Warning! Read Technology’s Fine Print

By Scott Spangler on November 2nd, 2009

Preparing for my first encounter with a new (to me) integrated avionics system, I dove into the system’s reference guide with eager anticipation. With a PFD, MFD, and FMS keypad this baby had all the bells, whistles, and databases that qualify it as a primary source of navigation and flight information. It is designed to guide me safely to a destination and deliver needed information, from weather to terrain and traffic avoidance, at the press of a button.

warning_symbol And then I started reading. Being anal retentive, especially when learning a new system, I always start on page one.  (I quickly pass over pages empty of information, other than the note that they are supposed to be blank. But with that note, they aren’t really blank, are they?)

After the title page and table of contents I come to 3.5 pages of Warnings, Cautions, and Notes. Most of that space filled with red-flagged warnings, with the pertinent parts highlighted. A number of them make perfect sense: “Do not use outdated database information” and “XM Weather should not be used for hazardous weather penetration” and the system’s “operational procedures must be learned on the ground.”

But many of the other warnings seem to eviscerate the system’s benefits. Like all such warnings given by all  manufacturers, they were surely written by the lawyers to give their employers a loophole in the event of a liability lawsuit. Still, I wonder how many pilots have read these warning notes. In no particular order, these got my attention:

“Navigation and terrain separation must NOT be predicated upon the use of the terrain avoidance feature. … The terrain avoidance feature is only to be used as an aid for terrain avoidance.” And…

“The displayed minimum safe altitudes (MSAs) are only advisory in nature and should not be relied upon as the sole source of obstacle and terrain avoidance information. Always refer to current aeronautical charts for appropriate minimum clearance altitudes.”

It doesn’t say here whether the digital charts that are part of the electronic flight bag will work. Maybe I’ll come to that after I get through the rest of the warnings.

cartoon_Built-in_SelfTest “The pilot must recognize that providing monitoring and/or self-test capability for all conceivable system failures is not practical. Although unlikely, it may be possible for erroneous operation to occur without a fault indication shown by the [system]. It is thus the responsibility of the pilot to detect such an occurrence by means of cross-checking with all redundant or correlated information available in the cockpit.”

Actually, I like this one. It gives pilots something to do while the system flies the airplane. Goodness knows what trouble they’ll get into if they get bored.

This was my favorite:

“The United States government operates the Global Positioning System and is solely responsible for its accuracy and maintenance. The GPS system is subject to changes which could affect the accuracy and performance of all GPS equipment. Portions of the [system I’m reading about, and all others that] utilize GPS as as a precision electronic NAVigation AID (NAVAID). Therefore, as with all NAVAIDs, information presented by the [system] can be misused or misinterpreted and, therefore, become unsafe.”

And if that wasn’t enough:

“Because of anomalies in the earth’s magnetic field, operating the [system] within the following areas could result in loss of reliable attitude and heading indications North of 70 North latitude and south of 70 South latitude. An area north of 65 North latitude between longitude 75 West and 120 West. An area south of 55 South latitude between longitude 120 East and 165 East.”

The final Note in the section says that the purpose of the guide I’m about to read is to give pilots “a resource with which to find operating instructions on the major features” the the system. This seems to contradict the warning that pilots should learn how to use all the functions on the ground.

Hmmm. Maybe the lawyers DO know pilots. Most of the aviators I know only read the directions when they are between rock and hard weather and remember someone in the hangar saying that the cockpit video game had this feature that might just save them, if they can find out how to use it in time. – Scott Spangler

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5 Responses to “Warning! Read Technology’s Fine Print”

  1. Julien Says:

    Good post! My favourite one so far I found in the user manual for the Garmin 430:

    NOTE: This product, its packaging, and its components contain chemicals known to the State of California to cause cancer, birth defects, or reproductive harm.

    Good thing the FAA do not insists on having this scary piece of advice displayed as a placard on the panel.

  2. Bill Palmer Says:

    While the statements may at first seem contradictory; It is not a contradiction to say “you better believe me if I give a warning, but just because I don’t give a warning doesn’t mean everything you are doing, or the condition of all the systems is OK.”

    The pilot in this video tried to use his GPS as terrain guidance (instead of terrain avoidance) and it was a close a call as you can get (his certificates were not so lucky).
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8Nm8pNgqBAk

    Did he know that yellow terrain on a terrain display can be 500 feet ABOVE you? (and just as rock hard as the red stuff!)

  3. Rob Mark Says:

    Ah yes. How about “green is good. The rest means you could be in very serious trouble.”

  4. Ron Says:

    Of course pilots should cross check their position and not simply rely on what the system is telling them. That’s the biggest problem I have with students in glass airplanes. They blindly believe whatever the screen says, even when it doesn’t make sense.

    The usual cause of problems is human error. Pilot enters wrong waypoint in the flight plan. Pilot has the autopilot in the wrong mode. Pilot loads incorrect flight plan.

    But sometimes the system will do wonky things. The pilot’s job is to, as Reagan said, trust but verify. Unfortunately I see far too few people doing this. It becomes painfully obvious when I disable the moving map or fail another component of the system. Or simply as a student “where are you?” I can’t tell you how many of them have a hard time telling me the answer, even with a 13″ color moving map right in front of them.

    As the technology gets better, the pilot’s own situational awareness gets worse. It’s something we have to be on constant guard against. Sooner or later that’s going to bite someone. Hopefully it’ll just be a minor airpsace issue and not some encounter with the FAA or terrain.

    –Ron

  5. Dale Kettring Says:

    My favorite part of the article was:

    “Actually, I like this one. It gives pilots something to do while the system flies the airplane. Goodness knows what trouble they’ll get into if they get bored.”

    Trouble??? You mean like flying past your destination?

    LOL

    I love it!!!

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