Saturday, March 11, 2006


Glass-Cockpit Archer III Checkout

Today I got checked out in the school's 2005 Archer III. After a year of training in 25-year-old Warriors, it was a pleasant experience.

In aviation parlance, a "checkout" is a supervised flight where a pilot demonstrates to the satisfaction of the plane's owners, operators, and/or insurers that the pilot can be trusted to fly the plane. The FAA isn't involved in this. As far as the FAA is concerned, it's legal for me to fly any non-turbine single-engine plane under 12,500 pounds (with a few other qualifications), but airplane owners and insurance companies aren't going to let me get in a cockpit without a checkout. So I flew around with one of the instructors for a couple of hours while he demonstrated its systems and had me perform touch-and-goes, stalls, steep turns, and other maneuvers. Now, I'm allowed to rent the plane whenever I want.

The Archer flies a lot like the Warriors I trained in. The Archer is a little heavier, but has a more powerful engine. The Archer's stalls were a bit gentler than the Warrior's, and the controls felt a little stiffer, but on the whole it felt a lot like the planes I'm used to.

Landings were a little difficult because the Archer's instrument panel is higher than the Warrior's, causing the sight picture in a flare to look different. After a few touch-and-goes, I got the hang of it.

This Archer has a "glass cockpit." That has nothing to do with the material in the cockpit windows—it means that instead of the traditional analog dials, the primary instruments are two large computer displays. The display on the left, called the Primary Flight Display (PFD), provides the functions of an altimeter, airspeed indicator, vertical speed indicator, turn coordinator, horizontal situation indicator, tachometer, and a few other things. The display on the right, called the Multi-Function Display (MFD), can be switched between engine monitoring, a moving map, and a few other functions. In addition to the two big displays, the plane has GPS receivers, Traffic Alert/Collision Avoidance System (TCAS), satellite weather, an autopilot, some fancy radios, and other new-fangled stuff.

And it has leather seats. Those were nice.

I really didn't make much use of the nifty gizmos. I'm sure they would be useful when making a cross-country flight, or when flying IFR, but when just tooling around the practice area, I think I would have been happier if it all had an OFF switch.

As a software developer, I was shocked by how hard it was to use all this stuff. The avionics system is made up of several independent components, and they way they were integrated presented a confusing user interface. It's a bit like when you want to switch from watching cable to watching your DVD player: you have to use one remote to switch the TV's input channel, then another to turn on the DVD, and then a third to adjust the volume on the stereo. Now imagine how that would work if, instead of keys to press, the remotes had knobs to spin. Then imagine you are using those remotes while riding a unicycle. That's what the glass cockpit felt like to me.

This is the kind of thing that makes people hate computers. There's no excuse for it. It's just stupid.

I'm not against glass cockpits. I just think it will take a couple more iterations before small airplanes have systems that are easy to use. In the meantime, I'll be happy with the old "steam gauges."

But while I don't need glass, I definitely do need leather seats, so I'll be flying this plane again.

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