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Wed, Oct 29, 2003

Exclusive ANNRep: The Other Shoe Drops, We Fly The Garmin G1000

ANN Scores the First Flight Test of the G1000 Equipped and Coolest 182 in The Known Universe

By ANN Editor-In-Chief (and Official Test-Geek) Jim Campbell

The aviation world got a bit of a surprise earlier this month when Cessna announced that it had selected Garmin's G1000 for inclusion in several of their more rugged Single-Engine offerings… starting with the venerable Cessna Skylane. For an announced price UNDER $300K, a 182 would be sold with a full-blown Garmin G1000 system… a price many thousands of dollars less than the pundits thought Cessna might actually ask for (and could in all probability, get).

In the meantime; the market is speaking vociferously in response… advance orders number in the hundreds and it appears that the answer to the biggest question on Cessna's mind for next year (i.e., how many can we sell?) is likely to be "All of Them." We shall see… but our money's on the market response keeping the Wichita gang busy… especially when these gadgets get fitted into the 206 line-the next bird on the menu for the Garmin treatment.

Getting prepared for the 2003 AOPA Expo, we were pleased to be offered the chance to be the first to fly Garmin's competitive answer to the magnificent flat panel offerings we're been crowing about from Chelton and Avidyne. While we expected Garmin to know a thing or two about designing a next-generation electronic flight instrumentation system, we were more than slightly concerned that the latest wunder-boxes might be ham-strung by some of the menuing and operational "issues" currently making the GNS-430 and 530 less than intuitive.

It was just a few months ago that Garmin "dropped the bomb" with their announcement of the G1000. Garmin claimed that the G1000 was designed to be a "revolutionary avionics suite" that would provide important flight data -- flight instrumentation, navigation, communication, weather, terrain, traffic, and identification -- and present it digitally via two or three large, high-resolution displays. Lest you get prematurely bored by such claims please note that Garmin was proposing something altogether different… in that the G1000 was designed to be a SYSTEM rather than an add-on flight display alternative. Garmin bragged that they intended to "seamlessly integrate" them into a single aircraft/flight management system. They may have been bragging, but based on my most recent hour of flight-test time, they sure weren't lying.

Already selected for the Cessna Citation Mustang VLJ and the revolutionary Diamond's DA42 Twin Star; it came as yet another surprise that one of the first airframes to sport this system was going to be the backbone of the Cessna fleet, the 182 Skylane.

The G1000's major system components (for the 182) consist of a tightly designed flightdeck that offers a 10.4-inch primary flight display (PFD) and 10.4 inch multi-function display (MFD). Both displays, highly readable and razor sharp to these tired eyes, utilize XGA (1024x768) resolution, exceptionally wide viewing angles (really) and clear sunlight readability (the 45 seconds or so that I actually saw this day… Welcome to Philadelphia). Two tightly integrated radio modules can provide WAAS-capable, IFR oceanic-approved GPS; VHF navigation with ILS; and VHF communication with 16-watt transceivers and 8.33-kHz channel spacing - and closely mimic the better nature of the Garmin 400/500 avionics series (with a few welcome shortcuts thrown in to alleviate some of the more cumbersome aspects of their predecessors). What one would normally call an audio panel is now mounted in between both the PFD and MFD and comprises a tall skinny subset of the system. Surrounding each display are a number of rotating knobs and small push-buttons that control every aspect of the system that is isn't otherwise accomplished by the digital audio panel.

Instead of a myriad grouping of separate boxes, the G1000's displays are supplied with the requisite data by a series of remote sensors and components that are either mounted forward of the displays or in a bay behind the baggage area. Upfront (and behind the MFD) are the engine/airframe interface unit, airdata computer, and the rate sensor for the autopilot. Back in the tailcone avionics bay are the AHRS, Mode S transponder with TIS, and two communication/navigation/interface units. Included in the Cessna's G1000 installation is one of my favorite devices, the BFGoodrich WX-500 Stormscope (I used to beat the crap out of the one in my Mooney while dodging and weaving through the usual Florida thunder-boomers and other cumulo-crapola), which is standard equipment and will display it's data on the MFD (when selected). Out on the left wing is a full three-axis magnetic field sensor (a magnetometer), which replaces the flux system we were used to on conventional slaved HSIs (which may be going the way of the DODO at this rate). 

