Flying Garmin’s Low-Cost GFC 500 Autopilot

Flying Garmin’s Low-Cost GFC 500 Autopilot
The autopilot controller is a standard-width instrument that may go into the middle stack of your avionics bay. The controls are similar to many G1000 installations, although the VNAV function is just lively when the system is paired with a Garmin navigator with vertical nav functionality.

Over the previous couple of many years and alter, I’ve flown behind a staggering number of autopilots, from the always-active Mooney constructive management, single-axis “wing-leveler” mannequin to the remarkably refined autoflight system within the Boeing 777, which can autoland the airplane in circumstances too low for a human pilot to see to even taxi again to the gate. And over all this time, there’s been one fixed: You get what you pay for. The extra superior the options, the higher the efficiency, the larger the airplane, the extra you paid.

Aside from massive bizjet and airliner techniques being very costly, the previous adage is true no extra. The GFC 500 is an autopilot that provides you a staggeringly refined degree of functionality for a worth, $6,995, that appears prefer it needs to be lacking a digit. It’s not. There’s simply no means this product ought to have the ability to do what it does for what it prices. However, once more, it does.

We’ll get to exactly what it does in a minute, however first, just a little historical past. When Garmin launched the GFC 700 built-in autopilot with its G1000 built-in avionics suite greater than 10 years in the past, it was a revelation, a digital attitude-based autopilot with altitude maintain and preselect, vertical velocity, indicated airspeed maintain (a.okay.a., flight degree change), heading mode, nav mode, strategy mode, flip anticipation and extra. And this was all as a part of a flat-panel avionics suite that got here in airplanes from Cessna Skyhawks to Cessna Mustang jets. The key that allowed such number of purposes (and there have been many extra on the best way) was using what Garmin calls “Smart Servos,” which, as an alternative of dumbly obeying the controller’s calls for, are set as much as behave to go well with that exact airplane mannequin’s traits. There are a couple of totally different courses of servos that Garmin makes to go well with the category of airplane—jets want beefier and extra environmentally hardened fashions than Mooneys do, as an example. However the idea stays the identical.

And the efficiency of the GFC 700 was nothing in need of spectacular. Its superhumanly clean capturing of the localizer or satiny leveling off on the preselected altitude made us mere human pilots magenta with envy.

For many years, the preferred autopilots in mild GA have been these made by STEC, they usually have been and are fashionable for a number of excellent causes and have been revolutionary in their very own proper. In contrast to extra refined and much more pricey autopilots of their day, the STEC fashions based mostly their instructions on fee of flip info from the flip coordinator somewhat than from an angle gyro. In early Cirrus plane, there’s truly a flip coordinator hidden contained in the panel, simply to drive the autopilot. (It doesn’t must be hidden, in fact.) The upside was that these rate-based autopilots have been far inexpensive for corporations to supply, they required far inexpensive companion devices, they usually have been so much simpler for these corporations to certify, too, as a result of they introduced much less danger than attitude-based models.

They have been additionally much less succesful, their efficiency was much less correct and errors have been bigger and extra widespread, they usually might be challenged by tough air. It was widespread for pilots flying an strategy with a rate-based autopilot—they’re nonetheless quite common—to observe the autoflight system fly a collection of shallow S-turns making an attempt to seize the localizer.

On the similar time, that they had one other actually nice benefit. They might carry on working even when your vacuum pump or angle gyro went kaput. I as soon as had an angle indictor fail on departure from OSH after an airshow a few dozen years in the past. The aircraft was outfitted with an S-TEC autopilot, and whereas an attitude-based autopilot would have doubtless tried to comply with the false info the failing gyro was feeding it, the STEC proceeded to do completely nothing totally different than it had been doing earlier than, which is, holding a heading whereas we climbed. It was such a non-emergency I even whipped out my digital camera telephone and snapped a pic of it. I ought to point out that we had a standby, electrical angle indicator within the panel, too.

