Written by Janet Ragland
Photographed by Janet Ragland and Randy Mallory
Safety ranks supreme at LeTourneau University’s School of Aeronautical Science. This steadfast commitment to safety has inspired ongoing research by Assistant Professor and Assistant Chief Flight Instructor Bruce A. Chase. Currently, he is conducting a study to determine whether aviation students trained in new “glass cockpit” airplanes can transition safely into airplanes with traditional “steam gauges” without having had specific training in both types of aircraft.
Chase has taught at his alma mater since 1992, completing his master’s degree in aeronautical
science from Embry Riddle in 2005. Chase has seen many changes in LETU’s program including advances in technology like the glass cockpits. But the commitment to safety first has never wavered.
LETU is one of the first universities in the country to use new glass cockpit airplanes. In 2005, all of the school’s new Cessna Skyhawks were outfitted with the state-of-the-art glass cockpits.
“I don’t know of any school with as high a percentage of glass cockpit airplanes as LETU has,” Chase said. “A lot of university schools have a few, but the ratio with traditional cockpits is not nearly as high as at LETU. However, we do training on both anyway.”
Chase said airlines went to glass cockpits in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
“At that time, the FAA had some concerns whether the airlines’ transition to glass from steam gauges would be smooth, and it was,” he said.
Chase observed that the FAA has no regulations on students training in a glass cockpit and flying in another. The most critical difference between the two cockpits is that the glass cockpit has two attitude indicators, while the traditional cockpit only has one. When Chase considered that flying the traditional cockpit without the attitude indicator is a very different skill, he began his new research project.
“I’m studying the paradigm of students trained in glass, then going into a traditional cockpit and whether they will be able to transition safely,” he said.
In 2008 Chase won a $5,000 research grant and a newly refurbished 1977 Cessna Cardinal four-seater airplane from the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association “Catch-a-Cardinal” sweepstakes. Since 1939, the AOPA has represented the interests of general aviation pilots. Two-thirds of the nations’ pilots are members. Chase used the grant to continue his research, but also has participated in a year-long Title III grant-writing course that culminated in writing a grant to the FAA for the pilot study.
For his initial study, Chase studied one student in each lab session who had a private pilot certification on glass cockpit. The lab uses a traditional cockpit. He studied the students with all of the instruments working correctly, then Chase simulated some failures in the instrumentation to determine how the student pilots would respond.
“With everything working OK, the pilots did fine, but I found most made errors when I failed the
attitude indicator on them,” Chase said. “Every year there are pilots killed in accidents with a misinterpretation of the attitude indicator. Other gauges in the cockpit are historical, they tell you what just happened, but the attitude indicator is right now.”
Chase said sometimes an attitude indicator can continue to look as though it’s working but give false information leading to vertigo in pilots who lose direction.
“Those kinds of mistakes kill pilots,” he said. “We do this research in a flight simulator, so the worst case scenario as far as getting hurt would be if someone tripped on a cord.”
Safely on the ground, the simulator records the flights and matches the instrumentation readings with the reactions of the pilot. The initial study included a sample of eight students, and Chase found most students were able to maintain control, although not accuracy. This fall and spring, Chase is expanding his research in cooperation with the Louisiana Tech flight program. He will study the performance of LETU pilots, trained in glass cockpits, as they react to Tech’s simulator that still uses steam gauges. Next, he will compare their performance with that of Louisiana Tech pilots who have been trained exclusively on steam gauges. The research will show differences in the two programs and will give valuable insight into training students for flying aircraft with both kinds of instruments. Chase says he expects both groups of students to struggle, but that they will gain valuable experience through the process.
“When flight instruments are in different places in the cockpit, then it matters,” Chase said, “especially in an emergency.” Though passengers might be oblivious to the difference in training, Chase knows his research can benefit his flight students, and the collaboration can only make both programs stronger.