Let’s face it, depending on where you live and why you fly, a lot of visual flight rules (VFR) flying is not always exactly “VFR.” We live on a planet with constantly changing weather systems and a natural light source that is only visible for about half of the day. VFR flying is the realm of the rotorcraft, and by nature, the helicopter is usually operating in close proximity to terrain, obstacles and other hazards while dealing with darkness and weather.
A recent FAA safety study identified risk areas for VFR helicopter operations that included: controlled flight into terrain, night flying and inadvertent entry into instrument meteorological conditions (IMC). A common factor in mishaps related to those risk areas is loss of situational awareness (SA) by the aircrew. Through the years, one of the primary goals of avionics technology has been to assist the flight crew in maintaining SA by increasing the amount and quality of data presented through advanced systems with enhanced aural and visual information feeds.
Several years ago, I remember drooling while flipping through an aviation magazine and reading about the new Garmin G1000 cockpit. Envy surfaced because I was flying a helicopter with the latest military glass cockpit and it was obvious that Garmin’s package was allowing Cessna Skyhawks to roll off the assembly line with a cockpit superior in many ways to what was sitting in front of me in a multi-million-dollar military machine.
Garmin followed the G1000 with the G600, a slimmer version of the G1000 that provided similar avionics capability without full instrument integration. The G600 allowed older aircraft to upgrade to “glass” for primary flight display (PFD) purposes while leaving the engine performance and other gauges in their original configuration. The G600 gave birth to the G500H, a system specifically designed for the VFR helicopter world.
The G500H is a single-bezel, twin screen unit that is designed to replace the VFR helicopter’s “six-pack” primary flight gauges with an electronic flat-screen display. One screen shows flight parameters including a horizon reference, barometric altimeter, airspeed, vertical speed, radar altimeter data, etc. Plus, as an add-on option, this screen can also present the pilot with a synthetic vision display showing a virtual 3-D view of the world outside based on a computerized terrain database. The other screen serves as a multi-function display (MFD) that shows a moving map as well as optional XM weather information, approach plates, traffic advisory screens and a helicopter terrain warning screen.
The folks at Garmin in Salem, Ore., offered the opportunity to test fly the G500H in a Bell 206 Jet Ranger III. I wanted to put the G500H’s synthetic vision system (SVS) through its paces with some aggressive terrain, and the rolling hills of the Willamette Valley were probably not the most ideal place for this, but the weather — dynamic passing snow squalls — provided a perfect environment for a demonstration of many of the system’s capabilities. While sitting in the hangar, Garmin provided a press briefing about the system and then a 10-minute, hands-on familiarization in the Jet Ranger. A break in the snow squalls allowed us to push the bird out and test the system while airborne. Turning on the Jet Ranger’s battery and avionics showed just how fast the Garmin system fires up, acquires a position and is ready to go flying. Here’s a breakdown of the G500H features while in flight:
Available as an option, Garmin’s helicopter synthetic vision technology (HSVT) was the feature I was most looking forward to seeing in action. I’ve flown on many a dark night, in and around mountainous terrain and weather, wishing that I had an in-cockpit representation of the outside world to help keep me oriented.
The Garmin SVS did not disappoint. I was impressed with the display and the increased SA that the SVS provided, especially when the snow squalls were rolling through the valley and the helicopter was occasionally pointed towards hills partially obscured by clouds and precipitation. The system is not designed to run through your local river valleys at tree-top level or run nap-of-the-Earth in canyons in zero-zero visibility, but you do get the impression that if a pilot was flying at low altitude and inadvertently entered IMC, this system may provide information that could be the difference between turning into rising terrain or turning away from trouble.
As the pilot approaches the terrain or descends, the SVS display illuminates the offending terrain in yellow. When getting even closer, a nice lady that lives inside the G500H box gives an aural warning based on the radar altimeter reading. She says, “500 feet, 400 feet,” etc. Eventually the terrain on the screen turns red and she tires of giving altitude calls and simply says “Terrain, Terrain!”
Garmin knows that helicopters live in the low altitude environment, and a simple button push (on the cyclic in the Jet Ranger) activates a “reduced protection” mode that keeps the lady’s voice warnings more reserved. In addition to the terrain display, the SVS shows charted obstacles (towers, antennas, etc.) superimposed on the SVS display. When flying toward a tower, an icon appears in the 3-D virtual display showing the relative position of the obstacle. When closing in on the object, the color changes from yellow to red and that same lady that saved you from smashing into the hillside a few minutes ago warns about the approaching obstacle in a calm yet attention-grabbing voice.
I can say without reservation — this system would be a welcome addition to almost any VFR helicopter. In fact, the G500H has features and technology that would increase safety in IFR helos as well.
