Dave Hirschman

Impressive Gadgets at AEA

April 25, 2008 by Dave Hirschman, Senior Editor

In case anyone hasn’t got the memo yet, the era of steam gauges is over.

During a visit to the Aircraft Electronics Association’s annual convention in Washington yesterday, there was a lot of buzz about Aspen’s “Evolution” PFD and Garmin’s “Synthetic Vision Technology.” AOPA Pilot, and this blog, have had a lot to say about both products recently, and their popularity at Sun’n Fun has been well documented.

But the final nail in the coffin of steam gauges appears to be coming from the steam gauge manufacturers themselves. RC Allen Instruments, for example, was showing off a digital artificial horizon meant to replace traditional vacuum attitude indicators. RC Allen’s “RCA 2600″ doesn’t require a separate air data computer or additional instrumentation. It just drops into the 3 1/8″ hole left by the departing attitude indicator and plugs into the electrical system. It’s got a battery backup, and at around $2,000, will cost the same or less than the instrument it replaces. A test model also contained heading information, so it could replace the directional gyro, too. The company is also building a 2″ model, and it expects to begin selling experimental versions this summer while it pursues certification . . .

Also overheard at the show:

* Bendix/King is planning a hand-held GPS “Aviator” to challenge Garmin’s dominance in the portable GPS market. Expect to see an announcement this summer.

* Synthetic vision won’t be limited to G1000s. The technology will migrate to hand-held GPSs — but it will take a couple of years to make the jump. Garmin’s high-end 496 doesn’t have enough processing power to handle the demand of so much graphics. But Garmin, and others, are working on it.



20 Responses to “Impressive Gadgets at AEA”

  1. Nick Leggett Says:


    If the steam gauges go away, we had better hope that there is never an Electromagnetic Pulse (EMP) event or attack. An EMP event above 50 miles in altitude will fry the glass cockpit instruments over a significant geographic area. This damage will apply to a wide range of solid state instruments, computers, and radio equipment also.

    Don’t throw away the old technology, there are important emergencies and other situations where it is quite useful.

    Nick Leggett

  2. Tom Haines Says:

    I suppose–and certainly there may be a place in most cockpits for an electro-mechanical standby or two, but if there’s such a large EMP that it damages the cockpits of light GA airplanes, the last thing we’ll be thinking about is going flying. At that point ATC and FSS as well as most of the country will be shut down, including your local ATM and gas pump. Hey, why won’t my automatic garage door open?

  3. Nick Leggett Says:

    General aviation aircraft would be quite useful in an intense emergency for reliable transportation of emergency personnel and supplies. They could operate under VFR without functioning ATC systems etc. Nick Leggett

  4. John Spicer Says:

    It would seem to me that the market will decide when “steam gauges” are truly dead. Manufacturers will only stop producing them when people stop buying them. I suspect there will be some amount of pilots who will not switch over to solid state displays because they simply trust newton and the spinning gyro more than the EE who designs printed circuit boards.

  5. Scott Roberts Says:

    I think the new electronics are fine and dandy. That said, I prefer steamer gauges. There is a part of flying which becomes a video game when replaced by gadgetry- and you lose part of the experience of flying by making it like a video game in that way. Any aircraft I ever own, will have to have steamer gauges. Like my map and E-6B, they are ESSENTIALS to the true piloting experience.

    I wouldn’t mind ia small one as a right-panel back up, but I don’t want my six-pack of gauges replaced by these MFDs. They are great for commercial aircraft- they have enough passengers, and fly high enough that they need them, but for me- a low altitude(relatively) VFR pilot(although I plan to get my IFR rating soon), steamer gauges, map and compass, E-6B and flying by ded reckoning is the greatest way to fly- This is a touchstone with every aviator back through Doolittle, Lindberg and the Wright Brothers. Looking out, seeing the earth, and navigating by terrain features is real flying. Punching in a bunch of numbers to follow a preset course, and watching an MFD, you lose a lot. You are playing a viedo game- and that ain’t flying.

