I took this morning off and went for my first flight of 2013. Something was wrong with my Bose headset or its batteries, so I had to do without noise cancellation, but it was a wonderfully-quiet flight in a different way.
Toys or no toys?
Normally, I mount a Garmin 696 portable GPS on my yoke, with a full-colour moving map, terrain and obstacle alerts, live satellite weather, nearby traffic alerts fed from a Zaon XRX, and even XM satellite radio. For a long cross-country flight, that stuff is very helpful, letting me see and plan for what’s happening 200 miles ahead and listen to the BBC to kill the long hours. It does, however, require a yoke mount and a complex series of power, antenna, and audio wires threaded carefully out of the way around the cockpit.
I had planned to reinstall all of that before flying (I removed it for the plane’s annual last month), but then I looked at the beautiful, simple panel with its analog “steam” gauges, looked up at the blue sky, and asked myself “why bother?”
I took off and followed frozen rivers around Eastern Ontario at 2,000 ft. I started without the map, but pulled it out for fun to identify towns and villages whose names I didn’t know (for the bigger ones, I just read the water towers).
After 2 1/2 months without flying, my pre-flight skills were a bit rusty (I forgot to remove the pitot cover, and had to shut down and restart on the taxiway), but my stick-and-rudder skills were surprisingly good — the altimeter seemed to stay pegged on 2,000 ft even when I was distracted enjoying the scenery, wind-correction angles set themselves, etc.
Too much information?
I don’t think I suddenly became a better pilot, especially after almost a full season away from the cockpit. My only conclusion is that I was less distracted. I’ve never been one of those fools who flies head-down playing with the toys instead of looking out the window, but still, every piece of information available to me is something my brain has to process, whether I’m consciously focussing on it or not. Without the GPS hurling groundspeed and heading at me, without the traffic system telling me there was another plane 2 miles away, without pictures of airports and airspace scrolling across a colour screen a couple of feet from my face, I simply didn’t have as much to think about.
Modern avionics are great, and in many situations — complex airspace, IFR, etc. — they actually lower the workload. But for an easy VFR flight in familiar airspace, I think that leaving it packed away made me a better pilot.
Further reading: Eight years ago, as a fairly new pilot, I posted about something similar for the instrument scan in Analog Flying. I strongly suspect that’s the best article — and possibly the only truly useful one — that I’ve posted in this blog.