Nothing can go wrong… go wrong….

July 30, 2008 by Bruce Landsberg

The old joke about the fully automated airliner with no flight crew - just an automated cabin announcement that misfires - seems prophetic with last week’s NTSB announcement about massive display failure on Airbus aircraft. There were 49 failures on Airbus 319 and 320 aircraft including seven incidents where all six screens failed simultaneously. Didn’t think that was possible? Neither did the manufacturer, the FAA or the NTSB.

As light GA manufacturers rush into glass cockpits, is it unseemly to ask what assurance we have that there will not be a catastrophic failure or at least a significant failure in our less robust systems? Several years ago I had the privilege of getting a demo in one of the early all-glass light aircraft which suffered a total flight display meltdown. It wasn’t an issue since we were in good VFR and there were backup instruments. Still, this isn’t what’s supposed to happen.

After one flies enough and sees enough equipment break – some of it harmlessly and some of it at the least opportune time - a sense of caution or perhaps cynicism sets in. Duplication of hardware on critical things like comm, nav and flight displays means less fancy footwork on the pilot’s part when something goes south.

I suspect the record keeping on Part 91 flights flown in light aircraft when a flight display dies is not very accurate, even though NTSB Part 830 requires, somewhat vaguely, pilots to report the in-flight failure of electrical systems that require “sustained use of ….backup power to …retain flight control or essential instruments.”

Has anybody had, or know of someone who had, a major glass malfunction and did it get reported and to whom? The purpose is not to rat out the manufacturers but to insure that weak points get fixed before someone is hurt.

Bruce Landsberg
President, AOPA Foundation

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49 Responses to “Nothing can go wrong… go wrong….”

  1. Cal VandenBerg Says:

    It happened to me in a Gulfstream IV. Five of 6 cockpit displays went blank. Hard IFR, icing conditions and during descent. This event happened after encountering severe turbulence. This supposedly isn’t supposed to happen. However, unofficial sources say this has happened on at least three previous occasions. The checklist does not address this, neither does Flight Safety or Simuflight during training.

    All ended well after futile attempts with the checks led to completly turning everything electrically off, including batteries and generating equipment and then turning power sources on, one by one until we were able to get displays back online.

  2. John Peck Says:

    Hasn’t happened to me (yet), but these are man-made gizmos and they WILL fail eventually. I find it appalling that at least one manufacturer is building a VLJ with NO round gauge backups. And the FAA is certifying this airplane?

  3. Kevin Bridges Says:

    I don’t have a “black glass” incident to report, I just wanted to remind all readers that the aircraft mentioned are Part 25 aircraft that have higher design assurance levels than the Part 23 aircraft we typically fly. So, if it’s happening to these aircraft, there is a 100% probability that it will happen on aircraft with lower design assurance levels.

    That also brings up the fact that there are no guarrantees with aircraft design; particularly software intensive items. There is only probability analysis and rigorous development processes to create the most reliable equipment possible. But anything built by people will fail at some point; that’s why back-ups are needed.

    Highly integrated systems and the software that drives them are so complex that nobody can fully understand how every line of code will react under every condition. Nor can anyone ever empirically “prove” that hardware or software meets the very high design assurance levels the FAA requires. It’s impossible to test your way to proving a 1e-7 probability.

  4. Leo H. LeBoeuf Says:

    I have had several occasions of G1000 equipped C182 having momentary AHRS or other errors. On one VFR flight (after several days of heavy rain and high New England humidity) I experienced 2 failures. These were not repeatable on subsequent flights.
    Having spent over 30 years in the aerospace industry building electronic systems for space craft and launch vehicles, I know that the best of systems can and will have glitches. Looking at the current systems, I have my doubts regarding “absolute” reliability as there are too many single points of failure. I do like having the back up systems just in case.
    I also had a FADEC equipped aircraft loose battery power due to a broken cable. This also happened in CAVU but was still not too comfortable situation due to the inhospitable terrain under our wheels at the time. The FADEC system depends on electrical power for the fuel injection and spark. The back up system functioned fine but I did not want to find out if the backup would really last for 30 minutes. The FADEC worked flawlessly, it was just a low cost electrical connector that failed
    I carry my trusty G196 on all Part 91 IFR flights just in case all the other great stuff goes dark. I even carry spare batteries. I have also experienced failures with most common electrical and mechanical systems in aircraft. I guess that having worked on many system failure root cause analysis programs over the years has taught me that things can go wrong, go wrong, go wrong.

