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Milestones: Inventor turns 90

You’ve flown with Jim Younkin’s inventions

You may not know Jim Younkin’s name, but you know his inventions: The first practical autopilot for general aviation, the first horizontal situation indicator, and the innovative Century III autopilot.
Pilot Briefing June
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Jim Younkin's "Mullicoupe"

He’s also a founder of TruTrak, a company that began designing Experimental-category avionics, which is now producing a growing range of FAA-certified, low-cost digital autopilots.

“Modern autopilot safety features like the Level button, envelope protection, and coupled approaches wouldn’t be possible today if not for Jim Younkin,” said AOPA President Mark Baker. “He’s made aviation better, safer, and more fun, and the breadth of his aviation contributions is unmatched.”

Younkin celebrated his ninetieth birthday in April at his home in Springdale, Arkansas.

Younkin joined the U.S. Navy near the end of World War II and hoped to fly in the military, but the war ended before he finished flight training and he returned to civilian life. He got a degree in electrical engineering, learned to fly in a Piper J–3 Cub, and constantly found new ways to bring technology into the cockpits of general aviation aircraft. He went to work for Edo-Aire Mitchell in the 1960s where he developed the Century III autopilot, a wildly successful product that was installed on airplanes ranging from piston singles to corporate jets. “It was the best-selling autopilot of its time,” Younkin said. “And it helped create a new company, Century Flight Systems.”

Younkin joined the new firm as a partner and helped guide development of products at its headquarters in Mineral Wells, Texas. He later became intrigued with the idea of replacing failure-prone aircraft vacuum systems used to power mechanical gyros with far more reliable, lightweight microprocessors—but FAA certification standards at the time didn’t allow such radical steps. “I founded TruTrak because FAA certification rules at the time were so antiquated there was simply no way to make the kinds of improvements that technology had made possible,” he said. “I had to go another route.”

Younkin has built and flew several Golden Age racers, including replicas of the record-setting Howard Mr. Mulligan and the Travel Air Mystery Ship. The “Mullicoupe” is an airplane of his own design meant to combine the best attributes of Mr. Mulligan and a Monocoupe.

Younkin is confident the aviation industry will continue to produce smaller, lighter, low-cost avionics that improve safety. “We’ve done some good work over the years,” he said. “But a lot more is possible.”

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Dave Hirschman
Dave Hirschman
AOPA Pilot Editor at Large
AOPA Pilot Editor at Large 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.

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