It was one of those “where did all the years go” moments when Garmin reminded us here at Oshkosh that the company is now 25 years old.
How did that happen? Garmin serves as a yardstick for the real revolution in aviation, the electronic advances that really have changed flying forever.
Garmin was founded by people from the old King Radio who correctly predicted the impact of GPS on aviation, and just about all other areas of our lives. And the GPS revolution is only 25 years old.
Back then GPS–called Navstar–was a military weapons guidance system. The FAA decreed that civilian pilots could never use it for navigation, and the Air Force said it would shut down access to the system anytime it thought there was a threat, and do it without warning.
The FAA and military continued to resist allowing civilians to use GPS, particularly the accurate channel called SA for selective availability. But Garmin and many other companies pressed on developing GPS navigators of increasing capability.
Probably the most significant turning point came when the Korean airliner was shot in 1983 after straying into Russian airspace. GPS signals were available, could have guided the pilots with precision and avoided the tragedy, but the crew had been denied access to GPS.
That was enough to cause President Reagan to direct the military to make GPS available for common civilian use. Later President Clinton ordered the military to turn off SA so everyone had access to the best GPS accuracy.
In aviation terms that happened recently. But unless I try hard to remember, flying without the precision of GPS is a really distant memory.
Development of glass cockpit displays followed a similar timeline. But when it come to TV pictures in the panel, cost was the big factor. The first civilian airplane to have TV tubes as primary instruments was the Boeing 767/757. In a couple years larger business jets had them, too. The size, but mostly the cost, made the displays impossible for personal airplanes.
But then flat glass technology came along with its lightweight screens that use little power and cost a fraction of what came before. Suddenly a glass cockpit in a personal airplane could be had for a lower cost than the complex mechanical gyros and flight directors that it replaced.
And who in aviation saw the iPad coming along about five years ago? It has taken the cockpit by storm displaying every imaginable kind of data from moving maps, to real time weather to your exact weight and balance.
How is this electronic revolution playing out in aviation? Oshkosh is the place to see.
Look inside a newly built airplane, either standard category or homebuilt, and you’ll almost certainly see two or three electronic screens that have replaced essentially all flight and engine instruments.
Look in older airplanes and you see endless combinations of flat screens, advanced navigators and legacy instruments.
And in a big majority of airplanes, both old and new, you will see portable devices to navigate, receive satellite or ADS-B weather, and show you a display of primary instruments including attitude and heading.
To make some sense of this consider that the “new” Waco has been building the beautiful YMF biplane for 30 years, several years longer than we have had GPS in the cockpit. The Waco airframe is little changed from the 1930s when it was first in production, though modern methods and materials make the “new” Waco a much more durable and lower maintenance airplane.
Look inside most new Wacos and what do you see? A glass cockpit, that’s what.
We love our aviation heritage, we admire airplanes from the golden age, but we also want the electronic capability that has been around for only a few years. As it turns out we can have both a rich history and the newest capabilities.
What a great time to be a pilot.