Saturday, January 31, 2009

The Glass Cockpit

Our Cessna Caravan is equipped with the Garmin G1000 avionics suite. It's often referred to as a "glass cockpit" because it replaces all the traditional round dial mechanical gauges with computerized information on three large format LCDs. If you clicked on the Garmin G1000 link above, you'll see the color displays that present all the information you would see on a traditional panel, and much more beyond that. Below them are four small round dial gauges used only as a backup if there were to be a complete failure of all three of the primary displays.

There's a mind-boggling amount of information presented to the pilot here. A single screen is capable of showing all six of the basic flight instruments, communication and navigation radios, navigation information, engine instruments, airplane systems information, moving map, flight plan, traffic, XM satellite weather, autopilot modes, wind vector, and alerting messages. Just ONE screen. Of course, that gets pretty busy on a single screen, so fortunately we have three.

The screen on the left is the pilot's Primary Flight Display (PFD). This is the one that collects the pilot's basic six-pack of flight instruments into one place: attitude indicator, airspeed, altitude, vertical speed, horizontal situation indicator (HSI), and the turn coordinator and ball. After putting all that on the one screen, there's still lots of space available. So along the top two corners, there's room for controlling the 2 communication radios and the 2 navigation radios. Between those two corners there are two rows of information, one that indicates the autopilot and flight director modes, and another with basic navigation information, track and distance to next waypoint. In the bottom corners, there's room for a small "inset" map on the left side (not shown) which is just a miniaturized version of the big map seen on the center display. On the right side there's room for an abbreviated version of the flight plan. The bottom of the screen has controls for the transponder, clock, and various configuration settings for that display.

The display in the middle is referred to as the Multi-Function Display (MFD). Hardware-wise, it's exactly the same as the PFD, and it can be made to show the same information as the PFD if the left screen failed. It shows all the engine, fuel, and systems information in a column along the left edge. The top edge contains information similar to what's on the top edge of the PFD, minus the autopilot information. But most of the screen is devoted to that nice big color moving map. Just about every kind of information that a pilot would want is shown on the map: Basic navigation information, topography, terrain, traffic, landmarks, roads, airspace, airports, waypoints, weather (either from your onboard weather radar or downloaded via the XM satellite weather feature), flight plan, and XM radio stations (seriously).

The PFD on the right for the copilot is essentially the same as that for the pilot.

All this information is a lot to take in, and learning how to use it all has proven to be the most time-consuming part of learning to fly the airplane. I don't have a vast amount of flying experience, but I've flown all sorts of piston singles and twins, and the Boeing 737. The Caravan flies pretty much like a single-engine Cessna. Not a big deal because aerodynamics are the fundamental principles behind how an airplane behaves in the air, and those don't change. But the way the avionics function isn't tied to any kind of fundamental principle, it's just based on what the manufacturer of the box wants to use. So you end up with vastly different interfaces and operating philosophies moving from one avionics manufacturer to another. I've been immersed in Boeing airplanes and their Flight Management Systems (FMS) and autopilots for years now, and having to learn the Garmin way has been a mild shock. It's helped that I did have a small amount of experience with Garmin several years ago, but it has still required a big paradigm shift.

We were actually given some fairly in-depth training solely for the Garmin G1000 as part of our training for the Caravan, and I'll write more about that in a later post.

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