  5. Andy Neyens Says:

    Bruce,

    About two years ago, in a DA-40 DiamondStar, I was taxiing out for take-off when my passenger (another pilot) and I smelled an “electrical” odor.

    As we both were trying to determine if it was from outside or inside the cockpit, wisps of light smoke started to drift out from behind the instrument panel. Before I could pull off the taxiway and shut down, the cockpit had become quite smokey. In the immediate aftermath’s trouble shooting, we found a portion of the underside of the panel to be quite hot.

    Subsequently, the avionics shop pulled the suspect portion of the panel apart, and in looking things over, found that the back-up battery box was burned.

    The problem? A small set screw had found its way into the sealed back-up battery box and had become lodged between the terminals, shorting out the battery! As the battery box had not been opened since manufacture, the screw must have been inadvertently dropped into the box at the factory. It took almost 200 hours for a factory mistake to become a problem.

    This particular aircraft is, of course, an all-electric airplane. The back-up battery is designed to power the essential flight items in the event of the primary system going south. The lessons-learned from this situation is that the back-ups may be the failure point, not just the primary system.

  6. Gary B. Says:

    I have twice had weirdness with a G1000-equipped C172. Once after doing a full-stop landing and taxiing back to the end of a long runway over a bumpy taxiway, it appeared that the AHRS decided to reset itself. In other words, the PFD looked like what it looks like during pre-flight (except that COM and NAV were still working). Thankfully, the system did come back online on its own.

    A second time while I was practicing slow flight with a particularly strong wind, I got a ground speed of around 5kts. After a couple minutes, the directional heading got a red X through it, followed shortly afterward with the artificial horizon getting a red X. Once I had accelerated back to a normal en-route speed, both recovered.

    In both cases I was lucky enough that the system recovered on its own, but they also made me glad I was in VFR conditions with the three standby instruments available and working.

  7. Richard Shoemaker Says:

    Not directly related to glass cockpits but to Garmin’s 430W GPS. I have had several failures of of the system in ground operations where the GPS has acquired stalites and passed its integrety testing then lost satilite reception upon communicating over a ground control frequency. Garmin dismisses this as being the aircraft’s problem. Avionics shops that I have approached to fix this say the see this frequently and that it is their problem. It was not a problem in the same aircraft with the same GPS prior to the WASS upgrade. Whatever is causing this would sure be a problem if the failure happened during an RNAV approach

  8. Brian Knoblauch Says:

    So far, my limited experience with a modern FADEC equipped airplane has been very poor compared to the older airplanes I’ve had the opportunity to fly. Much harder to start (especially if it’s either especially hot or cold out), problems with idle, random failures/warning lights, etc.

    While the theory is great, it’s not so great in practice.

  9. Paul McAllister Says:

    I just wanted to remind our brethren in the experimental community that they are not immune either. I have system installed in my experimental aircraft that has had one AHRS glitch that lasted 15 minutes in VFR conditions. The upside is that the manufacturer reacted very quickly identified the software error and corrected it.

    As an engineer my design assumptions are that all systems will fail given a long enough time in service. Designs need to be all about redundancy both within the system itself and with independent alternative back ups.

  10. Bill Branch Says:

    Years ago, while I was a practicing USAF flying safety officer, we strived to achieve “fail safe” designs in aircraft under development. Reading the comments submitted so far, I wonder whether or not this concept has been forgotten by the aviation community, iincluding the FAA.

  11. Bruce Landsberg Says:

    Well….Gang, this is sort of what I suspected but not what I’d hoped for. Does anyone have some practical suggestions on how best to deal with this? As I said, the purpose is not to cause trouble but to see if we can systemically identify faults and eliminate them. That means good record keeping.

    It also points to the importance of having a good back up plan.

    as usual my thanks to you all for the comments — theses will be shared with the usual suspects.