The Garmin system comes with a trial set of U.S. Department of Defense/AeroNav approach plates in its memory banks for display on the MFD side of the G500H. Users need to purchase a subscription to update those plates over time, and an additional subscription can display Jeppesen approach plates. In order to fly pre-loaded approaches, a Garmin 400W or 500W series navigator must be onboard the aircraft and plugged into the G500H.
Going into the flight, I had my reservations about XM weather data in the cockpit. Would it be useful to a helicopter crew that flew relatively short legs near weather-reporting aerodromes? I assumed that XM Weather was more practical to fixed-wing operators flying long distances where the progress of frontal weather systems might impact a flight that was covering hundreds of miles during several hours of flight time.
One short afternoon flight in the Jet Ranger dodging snow squalls allowed me to discard assumptions of the value of this subscription-based feature. Returning to Salem Airport, the visibility was getting poor due to snow squalls. Combining the terrain features of the moving map and the SVS display, I was able to pick a route back to the airport that would keep me clear of terrain and under the snow clouds.
Here I was, flying a helicopter in an unfamiliar area, and the G500H was allowing me to navigate with confidence while looking for safe routes through cloud-obscured terrain. With a plan in place, I scrolled the screen to the XM Weather page with NEXRAD data and saw that a snow squall was sitting directly over the field, but moving to the east. With information received from the MFD, I was able to determine that the squall should pass clear of the field and not impede my ingress route.
Also, the XM service provides the G500H with METAR and TAF data for airports in real time. For pilots operating in areas with microclimates or heavy seasonal fog, this information may be critical to a crew’s mission execution decision-making. Many of us operate in mountainous terrain where line-of-sight ATIS transmissions might not be able to be received until a crew is committed to a certain airfield, only to find that the weather has moved in and landing at the planned destination might not be a good option any longer.
Standard equipment with the G500H is an airport database that supplies text information about an aerodrome as well as a detailed map of the airfield including taxiways, helipads and runways. Zooming in on the moving map when in the airfield environment shows the immediate SA gains provided by the system. Now when the controller gives taxi instructions, you can look at your electronic map and simply follow the lines without fumbling through paper publications.
The winter weather appeared to keep the general aviation community of northern central Oregon grounded and we did not see another aircraft during our entire flight. However, Garmin presented the traffic avoidance feature in a G500H demonstration. Traffic information is displayed to the pilot several ways: a dedicated traffic page on the MFD side of the screen; on the moving map MFD page; and on the main flight display where it is presented in a virtual 3-D environment as a yellow dot. On this display, the traffic is shown at its relative position to the helicopter and the yellow dot grows as distances between aircraft decrease. Finally, when the distances get to a specified range, the nice lady who earlier told us about our altitude will say: “Traffic, Traffic, Two O’Clock.”
There’s no getting around it, the G500H system — especially when pumped full of all of its optional extras — is a complicated piece of avionics gear. That said, Garmin has been very successful through the years improving operator interfaces with a multitude of marine, aviation and automotive GPS products. Those familiar with Garmin will find many similarities between the G500H and other Garmin systems.
Following my 10-minute static introduction, it was only several minutes into the flight and I was doing many basic tasks on the G500H without much fumbling around. An hour into the flight I was even more proficient. After nearly two hours of flying, I was starting to really figure the system out. One or two more flights and I would probably be able to throw the instruction manual into the recycle bin. The learning curve is not very steep, nor is it long. The base model G500H (without the optional extras) could likely be mastered in an even shorter amount of time.
Flying with the Garmin G500H was a treat. Coupled with the other Garmin boxes in the helicopter, the integration was seamless and the information presented was pertinent and useful to me as an aviator flying around an unfamiliar area at low altitude in marginal VFR conditions. I’m not sure I’d want to buy the product without the synthetic vision option, but the approach plates and XM weather options might be more useful to operators in different areas of the world.
Flying with the G500H, I noticed there was a lot of time spent heads down in the cockpit. In evaluating the system for this article, I understood going in that I would spend a lot of time with my eyes inside the cockpit starring at the G500H and not so much time enjoying the snow-covered scenery of the Willamette River Valley. If I was more familiar with the system and flying on a VFR mission, my attention would be split between the world outside and Garmin’s synthetic world inside. But the quality of the information that the G500H presents, and the way it delivers the information, definitely makes the time spent looking inside the cockpit much more beneficial than a quick scan of traditional instruments.
Even without the add-on extras, flight crews should easily benefit from increased SA with the Garmin G500H. Adding the optional extras makes it an even more capable and useful tool in both tactical and strategic flight decision-making on a multitude of missions.
A longer version of this story appears on Rotor & Wing’s website — www.rotorandwing.com.