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Digital debate

Doesn’t everyone love glass panels?

I’m continually surprised by how many pilots tell me they have no interest in flying an airplane with an all-glass instrument panel.

I most often hear this refrain when I’m answering questions about our plans to upgrade the instrument panels on AOPA sweepstakes airplanes. Equally perplexing are those pilots who have only flown airplanes with glass cockpits who tell me they have no interest in learning how to use analog instruments.

Many of these opinions can be attributed to the law of primacy, which explains what a student learns first often creates a strong, almost unshakable impression. It’s understandable then that those who learned to fly using analog or digital instrumentation would naturally continue to prefer the same instrumentation. As general aviation pilots, we need to understand the reason for our preference, but also get past it. Both entrenched camps are missing out on flying some great aircraft.

The Aircraft Electronics Association reported that $1.38 billion was spent on business and general aviation retrofit avionics upgrades in 2022 (avionics equipment installed after original production), a value that was on pace to be exceeded in 2023. Many of these upgrades include installing ever-more-capable GPS navigators and electronic flight instrument system (EFIS) displays in instrument panels that still contain some number of analog instruments. Increasingly, the legacy fleet of GA aircraft contains a mix of analog and digital gauges. Depending on which side of the fence you’re on, you either lament the loss of the cherished six-pack, or you cheer on the modernization of GA’s fleet of aircraft. Either way, to fully experience all GA has to offer, you owe it to yourself to become proficient with both types of instruments.

Since I joined the AOPA staff five years ago, I’ve had the privilege to fly exceptional airplanes that have been retrofit with all-glass instrument panels, including AOPA’s Beechcraft Bonanza A36 and three AOPA Sweepstakes airplanes: the Van’s Aircraft RV–10, Grumman Tiger, and Cessna 170B. I have to confess, I’ve become a huge fan of digital avionics. They are packed with information, are often equipped with built-in battery backup, and offer loads of redundancy. No doubt, there is a learning curve to become proficient with the many functions—but it only takes a few flights to learn the basics a pilot needs to fly safely. Alternately, a few sessions in a simulator goes a long way toward developing a new scan and the muscle memory needed to quickly find critical data on the digital instrument or glass panel. The biggest drawback for many pilots is that digital avionics are more expensive than analog gauges.

Having owned a Cessna 140 for 11 years—outfitted solely with analog gauges sans attitude indicator, directional gyro, or vacuum pump—I still believe analog gauges offer a lot of benefits. They’re stone simple and, if you learned to fly using analog gauges, they are intuitive to use. But analog gauges also have a lot of drawbacks: They require regular maintenance and repair, are heavy, and often require an even heavier failure-prone vacuum system.

I enjoyed flying the AOPA Sweepstakes Cessna 170B so much, I decided to buy one. I discovered those equipped with glass cockpits are rare, expensive, and typically not for sale. I ultimately found one with a nice mix of analog and digital instruments including a GPS navigator coupled with two 3.125-inch EFIS displays and no vacuum system. It’s a solid compromise made possible using a combination of analog and digital at a reasonable price point.

In pursuit of a commercial multiengine rating, my training aircraft is a Tecnam P2006T with a Garmin GTN 750 navigator nestled among a dizzying array of analog gauges—many in duplicate. During my first simulated engine-out instrument approach, I fully appreciated having previously learned to program approaches on the touchscreen navigator, and how to use a traditional six-pack of analog instruments and an analog VOR/LOC/glideslope indicator to hand fly my course and glideslope. The payback is that the Tecnam (with this instrumentation) is way less expensive to rent per hour compared to a glass-panel-equipped twin-engine airplane.

Analog or digital? I believe you should strive to be proficient with both. I see it as an access to aircraft issue; don’t limit your choice of aircraft you can fly, own, or train in because you have an unwavering preference. I encourage you to get in the sim or jump in an airplane and have fun learning to use analog or digital instruments. Your newfound skills will unlock an expanded range of aircraft you can use to enjoy general aviation to its fullest.

[email protected]

Alyssa J. Miller
Kollin Stagnito
Senior Vice President of Media
Senior Vice President of Media Kollin Stagnito is a commercial pilot, advanced and instrument ground instructor and a certificated remote pilot. He owns a 1953 Cessna 170B.

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