It’s hard to believe, but in August, glass cockpits in production civil aircraft will have been in use for a quarter of a century. On Aug. 19, 1982, I and other aviation journalists flew from Seattle to Chicago on the first Boeing 767 delivery. (Its slimmer, single-aisle 757 sibling would be delivered in December of that year, to Eastern Airlines.) Our airplane was going to United Airlines. As the first "next generation" twinjet of that era, it was an exciting machine, especially for the new technology buffs in the group.
What caught our attention throughout the trip was the 767’s electronic flight instrument system (EFIS). This had replaced many of the familiar round dials with six TV screen-like displays — an upper primary flight display (PFD) and a lower navigation display for each pilot, and two center-panel engine instrument and crew alerting system (EICAS) displays. Today, of course, such an instrument panel looks, well, old fashioned, with its airspeed, altitude and vertical speed still displayed on round dials outside the screens. But back then, it was revolutionary.
So revolutionary, in fact, that FAA flight safety inspectors worried the navigation display of only the forward sector of the 360-degree compass rose of the traditional horizontal situation indicator (HSI) could cause even experienced airline captains to become disoriented. As a result, they insisted Collins include an instant reversionary mode to the full 360-degree presentation should the pilot feel he was losing situational awareness. I never did hear of such an occurrence, but we all know FAA’s love of the belt and suspenders approach.
One can only assume that the inspectors who wrung their hands over the safety aspects of the 767’s navigation display aren’t still around, checking out the astonishing panels now selling like hot cakes into general aviation airplanes.
Although there’s some anecdotal evidence that low-time pilots who learned to fly on simple, round-dial cockpits have occasional difficulties absorbing the welter of new information being presented to them, there’s no question that the Age of Glass is here, and there’s no turning back.
In fact, although some old timers are astonished by the rapidity with which glass has moved down the avionics chain, from airlines and high-end corporate jets to single-engine piston machines, it’s an understandable reflection of the digital, Internet-connected world we live in.
In fact, glass has become the choice of flight training and experimental aircraft communities. Following the tornado that virtually demolished Embry-Riddle’s training fleet at Daytona Beach, Fla., last Christmas, the university’s replacement Cessna 172s and Twin Diamonds are totally glass equipped. Visits to such gatherings as Air Venture at Oshkosh and Sun ’n Fun in Florida show the overwhelming acceptance of new glass technology by homebuilt pilots. In both trainers and homebuilts, cockpits are starting to carry more glass than many airliners flying today.
But while the upper end of corporate aviation is still Honeywell and Rockwell Collins territory — epitomized by the stunning Honeywell Primus Epic EASy (for Enhanced Avionics System) cockpit of Dassault Falcon trijets — the main glass action today is in the lower echelons of general aviation. There, three main suppliers — Garmin International, Avidyne and Chelton Flight Systems — are locked in combat. Comparative market share figures aren’t readily available, but a very unscientific poll by Avionics suggested Garmin’s G-1000 integrated avionics system leads here, followed by Avidyne’s Entegra and Chelton’s FlightLogic systems, although the somewhat higher-priced Chelton equipment appears well in front of the others in the helicopter market.
In the retrofit market, however, things are less clear. Chelton had always made its products available to original equipment manufacturers and avionics dealers alike, while Garmin and Avidyne offered the G-1000 and Entegra exclusively to OEMs for a considerable length of time after their introduction. This was probably a prudent approach, allowing each to bring their most sophisticated products to the marketplace under closely controlled conditions, while building up experience and handling any problems that arose.
But the OEM market is relatively limited, and Avidyne was the next to move out into the avionics dealer field. Garmin eventually followed, but only after determined efforts by people such as Scott Tychsen, director of sales and business development at Executive Beechcraft, Kansas City, Mo. It was a tough selling job, requiring detailed business plans and forecasts, to persuade Garmin to allow the company to offer the G-1000 for the King Air 90 and -200 retrofit market, where Avidyne already was active.
Yet even more interesting are the arrangements the three suppliers have in the homebuilt market. To many, "home-built" suggests a garage-built, perhaps not entirely airworthy, machine that truly warrants FAA "Experimental" categorization. But inspection of a finished Lancair, Glasai or Vans RV series, to name just three of many models, will show safe, well constructed and sturdy aircraft, with clear evidence of quality workmanship.
Predictably, their owners also want the best and latest instrumentation available, and all three companies offer their glass cockpits under "experimental" programs. Here, the reportedly lower-priced equipment is identical to that supplied to OEMs and avionics shops, but bears different part numbers and documentation, and lacks FAA approval labels, so that it cannot be installed in a non-Experimental airplane without voiding the aircraft’s airworthiness certificate.
Aerotronics, headquartered in Billings, Mont., is one of the largest of several American companies supplying complete instrument panels that homebuilders can drop into their cockpits. Garry Wirrell, vice president and senior manager, said Aerotronics has a separate division dedicated exclusively to the United States and overseas homebuilt market, which he described as numbering "in the thousands."
