Dave Hirschman

I can see for miles and miles . . .

May 14, 2010 by Dave Hirschman, Senior Editor

Garmin G3X on approach to Runway 23 at KFDK

Garmin recently added synthetic vision as a free option on its G3X system for Experimental and Light Sport Aircraft – and the first time I flew with it last week, I couldn’t get that song out of my head by The Who, the one about seeing for miles and miles.
Taking off from AOPA’s home field at Frederick Municipal Airport, my normal procedure for staying clear of the Washington airspace is to head directly for the notch in the mountains carved by the Potomac River at Harpers Ferry. Even though the haze kept me from seeing the terrain roughly 20 miles distant, the notch in the mountains was clear on the colorful G3X screen. Looking through the haze was the next best thing to X-ray vision.
The synthetic vision has terrain warnings that turn the hills yellow when they’re 1,000 feet or less below your altitude, and red at 100 feet. The Potomac and Shenandoah rivers showed up in beautiful blue relief on the screen.
Out over West Virginia, I tested the screen’s update rate with a few loops and rolls. Unlike other Garmin units with synthetic vision such as the G1000, the G3X doesn’t revert to the Horizontal Situation Indicator screen in unusual attitudes. Its screen rate and processing power are sufficient to keep the GPS-derived world view showing as the horizon goes around.
Returning to the airport for landing, I made a simulated ILS approach to Runway 23. The G3X provided vertical guidance to 1,000 feet agl at a distance of about two miles, and there the runway representation on the screen was sharp and clear. Just like the real runway, it’s black with a white centerline, and the numbers 2-3 are easy to read on the threshold. Continuing the approach is a simple matter of putting the Flight Path Marker (the green dot) on the touchdown point and flying to it.
The G3X doesn’t show the visual “pathways” (a series of green or magenta boxes) to fly through. And the mental transition that takes place when a pilot must shift from flying “head’s down” on the gauges to looking outside for visual references seems like it won’t be much of a transition at all with synthetic vision.
After a few hours with the updated G3X, it’s easy to see that student pilots who learn to fly in Cessna 162 Skycatchers and other trainers equipped with synthetic vision will want to stick with the technology as they move up to larger and faster aircraft. Garmin allows a clear upgrade path through the G500/600 to the G1000 and even the G3000 – and competitors such as Aspen and Bendix/King are moving quickly to get their own versions FAA certified and into the market. Among Experimental avionics manufacturers such as Advanced, Dynon, and Grand Rapids, synthetic vision has already become standard equipment.
Those of us who learned to fly on round gauges may fondly remember the instrument scan and partial-panel approaches. But it’s nothing like being able to see for miles and miles . . .

4 Responses to “I can see for miles and miles . . .”

  1. Ralph Edmonds Says:

    As an “old school” instrument pilot, I admire the technology in this panel. But I can’t help but think pilots who learn to fly in glass cockpits will be lost — literally and figuratively — if and when their magic panels ever go dark. I’m glad I’ll have the old “needle, ball, and airspeed” to rely on whenever the attitude indicator fails. No technology is perfect . . .

  2. Alessandra St.John Says:

    Great technology – but it’s turning flying into a video game. Instead of the pilot being required to exercise their own skills to safely fly an airplane, this will breed even more dependance and complacency on the instrument, both of which will easily get a pilot killed.

  3. David Says:

    It seems like new technology in any field meets resistance from the “old school” crowd who learned it a certain way and feels like any change is uncomfortable. The first two posts seem to fit this mold. It surprises me that many responses to “glass panels” appear to comment on there downsides. As an instrumented rated pilot that learned on steam gauges, I can’t help but laugh at how “under powered” the old needle, ball, and airspeed was. For example, when being vectored on an approach in IMC, where the heck am I? What would happen if I lose radio contact at that moment? Sure, I can follow my procedures, but there is a lot of situational awareness on that GPS screen. It always surprised me that my car was better equipped then the aircraft that I launched into IMC. Sure, needles get the job done and done well…but compared to the situational awareness and information at your fingertips with glass, it’s only a matter of time before folks will laugh when they recall the primitive way these legacy aircraft were equipped.

  4. Dave Says:

    Dave’s so right.
    A solid-state AHRS is orders of magnitude more reliable than the vacuum systems they replace, and synthetic vision provides situational awareness superior to any moving map, and ground proximity warnings seem primitive by comparison. These tools will quickly become standard, and they’ll make flying safer and, yes, more enjoyable in the future!

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