G.A. Accidents: Transitioning to ‘Glass Cockpits’

According to the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), in 2006 alone, 66% of all light airplane accidents were in airplanes with electronic cockpits. With the proliferation of the new electronic cockpit designs, ‘glass cockpits’ there is a new set of challenges for the light general aviation (GA) community. This affects mainly pilots that have spent most of their flying careers in the conventional ‘steam gauge’ cockpit. While both systems achieve the same end in the flight environment, they both function and are used in distinctively different ways. With the proliferation of the new electronic cockpit designs, ‘Glass Cockpits’ there is a new set of challenges for the light GA community.

Key Takeaways

  1. From steam gauges the glass cockpit: Over the years many accidents have been caused by improper transition from conventional ‘steam gauge’ cockpit layout to the digital ‘glass cockpit’ layout.
  2. Being prepared: Taking the time to learn any new or unfamiliar avionics system, be they conventional or electronic is always prudent.
  3. Case study: The accident case study illustrates the importance of proper transitioning from conventional cockpit layouts to more modern electronic cockpit layouts.

Electronic Flight Deck

As with any new system that is introduced into any of life’s arenas, there is always a learning and adoption curve. The more radical the system is in comparison to the previous standardized system the greater the learning curve and adoption cycle. In the case of electronic flight instruments as compared to the traditional ‘steam gauge’ flight instruments, the differences are so vast that they can be accurately compared to night and day. This means the learning curve is so steep, and adoption cycle is so long that a mere overview of the new system is insufficient to ensure it’s accurate and safe usage, especially in instrument meteorological conditions (IMC). A lack of complete understanding of the system is one of the major factors leading to accidents relating to the improper or inappropriate use of electronic flight decks. It is clear that the lack of understanding comes mainly from inadequate training or the complete lack of any type of training on the electronic flight deck system in question. Pilots must also be aware of an inherent underlying macho attitude towards the new electronic flight systems, especially when they have a fare or a substantial amount of experience flying the older system. The Attitude — “I can fly that, how hard can it be?” — is one that has left many pilots lacking the ability to fly anything else, ever. Somehow it is not clear to see that the lack of proper understanding, training and underestimating the glass cockpit system can quickly put a pilot into a forgettable situation for all.

Accident Case Study

In the case of the accident of N210HM on April 7, 2008, which led to the fatal injury of both occupants of the aircraft, the pilot-in-command and the aircraft builder/owner who was also a pilot. According to the NTSB (2009), “The instrument-rated private pilot requested a very high-frequency omnidirectional radio range (VOR) approach into an airport. Thereafter he began a descent from cruise flight into instrument meteorological conditions. The controller cleared the airplane for the approach about 20 miles north of the airport. The airplane then began a descending right turn and the pilot requested and was provided, vectors to another airport. While en-route to that airport, he amended his request and asked for vectors to a third airport, stating that he required an airport with an instrument landing system (ILS) approach. The controller subsequently provided vectors, followed by an ILS approach clearance. Shortly after receiving the clearance, the airplane flew past the ILS localizer path, and the controller canceled the approach clearance. The pilot then requested an airport with cloud bases 2,000 feet or better, and the controller advised him to check the weather at a nearby airport. The airplane then began a rapid descending right turn, followed by a steep climbing right turn. The airplane then began another rapid descent and was destroyed when it collided with wooded terrain. Throughout the approach portions of the flight, the airplane deviated multiple times from assigned altitudes and headings. The airplane was equipped with a liquid crystal display avionics suite, in a configuration commonly referred to as a “glass cockpit.” No logbook entries were noted indicating that the instrument-rated pilot had flight experience in the accident airplane, and the majority of his flight experience in IMC took place in his own airplane, which was equipped with conventional flight instruments. The pilot-rated passenger/builder held a private pilot certificate and did not possess an instrument rating. No evidence of any pre-impact mechanical anomalies was discovered. Weather reports for airports in the vicinity of the accident varied between 8 and 10 miles visibility, with cloud bases between 1,200 and 2,000 feet mean sea level (msl) and cloud tops at 4,500 feet msl. The airplane’s turning ground track and the cloud conditions were conducive to the onset of pilot spatial disorientation. The airplane’s multiple, rapid ascents and descents are consistent with the pilot’s loss of control of the airplane because of spatial disorientation.” (para.1).