From the pilot’s point of view, GA avionics suites are broadly similar in offering a navigation display and either one or two PFDs — the latter installed on either side of a centrally located navigation display. The essential PFD data presented by the aforementioned three companies include a conventional-looking attitude indicator, flanked on either side by vertical airspeed and altitude scales, climb/descent rate indicators, a sector or full 360-degree compass rose below and the heading repeated at the top of the screen. Current airspeed and altitude also are shown as expanded numbers in clearly marked boxes.
Once accustomed to the vertical scales, pilots usually have little difficulty in adapting to the PFD. However, each manufacturer then adds additional data in its own format around the essential information, and switching between different company’s displays can cause pilots to initially look for data in the "wrong" part of the screen. But the data are generally common to all three PFDs, with the possible exception of FlightLogic’s "Highway in the Sky" steering cue, which appears to be unique to Chelton.
The presentations on the navigation displays are also basically similar. These show moving maps with overlaid aircraft position and routes plus navaids, with optional displays of Terrain Avoidance Warning System, uplinked weather and/or onboard weather radar and other information. Side panels of the navigation display provide engine and other instrument readouts. All the information you need is there, but once more, each manufacturer has its own way of presenting it.
It’s not anything as bad as the different operating sequences in various manufacturers’ GPS sets, where unfamiliarity with a unit can effectively prevent its use. As with all different cockpits, however, renter pilots should take sufficient time before firing up the engine to fully understand where things are on the displays. Saying you’ve flown other glass panels before isn’t good enough.
Unfortunately, space just doesn’t permit a detailed comparison of the similarities and differences between the three systems, particularly as system software allows manufacturers to make continuing program upgrades.
From the installation shop’s point of view, there are some important differences, and it is here that Garmin appears to have an advantage over competitors when dealing with a complete avionics change-out. The company has a broad range of compatible avionics subsystems, i.e., comm, nav, GPS, transponder, Attitude Heading Reference System (AHRS), preventing the need for unique interfaces. This, reportedly, was one factor behind the difficulties experienced by Eclipse Aviation and Avidyne in integrating the latter’s Entegra system into the Avio flight deck of the Eclipse 500 Very Light Jet. In March, the companies agreed to end their cooperative program.
What about reliability, maintenance and service support of glass technology? Basically, solid state devices are inherently more reliable than electromechanical ones. Reliability data is sketchy and minimal, but feedback from avionic shops is positive.
"Everyone is delighted," said Barry Aylward, president of Kitchener Aero in Breslau, Ontario. "We’ve had very few problems, and most of these will disappear when everyone converts from gyros to AHRS."
Nevertheless, others have reported isolated incidents of total system loss (think home PCs), and while some systems have been restarted in flight, other attempts have been unsuccessful. "The jury is still out on reliability," said Matt Fowle, general manager of Mid Continent Instruments, in Van Nuys, Calif. "But overall, it seems to be improving."
Executive Beechcraft’s Tychsen reported satisfaction with Garmin’s loaner program and 24/7 customer support. Others spoke of down times of two or three weeks as typical of factory repairs but agreed that things are improving.
Eclipse Aviation said in March its joint development and production agreement with Avidyne, covering the Avio integrated avionics suite of the Eclipse 500 Very Light Jet, had been terminated by mutual agreement. In its place, a new consortium was formed to develop a suite named Avio NG, for Next Generation.
First Avio NG installations were planned for mid-summer, with retrofits to previously delivered aircraft completed by year end.
The Eclipse 500 cockpit layout will be unchanged. However, Avidyne displays will be replaced by same-size primary flight and multifunction displays from Innovative Solutions and Support (IS&S), of Exton, Pa. These are described as having higher Mean Time Between Failure and improved resolution of 768 x 1024 pixels for the PFD and 1440 x 900 for the MFD (a 60 percent increase), with Level A equivalent software and Part 25 transport category-equivalent hardware.
IS&S is a major supplier for Boeing and other aircraft retrofits. Geoffrey S.M. Hedrick, chairman and CEO, said the five-year, original equipment manufacturer agreement for the Eclipse 500 advances the company’s Cockpit Information Portal (Cockpit/IP) flat-panel display system, which has supplemental type certification from FAA on the Boeing 757 and 767.
"The company’s patented FAA Level A certified, flat-panel display systems with proven air transport quality and performance bring the Part 25 high-integrity level to the VLJ operator who will be sharing the same airspace with the commercial airlines," Hedrick said.
Chelton Flight Systems, Boise, Idaho, will provide its ARINC-424-compliant Flight Management System, based on Level A standards and RTCA DO-229c WAAS capability. Eclipse has retained the Free Flight Systems’ GPS/WAAS sensor included in the original Avio configuration.
Garmin International will supply its GTX-33 and GTX-33D Mode S Enhanced Surveillance transponders. Honeywell is supplying Primus Apex KTR-2280 Multimode Digital Radios, the RDR-2000 Weather Radar System and optional KGP-560 Terrain Awareness System.
PS Engineering, Lenoir City, Tenn., is providing its PMA500 remote audio control system, which interfaces with the avionics suite for audio selection, mode control, intercom and marker beacon indication. The audio panel includes the "IntelliVox" entertainment input, a patented squelch control that adjusts dynamically to cockpit sound conditions.