    Scott A. Roberts
    AOPA 04551509
    FA Cert. ASEL, A&P

  6. Tom Lubben Says:

    What about non-electrical system aircraft? Plenty of those still around. I can’t see ever putting electron -requiring gauges into my non-electron producing, A-65 powered Pietenpol. I suppose – and hope- there will be used market in the mechanical gauges for a long time.

  7. Dennis Collins Says:

    I know people who still have fresh overhauled WWII gauges for sale. If manufacturers stop making steam gauges tomorrow, it will still be decades before they are all gone.

    My concern goes the other way. That the new technologies we see finally released could have been done 10+ years ago, if only there had been pilots willing to buy them in sufficient numbers.

    Our company is selling 3D moving map systems for farm tractors powered by computer chips that cost $20, with a GPS and 6 axis INS with better than 1 inch precision, and full autonomy is on the horizon. GA avioncs is positively prehistoric by comparison.

    The technology exists that would allow a low time pilot to tell his airplane that he wanted to go from point A to B, in any weather, and the airplane could coordinate with ATC, avoid traffic on it’s own, and fly itself, if the pilot would rather be reading a book.

    The price for such technology could be quite low, much lower than existing new aircraft prices if we sold them in sufficient quantities. And they would be sold in those quantities, if such planes and the regulatory environment to enable them existed. Catch 22.

    But I suppose it’s more important that we should instead worry about EMP events.

    The aviation leaders of 80 years ago didn’t think that way. If they had, the steam gauges would be mounted in the locomotive in the front of the pullman car we ride in, instead of our cockpits.



  9. Scott Roberts Says:

    “The technology exists that would allow a low time pilot to tell his airplane that he wanted to go from point A to B, in any weather, and the airplane could coordinate with ATC, avoid traffic on it’s own, and fly itself, if the pilot would rather be reading a book.”

    If the pilot would rather be reading a book, let him fly commercial. I already have the technology which lets this low time pilot go from point A to point B,coordinate with ATC, avoid traffic on its own and fly itself. It costs me nothing besides food and rent. I call it my BRAIN. If there is no challenge to it, Why Fly? GPS is great. But not everybody needs or wants it. If you cannot navigate by map and compass, you really need to work on that. The battery in your brain will never run out of power- until you do. GPS is nice to have as a backup. But flying by it is cheating yourself out of the experience of true pilotage. And once the batteries die, the MFD breaks, or any one of a thousand other things which could happen to a finely crafted electronic device, does happen, if you can’t fly by old fashioned methods, then you are well and truly stuck. And deserve what you get…

    Flying is not, and should never be, as hands free as a video game, which is what MFDs are offering. Sit back enjoy the flight- read a book. If you want it that easy, there are plenty of airlines. If you want to fly yourself, enjoy the work- it is quite rewarding.

  10. Craig Grabowsky Says:

    As I’m designing my panel and looking at other designs, I see that every glass panel is surrounded by steam gauges. That’s because the rules require it. Steam gauges will be on my panel because I can only afford one set of instruments and they’re required.

  11. J Ritchie Says:

    I agree with Scott; glass is fine and dandy, but what’s the fun of flying an X-box?
    No thanks, I go flying to get away from fussing with computer screens.
    The echos of my instructor from long ago can still be heard saying “Get your eyes out of the cockpit and keep your head on a swivel!”

    Imagine applying the same philosophy to exercise and running. Why not build an autonomous, GPS-controlled robot that can do your 3-mile morning jog for you while you sit on the couch and eat a doughnut?

  12. Steve Ells Says:

    I’m grateful for the iprevailing concept that flight is impossible w/o glass–this perception enables me to outfit my airplane with one-generation old instruments and avionics at an affordable price

  13. Marty Hutto Says:

    I’m a new pilot with close to 100 hours and here is my perspective. I own an IFR PA28-140 without auto-pilot.

    When I started flying I couln’t keep my eyes off the instruments. As I gained experience, i learned to look outside the cockpit and only glance at the sectional and the instruments occasionally. Of course, my flying improved dramatically. Instead of wandering all over the sky chasing the needles I started navigating by picking a spot on the horizon and flying to it.