  12. Sydney King Says:

    I keep knocking on wood that I have not had a single instrument failure in 8 years and over 700 houirs of flying. But I have taken to heart all the stories of such failures that I have read and heard. So I try to be prepared. Of the new electronic instrumentation my plane has only a 430w to go with the usual steam guages. But I like to fly at night so I also always fly with my hand held G296 mounted on the yoke. And as if that weren’t enough I kept my old G196 and I carry it in the bag with my other ‘emergency’ gear. The G196 (and extra batteries for it and the G296) is just in case.

    I hope my luck holds out but I keep reading the reports such as these on this blog and keep practicing how to handle various instrument losses. At least for me, these reports and suggestions are not lost. I try to stay alert by reading and learning.

    Thanks to all of you for sharing.

  13. Gary B. Says:

    While I was still in primary training, my instructor and I practiced flying the plane with PFD and MFD screens of the G1000 turned off (brightness turned all the way down), including pattern work. This meant flying only on the 3 steam gauge backup instruments. I wouldn’t want to have to do this in hard IFR conditions, but it is good practice to try in VFR conditions.

    One thing I never go flying without is my handheld com/nav transceiver. A com-only one would be good too, but I think one that can pick up and tune to VOR radials is best.

    Being familiar with the particular avionics is also important. The G1000, for instance, can be shut off and restarted in flight, as a way to reset the system.

  14. David Solar Says:

    Citation Encore N80GR about two weeks ago going into HOU. All three displayes failed within fifteen minutes.

  15. ROBERT HENSHEL Says:

    I’M KINDA GLAD THAT MY 206 (1977) HAS ONLY STEAM GAUGES, DON’T LOOK SO SHARP BUT USUALLY GIVE SOME WARNING BEFORE SAYING GOODBY

  16. chris doyle Says:

    Redundancy is clearly the key.

    I have an older (’74) plane that’s retro’d. Had total electrical failure on a hazy / rainy day. Fortunately I had a backup handheld GPS and steam guages. I immediately broke off approach to the class C and landed at a small untowered airport, where I used my cell phone (no handheld Comm) to call the class C. They got me a mechanic and 2 hours later we landed at our destiation via signal lights.

    Got the thing fixed (alternator / regulator issues) and 2 weeks later experienced the same failure. Practice, practice…

  17. Grover Summers Says:

    I have been flying for 64 years. Have close to 22,000 hrs, over 9,000 of which were as a Contract Civilian USAF Primary flight instrucor, over 1,000 in twin jets. I am rated Gold Seal Flt. Instr. SMELS, Helicopter, Sailplane, Type Rated in DC-3 and DC-B-26 LOA for both Glider and Banner towing, LOA for S & M engine low altitude operation in congested areas, ag and airshow pilot time, A&P/IA, Senior Parachute rigger and Adv. Ground Instructor. Lots of lousy wx and xc flying, FBO for over 40 years so I do have a background in aviation. I still teach xc flying using a map and radios only as checks. I teach traffic with power off approaches and landing.- yes, in big fast multi and jets. In my opinion anyone who cannot fly an airplane without all this automated equipment is not a pilot but is a button pusher. Advanced equipment is fine but learn to fly the stupid airplane without it first! That stuff WILL fail and if you cannot fly withoutt it, you are not a pilot, you are history..

  18. S Henson Says:

    Mr. Bruce Landsberg, I think it would be better if you did choose to shame the the avionics manufacturers. ref. last sentence before your signature. Every day, organizations from all aspects of the world weigh cost to possible effect… (how many airliners have crashed trying to save a buck… Alaska, mechanic found a problem with a jackscrew, management signed it off as OK to save money on maintenance… one small example) countless others… it all boils down to the cost of integrety… if the organization that makes the choice realizes more of a loss when things don’t work out, then their making a better choice saves everyone else just a little bit…. (cheaper insurance, less regulation.ect ect… )

  19. Mike Newman Says:

    Glitches abound. We have a 530W-430W combo. Every so often we get a “Reverting to Deduced Reckoning” screen on one or the other display – usually only for a couple of seconds and very rarely, only since the WAAS upgrade. Returning from OSH, for example, we had one incident in 2.5 hours. Garmin blames the installation, perhaps correctly, perhaps not. Has anyone else seen this?

    If the manufacturers won’t own up, who you gonna call?

  20. Barry Bardack Says:

    Concerning GNS 430 / 530 with WAAS upgrades. There are some communication frequencies that will cause lose of GPS signal when transmitting. Garmin has put out a service bullenin requireing installers to check for this. Garmin did not include the frequency that caused my problem, 120.70, In my case a filltier on one of my com. antteneas solved the problelm.

