A Pilot's Perspective.

By Barry Meek.

February 2007

Back to the Future

I was learning to fly in 1971.   Back then at Prince George, British Columbia, CP Air still flew orange 737’s in and out.   In winter, refuelling those jets in the icy cold winds was one of the hardest jobs a young fellow could have.   The flight school had a couple of Cessna 150’s.   The flying was all right, but it took a while to preheat and prepare an airplane for the day’s lessons.   For some reason, I vividly remember that nobody used headsets in aircraft in those days.   We had a speaker on the ceiling and a hand-held microphone.

C-FUFU panel

Headsets today are more than just a tool for a pilot.   They’ve become somewhat of a status symbol.   You see the students around the airport all carrying their little “lunchbags” containing a personal set.   They make a statement .... “I’m a pilot”.   If they’re not David Clark, they’re not cool.   That’s   changing however, as D.C. seemingly has lagged behind in the ANC department.  

Just as it became a necessary item for a pilot to own, the headset now has reached a new status height and must be and ANC model.   I would be in the trenches with those who still resist the new technology, figuring that I’ve flown this long without them, why would I spend that kind of money for a new “fad”?    However, it turns out they are not a “fad”, or they shouldn’t be.   I’d say they’re an absolute necessity if you care about your comfort, your sanity, and tinnitus, not to mention your hearing capability.   Old pilots lament the fact they can’t hear as well as they once could, and blame it on the high decibel levels in the cockpit over time.   Tinnitus is also a problem though, something which so far, medical science hasn’t found a cure for.   It is a condition of   a ringing or roaring sound in one’s ears.   I wonder if ANC headsets had been around 25 years ago if most of those problems would not exist today.

A tangible and immediate benefit of the ANC headset for me is the relatively low noise level once I turn it on.   When your job is climbing into a small, noisy airplane every morning to fly for 6, 8 or sometimes 10 hours, it’s always a welcome relief  when that “rumble” magically disappears.

Headsets are a tiny example of the way technology is changing aviation. Some of the changes are slow and will be recalled only on reflection at some period in time down the road.   The ATC system, although way different from what it was back in the ‘70’s, seems to have “evolved” more than suddenly changed.   Pilots roll with the punches of change, absorbing the small details over time, until one day we wake up and say, “Wow, this transponder requirement, or this controlled airspace, or this GPS approach stuff is really different”.   None of it was around when we did our training, just as there were no headsets.

In 1996, Nav Canada privatized the ATC system, and is now in the process of transitioning to employ more satellite technology much of which most G.A. pilots probably don’t yet understand.   The FAA is attempting to download it’s role in the U.S. while developing the next generation air transportation system, called NextGen.   That will see pilots requiring new equipment and learning new procedures in the coming years.

How about this scenario?   You’re approaching an airport in your 172.   You push a button signalling a satellite which broadcasts your intention to only the aircraft in the vicinity of 10 miles (transponder equipped linked via GPS).   Your data head shows other traffic, much like a TCAS, so you can plan your approach, push the buttons that broadcast your downwind, base and final legs.   Alarms will sound if you’re too close to traffic at your altitude, minimizing the need to keep a constant watch.   All is co-ordinated through GPS,   transponder-type equipment and satellites which have yet to be invented.   Satellites could be monitoring your position via the bar-code on the top of your plane.   There’s no chatter on the radio, because there’s no human controller.   A computer will sequence you, based on the information other aircraft transmit through the satellite, and the intentions you transmit to it.   

Modern aircraft panel, B747-400 cockpit.

Can this be so far in the future?    Real-time weather is already available in your cockpit.   You can do your banking, buy gas, check out a library book, pay your credit card bills, obtain a boarding pass for a flight, order a meal, park your car, it’s all done without talking to anyone.   The technology has been around for several years.   All this is rudimentary compared with ATC in the year 2030, just as using a hand-held microphone and overhead speaker were 25 years ago.

Sometime in the future, I’ll be asking my yet unborn grandchildren if they know what a VOR is.   Or an ADF, glidescope, ILS or a stormscope.   Even if they’re pilots, they won’t know what I’m talking about.   Just like Benny Goodman, Frank Sinatra, Johnny Cash and the Beatles, most of what we have today will be unknown by the next generation, and forgotten by ours.   One bit of advice about the headsets.   Always carry a spare.   If your main set lets you down, those hand-held microphones and overhead speakers aren’t there anymore for backup.   You’d feel pretty dumb trying to remember the light signals.  

Back to main page