    My GPS software has a PFD and although it is fascinating, I fear I will revert to wandering through the sky if I concentrate on it too much. I still use the six-pack as my flight reference.

    I may change my mind as I progress through instrument training, but for now I can look at a particular instrument and process the information much quicker than I can extract it from the busy PFD.

    Steam guages have been around for a long time. They still work for me. I hope they are around as long as I am able to fly.

  14. Kevin Bridges Says:

    I fail to be impressed with all the hoopla over excessively high-priced displays that are nothing more than electronic representations of the original analog guages. I bristle at the derrogatory term “steam guages” used by arrogant gadget freaks that think somehow you’re not a “real” pilot if you use them. What the round dials should be called are inexpensive, easy to interpret instruments.

    I’d like to see the gadget freaks at AOPA Pilot answer the following question when they write articles extolling the wonderful virtues of the electronic instruments. After spending tens of thousands of dollars on “glass displays” (even for the vaunted new “low cost” stuff from Aspen Avionics), what flying operation can you do with the airplane that you couldn’t do with the less expensive round dials?

    I already know that the answer is: none. But that answer doesn’t make the advocates happy and doesn’t give them anything to write about in their articles. I guess AOPA no longer has a mission to try and keep flying costs as low as possible. They seem to have decided to no longer represent anyone who can’t plunk down $15K or $20K at the drop of a hat for any new gadget (even if the gadget doesn’t provide any new operational utility).

  15. Jim Kanter Says:

    Wow, and all you guys decrying glass panels are writing in with quill pens and parchment, right? Hey they make you a real writer, not like these newfangled computers with spelling and grammar checkers, a built in thesaurus and dictionary, and the ability to change the format of your letters so you can read them more easily, right?

    it’s not about “cool factor” or video gaming experience (although it is for some) and it’s not about no longer being a ‘real’ pilot, it’s about being more efficient with your workload. Kinda hard to spot a point on the horizon when you’re in a cloud but it sure doesn’t stop one from flying that way when VFR, even with a glass panel.

    I fly with steam gauges and like thwm fine (except when the vacuum pump failed on a cross-country–VFR fortunately) and I’m fast with an E6B and charts, but I hate giving up my 430w (when I fly someone else’s plane). I still fly with my finger on a chart and time navigation from point to point even when I’m on autopilot (sometimes especailly because I’m on autopilot!)

    It’s about accuracy and efficiency. Having lots of accurate information that’s easy to read in one location is much easier and useful than scanning a large panel with a variety of gauges that give approximate information. This becomes even more important in hard IFR.

    Of course, I’d still love to go low and slow in a restored Jenny with minimum instrumentation for the “real” flying experience, but when I need to get somewhere I want to get there as safely and efficiently as I can and I’ll use any tools that will improve them.

    If you want more “real pilot” bragging rights try nailing your heading and your altitude, and grease the target spot on the runway centerline when landing. Oh, and communicate correctly and clearly, especially in non-towered airspace.

  16. Ross Palmer Says:

    I have to agree with the ‘steam guage’ people. I too fail to see what a $20K investment will buy me over steam guages that cost roughly $600 to $800 to replace and even less if you have them overhauled. Successful IFR operations and landings were made successfully for many decades via ‘steam’ before ‘glass’ showed up. If it was a safety issue, I could possibly buy into it but that is definately not the case. The gentleman that lost his vacuum pump may have a point. I have never lost a vacuum pump but I HAVE lost my electrical system and that would kill a ‘glass’ display.
    Speaking about vacuum pumps….I have used “Wet” pumps for the past 30 years on my 182 and they always go easily to TBO. I never did see all the hoopla for switching to dry pumps that typically fail every 500 hours or so. Wet vacuum pumps are available for not much more than a dry one and would give you much more piece of mind.

  17. Ed Manley Says:

    Too funny… substitute the word ‘radio’ for ‘gauge’ in this thread and it would be a duplicate of the endless online discussions on old vs. new ham radio technology!

    These exact differences exist between analog and digital users, and even more so with the advent of Software Defined Radio.

    Some will adapt, some won’t, there is room for all of us.

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