Head Up

I’m multi-engine, instrument rated pilot who recently made transition to SR20. Given several recent tragedies, including the SR22 crash, I wanted to raise an issue with those far more familiar with the airplane.

My main concern about the SR20, which I absolutely love, is that it is easy for unfamiliar pilots to become fixated on the Garmins, at the expense of looking out the window or keeping up an instrument scan. In reading the preliminary NTSB report on the Lexington, Ky., non-fatal crash, what seems clear is that the pilot was distracted from an active instrument scan when the plane got into trouble. ``The pilot was in the process of selecting the (GPS RW 04) approach in the airplane’s global positioning satellite (GPS) receiver,’’ NTSB said. We don’t know what happened in the SR22 crash this week, and we may never know. But what we do know is that the plane crashed vertically – the pilot had lost control.

Based on my own first 20 hours or so in the SR20, I find it easy to become engrossed in the Garmins. Loading an instrument approach given to you by ATC can take some work until you get very proficient at it. I was surprised that the factory training I received didn’t focus on that more.

Too much head down in the cockpit certainly isn’t unique to Cirrus, or to general aviation. The American Airlines crash in Cali, Columbia, a few years back resulted in over-reliance on the flight management computer. An incorrect fix was entered (not verified by pilots as required) while flying down a valley, and the plane started a turn back. Pilots realized that was wrong, but lost situational awareness focusing on the computer, and crashed into mountain top. It’s the peril of too much automation.

My question is this: Do others share concern that the wonderful avionics, which provides so many benefits in situation awareness and safety, pose a significant danger to low-time Cirrusites? If so, does Cirrus factory training, or even COPA’s recurrent training course, address that sufficiently?

Your thoughts?

Scott SR20, N262GM

I think there’s no question that programming modern GPS systems while in IMC can be more of a curse than a blessing in the beginning…and that training is often inadequate. When I received my instrument rating two years ago, most of the training focused on traditional VORs and the instructor was not very proficient in the GPS installed in my plane (an old King 89B). I spent a great deal of time trying to learn the King on my own, before venturing into IMC. I wasn’t familiar with the difference between leg mode and OBS mode and when to use each, and more than once my GPS sent me off into nowhere land. However, once mastered, I’ve never done anything BUT GPS and ILS approaches. It’s like learning a computer…all Greek till you finally figure it out, then it all seems so obvious and simple!

I think this is a valid concern. I speak as someone not all that experienced in airplanes in general (700 hours) but with nearly half that time in Cirri. Things I have found:

  • An advantage of the LARGE display – Arnav in my case, Avidyne for others – is that it permits very quick-glance situational awareness without seriously diverting attention from out-the-window in VMC conditions, or the normal instrument scan in IMC. A year or so ago I made a long flight while the Arnav was on the blink. It made me realize how much more distracting it was to look DOWN at the much smaller Garmin screens, and how valuable the big screen was.

  • Fiddling with/programming the Garmins really can consume more attention and time than is consistent with controlling the airplane. It takes a while to dial in all the right fixes and settings. Therefore perhaps when introducing people to the airplane, instructors could stress some of the following:

  • An addition to the standard motto about priorities. In the Cirrus it could become:

That is, emphasizing that Garmin fiddling should deliberately be given lower priority, in high work-load situations.

  • In non-emergency, non-manuevering situations, proper teamwork between the Garmins and the autopilot is indispensable. Being able to set up and fully trust the autopilot is a big help when needing to enter route changes.

  • Another corrective might be to emphasize that “fixation” with the Garmin is as perilous as the other fixations we’re warned against in instrument training. Here’s what I mean in practice: when I get a new clearance in IMC conditions, which requires Garmin fiddling, I try to make the entry-of-fixes PART of the normal scan. Enter a letter. Do the normal scan. Enter another letter. etc. Obviously it may take a little more to get the initial fix in, but my point is that it’s part of the normal division-of-attenion in instrument flight.

  • Or, instructors could teach us rules-of-thumb about circumstances in which we should NOT be dealing with the Garmins. Eg: within 1000 or perhaps 2000 feet AGL on takeoff and landing. I’m sure others can propose other rules.

Again I am reluctant to prescribe, given the limits of my experience. But I think you’ve identified a real concern.

I agree with the notion that the Garmins take away time from flying. They are far more capable than anything most of us have ever been exposed to, but the capabilities come at a bit of a cost, more knob twisting and button pushing. I find that I can’t even get a new radio frequency entered without stopping once or twice during the process for another flight instrument scan, but this is not unique to the Garmins. In addition to a few more steps to set up approaches, etc, it takes time to confirm you have the A/P set up properly (if you are using it) and even the Sandel with course pointers properly assigned. It seems to me that it is not only the attention the Garmins require, but confirming that other avionics are also integrated properly. Ironically, you go through most of these checks to make the approach and missed approach procedure ‘easier’! When I started flying the SR22 on instruments, the new capabilities overwhelmed me. I do not have tons of IFR time, so getting comfortable with all of these new capabilities is just now coming to me. The way to start is by using the basics and add feature utilization as you feel comfortable. That, and hours on the Garmin simulator will eventually make you safe, then competent, then proficient, then Gordon Feingold.

