Barry Meek's Letters

May 2012   

Basic Hi-Tech in the Cockpit       

By Barry Meek 

General aviation has been following right along with commercial flying in terms of the technology available to pilots.   If “glass cockpits” are not standard equipment on new airplanes, including amateur-builts these days, they’re offered as options.  GPS navigation has replaced the NDBs and VORs we older pilots learned to navigate with.  Paper charts are disappearing, victims of the iPad and other such devices with apps that include maps, weather info and approach plates.  

This is all good.  It’s progress, and there’s no question it all makes flying easier, and for most pilots, less of a challenge.   When I say it makes things easier, that would be only after you’ve gone through the learning process with any of these devices.  But many  pilots prefer to stay with the steam gauges, ADF & VOR radios, paper charts and the CFS and that’s likely because they’re all familiar.  Just as some of us in Canada still work in MILES as opposed to Kilometers, because that’s the way it was when we grew up, the old-school pilots are comfortable with what they learned initially too. 

No one can be faulted for the equipment they prefer in their airplanes.  As long as you get from A to B without problems, enjoy what you’re doing and don’t worry about the rest of the world.  But I will concede to the idea of getting rid of the paper charts. Strapping an iPad on my kneeboard and having any map, airport, approach plate, even current fuel prices at my fingertips sure beats folding and unfolding large maps to follow along on a flight. 

 If you believe that the entire population of pilots actually flies with the newest technology written up in todays magazines, you would be sadly mistaken.  Anyone not using all the latest gadgetry, is not alone.  There are still those of us who haven’t made the big changes.

 A few comforts in the cockpit could be considered necessary “higher-tech” devices.  These items are appropriate more for the older pilots.  If you’re not in that category yet, your time is coming, so read the following information carefully.

 One day in the not too distant future, you’ll come to realize you’re having trouble seeing those charts, or the iPad/tablet device.  You’ll be holding them further away in an effort to focus on the tiny details.  It will be worse as the light fades.  While you shouldn’t be alarmed with this development (it’s perfectly natural as we get older) you will need to do something about it.  That means corrective lenses sooner or later.  Many people require them only for close-up viewing.  Reading glasses!  Your medical examiner will have the words “glasses required in the cockpit” added to your medical certificate. 

 Most older people carry reading glasses around with them for reading menus, looking at the fine print on medication bottles, and anything else they can’t see up close.  But carrying reading glasses is a hassle, mainly because you can never find them when you need them.  Fortunately, there are non-prescription bifocal glasses available.  The small corrective part of the lens is simply a reading glass with a power of 1.00 or higher, set in a clear lens.  The advantage is you never need to take them off, so they don’t get lost, and they’re always available for that fine print. 

These non-corrective bifocals are also available as sunglasses.  More and more manufacturers are selling various styles including wrap-arounds and aviator glasses.  For those of us who need the reading glasses while flying on sunny days, the sunglasses are absolute necessities, even if they’re not “high-tech”.  Search them out on-line.  I found many reasonably priced bi-focals at framesdirect.com, sunglasswarehouse.com, maximumeyewear.com, seentvcanada.com and gizmag.com (they have plenty of other cool glasses too).  Amazon.com had a listing for them as well.  With a few questions at your local optical outlet, you can probably find some locally.

 As we get older, most of us notice our hearing isn’t what it once was.  Maybe it’s too late at this stage to be doing some preventive maintenance on the ear drums, but it’s worth discussing active noise canceling headphones.  I started using them in 2005, and although I can’t boast of perfect hearing, I can only guess at how much worse it would be without that headset.  That summer, I flew over 500 hours in four months and probably could not have done it with a standard headset.  In the past six or seven years, there has been improvements in the technology too, making the purchase of an ANC headset an even easier decision.  Yes, they’re expensive, but if you’re flying a lot each month in a small aircraft, you’ll not regret spending the cash. 

 Some of the airplanes out there, particularly the older ones in general aviation, are badly equipped for night flying.  It’s difficult to see things inside the cockpit because of poor, altered or insufficient panel and interior lights.  Even the certified designs challenge the pilot with lights over the shoulder and on the wing root providing the only illumination on the panel.  The older the pilot, the worse the eyesight, and the bigger the problem.  Fortunately, there’s an inexpensive fix to that as well.  I refer to the tiny flashlight fixed  to a ball-cap, your glasses or headset.  They work just like a coal miner’s headlamp, putting light where ever your head is turned.  It’s a brilliant idea.  Many are available in L.E.D.’s  in colors like red and green.  What a simple solution to fumbling around at night in the cockpit.  

 In past articles, I’ve written about a few other “high-tech” devices that go a long way toward making your flight a bit easier.  Maybe they should called “low-tech/hi-tech” because they don’t involve special apps for the tablets or iPhones, new glass instruments on the panel, or the latest high-priced navigation tools.  But they all work to help us along with our piloting chores.  I will wrap up this article with a reminder to obtain a fishing vest, wear it in the airplane to organize your other “tools”, such as pens, glasses, notepads, flashlights, batteries, spare GPS, candy bars, ear plugs, cell phone, camera, and whatever else you’ll otherwise waste time searching for in flight.  For pilots who have yet to upgrade to the latest panels, tablets, nav-aids and other devices, there’s still lots you can do to make flying easier and more enjoyable.  That’s what it should be.

Barry Meek. bcflyer@hotmail.com

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As published in the newsletters of the Thompson Valley Sport Flying Club