Many turbine pilots get the willies just thinking about flying small airplanes, especially in anything less than blue skies. Reliability and redundancy are two reasons for that.
But small aircraft owners can narrow the safety gap between themselves and their jet-flying colleagues, even without swapping that Lycoming six-banger for a Pratt & Whitney turboprop.
Avionics upgrades top the list of solutions. Thanks to GPS and computers, a decades-old general aviation airplane can house a more sophisticated instrument panel than an airliner or business jet. The utility, redundancy and sheer amount of situational awareness available in private airplanes compared to just a few years ago is truly astounding, thanks to companies such as Garmin, Chelton, Avidyne and Bendix/King.
"You have big iron capability in a [Cessna] 172," said Michel Merluzeau, managing partner of G2 Solutions, a Kirkland, Wash.-based aviation consulting and market analysis company. "With a [Garmin] G1000, these guys have better situational awareness than an MD-80 at American Airlines."
The GPS and information technology revolution of the 1990s opened up the avionics field to innovators who have made avionics the most dynamic, exciting segment of the general aviation industry, Merluzeau said. "Situational awareness is considerably improved, the reliability of the avionics is considerably improved and safety is considerably improved," he said.
Exhibit A in the category of 20th century aircraft with 21st century makeovers is N1822S, a mint-condition 1981 Beech Baron 55 owned by Darryl Snyder, an avid pilot and avionics aficionado with a passion for buying older airplanes and giving them high-tech makeovers. Aside from completely rebuilding N1822S’s six-cylinder Continental engines, Snyder spared no expense cramming as much avionics power as would fit into the four-seat twin.
It might seem like overkill, but Snyder’s philosophy was to get the best safety, redundancy and functionality possible in a plane he uses for serious cross-country flying.
"You don’t want to get cheap with aviation," Snyder said. Nor do you want to reach a point in the air where the weather is bad, equipment has failed and you’re really wishing you had bought good equipment and paid to maintain it.
"At that point, you’ve got religion and you’ll empty your bank account," he said. "But then it’s too late."
In front of the pilot’s nose sits the nerve center of the system, a Sandel Avionics SN3500 Electronic Horizontal Situation Indicator (EHSI). All the other navigation units — the Garmin GNS 480, Garmin GNS 530 and their respective NAV 1 and NAV 2 VOR receivers — provide course-line information on the Sandel, over a small moving map, if desired. The Sandel can lay bearing pointers to VORs, just like a Radio Magnetic Indicator (RMI), over the GPS Course Deviation Indicator (CDI) needles.
Even with all the space-driven stuff, Snyder kept the King AR-87 Automatic Direction Finder (ADF) that came with the aircraft. It could come in handy, he said, especially off the Atlantic coast, still home to powerful marine Non-Directional Radio Beacons (NDB), and in foreign countries where the AM beacons are more common than in the United States. The ADF bearing is also displayed on the Sandel EHSI. The ancient King radio also provides entertainment redundancy in case the PS Engineering PAV80 entertainment center, which features an AM/FM radio, CD player, MP3 player and DVD player, goes on strike. Incidentally, passengers can watch movies from the PAV80 on a mini-screen attached to the back of the pilot’s seat.
"The Sandel is kind of the crux of the thing," said Snyder, who praises the unit for presenting such a wealth of information in the same space as an ordinary HSI.
There are two multi-function displays in the Baron. A Garmin GMX 200 with ChartView provides a variety of map functions, including live imitations of IFR or VFR charts, real-time terrain awareness and weather information from a Garmin GDL69 data link. The Avidyne FlightMax EX500, which, with its startlingly good resolution and ease of manipulation would probably be the primary navigation screen in most aircraft, is relegated to painting pictures from the Bendix/King RDR-160 color radar.
"Avidyne has done a wonderful job of marrying their displays to [other manufacturers’] radars," Snyder said.
If the Sandel were to fail, both the GNS 530 and the GNS 480 can display course deviation indicators, in addition to moving maps and magenta course lines. The Garmins are independent, so the loss of one wouldn’t hurt the other. If you’re flying a Wide Area Augmentation System (WAAS) approach off the GNS 480 and it dies, a push of a single button on the Sandel will bring up the same information from the GNS 530, provided both were set up for the approach.
If the whole GPS system goes out, there are still two VORs, a King KN-63 DME and the ADF to find the way to safety.
Unlike a turbine-powered airplane, the B-55 has the drawback of powering all avionics from a single electrical bus, although there are separate alternators and a battery for limited redundancy.
