I thought I'd seen the extremes of aviation technology in my years as a pilot.
I soloed at 14 years old in the 65-mile-per-hour, fabric-covered two-seat Piper J-3 Cub, truly bare bones instrumentation in 1944. The "fuel gauge," for example, was a piece of wire I could see through the windshield attached to a float inside the fuel tank. When fuel was low, the float sank and the wire was short.
Then, 39 years later in 1983, with permission of the flight crew, I sat in the jump seat of a British Airways supersonic Concorde on a roundtrip flight to Europe—ogling the curve of the earth at more than 51,000 feet and four thunderous engines totaling 152,000 pounds of thrust shooting us along at 1,350 miles per hour, Mach 2.
But something has come along I didn't anticipate: a small general aviation aircraft with essentially the same sort of ultra high-tech electronic systems normally found only in multimillion dollar corporate and airline jets.
This is the 2006 Cessna Skyhawk 172 Garmin 1000, equipped with what pilots call the "glass cockpit" -- an instrument panel dominated by two, 10.4-inch liquid crystal TV-like screens that together can provide more than 100 computerized data programs at the mere touch of buttons arrayed nearby.
The pilot even has the choice of a male or female voice when audio instructions are requested. Want Sirius radio for entertainment? That's an option. But here's the topper: this Cessna 172 has a parachute that can be deployed with a rocket in an extreme emergency requiring a relatively gentle return to earth.
The only Garmin 1000 172 Sky hawk in the Wood River Valley, and the only one in the Northwest region, is at Friedman Memorial Airport's Sun Valley Aviation, where it's operated not only as a flight trainer, but also available for rental.
The aircraft, whose published price is slightly under $300,000, is owned by Hailey businessman Bruce Bothwell and his wife, Mary, who've leased it to Sun Valley Aviation. Bothwell, who is training in the aircraft for his private pilot's license, now has 34 hours and will be soloing.
Cessna has produced more than 45,000 of the steady, reliable 172s in various models since introducing the model in the 1960s. This beauty, however, is pure futurism come to life.
I spent some time on the ground in the aircraft with Sun Valley Aviation's flight instructor, Dustin Smock, who tried valiantly to explain the multitude of functions of the Garmin 1000 system to a pilot who's spent hundreds of hours fixating on analogue instruments that now are relics from aviation's Stone Age by comparison.
Sophisticated jets have what's generally known as flight management systems that literally do most of the flying from just after takeoff to just before landing by capturing and heeding pre-set climb and descent data, navigational aid frequencies, speed and altitude settings. This small aircraft has its own, pint-sized but wholly wide-ranging system that performs similar functions when programmed by the pilot.
The LCD on the left side of the panel is the primary flight display (PFD) and the one on the right is the multifunction display (MFD).
The PFD is essentially everything to do with flight—attitude of the aircraft, speed, altitude, wind conditions, navigation, and radio frequencies. Displays also provide data on the best climb speeds and stall speed to avoid.
The MFD provides maps, course head flight plans, alternate flight plans, engine data (fuel, fuel consumption, temperature, RPM, electrical systems monitoring.
Although the plane was in the hangar, and thus unable to pick up Global Position Satellite information, Smock performed several simple demonstrations of the system's capabilities.
He, for example, punched buttons here, buttons there and suddenly there was a display of a planned flight to Salt Lake City, complete with distances, compass headings, radio frequencies for communication as well as navigational aids along the way, even information on alternate airports in the event of an emergency. The system even stores programmed flight plans for later use.
Smock, emphasized, however, that his students aren't allowed to become slaves to computerized programs that in effect let them be hands-free pilots who relax while a computerized system does the work. He teaches the ancient art of pilotage—learning how to get from here to there using common maps, knowing how to use reliable old compasses and referring to ground features—such as railroads, lakes, highways, towns—to make sure they're on course.
The aircraft's flight instruction price is reasonable: $125 per hour for the plane, $40 per hour for Smock's instruction.
The nostalgic pilot in me who soloed as a kid tells me the J-3 Piper Cub was fun to land in cow pastures and on roads and feel the breeze through an open cockpit window as I flew the countryside only a few hundred feet over the ground and waving at landlocked people below.
But the much older pilot in me tells me that young fliers who master the Skyhawk 172 Garmin 1000 will be far safer and use the airways far more efficiently than those who believe the air still belongs to seat-of-the-pants flying.