July 1, 2007
By Alton K. Marsh
Too bad Cessna marketers have already used the term Nav-O-Matic to describe autopilots. If ever an autopilot was more deserving of the term, it's Garmin's GFC 700.
Autopilots have flown aircraft a lot of miles since Lawrence Sperry and his mechanic demonstrated the first one in 1914 above a wildly cheering French crowd. They both got out of their Curtiss C-2 biplane and went wing walking — nobody at the controls! They were front-page heroes in France but an editorial in The New York Times sniffed that the airplane would never be as stable as the trusty old dirigible.
Well, it is. As the 100th anniversary of that flight approaches, Cessna and other manufacturers have installed a Garmin autopilot that, like the scarecrow in The Wizard of Oz, has quite a brain. The two-axis Garmin GFC 700 flight control system now comes standard in Cessna's G1000-equipped 182 Skylane and 206 Stationair aircraft, and the similar three-axis GFC 710 is certified aboard the Citation Mustang aircraft.
AOPA Pilot tested the GFC 700 in a new Turbo Skylane while visiting Cessna's Wichita plant. Only minor changes have occurred in the airframe since our last report (see " Cessna T182T Turbo Skylane: Climb High," June 2001 Pilot), but the autopilot trumps them all.
Included with the autopilot is a flight director system, just like in the heavy iron. You'll even use cool jet terms like "flight level change" (referring to the FLC button on the autopilot) to climb or descend at an airspeed of your choosing.
You'll amaze your friends, if not yourself, when the GFC 700 flies procedure turns on its own, or chooses the perfect entry for a holding pattern, enters, and draws perfect racetrack shapes in the sky, even correcting for wind.
The GFC 700 was first delivered on Beechcraft Bonanzas (see " G36 Bonanza: Gimme a G," October 2006 Pilot) a year ago and on Columbia aircraft a short time later. You'll find it in G1000 systems on Mooney and Diamond aircraft as well. Most manufacturers have found it is cost-prohibitive to offer a retrofit of the autopilot for older G1000-equipped aircraft. In addition to the autopilot itself, a retrofit also requires new Garmin display screens with control bezels screens (both the primary flight display and the multifunction flight display), a Garmin official said.
What's new with the Turbo Skylane airframe? The most visible changes are the new paint schemes. The Turbo 182 used for my GFC 700 demonstration at Cessna's Wichita plant was painted "phantom gray pearl" with "yellow pearl" stripes, according to the brochure. But also available are blue with gray stripes and red with gold stripes.
Less visible airframe changes include new ceiling-mounted floodlights between the pilot and co-pilot as well as seat belts that feature AmSafe inflatable air bags. There are 12-volt outlets in the front and back in case your kids or your passenger wants to watch DVD movies during the flight.
The useful load has shrunk by 58 pounds since 2001, apparently to make way for all the new improvements.
Ready to buy a Turbo 182? In 2001 a Turbo Skylane with the then-highest-level Nav II avionics suite (the pre-G1000 avionics package) was $277,300. Today's price for the now-standard Nav III G1000 Turbo Skylane is $379,500.
But you get a lot for the money. The G1000 system includes the transponder, dual nav/com radios, dual IFR en route and approach WAAS-certified GPS receivers, traffic and terrain information — even the backup round-dial airspeed, attitude, and altimeter gauges plus a standby battery. WAAS, the Wide Area Augmentation System, provides ILS-like approaches that offer localizer performance (LP) with vertical guidance (V), known as LPV approaches. The GFC 700 can bring you down to 200 feet in one-half-mile visibility at airports with qualifying terrain and airport infrastructure just like the old ILS.
Two other Garmin products now come standard with the G1000: SafeTaxi, a database of 650 airport diagrams, identifies the taxiway, parking areas, or the runway you are on; and FliteCharts offers an electronic version of government terminal procedure charts.
SafeTaxi is updated every 56 days and FliteCharts are updated every 28 days. The SafeTaxi subscription from Garmin costs $195 per year ($35 for a single update), and the yearly FliteCharts subscription is $395 (single update $95).
Not installed in our demonstrator was the optional Jeppesen ChartView, available through a subscription, which — unlike FliteCharts — overlays your aircraft position on the displayed approach chart. A Garmin terrain database and terrain awareness feature comes standard, but you can add a Garmin terrain awareness warning system (TAWS-B) for $8,140, the Bendix/King KTA 870 traffic information unit for $27,875, and even air conditioning for $30,450.
Cessna and other manufacturers will have added airways to the flight-planning capability of the G1000 by the time you read this, a feature already certified on the Citation Mustang. Using airways to build a flight plan, you can enter legs that may be hundreds of miles long but require only three or four clicks. That saves a lot of knob twisting.
The GFC 700 comes with a flight director. A flight director combines attitude and navigation cues on one instrument, and provides pitch and roll cues that, if followed manually, take you to the destination programmed into your GPS flight plan. Here's how you do it. In place of the standard airplane icon used on attitude indicators, the flight director uses two inverted V icons. The autopilot directs the top inverted V; you've got the bottom one. Your job is to make pitch and roll inputs to match the bottom inverted V to the one controlled by the autopilot. Or you can just set up the autopilot to do the flying.
First trick: As already noted the GFC 200 has airspeed scheduling, something new to most piston-engine pilots. You can set a desired airspeed for a climb or descent by pushing the flight level change (FLC) button and then using Nose UP and Nose DN buttons on the autopilot. Each punch changes the airspeed by 1 knot. Or you can press the control wheel steering (CWS) button, change the pitch until you reach the desired airspeed, and let go. The pilot must manually control the throttle.
Second trick: Vertical flight planning means never having to say you're sorry that you overshot an assigned altitude. Vertical navigation is something you think about every time you approach a new airport. You're trying to get down to pattern altitude before reaching the airport, right? With vertical navigation you can cross a fix at a desired altitude, or reach an altitude before or after a fix or an airport. Just program the request into the flight plan. Maybe you want to be at pattern altitude three miles prior to arriving at the airport, but you don't know what the pattern altitude is. Tell the GFC 700 you want to arrive at the airport at 1,000 feet above ground level, and the autopilot figures out the mean-sea-level altitude that equates to that altitude and takes you there. Again, you're in charge of the throttle for climbs and descents until someone invents a piston-engine auto throttle.
Third trick: As noted, with WAAS the autopilot can make — in addition to nonprecision approaches — LPV precision approaches using GPS satellites only, and descend to ILS-like minimums. On precision approaches, you must still watch the altitude tape for the decision altitude (you'll hear "minimums, minimums") and manually initiate a go-around. On the missed approach, Cessna suggests you fly manually "until an established rate of climb...assures all altitude requirements of the procedure will be met." But yes, Garmin officials say the autopilot can fly a missed approach automatically with the correct button-pushing.
There is an investment of time and effort required to learn these new capabilities. You'll need to practice until your brain is as smart as the autopilot's computer. Cessna demonstration pilot Bill Hoyer said it took him five flights before its operation became second nature (make that 12 for the rest of us). With the pace of the 93-year autopilot revolution advancing so rapidly, can auto throttle and autoland for light airplanes be far behind?
E-mail the author at email@example.com.
AOPA Pilot Senior Editor Alton Marsh has been a pilot since 1970 and has an airline transport pilot certificate and instrument and multiengine flight instructor certificates, aerobatic training, and a commercial seaplane certificate.
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