However, in case of a total electrical failure, you at least wouldn’t have to worry about losing control of the aircraft. There are two back-up attitude indicators, one electric and one vacuum powered, as well as an air-driven directional gyro, in addition to the compass. If there’s any doubt about which way is up, you poll the three attitude indicators and go with the majority.
"I guess I like the idea that if things start to fail piecemeal, we’ve got a lot of options before we’re praying that it’s all going to turn out alright," Snyder said.
That’s one reason Snyder said he was never tempted to install a ready-made glass system, such as Garmin’s G1000; if there’s a catastrophic failure, you’re stuck with three tiny backup gages. He said he also prefers traditional round gages arranged in the standard "six-pack" configuration — two rows, each with three instruments — to the vertical tapes on glass panels.
But just as important to Snyder was the desire to customize his own panel, mixing and matching the best instruments from a variety of suppliers. Filling the panel is sort of a hobby, he said, like college kids in the 1960s cramming people into a Volkswagen Bug. "I think every manufacturer has got their piece of equipment that they do better than anybody else," he said.
Snyder picked the Electronics International VA-1A volt/amp gages and OPT-1 oil temperature/pressure gages to replace his original plain vanilla gages that, aside from being hard to read, didn’t instill much confidence in their accuracy. The Electronics International gages, however, show amps and volts to the tenth.
There’s no guessing about oil pressure or temperature, either, which are shown digitally. Additionally, an arc of lights lets the pilot check whether oil pressure is "in the green" or not with a quick glance, a nice feature on the takeoff roll.
A J.P. Instruments EDM-760 Twin engine monitor provides digital and graphic readouts of exhaust gas and individual cylinder temperatures and, combined with GAMI fuel injectors, allows for running the engines lean of peak.
Although the original fuel quantity gages remain, they are almost secondary to the readouts from the Shadin Digiflo-L digital fuel management system, which has proven to be accurate to within half a gallon.
Snyder sees the Garmin GDL 69 data link as the primary tool for weather avoidance. Although it’s a great service, providing broadcast weather data from XM Satellite Radio, he prefers WSI weather information, which he said has better graphics. But Garmin’s top-of-the-line GMX 200 multifunction display doesn’t support WSI, so he had to switch satellite weather providers when he upgraded his old MX 20 display. Garmin engineered WSI out of the picture, he said, a strategy reminiscent of how Microsoft has come to dominate the software market.
"The Microsoft model is in full force at Garmin; buy up your competitor, put him out of business," Snyder said. It’s not that Garmin doesn’t make great products, he added, but he wonders if its dominance will stifle competition and creativity, reducing pilots’ choices.
Merluzeau agreed that Garmin looks a bit like Microsoft. Neither company’s rise has been accidental, he said. Their successes have been based on innovation, vision and, at least initially, development of a core technology.
Considering the avionics power that has become available to general aviation pilots in the last decade, some might argue further innovation is unnecessary, at least while pilots figure out how to use what they have so recently gained.
With this fantastic technology comes more responsibility for light airplane pilots, who risk getting into trouble if they don’t understand how to use their equipment. The bare minimum practice to legally carry passengers — performing three landings every 90 days — is probably not enough to hop behind a glass panel and competently tackle instrument weather.
Situational awareness overload can be just as bad as situational ignorance. But the solution is simple: read the manuals and fly as much as necessary, especially in nice weather, to remain proficient.
For pilots like Snyder, that’s just another excuse — as if one were necessary — to go flying.
Following is a list of avionics aboard Darryl Snyder’s 1981 Beech Baron 55:
Electronics International, VA-1A volt/amp gages
Electronics International, OPT-1 Oil temperature/pressure gages
J.P. Instruments, EDM-760 Twin engine monitor
Shadin Avionics, Digiflo-L digital fuel management system
Garmin GMA 340 audio panel
Garmin GMX 200 multifunction display with ChartView
Avidyne FlightMax EX500 multi-function display
Garmin GNS 480 WAAS-certified GPS/Nav/Com
Garmin GNS 530 GPS/Nav/Comm
Garmin GTX 330 Mode S digital transponder
Garmin GDL 69 data link receiver
Sandel SN3500 Electronic Horizontal Situation Indicator
King KN-63 remote DME
King AR-87 ADF (displays on Sandel) with gear-up, gear-down flight timer
Garmin GI-102A MD200 CDI
Bendix/King RDR-160 color radar
PS Engineering PAV80 entertainment center with AM/FM radio, CD, MP3 and DVD
Mid-Continent Instruments, Electric Standby Attitude Indicator
Sigma Tek, Vacuum-driven directional gyro and attitude indicator