Discussing avionics with pilots is like talking about which religion they belong to. There are a number of camps that most pilots fall into starting with “glass versus analogue” and finishing with one brand versus another. When I reflect upon my recent aviation journey I find that there is a lot more to the selection of avionics than first meets the eye.
Flying for me started with movies like “The Battle of Britain” where Spitfires soared across the sky chasing down German bombers at the height of the Blitz. What really entranced me about the movie were the shots from the cockpit where the instruments were clearly in view. For example, a spinning altimeter told the pilot that it was a time for a quick exit.
In the 80’s I graduated from the Battle of Britain to the infamous Tom Cruise classic “Top Gun”. I was once again thrust into the exciting world of aviation while watching Viper and Maverick battle it out for supremacy. Goose’s exit courtesy of a flat spin and avionics going crazy was a particular highlight.
So what do these two movies have in common? Dials, lots of dials. There’s nothing quite like seeing the face of a passenger climbing aboard as they survey the mass of dials, buttons, levers and knobs before them.
Let’s face it if you ever want impress a friend, family member or dare I say member of the opposite sex do your pre-flight briefing like this. “No drinking, touching controls etc”, followed by, “and yes I actually know what all of these instruments do.” I can bet that you’ll get a nervous laugh followed by comment that can be summarised as, “I’m glad that you do!”
Fundamentally what instruments do is create a separation between us and our passengers. The more instruments the better, after all, we’ve all spent a lot of time trying to understand the things so we need to get some level of satisfaction from our indoctrination into the “pilot priesthood”.
I remember climbing aboard an old warrior for my first ever flight and staring at the multitude of instruments in front of me. It was all incredibly daunting. At the holding point I had an almost irresistible desire to quote from Star Wars by saying, “Red Five standing by”. Like the squadron leader in Star Wars, I’m sure that the tower would have responded by saying, “Cut the chatter Red Five”.
So I’m told to look at an instrument called the ASI and when it reaches about 65 knots rotate. With complete confusion on my face I said, “Look at what and you want me to do what, when?” I think that I must have had a very sympathetic instructor as he responded by saying, “The ASI is the top left instrument with the red, white and green colours around a circle. When the needle displays 65 slowly pull back on the controls and we will get airborne.”
Thank goodness that he didn’t tell me anything about VNE and the red area as I think my brain would have exploded with everything that it was taking in. I just gathered that red was bad and 65 was a magic good number. So we raced down the runway (everything happens fast the first time) with my eyes simultaneously glued to both the runway and the ASI (I’m learning the lingo by now). At 65 five I pulled gently back and we were airborne. There’s just nothing like that first time feeling!
Feeling pretty happy with myself for what I thought was a great take-off lasted for about as long as it took the instructor points out to me another dial marked Altimeter. I’m not stupid so I can guess what that means (thank goodness that he didn’t tell me about setting the QNH earlier on) and at 500 feet we banked and kept on climbing out to the south-east. Luckily I knew where south-east was!
This article will continue with part 2