Terrain Systems (Part Two)

Risk: Silencing TAWS Alerts

Despite efforts to minimize nuisance alerts, they still occur occassionally. For this reason, most TAWS systems offer a terrain inhibit switch that allows you to silence TAWS alerts. There have been cases in which pilots have used the inhibit switch or ignored TAWS alerts, thinking they were nuisance alerts, when in fact the alerts were valid indications of a dangerous situation. For this reason, you should train yourself to respond to TAWS alerts just as you would to any other sort of emergency. Always, if in any doubt, set “Full Power and Climb” at VX or VY, depending on the equipment manual and AFM/POH. The practice of simply ignoring or disabling TAWS alerts based on pilot intuition has not proved to be a safe one. Your manufacturer’s reference manual and aircraft flight manual supplement will prescribe specific procedures for responding to TAWS alerts.

The only current, fully certified systems, known as TAWS, are certified under Technical Standards Order (TSO)-C151.

TAWS equipment is required for turbine-powered airplanes having six or more passenger seats and manufactured after certain dates (see 14 CFR part 91, section 91.223). TAWS is now an affordable option in many advanced avionics due to decreased cost and increased capabilities of computer circuits and components. All aircraft would be safer with TAWS and crews trained to use the technology.


Risk: Flying in Close Proximity to Terrain

A display that plainly shows your position with respect to surrounding terrain is sometimes cited as the most reassuring system available in the advanced avionics cockpit. The same display can also invite the unwary pilot to attempt risky maneuvers. Suppose that, on a VFR flight to an airport located in hilly terrain, you encounter a layer of fog at 1,100 feet. In an aircraft with no terrain system, you would not consider proceeding to the airport because you have a personal minimum of 1,500 feet. With a ceiling of less than 1,500 feet, you deem the situation simply too risky. With the surrounding terrain neatly displayed in front of you, however, you may feel more confident and be tempted to give it a try. However, a wise pilot remembers that, unless the equipment is TAWS certified, accuracy is suspect. Even with TAWS certification, the information presented is no better than the database accuracy. Consult the equipment handbook or manual to determine the accuracy of the database in that area.

CFIT accidents are still occurring despite the advent of advanced avionics. What has happened here? Psychologist Gerald J. S. Wilde coined the phrase risk homeostasis to refer to a tendency for humans to seek target levels of risk. Our hill-flying scenario illustrates the concept. After pondering the perceived risks, you decide that having the terrain display gives you the same level of perceived risk with a 1,000-foot ceiling as you felt you had at 1,500 feet without the terrain display. You see no need to “give away” this new margin of perceived safety. Rather, you decide to use it to your advantage. Equipped with the terrain display, your new minimum ceiling becomes 1,000 feet, and you continue on your way to the airport.

Wilde does not support the idea of using technology to seek target levels of risk. Rather, he argues that safety measures such as seat belt laws and anti-lock brakes have not resulted in drastic reductions in highway fatalities in part because, in response to the added sense of safety provided by these measures, drivers have emboldened their driving behavior to maintain existing levels of risk.

Another issue is the lack of training in the new equipment and its uses. The functions of TAWS and basically how it works have been previously described, yet there is no training program outside the military that teaches anyone to fly based on the TAWS display. It requires much precision flight training to learn the timing and skills to fly from a display depicting a myriad of data and converting that data into close and low terrain flight directions. All advanced avionics are designed to help the pilot avoid a hazard, not enable the pilot to get closer to it. TAWS is not a terrain flight following system.

Flight Literacy Recommends

William Kershner's Student Pilot's Flight Manual - A ground school textbook, maneuvers manual, and syllabus, all rolled into one. This manual includes detailed references to maneuvers and procedures, and is fully illustrated with the author’s own drawings. It's a must-have for all student pilots and flight instructors. This manual covers all you need to know for your first flight, presolo, the post-solo maneuvers, cross-country and night flying.