The GFC 500 is married to Garmin’s G5 main angle instrument. The G5, as you in all probability know, is Garmin’s remarkably profitable, reasonably priced, solid-state avionics answer for lower-cost used GA planes, which, due to their decrease worth, have beforehand been orphaned within the avionics retrofit revolution. Make no mistake. These lower-cost, well-loved planes can profit enormously from the replace.

It may be completed for little or no out of pocket, too. Actually, if you would like a sub-$10,000 autopilot improve, you would pair a G5 and the GFC 500, and also you’d be all set. You don’t get the identical sort of functionality as with a extra in depth improve, however you get solid-state angle and a full-function autopilot. For lower than $10Okay! That’s nothing in need of revolutionary.

You get new servos as a part of that package deal, too, and a mode controller, which you employ, identical to it sounds, to pick the mode of operation for the autopilot, i.e.…nav or heading, vertical velocity or indicated airspeed climb, and so on. Most house owners will add at the very least a navigator to that package deal and sometimes a further G5, as nicely. One G5 is the angle indicator and the opposite the directional gyro/HSI.

The system will pair properly with a GNS-430W or 530W, however the extra trendy GTN 650 is a superb match and a well-liked selection, says Garmin. The bigger, much more succesful GTN 750 is an effective match as nicely, and a few pilots will add all the above. The package deal with two G5s (one with an accompanying knowledge bus), a GTN 650 and the 2 servos (one for pitch and one for roll) would are available at slightly below $25,000, a exceptional worth for a glass panel-like expertise with a pair of digital shows, a digital autopilot mode controller, a digital autopilot and a top-of-the-line navigator.

There are some downsides to the system. You’ll be able to’t get a GFC 500 with out the G5. The G5 incorporates the brains of the autopilot and can also be the supply of the angle that drives it. Lose the G5, and also you lose the autopilot—that’s, until you’ve got a second G5 put in, during which case the GFC 500 will revert to utilizing that show’s output. In truth, with two G5s put in, the reversionary logic works very a lot because it does with the G1000/NXi and their GFC 700 autopilots.

In case you simply have one G5 and should you lose that performance, you get an unmistakable flag that allows you to know you’ve misplaced your autopilot. If for some cause the G5’s angle knowledge is legitimate however outdoors of acceptable limits, it could realign itself, both in taxi or in degree flight, which is strictly the way it works with the G1000 as nicely.

Flying GFC 500…and G5!

I went flying with Garmin Senior Aviation Media Relations Specialist Jessica Koss in Olathe, Kansas, just lately so I might check out the system. Our wings for the sunny early summer time day was a classic Cessna Skyhawk—in different phrases, the precise type of aircraft that such installations are meant to enter which are, actually, going into in massive numbers. As our luck would have it, the air con was damaged on the 172, nicely, within the sense that there by no means was air con in it, so we needed to get airborne as shortly as potential to see the GFC 500 do its factor.

When it got here to the climate, we have been in actual luck, and as soon as we received to sample altitude, the air turned clean as elevator jazz, inviting us to place the GFC 500 via its paces.

Now, our 172 Skyhawk was outfitted with the perfect Skyhawk package deal I described above: a pair of G5s, an angle indicator and an HSI (with the GAD 29B adapter). Additionally put in have been the GMC 507 autopilot mode controller, the GSA 28 servos and a GTN 650 (some photographs will present an alternate set up with the GTN 750).

The query I had for Koss earlier than we went flying was, “Will I be able to tell the difference between the GFC 700 in the G1000 flight deck from the GFC 500 low-cost retrofit autopilot in the Skyhawk we were about to go flying in,” and she or he very sensibly answered, “Why don’t you wait and find out and tell me.”

Nice concept.

