With each new advance in avionics technology traditionalist among us worry that we are all flying around with our heads down and locked—inside the cockpit. They do have a point.
The most crucial information on your actual flight trajectory is found on displays in the cockpit, not out the windshield. I don’t know any pilot, for example, who can hold altitude within 100 feet while flying at cruise altitude, particularly at altitudes of many thousands of feet. But it’s not only traditionalists who worry about the “head down” problem.
The people who design avionics and cockpit layout share that concern. And it is new technology, not turning back the clock that is helping to solve the problem.
The first change to help pilots keep their heads up was, or should have been, a pretty obvious change in cockpit layout. When you think about what cockpit controls we most-frequently change or adjust in-flight you realize it’s the altimeter setting, the heading, the autopilot mode, or a new setting in the altitude alerter. But for decades the buttons and knobs controlling those functions sat low on the instrument panel, maybe even behind pilots on a cockpit center pedestal.
So a well-designed modern cockpit has all of those “flight guidance” type of controls located way up at the top of the instrument panel. The best location for the flight guidance controls is in the glareshield so pilots need only lower their gaze the minimum amount from looking ahead to see and reach the controls.
Placing frequently used controls up in the normal field of vision seems so simple that I have to wonder why it took us all so long to recognize how important that move is.
Another big technology change to keep our heads up while flying is the flat glass primary cockpit display. The flat glass displays can show an almost infinite amount of information on a single screen.
With flat glass we can see all of the primary flight information on one display instead of looking from one instrument to another—attitude to airspeed to heading and back.
And the capability of the flat glass allows us to see a map of our route, our present location along that route and leg changes in the route, something we couldn’t have seen at all except by looking down at a chart—until just a few years ago.
The flat glass displays also show important system and performance information. Instead of looking across the panel to see engine power settings, fuel flows and other operating information on separate gauges, all of that is right in front of us on the primary glass displays.
And the modern avionics system keeps track of crucial aircraft functions and tells us in plain language when something goes wrong with a CAS (crew advisory system) message. Instead of seeing a red or yellow “idiot light” to call attention to some problem, CAS displays the problem in words we can all understand such as “oil pressure low.”
The CAS system also prioritizes messages so the most-urgent ones always top the list and are color coded: red for critical; yellow for urgent; and usually white for advisory.
Rockwell Collins has made another step in keeping our heads up by using touch screen technology on the primary glass displays. With the new Collins Pro Line Fusion system there is little or no need to look down and away from the primary display to perform normal flying tasks such as changing altimeter setting, radio frequency or adding a new fix to the route.
The ultimate technology solution to keep our head up in flight is, well, the head-up display (HUD). The largest and most advanced business jets have offered HUD for several years, but the expense and physical size of the equipment have prevented HUDs from moving down into smaller, less expensive airplanes.
A HUD is complex because the projector must be powerful enough to paint an image on the combiner glass in front of the pilot’s eyes that can be seen in bright sunlight. Though electronic components are constantly shrinking, the nature of optical devices places limits on how small a lens or focal distance can be.
But Rockwell Collins is making progress there with its new HGS-3500 system that fits physically, and in the budget, of smaller airplanes.
With a HUD there is no need to ever look inside the cockpit during critical phases of flight, such as on approach or in very congested airspace, because all necessary data to control the airplanes is on the HUD glass.
I don’t know how this is possible—but I know it works after flying many different HUD systems—but the numbers and symbols on the HUD glass a few inches in front of your eyes are focused on infinity. You can see a distant object clearly, such as the runway on approach, while it is miles ahead. Yet your eyes, without changing focus, can read the airspeed, altitude and other data on the glass.
It is magic as far as I’m concerned, but the kind of magic that greatly enhances the potential safety of flying in darkness, low visibility, or even in clear skies with lots of traffic around.
I never thought I would live long enough to see inertial type of sensors that can determine attitude, heading, flight path and all other critical flight data at a size and price suitable for piston airplanes. Yet now we have AHRS with non-moving gyros in every size and type of airplane from an amateur-built light single to every production airplane I can think of.
And I never thought I would see the magic of computer generated synthetic vision available for personal airplanes. But it’s here, it works, and just about any airplane owner can afford it.
Will HUD technology follow the same path and become available for pistons? I don’t know how much longer I need to fly to see that happen, but I bet I’ll make it.
HUD technology may be as close as your pocket. Check out this app that turns your iPhone into a HUD display.