From Wacos to Glass Cockpits

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.

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9 Responses to From Wacos to Glass Cockpits

  1. Rich says:

    As you stated, for most of your EAA audience it wasn’t until all that became affordable that it made it to our cockpits…and for many, even experimental glass represents an unaffordably huge chunk of gas money. $5-10k for ADS-B out is not affordable…what is EAA doing to either encourage the manufacturers to move downmarket, minimize installation complexity and address legacy transponder and waas gps in a simple box (eaa/faa/nasa sponsored prize?) or back off the GA mandate? Yes “in” is nice, but that ipad you mention will suffice for most.

    Mr Pelton, Mac can you hear us?

    • Sarah A says:

      What we need is to get the FAA to rescind the mandate that the GPS position for ADS-B OUT come from a TSO’d source, that just about doubles the cost of those installations. What in the world does that TSO do to make the position so much better in a GA aircraft flying around in VFR conditions that it justifies the high cost associated with it ? The price for meeting the mandate is never goinf to go down to an acceptable level for many of the GA fleet while the FAA imposes that arbitrary requirement so this is what we have to press the FAA on. The FAA has already made it clear that the mandate will not go away or be extended but they could at least make this reasonable modification.

      • Bob says:

        The requirement for a TSO’d GPS puck for ADS-B out is unreasonable. It at least quadruples the cost for no demonstrable benefit.

        If the FAA really wants GA to get on board with this kind of thing, they should consider a carrot approach through regulations that would simplify GPS equipment certification and give us “little airplane guys” more affordable ADS-B and IFR navigation equipment.

        • Bill Tomlinson says:

          Agreed. When GPS first became available to the general public, in the mid-1990s, a friend bought one for his boat.

          We tried it out in his back garden, and it was able to tell us which side of the garden we were standing. With that sort of accuracy, even in the early ones, why in God’s name do they need a TSO at all?

          • Sarah A says:

            The TSO might be a reasonable requirement for IFR navigation systems but when it comes to providing a ADS-B Out position source for most light aircraft it is overkill. Most of the avionics that the EAB/LSA fleet flies with do not have a TSO and they provide great capability at reasonable cost. If those GPS based navigation systems were not reasonably accurate we would have heard about that long ago. Looking at the installation guide for Dynon SkyView it seems to read that their GPS system is allowed to provide position to the Mode S transponder for now but that will be disabled after 2020. It comes down to a message on the serial bus that provides the position assurance (or something like that) not indicating a TSO’s source. So for the next 6 years people will be flying around with such systems providing ADS-B Out data to the rest of the world and then wake up on January 1st, 2020 with an unacceptable system. It will still be as accurate as it is today (very accurate), it just will not be deemed acceptable because the unit has not been through the TSO process. This is nothing like the old days when 90 channel comms were outlawed because they could interfere with the tighter frequency spacing of the 360 and 720 channel comms. The non-TSO’d GPS will always be just as accurate as the TSO’d unit, it just won’t have the pile of certification paper work to prove it.

  2. Bill Tomlinson says:

    Flying a Waco with a glass cockpit is a bit like drinking a fine wine out of a polystyrene cup!

    • Sarah A says:

      It seems to be a marketing thing. Why in the world would all these LSA aircraft (Day VFR Only) be coming equipped with those glass cockpits when a handful of conventional instruments is all the mission requires.

      • Bob says:

        Because it’s cheaper–really!

        The cost of a basic EFIS with an engine monitor (at least in the Dynon/GRT/AFS reaml) isn’t much more than the cost of the individual instruments (including engine gauges) for even a basic VFR panel. But, the steam gauges require a lot of individual wires and a little more plumbing, significantly adding to the installation labor. By contrast, an EFIS can use standardized wiring harnesses that are built up outside the airplane and then installed, reducing installation labor.

        By the time it’s said and done, the EFIS is a cost- and weight-neutral (if not cheaper and lighter) solution that provides better information to the pilot.

        Having flown a bare-bones steam gauge VFR airplane for 10 years, then flying the same airplane with a Skyview, there is simply no comparison. I’ll take the Skyview any day.

        • Sarah A says:

          If you are trying to duplicate the instruments in the glass panel that would be true but these are simple day-VFR aircraft. All they need is a couple of basic instruments, i.e. Airspeed, Altitude, Tachometer, Oil Press/Temp and Fuel Level to meet the requirements and those do not cost much compared to a SkyView system. Fitting them with the instrumentation for Night IFR flight plus a full engine monitor is defeating the basic concept of a simple sport aircraft. Of course a lot of the pilots, like me, do not qualify for a 3rd class medical anymore so they want all the bells and whistles that they were accustomed to in the aircraft they used to be able to fly.

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