  21. Doug Walker Says:

    Just had my first such failure on Saturday night. Flying an SR-22 G3 cross country when the MFD died. Fortunately, PFD and both GNS 430s continued, and it was a VFR flight in perfect VMC. Cycling power to the unit did not solve the problem, and the POH did not provide any other advice. No idea yet what cause it.

    Was actually a positive development, because it reminded me of the inherent fragility of any particular system (though, as here, not necessarily the entire network) … and validated my insistence on carrying paper charts and plates just in case!

  22. Steve H Says:

    Recently the 530 decided to take a vacation in the middle of a coupled GPS approach. Result? No problem, the Nav 2 was tuned to the ILS, the ADF was on the compass locator, and the DME was running. Takeover was seamless as soon as the failure was seen and the ILS was hand flown. Was this failure reported? only to Garmin, just like the others. They asked for the details and said “Thanks”
    Flying with the Garmin G1000 makes me uneasy, to many things in one basket. All the Nav and Com as well as the transponder in one unit. I have had parts of the G1000 fail, but not a total failure – yet. We did not report the failures except to Garmin. I would be surprised if even 10% of the glass failures get to the FAA.
    Perfect record keeping and fixing each failure point will never give failure proof units, we will always need back-ups.

    If you have a black glass failure you will need the back-up gauges. I recently looked at the new Mooney panel, in order to get all the buttons in reach of the pilot, both screens are on the left and the back-up instruments are on the far right side. Other makers are also moving the back-up instruments to out of the way places to fit in big screens. I think this is wrong and it will get people killed. You want the back-ups right in front, it is hard enough to fly them without having to look over your shoulder. We need to address this now.

  23. Todd Fox Says:

    NTSB Part 830 requires only large multiengine aircraft over 12500 pounds to report the electrical system failures you mention.

  24. Philip Calhoun Says:

    In my 30+ years in the aviation business I have had equipment failures of every kind and most of these failures came at the worst possible time. Instrument approaches with one alternator out and a dead battery in a C-421 at night in heavy fog. How about trapped VFR on top in the mountains in an experimental aircraft with no electrican system, no radios much less a “glass panel”. Both incidents came to safe conclusions only because of a complete understanding of the aircraft systems and a strong trust of my “stick and rudder” experience. No amount of electronic equipment could have helped me in those situations. Basic flying skills are more trustworthy than electronic gadgets.

  25. Bill Dickey Says:

    Be a squeaky wheel! Maintenance should file a service difficulty report for any serious display degradation, the pilot(s) should file NASA report(s) and the owner should complain to the manufacturers (airfame integrator and avionics source) about the defects in thier expensive products.

  26. Greg Faust Says:

    I have been in the Airline industy as an Aircraft Technician, and also a current commercial pilot. about 10 years ago the airline I was working in A/C maintenance, we had an A320 in IMC on approach had ALL flight information blank out for about 30 sec. I met the crew after they got on the ground, both white as a sheet.
    Another note,back when the A320 first came out we had numerous issue with the emergency electrical system, failing test and TR’s failing. Not good in an emergency. In the early years I tried to stay of flight with A320′s on rooute.
    I have also during an IFR checkout ride on a G1000 172 have my PFD go blank, could not reset until on the ground. The good thing was I was in VFR, and I just flew it as a partial pannel for my checkout anyhow.

  27. Scott Braukhoff Says:

    I’ve been a private pilot for 34 years. I learned from instructors like Mr. Summers.
    We were taught to take off, fly and land at night without electrical power, on “steam gauges” as they’ve now become to be called.
    After reading these blogs, I get the impression that more and more pilots are coming to rely on technology to handle the physics of flight, rather than excercise their talent and skill of flying.
    I’ve also been a computer professional for 28 years and know just how “reliable” this technology can be. And to read about having a G196 to back up a G296 in the event of a failure is lilke me bringing Windows 2000 computer into work to back up my Windows XP when, not IF, it crashes (I’m a UNIX geek for the record).
    Sure I’d use and enjoy the luxury of the GPS and electronic display but I think I’ll also take along Sectional.
    This has definately made me think.

