Avionics: Newer, better, cheaper

Experimental avionics enhance safety

February 1, 2013

dynon pocket panel

Dynon Avionics D1 Pocket Panel.

The FAA’s decision last year to allow some uncertified angle-of-attack indicators to be installed in certified airplanes as minor alterations could portend many more such beneficial changes in the future.

By setting a precedent allowing Experimental instruments that enhance safety to be added to some Standard category aircraft, as long as they don’t replace any existing avionics, the FAA seems to be opening the door to a broad variety of new flight safety tools. So what other kinds of Experimental avionics might become available in the future to owners and pilots of FAA-certified aircraft?

Let’s start with backup attitude indicators. Instead of having to rely on a lowly turn coordinator during a partial-panel flight in IMC, we pilots could get pitch information—and much more—from noncertified all-in-one instruments:

Dynon’s EFIS-D6 shows pitch, roll, turn coordination, airspeed, altitude, vertical speed, and heading—all in a single 3-inch display. The D6 operates on ship’s power and it also has an optional internal standby battery. It is an updated version of the popular EFIS-D10A, the company’s flagship unit that’s been installed on thousands of Experimental aircraft, logged hundreds of thousands of flight hours, and won’t tumble in unusual attitudes.

Dynon officials say the D6 (with a retail price of $1,600) is more reliable than vacuum-driven gyroscopic instruments because it contains no moving parts.

Also, the company’s D1 Pocket Panel is a portable EFIS that sells for $1,400 and can be mounted in the instrument panel, or anywhere within the pilot’s view. The D1 displays GPS-based groundspeed (not indicated airspeed) and ground track (not aircraft heading), and it’s designed to appeal to pilots of both FAA-certified and Experimental aircraft.

TruTrak’s Gemini is a digital attitude display indicator (ADI) that shows pitch, bank, and heading and allows pilots to make standard-rate turns at a glance regardless of their airspeed. The Gemini (with a retail price of $1,200 including backup battery) also warns pilots when they get close to the critical angle of attack at which the wings stall. The Gemini fits in a standard instrument hole and has an optional standby battery.

Unlike traditional attitude indicators, ADIs derive attitude information by electronically sensing climbs, descents, and heading changes, and they make it especially easy for pilots to fly with precision. When you want to hold altitude, simply put the ADI velocity vector on the horizon and the airplane’s vertical speed will remain at zero in straight-and-level or turning flight. The same is true for pitch. Put the dot on the horizon and the airplane will maintain altitude, even during slow flight when the nose may be well above the horizon.

Kelly Manufacturing’s KMC2000 is an Experimental attitude indicator that also shows heading and turn coordination in a single, extremely lightweight 2- or 3-inch unit with no internal moving parts.

Kelly is the corporate parent of venerable RC Allen Instruments of Wichita, which makes FAA-certified attitude indicators and gyroscopic instruments—as well as the FAA-certified RCA2600 series of digital attitude indicators. Jim Turner, Kelly’s general manager, said the company will use the same components and construction methods for both Experimental and FAA-certified avionics and build them to the same TSO standards.

“We’re taking a certified product [the RCA2600] and reverse engineering it to make it more user friendly,” he said of the KMC2000. “The Experimental market allows us the flexibility to make the kinds of changes and improvements that our customers have been asking for.” Turner said the KMC 2000 won’t tumble in unusual attitudes, and it will have an optional backup battery. It will carry a retail price of about $2,000 when it is introduced early in 2013.

RC Allen also is pursuing an FAA-certified series of instruments that aims to bring the reliability and precision of digital, solid-state instruments to several new products that, when finished, will comprise a modern representation of the traditional six-pack instrument panel. The RCA2600 attitude indicator is the centerpiece of that effort, and it will be followed by a digital, LCD directional gyro with an internal magnetometer that won’t be subject to precession like mechanical DGs.

These Experimental instruments are far from infallible. Some components are mass produced and not individually evaluated with the same scrutiny that FAA-certified parts receive. Others (such as Dynon’s D1) depend on GPS data, so a GPS outage can make them unreliable.

Other innovations include GPS-derived synthetic vision, which is in FAA-certified products and is rapidly becoming a mainstay of iPad-based electronic flight bags. Experimental digital autopilots also could lighten pilot workload and allow us to fly with greater precision. And LED lights and engine monitors are making their way into more aircraft.

There’s a strong case to be made that these Experimental avionics are far more reliable (with much greater mean times between failures) than vacuum-driven, mechanical instruments are—or ever could be. And if that’s the case, shouldn’t aircraft owners and pilots be allowed to decide for themselves whether to add them to instrument panels in which they’re not subtracting anything?

Email 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.