Avionics: Avidyne Release 9

Nine is nothing like the other eight

July 1, 2009

Avidyne’s long-awaited Release 9 integrated avionics suite is misnamed. The number implies an evolutionary change from previous versions of Avidyne’s pioneering Entegra system, which introduced glass-panel avionics

to general aviation in 2003. But Release 9 marks a complete departure from all preceding Entegra versions, and it brings totally new hardware, software, and operating logic.

Instead of the now-familiar Garmin GNS 430/530s that drive other Entegra panels, a Garmin audio panel, and transponder, Avidyne has installed its own hardware across the board. The S-Tec Fifty-Five X autopilot is still there, but it’s on borrowed time since Avidyne is developing its own digital unit meant to plug and play with Release 9.

But the biggest break with the past is that Avidyne has ditched its own two big boxes, the primary and multifunction displays that dominated previous Entegra cockpits, replacing them with twin integrated flight displays (IFDs). The IFDs act as primary and multifunction displays, but they are far more robust and elegant pieces of equipment. The IFDs are equipped with dual, solid-state air data and heading reference systems (ADAHRS), which provide sensitive flight and attitude information to both displays (previous Entegra systems had a single ADAHRS that supplied information to the PFD only). And Release 9’s “partitioned” architecture is designed to make them vastly more reliable while eliminating chances for cascading failures to take out multiple systems.

Since the two IFDs are identical there are no “reversionary” modes in case of equipment failures. The boxes look and act the same as ever. The only difference is that an annunciator light will tell of the failure—or if a screen goes completely dark, flight information will appear on the other box. Each IFD’s electronic innards are made up of replaceable “blades” that, in case of failure, can be swapped in the field for working units. Previously, FedEx and UPS did a booming business sending hefty and fragile MFDs and PFDs back and forth between Avidyne and avionics shops.

Lastly, and perhaps most important to Avidyne and Release 9 customers, is a flight management system (FMS900w) that allows pilots to enter data on a keypad instead of pushing buttons on the IFDs themselves. An alphanumeric QWERTY pad in the center of the Release 9 panel is designed to quickly and easily allow pilots to enter and edit flight plans, tune radios, and perform tasks ranging from reading checklists to loading and executing instrument approaches.

I got my Release 9 introduction in Avidyne’s flying test bed, a Cirrus SR22 (serial number 90) that the company has used to refine the developmental product since late 2005. Avidyne had received the TSO for Release 9 shortly before we flew, so the Experimental stickers on the SR22 were, perhaps, likely to get peeled off soon.

“It’s a little less experimental today than it was yesterday,” said Mike Kiernan, Avidyne’s director of certification and integration, who flew as pilot in command from the right seat for the demonstration flight.

I had recent experience in the AOPA 2009 Sweepstakes Let’s Go Flying SR22, which has a WAAS-enabled Avidyne Entegra avionics system (Release 7), so I expected to find lots of commonality with Release 9. Not so. The differences far outweigh the similarities.

The Release 9 user interface has many improvements. Each IFD has five rocker switches at the bottom (PFD, FMS, MAP, SYS, CHKL) and pushing any one of them brings up a series of tabs to select. The FMS houses dedicated (and welcome) controls for adjusting barometric pressure, heading, altitude, and speed.

The IFD displays have useful split-screen capabilities that allow pilots to build flight plans and see the waypoints on a moving map at the same time—a feature that reduces the odds of errant entries. So much is new on Release 9, however, that it would take much more than a 1.3-hour demo for me to fully learn the new system. My favorite Release 9 feature is the intelligent “GeoFill” feature on the FMS that knows where the airplane is and predicts where the pilot is likely to want to go next. At Lakeland, Florida, for example, we planned to use the VOR on the field as our first waypoint. As soon as I typed L, the software recognized LAL as the most likely choice and automatically filled in the letters in the flight plan. Next up was a V to join a Victor airway, and the three airways that converge over Lakeland appear as flight plan choices.

The digital radios provide exceptional audio clarity and, once a frequency is selected, display the name of the ATC facility (Tampa App for Tampa Approach, for example) on an IFD. This information, along with the ability to monitor up to four radio frequencies simultaneously, comes from a PS Engineering PMA8000B audio panel that also serves as an intercom and marker beacon receiver.