Cessna's Lori Lucion and Kirby Ortega blasted off from Indianapolis, IFR, early Tuesday morning in order to arrive in PHL at Atlantic Aviation, the site of what is to be the AOPA Aircraft Display during the course of this week's breathlessly awaited aviation love-in (it's gonna be a GOOD one, folks, if you ain't here, you're missing out on a good thing). Shortly after checking with the Atlantic Aviation folks (who actually treat GA like they want our business… an amazing thing, that… good for them), Kirby, Cessna's Flight Training Supervisor and an ANN Reader, sat me down and did a great job of briefing me on the fundamentals of the G1000 and introduced me to the original meaning of the word "integrated."

Mind you, we all know the meaning of the word… but it's become a truly mis-used appellation in trying to describe a lot of the latest technology -- but for the first time in a while, the word "integrated," when used in the vicinity of a G1000 seems to have some accuracy. This is not a scattering of married-up boxes, this is designed as an INTEGRATED flight instrumentation system that literally stands alone to do all things we normally associate with upwards of a dozen (often) dissimilar (and often mismatched) boxes.  

Our test bed was still a very experimental airplane and our flight test would only serve as something of a "first date." The secondary (backup) battery system had yet to be installed, the autopilot was INOP, and a number of features were still in the works, but what was presented worked as advertised and presented an excellent primer on what's to come. Getting to know a technically advanced system like this can take a number of hours but a few Precision approaches in borderline VFR weather would prove to be an excellent "coming out" for this new breed of gadget. The G1000 hopes to be certified by the end of the year and Cessna hopes to be delivering Skylanes and Turbo-Skylanes by spring time.

In a short while, Kirby walked me through the start-up and an initial orientation by simply actuating a single battery switch and letting the PFD spin up… in under a minute. Until actuating the rest of the avionics, the PFD is the active component that can be used to do initial communications, flight planning and aircraft systems checks. In the initial presentation mode, just about every aspect of the G1000's primary skillset is available to the pilot, while keeping initial battery loads manageable. Kirby and I spent a little time getting a flight plan entered, checking the ATIS and then shut everything down and powered up several times… each time watching the PFD come into action in under a minute (varying from 40 to 55 seconds). After getting ready for action, we received our clearance and taxied out for an intersection departure that left us with only 2050 feet of runway… the controller seemed a mite hesitant (oh ye, of little faith…) in giving it to us but as an old time 182 flyer, I found this kinda amusing… Skylanes eat 2000 foot runways for breakfast and leave (at least) 1000 feet left for an afternoon snack…

By the way; our testbed apparently sported most, if not all, the latest 2004 adaptations. The cowling is a bit more aerodynamically refined (and looks it), the interior is a cut above what I remember for such birds, and the fit and finish were pretty darned good-(especially internally). The external effect is visually appealing and I understand that the little tweaks here and there are resulting in a few more knots when cruising along. Kudos to the folks who are doing the seats now, as mine offered better back support than the Skylanes (I remember) of old and it sure is a lot easier to adjust than it used to be… especially for leg room. Well done.

Firewalling the 100 hour experimental testbed, N21454 hauled buns, broke ground in just about 500-600 feet and was well over a hundred feet in the air by the time we waved bye-bye to the departure end of the runway… booking upwards at well over 1100 fpm, at 80 knots, with half tanks and the better part of 500 pounds left in the cabin (though you shoulda seen what came out of this thing after flying in from IND… I've seen smaller baggage loads come out of lots bigger airplanes and Lori swears most of it wasn't hers…).

Right away, I started liking the G1000… I went straight to the gauges right after departure and pretty much just followed our IFR flight plan to the North and PNE for an ILS to try out the approach manners of the G1000. Enroute, I found the layout of the PFD to be fairly intuitive and particularly appreciated the small map inset on the lower left of the main screen for a quick POS reference and the unobtrusive airdata and trend presentation. On the right, the MFD did a beautifully sharp job of offering mapping data, traffic info, navaid presentations and melding it all in a fairly uncluttered manner. The traffic call-outs were particularly well designed and surprisingly unobtrusive when viewed as a subset of the whole. The display is very sharp, screen refresh rates are VERY fast and I was able to discern no shakes, frame- lagging or display artifacts despite some occasional yanking and banking. The spacious width of the PFD made for easy IFR flying and the large format made keeping one's heading and altitude closer to their intended values than one might experience with smaller instrumentation. The nice thing about such formats is that they actually promote better accuracy simply because it's much easier to not only discern your actual position but thanks to the trending data, it's far easier to figure out where you're going to be a few seconds hence.

