What’s Your Poison – Glass Cockpit or Round Dials?

Glass cockpits have been around for decades, replacing the original round dials, first in transport category aircraft and then filtering down to the smallest general aviation and experimental aircraft.

Are glass cockpits for everyone? Traditionalists will maintain that using round dials is essential to obtain and maintain the excellent stick and rudder skills real flying demands, but glass cockpits are now a fact of life. Some new pilots may never have flown with round instruments.

Has this advanced technology improved safety or the flying experience? I had one sales rep for a major avionics manufacturer, in a moment of unguarded candour, describe his company’s product as “just eye candy”.

But glass cockpits do have many advantages over round dials some of which are listed below:

Advantages

  1. No parallax. The next time you are pre-flighting an airplane, try to read round dial instruments from the right seat. In glass cockpit equipped aircraft, the viewing angle still makes a right-seater’s job difficult, but there is no parallax.
  • Accuracy – With a glass cockpit, you are not interpreting altimeter or airspeed needle position, the numbers are displayed on the screen.
  • Graphical weather display – The ability to have near real time data linked weather displayed in the cockpit provides pilots with forecasts, radar reports, satellite imagery, pilot reports, and more.
Image of Graphic Weather Display
Graphic Weather Display
  • Traffic display – In congested airspace, traffic display will never replace keeping the pilot’s eyes outside the aircraft but it can be an invaluable aid.
  • Terrain awareness and synthetic vision – Plays an important role in increasing situational awareness.
  • Check Lists – You always have checklists at your fingertips no more searching the cockpit for the paper copy.
  • Airspace Mapping – It’s sometimes hard to judge where airspace boundaries start and end. Glass cockpits show position compared to airspace boundaries.
  • Eye Candy – They do look great and can give passengers a sense of confidence in the aircraft.
  • Reliability – With fewer parts, no spinning gyros, etc. there is less to go wrong.
  • Bluetooth Syncing – The ability to transfer flight plans from an IPad directly to the avionics system.

It is a truism, however that no aircraft is ever safer than the pilot flying, and the accident data does not show glass cockpits to be inherently safer than round dials.

As the biggest impediment to the adoption of glass cockpits is cost, if you are looking for improved flying safety it may be better to invest in your personal flying skills and hours flown than in more technology.

The pros and cons of glass are a great debate to have. The technology is constantly evolving but it will be many years, if ever that glass becomes a must for every pilot or mission.