many pilots were hesitant to the new glass cockpit technology, they are now widely accepted and part of all modern aircraft. There are many advantages to a glass cockpit, however, there are many of the 9 ICAO competencies that are required to be competent and confident. In this glass cockpit handbook, we explore the must know behaviours to extract the maximum benefit and enhanced safety that when used well is a positive consequence.
What is a glass cockpit?
A glass cockpit1 is the new technological advancement in aircraft for pilots, in short the technology has shifted from individual gauges and dials, to screens, with associated expanded information. The term ‘glass’ became the reference for the surface, but the real changes are how the flight data is generated to present the information to the screen.
Many jet pilots still exist that flew during the slow transition from the conventional cockpit style to the full glass cockpit system and as with any substantial change, (such as the change to EFB’s) it takes lead time for the majority of manufacturers to join the movement. At first, in my experience, many pilots were hesitant, proclaiming the limitations and risks associated with the ‘new’ thing. Over time though, everyone tends to get used to something new and it gradually disappears from the conversation and becomes the norm.
Quick story …
A real example is when I transitioned from the B737 ‘classic’2 to the B737NG (New Generation) where the airspeed indicator was my most likely prediction to be the challenge. Initially, there was both a conventional dial with a needle and a speed tape that presented as a flat tape with an arrow pointing to the current speed. When I had both options, my eye refused to let go of the conventional dial self-selecting over the speed tape.
When it was time to fly the model without the conventional speed dial altogether, deep down I wondered if it was at all possible! The mystery of letting go of the conventional dial was soon solved when the absence of the option of it immediately retrained my eyes to the speed tape with unceremonious ease.
What is the difference between a glass cockpit and a conventional cockpit?
To the untrained eye, the difference between a glass cockpit and a conventional cockpit is the modern looking screens however to pilots, there is a lot more information streamlined into less components. Behind the scenes, how the information is generated differs in that conventional receives information to individual gauges in more of a direct fashion whereas glass converts a pneumatic pressure to an electrical signal, then takes that data and further converts to a video signal electronic heading and attitude systems and air data modules3/computers.
The information is presented in an electronic format with colours that change providing pilots with a coded visual alerting message. When a pilot first transitions to glass, the difference feels like a sensory overload of information until the brain and the eye becomes accustomed to where all the information is presented and for what purpose.
“Because there are fewer moving parts, digital displays are generally more reliable than standard instruments. There’s always a downside though… the biggest complaints from glass cockpit users result from software glitches.”boldmethod.com/blog/lists/2017/02/16-impressive-reasons-why-pilots-love-glass-cockpits6
Is a glass cockpit better?
This is a question that used to spark great debate among what we could call the ‘before,’ the ‘after’ and the ‘in betweens’ and generally the answer would be weighted to what you were used to. However, in defining the measure as information, reliability, adaptability and efficiency of use, the glass cockpit by far stacks up. Although not a great outcome for flight engineers, the glass cockpit was one of the instrumental reasons the flight engineers were gradually phased out, many becoming pilots to stay in the air.
The glass cockpit not only streamlined the information to manipulate the aircraft well, but it also coincided with simplifying the aircraft systems into a one stop information screen that allowed the pilot to merge the flying of the aircraft better with managing the systems.
Is a glass cockpit safer?
The NTSB conducted a study4 to determine the stats on answering this question however dissecting the findings takes more focus. In short, the overall accident rate reduced, however fatal accidents increased when comparing glass cockpit to conventional ‘steam driven’ cockpit. The findings also showed that the glass instrument layout in smaller aircraft is not standardised, and training needed to be increased to counteract the technology.
From personal experience, the shift from conventional to glass takes some getting used to even with many hours of flight experience under your belt. Initially, it is a sensory overload of information, but when proficient at using it, and accessing primary flight instruments in this way, a pilot has a high level of information via many different formats to work with.
Getting comfortable with the technology and being able to see and interpret the information is when the glass cockpit is safer.
When you are learning glass cockpit, learn it well, do not brush past it quickly. Take some time to understand each of the symbols, their degraded mode, and hour to transfer data if one fails.
Do glass cockpits have gyros?
Part of the change of thinking in glass cockpits is how the raw data information is generated. Glass cockpits do not have gyros as the information is generated from Attitude and heading reference systems5 (AHRS) for the presentation of pitch, yaw and roll. Airspeed and altitude now are produced by air data modules/computers.
What is a major benefit of a glass cockpit?
The major benefit of a glass cockpit is the high amount of information available however this comes with the caveat that good training and understanding is also required.
“If you’re in an unfamiliar area, it’s sometimes hard to judge where airspace boundaries start and end. Glass cockpits show your position compared to most airspace boundaries to assist your situational awareness.”boldmethod.com/blog/lists/2017/02/16-impressive-reasons-why-pilots-love-glass-cockpits6
Advantages of a glass cockpit:
· Clear information
· No parallax error
· Increased situational awareness
· Precise information
· Cheaper training (including at home)
· Increased alerting capability
· Weather overlay on screen
· Faster crosscheck
· Checklists on screen
· Traffic alerting
Disadvantages of a glass cockpit:
· More expensive to maintain
· Challenge of transition from conventional, to electronic flight displays
· Distracting at first (information overload)
· Tunnel vision
· Sun glare
· Rapid eye movement, tired eyes
· Keeping screens cool
What kind of aircraft has glass cockpits?
In the larger end, all modern airliners, modern military aircraft, and even the space shuttle. In training aircraft, the Cirrus was one of the first to introduce however now many modern Piper and Cessna aircraft are fitted with glass cockpit systems.
Technological progress is inevitable, and aviation is a leader in breaking into new frontiers and glass cockpits are a good consequence however the transition brings a great need to respect the challenge. The amount of information created for the pilot simply means the depth of training required must match the complexity. Flying with a glass cockpit is a system of its own and achieving mastery in it takes breaking the complexity down to a base level of what each of the symbols mean, in normal and non-normal situations.
The answer to ‘What is a glass cockpit?’ is progress.
Remember, respect the amount of information so that it enhances your performance rather than overwhelming you.
- ‘Glass Cockpit’, Skybrary. Accessed online at https://www.skybrary.aero/articles/glass-cockpit on Jan 31, 2023.
- ‘MAX Flight Instruments’ b737.org.uk. Accessed online at http://www.b737.org.uk/flightinsts.htm on Jan 31, 2023.
- ‘Air Data Modules’, Honeywell. Accessed online at https://aerospace.honeywell.com/us/en/products-and-services/product/hardware-and-systems/sensors/air-data-modules on Jan 31, 2023.
- ‘Introduction of Glass Cockpit Avionics into Light Aircraft’, NTSB.gov. Accessed online at https://www.ntsb.gov/safety/safety-studies/Documents/SS1001.pdf on Jan 31, 2023.
- ‘GARMIN TIPS AND TRICKS How Glass Works’, Keith Thomassen, Flight Levels Online. Published: Winter 2022. Accessed online at https://flightlevelsonline.com/2019/garmin-tips-and-tricks-how-glass-works/#:~:text=Aircraft%20with%20modern%20glass%20cockpits,to%20provide%20altitude%20and%20airspeeds on Jan 31, 2023.
- ’15 Advantages Of Flying A Glass Cockpit’, Swayne Martin, Bold Method. Published: Feb 14, 2017. Accessed online at https://www.boldmethod.com/blog/lists/2017/02/16-impressive-reasons-why-pilots-love-glass-cockpits/ on Jan 31, 2023.