I don’t know about other transitioning pilots, but I asked for 1.5 extra days of training beyond the 2 day transition course while I was in Duluth (partly because my insurance company wanted the extra PIC hours logged for coverage, and partly because I was going to do my instrument check ride shortly after returning home and wanted the extra instrument training). My instructor, Thom Leveque (sorry if I misspelled your last name Thom!) was very diligent in training me on the Garmins, and how to effectively split my attention between them and my normal instrument scan. Two very good things he did were (1) getting me into the habit of “no more than a 2-count looking at the Garmins - turn the knobs mostly by feel, then look to verifiy the setting, change if necessary…get back on your scan!” [:)] and (2) making me fly by hand all the time during instrument training so I HAD to keep my scan up to keep the attitude / altitude / heading right. Of course, it took me a longer time to trust the autopilot to manage the turns on approaches…I still fly most approaches by hand in IMC.[:)]

If your autopilot is working and engaged in at least wing leveler mode, you can afford more head-down time, but now I’ve gotten into the habit of setting the Garmins by feel anyway, with my eyes on the gauges and quick glances to see what’s on the Garmin display…

This may be instructor-specific training at the factory, but I thought Thom did a very good job of getting me basically competent. I certainly wouldn’t have passed my instrument check ride 10 hours later otherwise (6 of those hours were my ferry flight home alone). (I can still remember the DE’s warning - "If I see the “autopilot engaged” light come on, even once, during this flight, you fail right then and there!)

Of course, I passed, and I’ve gotten better with time and practice (+102hrs since, 21 of them IMC hrs).

I’ve only had 12 hours of dual so far in the 22 in anticipation of a July delivery, but here’s my take on the Garmins from the point of view of a neophyte who is just about to take the instrument practical (in a 172). There is definitely a propensity for not only too much head down time with the Garmins, but also too much head down distance and angle. It seems as though looking down at the Garmins requires not only eye movement but head movement as well. This stimulates the vestibular system of the inner ear and isn’t exactly what you want happening under IMC. One solution would be to put the Gamins further up in the panel, but I don’t know if that is practical. Voice activation of nav and com frequencies sure would be nice also. Voice recognition technology is very good for simple numbers. I’d sure like to hit a button on the stick and say "com1 1 2 1 point 5 and look down and see it there.

  • In non-emergency, non-manuevering situations, proper teamwork between the Garmins and the autopilot is indispensable. Being able to set up and fully trust the autopilot is a big help when needing to enter route changes.

I had my 3rd autopilot installed today. It failed on climb out with the standard failure mode (spiral dive). The roll trim has also started popping the circuit breaker. It appears that the roll trim is frying the autopilot. The service center can’t look at it until May 9th.

I agree with Jim.
As a matter of routine, I have found it useful to keep the VORs set up for airway flying while in IMC. Usually this is just a backup. However, analogue radial tuning is a whole lot quicker and easier than Garmin buttonology when the inevitable route change arrives. This way I can start navigating to the next fix and set up the Garmins without that behind-the-airplane feeling that accompanies Garmin fixation under time pressure while trying to keep up an instrument scan.



Which model of the autopilot do you have in your airplane? In the first 125 hours we’ve had no problems at all — nada, zip, zilch — with our System 30.

As regards scheduling, sounds like you should hunt for a different Service Center…


Art, I feel your pain. Those that have read our trials about our autopilot may remember how last week I pronounced our problems fixed. Oops. The TC completely failed today. No power. Number 4 is on the way. Of course, they keep sending us refurbed units. “No way” to send us a brand new one were were told today. I think it is insane after three failures they can’t send us a new one… Of course, I have no idea if that will fix the problem, but it sure would make me feel better.


Art wrote:

I had my 3rd autopilot installed today. It failed on climb out with the standard failure mode (spiral dive). The roll trim has also started popping the circuit breaker. It appears that the roll trim is frying the autopilot. The service center can’t look at it until May 9th.

In reply to:

As regards scheduling, sounds like you should hunt for a different Service Center…

I know this service center – it’s actually first-rate, AirWays of Lancaster.

I share your mystification about the autopilot report. In nearly 300 hours on this plane no problem of any sort whatsoever with the autopilot.

I have the 55x. But after 3 autopilot failures all of them being from the autopilot roll output going INOP, the avionics shop now thinks the problem is that something in the plane is killing the autopilots.

The “service Center” that Art is going to is NOT a Cirrus service center. Lancaster Avionics is the Avionics shop that has been looking in to the auto pilot problem. I would never let a customer wait that long to fix a problem…

Jim Mazzante
Director Of Maintenance
Airways Inc
Lancaster, Pa

Jim, I’ve heard nothing but good about the Lancaster service center, from a multitude of credible sources (including you). They must be good.

However, given Art’s circumstances, and that the Cirrus “system” (which would include the service center) has failed him, to say nothing of possibly mis-diagnosing the problem, one would hope that they’re not so busy as to need to put him through yet another extension of his problem.

All this is turning Art into a sympathatic figure!


Hi Jim,

I didn’t mean to imply that AirWays was anything other than first-rate! I meant only that Art might want to consider visiting a different service center that could provide assistance more promptly.


It is conceivable that Airways too had this in mind…

These autopilot problems have been scheduled with Lancaster avionics, Not Airways.

with 254 CD I bought an extra day of training at Duluth and rfeceived very poor training, no garmin or sandel or panel training of any kind–busy instructor–very poor job–my partner, Art, taught the instructor on the Garmins. AS for service–we need more choices and locations.

The autopilot work is being performed by Lancaster Avionics, Airways doesn’t do the avionics. They did call and say they had a cancelation so we now have an appoint on May 2.

Tom, I will be upset if the instructors don’t show up prepared for my training. I’ve spent at least 40 hours reading and studying the Garmin, autopilot, sandel, and 22 POH and still feel that I have quite a way to go. In addition, one has to learn how the different systems integrate. For example the autopilot manual specifically states that HDG function must often be used with a EHSI. However, I’m suspecting that things might be different whether or not the autoslewing function is activated on the Sandel. I’m keeping a notebook of questions for when I go for training. We’ ve all heard of the 6 T’s in instrument training. In medical school I learned the 6 P’s which I try to use: Proper preparation prevents piss poor performance.