  28. Mike Longley Says:

    I fly a T206H with a G1000. I also do computer guided spine surgery with a million dollars of state of the art computer equipment made to medical (supposedly FDA) standards. It is supposed to be good enough to operate on patients with. While this technology is awesome and like my G1000 provides situation awareness I am a highly cynical computer expert. I do youy surgery with backups and thankyou sir but I will only fly my family with backups for my backup. As the technolgy gets better it gets more complex, it get more mission critical but we should always have a reliable backup plan. I always have two independant GPS systems, EFB, hand held NAV com and the “steam guage backup”. My AHRS for the G1000 has failed without warning in CAVU weather but at least it told me it had gone AWOL whereas the vacume pump may not be obvious.

  29. mark O'Dean Says:

    A friend had his Avidyne (SR22 Turbo) gone blank when on final on ILS at 400ft. Broke cloud OK, and landed fine. As he touched down system went live again. Lesson is not to forget about the back ups.

  30. stephen fletcher Says:

    As Gary B describes above the cessna 172 G1000 i flew one day experienced twice on same flight the following scenario. The PFD would change data on the screen. Not a Black screen but as it is when you first start your checklist to make sure everything works. What happened was that the inset box in lower left hand corner would disappear and all the engine data would shift from the riight screen to the left. This lasted about 5 seconds at the most. NEVER a black screen though. Happened as I pulled back power to enter pattern for landing, and then on base to final. I never thought to hit red reset button but sure tightened up the pattern expecting to lose everything. Was in VFR conditions.

    As an aside, the new Chevy Tahoe I drive is a complex many computer car. Same problems with sudden outages, at least on ground. These issues will of course need to be simulated by Garmin to try and find the “software” problem. I think however that like many computers, if things get hot, cold, etc, some of these systems may have self protect mechanisms in them that are not exactly up to what we expect, ie failproof.

  31. Ed Post Says:

    Multiple displays, different aircraft: I had my MFD go down during a VFR flight home from the Cirrus migration. I pulled the circuit breaker to reset it, it came back on-line. 5 minutes later, it happened again.

    I mentioned this on the COPA website when I got home. It turns out to have happened simultaneously to at least 5 other Cirrus drivers on the way home, at the same time. Consensus opinion was that the XM weather feed sent some data that the display couldn’t handle. Now we can crash your display by remote control!

  32. Tony Says:

    For my airplane, I use a Garmin 496 for the back-up. The Wx is great but the reason I purchased the 496 when I already had a 396 is the fast GPS update that the 496 has – 5 times per second.
    This fast GPS update allows you to use the Instrument Screen page to easily fly the airplane under true IFR conditions with instrument accuracy that is better (much better) than the steam gages. Terrific back-up to all the stuff you already have in the airplane, G1000 and vacuum pump, and runs totally independently of the airplane systems.
    I know this works because I have used it for more than one hour in real instrument conditions.
    It’s become a go no-go tool.

  33. Charles Bruning III Says:

    I am an owner of a 2007 182T equipped with the G-1000 avionics. There are 290 hours on the hobbs. I have twice had a failure of the G-1000. The first was an AHRS failure and I noticed it when the auto pilot disengaged giving me the aural notice. I was about 10 miles west of RFD, Rockford IL. on an IFR flight in VFR weather. I diverted to RFD, landed and shut everything down. After 15 minuted doing a preflight exam and reviewing the Garmin manual, I restarted. All the avionics came back up fine and I continued home to PWK. The second incident occurred right after I hit moderate to sever wind shear in VFR conditions on an IFR flight. The plane dropped about 200 feet with enough force that everything not secured hit the ceiling. After I resumed flight at my cruise altitude, I noticed my MFD was frozen in time. I couldn’t use any of the buttons on the display nor could I zoom in or out. Traffic control allowed me to turn off the avionics switch, which turned off the radios and transponders. Upon turning it back on, it worked fine the rest of the flight. At the annual, I told the mechanic about these incidences and all checked out OK. I carry a hand held backup radio and Garmin 496 GPS. Makes me feel good to have them.