Furthermore, according to the NTSB, the probable cause of this accident is pilot-in-command’s loss of control of the aircraft in-flight due to spatial disorientation. Contributing to the accident were the weather conditions and the pilot-in-command’s lack of flight experience in the accident airplane and its electronic flight deck. From these findings, it is very clear that lacking a full understanding of the flight deck systems coupled with environmental factors and aircraft familiarity, is the perfect recipe for an accident.

Additional accident data from the NTSB.

Flight History: According to the NTSB (2009), “On April 7, 2008, at 1226 eastern daylight time, an amateur-built RV-10, N210HM, was destroyed when it impacted trees and terrain in Seale, Alabama, following a missed approach to Columbus Metropolitan Airport (CSG), Columbus, Georgia. The certificated private pilot, and the pilot rated passenger/builder were killed. The flight originated from Lebanon Municipal Airport, Lebanon, Tennessee. Instrument meteorological conditions prevailed, and an instrument flight rules (IFR) flight plan was filed for the personal flight conducted under 14 Code of Federal Regulations Part 91”, (para.3)

Pilot: Also from the NTSB (2009), “The pilot, age 63, held a private pilot certificate with a rating for airplane single-engine land and instrument airplane. The pilot’s most recent FAA second-class medical certificate was issued September, 2006, with the limitation that he wear lenses for near and distant vision. Review of his pilot logbooks revealed that as of March 22, 2008 he had accumulated about 1770 total hours of flight experience, which included about 358 hours in actual instrument conditions. According to the logbook, the pilot accumulated 6.4 hours of total flight experience in instrument conditions for the 6 months preceding the accident. During that time he performed three instrument approaches in instrument meteorological conditions, and one practice instrument approach in visual meteorological conditions. The logbook entry did not display a notation stating that the practice approach was performed under the supervision of a safety pilot. The pilot’s logbook records further indicated that since June 2000, he had logged about 130 flight hours in his personal airplane, N19419 in simulated and instrument flight conditions. This airplane was a 1976 Cessna 177B, equipped with conventional cockpit instruments”, (para.7).

Passenger/Builder: The NTSB also highlighted the following in its report (2009), “The pilot rated passenger/builder, age 64, held a private pilot certificate with a rating for airplane single-engine land, and the limitation of night flying prohibited. He did not possess an instrument rating. His most recent FAA third-class medical certificate was issued January 3, 2008, with the limitation that the certificate was only valid for 12 months, and that he wear lenses for near vision. Review of his pilot logbooks revealed that he had accumulated about 526 total hours of flight experience, 68 hours of which were in the accident airplane. In the 90 days prior to the accident, the logbook indicated 5.2 hours of total flight time, all of which was flown in the accident airplane. A flight review was conducted in the accident airplane on February 9, 2007, and included 0.3 hours of simulated instrument training”, (para.9).

Minimizing Risks

It is very clear that proper transitioning from the traditional cockpit design to the electronic flight deck requires more than mere familiarity with the new flight deck system. In order to avoid the type of complications surrounding instrument flying and operating many types of aircraft along with the new flight deck, pilots should be aware of the limitations of operating electronic flight decks, if they are not completely familiar with and are trained on them. Taking the new systems for granted and thinking that one can easily “wing” their way through its operation, can be fatal. Accurate and adequate training on the new systems is quite important. Finally, one must know and fully understand the capabilities and limitations of any flight deck they are using and to know that “when in doubt, shout”. In other words, call for help from ATC.


Many pilots take for granted the electronic flight deck system in GA airplanes, thinking to themselves, “how hard can it be? It has the same instrument indications and performs the same functions and it looks like my electronic tablet computer which I’m very familiar with”. This type of thinking is the type that normally gets pilots into trouble. It is very important that one gets accurate and adequate training on all variations of flight deck systems that they intend to fly, especially when they are planning on operating such systems in IMC.


National Transportation Safety Board (2010). Introduction of Glass Cockpit Avionics into Light Aircraft. Washington, D.C.: NTSB.

National Transportation Safety Board. (2009, March 5). National Transportation Safety Board Aviation Accident Final Report. Retrieved from https://app.ntsb.gov/pdfgenerator/ReportGeneratorFile.ashx?EventID=20080422X00528&AKey=1&RType=HTML&IType=FA

AOPA Air Safety Institute (2016, June 30 Transitioning to Other Airplanes: Errors of Interpretation. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d-AnOQKwGVs&t=104s

Thank you for reading this week’s On Aviation™ full article. Do you believe that proper transition from ‘steam gauge’ to “glass cockpit’ is still an issue in General Aviation? Please share your thoughts in the comments below and remember to continue the conversation on our Twitter and Instagram.

Orlando — On Aviation™



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