CHAPTER 5. Information Systems

Awareness: Overreliance on the Moving Map

With the position of the aircraft conveniently displayed at all times on a color screen in front of you, it is easy to let the computers do the work of monitoring flight progress. Numerous studies have demonstrated that pilots have a tendency to monitor and process navigational information from conventional sources (e.g., outside reference or conventional navigation instruments) much less actively when a moving map display is available. In a National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) study, two groups of pilots were asked to navigate along a circuit of checkpoints during a VFR cross-country flight. One group navigated using a sectional chart and pilotage. The other group had the same sectional chart plus an RNAV computer and a moving map. After completing the circuit, both groups were asked to navigate the circuit again, this time with no navigational resources. Pilots who had navigated with only the sectional chart performed well, finding the checkpoints again with reasonable accuracy. The performance was less favorable by pilots who had the FMS/RNAV and moving map available. While half of these pilots found the checkpoints with reasonable accuracy, one-fourth of the pilots made larger errors in identifying the checkpoints. The remaining pilots were wholly unable to find their way back to the airport of origin. This study makes two important points:

  • The existence of information about aircraft position and geographical surroundings in an FMS/RNAV and moving map display does not mean that the pilot maintains true situational awareness or involvement with the operation of the flight to a degree needed for a safe outcome.
  • The key to the successful use of a moving map display is to use the display as a supplement—not a substitute— for active involvement in the navigational process.

What does it take to use a moving map and remain “in the loop,” or situationally aware? In a second NASA study, pilots who used an FMS/RNAV and moving map display were asked to act as “tour guides,” pointing out geographical features to a passenger while navigating the same set of crosscountry checkpoints. When confronted with a surprise request to navigate around the circuit again with the FMS/RNAV and map turned off, these pilots performed as well as anyone else. The simple task of pointing out geographical features was enough to avoid the out-of-the-loop phenomenon.

A moving map provides a wealth of information about your route of flight and gives you the opportunity to consider many similar questions along the way. Where would you land if you lost engine power? Which alternate airport would you use if weather at your destination deteriorated below minimums? Which nearby VOR stations could be used (and should be tuned as the flight progresses) in the event that the global positioning system (GPS) signal or other RNAV navigation data source is lost? Is a more direct routing possible? Diligent pilots continually ask questions like these.

Terrain Systems

Terrain systems provide information about significant terrain along your route of flight. Terrain systems were designed to help reduce controlled flight into terrain (CFIT) accidents. Remember, however, that use of these terrain proximity information systems for primary terrain avoidance is prohibited. The terrain proximity map is intended only to enhance situational awareness; it remains the pilot’s responsibility to ensure terrain avoidance at all times. Safe flight practices include pilot knowledgeability of the maximum elevation figures (MEF), published in blue for each grid square on sectional charts, and planning flight altitudes above those elevations. Despite all efforts by the charting agency to be current, there will always be obstructions in place before the documentation arrives for charting. Therefore, the competent pilot always allows for sufficient clearance for unknown towers and buildings. Experienced pilots have learned that many aircraft cannot outclimb certain mountainous slopes. You should always fly down (descend) into a valley or canyon, rather than attempting to fly up the valley and become trapped in a box canyon too narrow for a turn and too steep to climb over. One regularly overlooked factor is the loss of power generally associated with the higher elevations at which canyons and steep slopes are often found.

Early Systems

Various terrain avoidance systems have been certificated and used in the past. One early system was termed Ground Proximity Warning System (GPWS, often pronounced “GipWhiz”). One major shortcoming of the system was a lack of predictive terrain warnings. Most early systems simply used a radar altimeter as the sensor. The radar altimeter simply indicated the altitude of the aircraft above the ground immediately below the airframe. The subsequently developed enhanced GPWS (EGPWS or eGPWS) used GPS location data combined with a worldwide terrain database to predict that a canyon wall was just ahead and a climb should be started. The older GPWS had no indication of a very close hazard. However, the system did prevent numerous gear-up landings and offered warnings when terrain presented a slope to much higher terrain.

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