Earlier than I begin moving into the autopilot, let me weigh in on the G5. This little solid-state angle indicator and/or directional “gyro” is a bit of artwork. Its structure and consumer interface design each leverage Garmin’s lengthy expertise in constructing avionics which are present in some fairly superb enterprise jets. A pair of G5s, as proven, is a potent mixture. It won’t be a flat-panel suite, however when paired with the GTN 650 or 750, it provides the pilot an enormous proportion of the capabilities of a G1000 system.

Now, one function of the autopilot I haven’t talked about but is ESP, which stands for “Electronic Stability and Protection.” It’s what’s often known as “envelope protection,” a complicated autoflight functionality that retains pilots protected, principally from their very own errors, although, I ought to add, all of us make errors.

ESP has quite a lot of features, and it’s arduous to say which is most necessary. I assume it is dependent upon what mistake you simply made. The perform that will get you out of that jam is an important one, clearly. So we tried all of them out.

After takeoff, I engaged the autopilot, which you do precisely as you do with the GFC 700, although the controller may look a bit of totally different than the one you’ve utilized in different planes. The buttons and features are the identical.

The early reply to my query was, sure, I couldn’t inform the distinction between the built-in GFC 700 in G1000 suites and the GFC 500 retrofit system within the Skyhawk we have been flying. We used each heading and nav mode, altitude maintain and altitude-capture, vertical velocity climbs and indicated airspeed climbs, in addition to vertical navigation as built-in with the GTN 750 navigator.

In ESP mode, which is all the time on and clear to the pilot till it prompts, we first tried out the overbank safety, which prevents the pilot from inadvertently placing the aircraft into too steep a financial institution, which ESP continually screens however solely begins to place correcting counter-pressure to the ailerons after the financial institution will get to 45 levels. After that, the counteraction will get stronger till it’s at its most at round 70 levels of financial institution. The safety might be manually disabled for coaching functions. We additionally appeared on the underspeed safety, which bumps the nostril up or right down to hold you from stalling or overspeeding the plane.

When paired with a suitable navigator, the GFC 500 will fly absolutely coupled approaches, together with (fairly remarkably) coupled missed approaches, which is a talent that even many skilled instrument pilots can get rusty at. And all of the whereas, you’ve gotten the backup of the ESP, so in case you, for instance, overlook so as to add within the energy as you increase the nostril, the system will decrease the nostril again down to take care of flying velocity (after which a small margin on prime of that).

So how does the GFC 500 stack up? Properly, for my cash, the package deal deal of a G5 and a GFC 500 are inconceivable to beat for bang for the buck for pilots who use their older planes for normal transportation, whether or not or not they fly beneath IFR flight plans often; in truth, whether or not or not they’re even instrument rated. For round $10,000 for the hardware—set up charges range tremendously from store to buy and aircraft to aircraft—you will get a full-featured digital autopilot and digital angle indicator with built-in ADAHRS, which isn’t simply two enhancements however a number of, as you get an awesome show, digital flight steerage, envelope safety and solid-state angle and heading.

Garmin wouldn’t give me a determine for the variety of G5s it has bought because the instrument was launched final yr, however as they weren’t telling me, their eyes have been smiling. The quantity is an enormous one, and the outlets I spoke with on the topic say they’re putting in plenty of G5s, lots of them with the GFC 500 and a navigator as a part of the package deal.

The GFC 500 is authorised for set up in a lot of Cessna, Beechcraft and Piper plane, together with numerous Bonanzas, dozens of fashions of the Cessna 172 Skyhawk and 182 Skylane and the Grumman American Cheetah and Tiger, amongst others. The corporate is already engaged on further STCs for a number of fashions of Cessna 210, the Beech Debonair, and the Mooney M20.

For all of those older platforms, the price of upgrading to digital shows and a digital autopilot has lengthy been too steep to simply justify simply. With the arrival of the G5 and GFC 500, that’s not the case.

There are different autopilots and retrofit flat-panel avionics merchandise showing on scene, together with intriguing merchandise from Dynon and Genesys with its STEC line of autopilots. Search for further flight stories in coming points.

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