The issue of system integration is still a thorny one, but based on an hour's sampling, I think that Garmin is on the right track-especially for what will undoubtedly be mostly OEM G1000 installations. Comm and Nav chores can be altered from EITHER display and the menuing will look familiar to those used to the GNS 430 and 530 (in other words, about half the aviation universe). Throwing a quick new flight plan in on the return from PNE went very quickly in the hands of someone familiar with the system (Kirby, of course… I'm still very much the G1000 virgin), and the attitude data has a Flight-Director feel/orientation that is easy to digest with little effort.

The ILS into PNE went fairly well. Hugging the localizer was a pretty accurate exercise and went a lot better than my usual effort (ever seen a drunken sailor work his way down a dark alley? Then you've seen me on a localizer-but I've been told that the sailor does it better…). My glideslope tracking was a little behind (big surprise, that!) but a quick consult with the VS tape and the trending line allowed me to make a quick correction that got me a little closer to the program in short order. One thing that was interesting is that with all this data in front of you, when flying approaches in VFR conditions (even in light rain), there is little inclination to take a peak and see how badly you're blowing the approach. Simply put… there's better and more useful data on the screen than there is out the windshield… and it's so much cooler to play with Garmin's coolest video game. What's IN the cockpit is SO much cooler than what is OUTside. No kidding. 

Heading back, we ran into a bit more rain and the visibility started deteriorating a tad. I hardly noticed. I simply wasn't looking outside. The panel is alluring and amounts to an excellent bit of eye candy that crams a lot of info into a couple of hundred square inches of electronic real estate. There is nothing that seems overtly out of place, no procedures that are glaringly difficult or cumbersome, and having everything close at hand, in such a tight area, sure eases the physical and visual workload to a great degree. Further; there is a sense of reliability that comes with flying something that boasts components that offer documented MTBFs (Mean Time Between Failure) in the many thousands of hours instead of the elder systems (especially vacuum pumps) that we have endured for years, that barely seemed to be able to earn MTBFs that might (charitably) be measured in terms of just a few hundred hours.

By the way; in the event that your number does come up and the electronic gremlins have decided that you're evil and must be harassed, take comfort. If an electrical system craps out, there IS a whole separate electrical buss that is ready, willing, and able to operate a detuned set of capabilities, on a single PFD for at least 30 minutes. A small red button below and between the two displays switches either display (in order to reset whichever one is operational) and immediately drives each display to offer a composite data/display set that comprises what is necessary to complete the flight as a composite representation. If that isn't enough, there are three conventional and primary flight instruments on the panel below the displays that consist of an elderly (OK, ancient) vacuum driven AI, an altimeter and an ASI.

Look… one of the problems with flying something this early in the program, and for such a short period of time, is that all you can do is offer impressions in lieu of more extensive experience and hard data…. But at the same time, flights like these offer quick proof as to whether a program is on the right track or not.

This is.

Cessna made a very good move with the intro of the G1000 on the Skylane. The order book, alone, says as much. The 182 is one of the most stable and rugged single-engine platforms in the known universe (as I proved demonstrably over the years… especially those experienced while dropping several hundred loads of skydivers).

Admittedly; the 182 is an old airplane… but the tweaks are attractive, the bird is still as stable as anything out there, and it can just plain haul a load... And at as much as 150 knots these days…. Adding a superior flight instrumentation system to this beast for a price far lower than one might expect, makes the C182 a heck of a value to those who are riding the fence as to whether there is another Cessna in their future… and if you're a 206 devotee, you're gonna LOVE what the G1000 is going to do for you. Besides all that, when your  friends see you flying a panel that looks like was lifted from the Space Shuttle, they are going to KNOW that you are anointed by none other than Chuck Yeager as the best stick in the aero-world. It's THAT cool.

So… our thoughts so far?

I liked it a lot more than I expected I would (fearing some of the menuing/operational issues that I've questioned in the GNS400/500 series), the integration effort is DEFINITELY going on the right track, and I am dying to fly this thing with an operational auto-pilot and a chance to study up on the system so I can spend more time with the intricacies it promises.  We'll have a lot more to say on this system as soon as we get through the AOPA Expo (some of the more specific data is quite impressive and intriguing) and even more as this system works its way to certification and delivery. Cessna has promised us the chance to get real up-close and familiar with their next generation singles and we're anxious to take them up on it. Cessna is on the right track here and Garmin's first showing of a fully integrated EFIS system sure looks like a winner. Thumbs up.

FMI: www.cessna.com, www.garmin.com


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