Interfaces designed by engineers

One of the things that bothers me most about our increasing reliance on technology is how absolutely terrible some of it is. Where simple tasks exist, complex methods are often required. Other times, included features are utterly useless, while useful things are nowhere to be seen.

Take cell phones, for example. I’ve got a cameraphone, a Sony Ericsson W600i. It’s reasonably attractive and takes nice enough photos (considering that it’s a telephone). Once I’ve taken those photos, however, actually viewing them is another matter. First I bring up the menu, then press left and down to get to the “My Stuff” selection. This lists logical enough things – “pictures”, “videos”, etc – yet selecting “pictures” defaults to an item called “Shop Graphics”, which tries to launch a data connection so you can buy shitty wallpaper. All I want to do is browse the photos – why is the process so hard?

This modern airliner cockpit is how a PFD should display altitude information - click for a better view.A similar thing is happening in the aviation world. Avidyne’s latest update to the primary flight display adds a vertical speed “bug”, something which I (and my instructor) view as utterly useless in an aircraft with no autopilot. Bugs allow the pilot to set in a target, whether it’s a heading, airspeed, altitude, whatever. Vertical speed is a secondary product of your airspeed and pitch angle, and the indicator really only provides supplementary information. Far more practical would be a ‘descent limit’ bug of some kind, or at least a second altitude bug, so that pilots could dial in their target altitude when they’re briefing for the approach. Instead, you’re cruising along at (for example) 2600 feet, waiting to intercept the glideslope; once you do, to set the altitude for the decision height requires you to press the altitude softkey, press the right knob two times, and then dial it down to the exact altitude.

This, of course, is all being accomplished while flying the aircraft, possibly trying to track the glideslope and localizer, completing checklists, and verifying that the decision height is the correct one. Airliner and business jet cockpits have the ability to set a decision height as well as select an altitude; general aviation glass is basically trying to mimic the heavy metal, but the functionality has a long way to go. Simply adding more information but not managing how it is displayed or controlled doesn’t help pilots, it hinders them. Avidyne’s latest ‘feature’ for the Warrior hasn’t improved situational awareness or safety at all, while features which could remain conspicuously absent. And don’t even get me started on the Entegra’s “inclinometer” component.

Some of the only equipment I’ve ever used that makes sense without documentation and “just works” is made by Apple. Now, when will they start designing cockpit interfaces?

Scaling down the focus

One of the things I have realized during my instructor training is just how much we have to learn. Everyday aviation tasks like taking off and landing aren’t just absorbed, they have to be taught and learned. That much is pretty obvious, but the process of actually doing the teaching is a lot more complex. The saying goes that “those who can, do; those who can’t, teach” is total and utter crap. Being able to teach, as far as I’m concerned, means that you have a deeper understanding.

Think about driving a car – you probably do it every day. Digging deeper, you’re doing an awful lot of stuff at once: steering, accelerating, braking, and (ideally!) not colliding, all while obeying signals and signs. Yet, if someone wanted to learn how to drive, simply knowing how to do it doesn’t mean that knowledge can be passed on.

One of the fundamentals of instruction is called the building block technique. It’s basic stuff – breaking down the goal (learning to fly) into smaller pieces so that it’s more accessible. Instead of throwing things at students at random, the idea is to introduce the essentials and constantly move onward and upward in complexity. If it’s done properly, every step will be individually small, but as blocks are completed the student’s skills and knowledge increase consistently.

The private pilot training, while covering a lot of subject matter, is fairly straightforward as far as moving from what students know to what is unknown goes. My instrument instructor course is bringing a whole new batch of topics into play, and deciding what blocks should build on which is a lot more difficult. Do I teach navigation equipment or approach procedures first? Clearances or holding? It’s a juggling act this semester, and all I know for certain is that I’m learning a hell of a lot.


After four years of talking and one abort, we’re finally doing it. My family is the proud new owner of a two-seat 1971 Grumman American AA-1A Yankee. The annual was completed a few days ago, and everything checked out, including the IFR-rated equipment. It does only have a single nav/comm unit, but my dad also picked up a Lowrance AirMap 2000c portable MFD + GPS unit for enroute navigation (and as a backup for IFR). While the AA-1A only has around 3 hours of endurance with reserves, it is autogas approved. On 5 gallons an hour, it’ll cruise at 105 knots (120 mph, 195 km/h) or better.

Anyway, while it’s not a light-sport category aircraft (the Yankee’s 1,600 pound max gross weight is about 280 pounds heavier), it’s close – particularly its efficiency. Light-sport aircraft are being viewed as the best way to bring new pilots into the aviation community, with low costs, new aircraft, and safe operations. With Cessna and their Sport hopping into a market filled predominantly by European designs, the light-sport arena is about to get a lot more interesting; Cessna hopes to sell 600 Sports per year, matching Cirrus sales in 2005.

In unrelated non-aviation news, the Child’s Play charity has started up again for the 2006 holiday season, bringing games, books, and toys to some very ill kids in hospitals around the world. There are now wishlists for locations in 4 countries, and an additional PayPal donation available for a children’s cancer hospital in Egypt. It’s a really cool charity, one I’ve participated in since it started in 2003, and it’s for a great cause. Just saying!