    Chuck

  34. Ralph Mahoney Says:

    In 1995 I purchased a low time P-210 which had just come out of a $6,000 annual. I assumed all the backup systems had been tested as part of this annual. Was I eve naive.
    Shortly after the purchase I was on an IFR flight at 16000 msl from Klamath Falls, OR to Bellingham, WA. I had a complete eletrical systems failure (primary and backup generator) which left me without any of the many electronic crutches I had become so dependant on after over 3500 hours or incident free flying (about 40% of that in IFR). I thought I was a dead man but reverted to the old tried and true —”No matter what happens, fly the airplane.”
    With the vacuum intruments I continued on, trying to figure out how to hold hold my heading and keep flying toward my destination. I had a perfectly good magnetic compass haning from the top of the windhshield frame. Because I never used it (I had a remote compass device that kept my DG always on Magnetic heading) I didn’t even think about it being up there until some time later.

    As I gained my wits back from the initial panic I realized I also had a Garmin XL50 GPS (which I had just purchasesd) on the yoke in front of me in which I had loaded my flight plan. By setting the resolution to 5 NM It worked good as a D.G. and the course line was clearly visible. All I had to do was stay on course and keep flying (something that in my initial surprise and panic never occured to me). In this situation, the $995 GPS was worth more than the $40,000 panel full of King Nav /Com radios; flight director and HSI etc With that I made it to my destination and landed alive and well (though scared out of my wits).
    A couple of months later a similar incident involving loss of the primary and backup vacuum pump gave me a chance to save my life again with partial panel techniques which I regularly praciced on my simulator.
    Moral of the story: (1) ALWAYS HAVE BACKUP. (2) Always train for the ultimate failure of systems (e.g. partial panel techniques). (3) Always thoroughly check out your backup systems.
    Had the FBO mechanics who performed the annual done their job correctly they would have found the back up generator had broken wires (from vibration) that rendered it useless and the vaccum pump system check valves had an A.D. that required their replacement (which would have prevented the failure of the backup vaccuum pump). Never trust anyone to do their job as they often leave your plane in a “killer condition”. VERIFY, VERIFY, VERIFY and stay alive.
    These same mechanics overlooked the fact that two of the three de-icing boots on the propeller were not working (thank God I didn’t have to wait to find this out until I was in severe icing conditions). I checked this (and all other safety equipment) after the electrical and vacuum pump failures and found the problem and fixed it before an icing disaster killed me. After three expensive alternator failures within 6 months (all after icing encounters) I upgraded from the 90 amp factory alternator to a custom built 200 amp unit that lasted over 5 years without incident. The deicing systems were overloading the alternator and burning up the stator and diodes. The engineers that set up this plane with that alternator setup are the reason pilots sue airplane manufacturers for gross negligence.
    As much as I detest the current Tort Law system that allow for so much frivolous litigation, lawsuits that end up with multi-mllion dollar settlements may be the only way the Glass cockpit manufacturers wake up and address the problems that frequent the use of their products. I hope they do someting before we lose pilots and their families.

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  37. David Says:

    I think Grover Summers says it best. Be the pilot and expect for this to equipment to fail. I’d like to get his email address.

    Thanks

  38. Godfrey D. Watson Says:

    I am not sure if RP shoule be placed on instrument approach airport diagrams, but I think I would like this. It would possibly be helpful for VFR conditions, however some runways with a RP may require circling on other side of field, and some runways with a LP may require circling on other side of field. So one must be careful and review all information from the approach plate.

    For example, KHAF traffic pattern is on east side of field; RWY 12 is left traffic (LP) and RWY 30 is RP. When on a RWY 30 approach and circling for RWY 12 one might naturally circle to the right (east) for a LP entry to RWY 12. However, the RWY 30 approach plate says that circling is not authorized east of the field. A circle to west with a RP to RWY 12 or a circle to west and overfly mid field for normal overhead left traffic entry to RWY 12 appears to be required.

    RP on instrument approach airport diagrams would provide information about the pattern, but one must be careful to review all information on the approach plate. Just because a traffic pattern is designated (LP in above example) doesn’t necessarily mean to circle directly to that pattern.

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  40. Ron Miller Says:

    I am a test pilot and have had many glass panels go out. OP technology is right in line with the blue moutanin for being the worst junk I have ever flown. I have had Three blue mountains mess up and six OPs. I am not very happy with glass at all, now I have not flown with the Garmins because most of the things I fly are experimental and the Garmins cost sooo much more it seems most don’t spend the money to get them.

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