Avidyne’s FMS also borrows some of the button logic from Garmin’s ubiquitous 430/530 series with a PROC (procedure) key. The D (direct) button is familiar to all aviation GPS users. And Avidyne’s V (for vector) button makes sense and shows the path ahead on the IFDs with a segmented magenta line. That segmented line also presciently anticipates reconnecting with an existing flight plan along the way. If you want to fly through it, you’ve got to command the system to remain on vectors.

Keirnan set up a GPS approach to a nearby airport, and flying the approach on autopilot was a benign affair. Executing the missed approach procedure simply meant clicking off the autopilot, adding power, and following the magenta line to the published hold (which was drawn, with the proper entry, on a moving map). Reengaging the autopilot and entering the hold was far more streamlined than previous Entegra systems. But no matter what avionics designers say about their systems being “intuitive,” these are learned behaviors—and doing aerial tasks smoothly and confidently in the clouds will require good coaching and regular practice.

Release 9 also allows pilots to set precise crossing altitudes on arrivals and departures. A green diamond on the vertical speed tape shows the desired rate of climb or descent to nail a pre-set crossing altitude, and the autopilot can capture and hold it.

Kiernan said the broad spectrum of Release 9 benefits become obvious when pilots start flying in the IFR system. “Personally, I underestimated the impact of the integration we’ve achieved with Release 9,” he said. “It’s extraordinarily powerful and useful.”

Using the FMS becomes so second nature that Kiernan said he rarely writes down ATC clearances with a pen and paper anymore. “It’s usually quicker and easier to just enter it on the FMS,” he said. “I can edit a flight plan or enter a new clearance just about as fast as ATC can give it to me.”

Avidyne says Release 9 is the fulfillment of their company’s long-stated goal of building a totally integrated, easy-to-use avionics suite that makes single-pilot IFR flying simpler and safer. But time and the marketplace will decide if Release 9 is right for the GA fleet.

Avidyne hopes to upgrade many of the 4,000 airframes now equipped with Entegra panels to Release 9. But doing so is major surgery that will require replacing PFDs, MFDs, wiring harnesses, and possibly antennas, and all that is likely to require 100 hours or more of shop labor. At current rates, the total cost for a Release 9 upgrade, including labor, could easily reach $85,000. Avidyne has moved mountains to streamline the upgrade process and will provide kits with premanufactured wiring harnesses to avionics shops performing the skilled work. But it’s a hip replacement—not cosmetic surgery.

Avidyne officials say Release 9 is a compelling value for customers who want the most modern, powerful, and reliable avionics—and Release 9 will provide new-airplane-like capabilities at a far lower price than trading in an existing aircraft on a new one. Avidyne is also marketing Release 9 aggressively to new aircraft manufacturers. And the company makes no secret of its plans to add GPS-based synthetic vision and infrared-based enhanced vision to Release 9 in the future. Those features will be available via software upgrades to all Release 9 customers.

Rival Garmin has taken a commanding lead over Avidyne in new aircraft with high-end, integrated avionics for general aviation cockpits with its G1000 system. At Cirrus, for example, virtually all new SR20s and SR22s contain G1000-based Perspective avionics systems, as do other new aircraft ranging from Cessna 172s to Embraer Phenoms.

But Avidyne President Dan Schwinn said his company has plenty of staying power, and Avidyne designers who spent three years developing Release 9’s user interface have built a system that will gain a loyal following. About 75 pilots of varying backgrounds and experience levels participated in Release 9 tests measuring, among other things, “functional retention,” or how well they remember performing certain tasks over time.

“We’re single-minded around ease of use,” Schwinn said. “It’s like a Mac thing. It’s a system some people prefer while others just go for the standard.”

E-mail the author at dave.hirschman@aopa.org.

Dave Hirschman

Dave Hirschman | AOPA Pilot Senior Editor, AOPA

AOPA Pilot Senior Editor Dave Hirschman joined AOPA in 2008. He has an airline transport pilot certificate and instrument and multiengine flight instructor certificates. Dave flies vintage, historical, and Experimental airplanes and specializes in tailwheel and aerobatic instruction.