Steam Gauge Studies

3:38 PM

By Tim Evart
for Airplanista Aviation Blog

The scuttlebutt at my son’s airline is that pilot applicants for first officer slots in the company’s Dash 8 turboprops are failing pre-hire simulator rides at higher rates when coming from flight training experience limited to glass cockpits. There are no available statistics that I’ve been able to find regarding the difficulty in pilot transitions from one instrument display to another but it at least seems a reasonable possibility. The recent past had pilots transitioning from knowing how to fly with analog gauges to learning to fly with the newer electronic displays, not the other way around.

Although I have limited experience with these new, electronic “glass cockpit” flight displays, from the literature it seems accepted by most that they are relatively easy to transition to. This would make sense too as electronic displays are a more recent invention with newly discovered human factors information built into their design. Debate regarding the efficacy of this design is not what I am qualified to comment on in spite of my opinions on certain aspects of it. I do for example prefer to use an old fashioned analog watch rather than a digital version to tell time. This doesn’t mean I can’t tell time with a digital clock, I simply like the full 12 hour display from which to discern the current time location.

Similarly, although I may read with an appreciative nod about speed/altitude strip confusion written by pilots forced to make the transition from “steam” gauges to “glass”, my guess is that with a short time allowed in a training situation, most pilots would get used to reading the strip display. Oppositely, and with equal inexperience, I can only imagine the trials and tribulations in getting used to analog gauges after soloing in a G1000 equipped C-172SP and never flying anything less, all the way through commercial/instrument AMEL. Thus we arrive at the potentially troubling matter at hand:
Are flight schools with nothing but glass cockpits handicapping their students interested in a career as a professional pilot?
The Hook

A cursory look at prominent collegiate flight schools reveals advertising touting the advantages of learning to fly in aircraft equipped with the latest in cockpit flight displays. The marketing hook is to “train for the future” in aircraft with the latest equipment to prepare the student for the type of flying they will supposedly be doing right out of school. After all, who would want to train on those old fashioned mechanical gauges you can find at all the other flight schools?

Well, I hate to burst any bubbles, but the future hasn’t quite made it here yet. If you are an aspiring airline or corporate pilot, you will in all likelihood, get your first flying job in aircraft equipped with the old fashioned six pack of steam gauges. Unless that first job is at the flight school that taught you on glass as a CFI teaching your students on glass, you will most likely be flying airplanes with analog gauges. Additionally, you will be using equipment with two VOR’s if you’re lucky, just one if you’re not. At the bare minimum you should be able to use one VOR to find cross radial intersections in IFR situations, since the other VOR may fail in flight. The point is that whether you instruct, fly aerial survey, freight or passengers in turboprops, you will probably be flying older aircraft equipped with steam gauges and radio navigation instruments. You can probably get away with limited experience on NDB/ADF usage, but you had better know how to keep the sunny side up with a gauge roughly the square millimeter size of your iPhone.


Today’s GPS system is driving us toward a time when it may dominate the world of aviation navigation. Knowledge of how to use the older units like the Garmin GNS 430 can occupy the brain cells that normally would have been reserved for the ADF. When the time comes to upgrade to a more sophisticated unit those skills will transfer over if you stay in the same family of Garmin avionics like the G1000. If your first experience with full glass avionics is from a different manufacturer, my hunch is it will still be a relatively easy transition. The 430 is a popular unit, installed in many GA aircraft and thus more likely to be in a new commercial pilot’s first working plane. And since ADF is being rapidly replaced by GPS as the alternative to VOR/localizer/ILS navigation, you will be better served learning older, simpler GPS avionics well than newer, more complex and expensive systems as long as you don’t foresee a pressing use for them in the near future.

Harder to Go Back?

Where does this leave those pilots facing a pre-hire simulator session after being raised on glass? My advice would be to get some training in a flight training device (FTD) set up with analog gauges and then finish off with some flight time in an older training aircraft and a CFII. Finally, you could prepare for the sim session with an FTD patterned after the aircraft parameters you will be tested on. There are plenty of pilot candidates, new hires and up graders using Microsoft’s Flight Simulator PC software and a cheap yoke or flight stick to sharpen up for a simulator ride with surprisingly good results.


This is by no means meant to disparage those student pilots with the wherewithal to purchase a modern aircraft post certificate or the instructors that would train them on the latest in glass. If you can afford to buy the more expensive training and aircraft, more power to you. This is just to make note of the recent developments anecdotally seen at one airline. The development will probably be short lived anyway with pressure to hire new FO’s with more experience than allowed in the past. Regardless, the point is still valid that young people with ambitions to fly in today’s commercial environment will be better served to seek out safe aircraft with steam gauges in which to learn.

The airplanes you fly in your entry level pilot jobs will usually be old. The company that owns them will not have the finances to upgrade them to a glass cockpit and then make sure every pilot in their employ can fly it safely. For better or worse, like it or not, this is the world of professional aviation for those pilots working on getting the required experience to fly that fancy biz jet or 767. Your “Steam Gauge Studies” will do you well regardless of what direction your flying takes you.

You Might Also Like