The Aunt Betty Directive: PFD Failures

The Aunt Betty Directive: PFD Failures

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Glass panel displays, ballistic parachute aircraft recovery systems, portable tablet computers enabling paperless cockpits, and widely available three axis autopilot systems have changed the way we fly, the way we train, and the way we are expected to perform on check rides. Our training and testing paradigms have tried to stay in synch, yet always seem to be catching up to the latest levels of technology.

This is very apparent when we instructors are preparing a student for an FAA practical test. When training aircraft had no autopilots, no GPS, and certainly no parachutes, the general philosophy was that during training, the student should have the lowest level of technology available. This was also the expectation on the check ride. This theory has changed over the years and now the Practical Test Standards require that an applicant integrate all available technology while demonstrating mastery of his or her aircraft. This raises numerous questions from instructors and students about what technology will be available for each task.

One example of this dilemma is found when contemplating an instrument airplane practical test in a Cirrus SR20/SR22. The test requires the task “Instrument Approach without Primary Flight Display”, which has taken the place of what was the partial panel approach, accomplished without use of gyroscopic heading and attitude indicators. In the Cirrus, the standby attitude indicator, standby airspeed, and standby altimeter are available, as is the Multi-Function Display. Guidance from the FAA has us shooting a GPS approach using the moving map display on the MFD after disabling the PFD. Those of us who trained and tested in steam gauge aircraft think that this task should be fairly easy. With a fully functional Attitude Indicator and a nice big moving map display showing our course, a reasonably competent instrument pilot should have little trouble adapting to this setup and flying a good approach.

But, in the Cirrus specifically, and perhaps in other aircraft as well, another question comes up. Can the applicant use the autopilot (which still works just fine after a display failure) during the approach without the PFD? A rather famous DPE who writes for a national magazine says “yes”, opining that not to allow its use would be introducing simultaneous multiple systems failures, which is strictly forbidden in the minds of some. If we follow this logic, we would not test simulated engine failure emergencies in these aircraft either, because to do so would imply failure of not only the engine, but the CAPS parachute system as well. In my former role as a pilot examiner, I always said no, that the approach should be hand flown. Here is my logic.

I was amazed that flight instructors and examiners would accept the substitution of autopilot technology for the skill required to fly an approach without the PFD. I would argue that the intent and the well described emphasis of the PTS is that the applicant must demonstrate the ability to control the airplane after a loss of the primary flight display, not observe and monitor the autopilot controlling the airplane! This argument was generally unpersuasive, so I approached from a different point of view, that of a concerned family member.

“Aunt Betty” represents a future passenger flying with the soon to be rated instrument pilot. Here is the question posed to Aunt Betty: “When we train and test pilots for instrument proficiency, we require them to demonstrate the ability to safely and skillfully fly the airplane without their primary instruments. Now, Betty, in this airplane, we can test this task in one of two ways. We would like your input on which way you would prefer, seeing as you will be a frequent passenger with your nephew. We can either have the pilot (might be your son, brother, husband, or nephew) demonstrate that he can fly the airplane by hand without the PFD, which does require a little more skill and a slightly different technique, or, we can require the pilot to perform this task using the autopilot so that the pilot basically monitors the airplane flying itself on the approach.

“Now, Aunt Betty, a pilot allowed to use the autopilot system on this approach may not have the skill or technique to fly the approach by hand in the clouds should the autopilot shut down due to turbulence or mechanical failure. Should this happen to a pilot without the skill and practice normally required, the odds of a fatal accident occurring would be quite high.

“So what do you think, Aunt Betty? Would you feel more comfortable flying with this fellow if he has demonstrated mastery of the aircraft (sans PFD) without the autopilot or only with its assistance?”

This leads us to a larger discussion about the use of other technology, iPad, GPS moving map, and more. If technology is used as a replacement for pilot proficiency during training and testing, we end up with less skillful, less competent and ultimately less safe pilots. But, if we require that our students demonstrate mastery with the lowest available level of automation and technology (which, by the way, implies excellent fundamental aircraft control skills) then, when technology is added into the equation, we have a safer pilot.

Technology can be a value added safety multiplier, or it can be a crutch needed to make up for lack of fundamental and advanced skills. Crutch or Safety Multiplier, which one will you choose? I know which one Aunt Betty prefers.

Charles McDougal is a flight instructor, corporate pilot, and former DPE ‎who offers basic and advanced flight instruction in the San Antonio area.  To find out more information about Charles or to contact him, visit his website,