Tuesday, November 11, 2008


Many pilots compare a trip to an aviation trade show as like being a kid in a candy store. I know at least one pilot who consciously leaves his credit cards at home so he won't buy something on impluse. This past weekend was the first AOPA Expo event I attended. Held at the San Jose Convention Center, with a static display of aircraft at nearby Mineta San Jose International Airport, I heard around 6,000 people attended the event. After a hour or so in the exhibit hall, I got that geeked-out feeling, like when I've done too much holiday shopping. That's when things start to look like this.

The exhibit hall contained a dizzying array of gadgets, accessories, aircraft, and simulators, but I had a plan: I had identified a few things I definitely wanted to see. And along the way, I ran into some unexpected discoveries.

The first stop for me was the Jeppesen booth where I wanted to look at and purchase the recently released VFR+GPS area charts for San Francisco and Los Angeles as well as the sectional-scale charts for Northern and Southern California. I tried to buy these on-line earlier the previous week at Jeppesen's web site, but their site has been recently redesigned and has plenty of kinks that need to be worked out. I struggled with it for 15 minutes, then decided I'd just buy the charts at Expo and save on the shipping costs.

Overall, I like these charts. I received belated permission from Jeppesen to show excerpts of these charts after my previous post. These charts are easier to read than FAA sectionals and area charts, but there are some minor annoyances. To their credit, the representatives at Jeppesen seemed receptive to the suggestions they were receiving, they seem intent on improving these charts, and they plan to eventually provide coverage for the entire US.

Next stop was the Garmin booth. I played with a G1000 with synthetic vision that was designed as a King Air retrofit. The simulator was running, the closest airport was Ely, Neveda, so I proceeded to the initial approach fix for the RNAV RWY 18 approach. I mostly wanted to play with the flight director/autopilot, but the synthetic vision features were interesting, too.

I definitely like the magenta boxes - the highway in the sky feature - but none of the fixes were highlighted. In the Chelton version of highway-in-the-sky, each fix or waypoint appears on the display as a "tethered balloon" through which you fly. That's a great way to help the pilot keep 3D situational awareness.

There was a big crowd around the new 696, but I found this new unit mostly disappointing. The 696 and 695 seem to me to be electronic flight bags, first and foremost, with XM weather thrown in. I could imagine many corporate flight departments lining up to by them so their flight crews would not have to haul around 40 pounds of approach chart binders. The price point for this unit (over US$3000) puts it out of reach for most GA pilots, who are probably going to purchase a 396 or 496 and carry paper charts. Add the XM weather subscription and the US$400+ annual subscription for NACO charts and you have a hefty price tag that keeps on tugging at your wallet.

Though the 69X form factor is larger than the 396 and 496, I didn't find the approach chart display to be very easy to read - even with my reading glasses on. The Garmin folks told me there weren't any plans to support Jepp charts while the Jepp representatives told me the opposite. Either way, the current approach chart display does not provide a geo-referenced display of the aircraft's position on the approach. I understand that there are technical reasons that make a geo-referenced display difficult, but that is a feature that pilots expect from an electronic chart display and it's something that should be addressed.

Garmin had a chance to replicate the knobs and button used in the G1000 flight plan feature, or at least keep a similar user interface policy. Instead, the designers chose to create a similar looking interface that is actually very different: You use the joystick on the G1000 to move around the map display and to zoom in or out. On the 69X, you use the joystick to make menu selections and there is a separate range rocker switch.

While I don't see many GA pilots having interest in the 69X series, Garmin should nevertheless be commended for getting into the EFB market. Unlike most other EFB implementations currently available, Garmin has a reputation for creating stable hardware and software. I'd expect the 69X series to be just as reliable. Time will tell.

The Cessna Skycatcher looked too uncomfortable to crawl into, but eventually I did contort my average five foot eleven inch frame into the right seat. I'm still amazed the plane won't be IFR certified nor will it be certified for spins. I discussed this with a Cessna representative and he seemed interested in my comments and observations. The ballistic parachute will be located in part of the baggage compartment. I assume the solid motor rocket will eject the parachute package through the plastic window that makes up the roof of the baggage compartment. I bet deploying the cute will create enough noise to really get the pilots' attention! The cockpit doors hinge from the top and if they can be opened in flight, it should allow for some nice aerial photo possibilities.

The Cessna representative assured me that the aircraft has recovered from spins in all sorts of center-of-gravity loadings, but I was struck by the small surface area of the rudder when compared to a C150 or C152.

I eventually sat in the Diamond, Cirrus and Piper Jet mock-ups - yawn! I chatted with the Cirrus rep and he was receptive to my comments about the way they have structured CSIP, so I let him play with the X-Plane Cirrus jet model on my iPhone.

The Bendix/King booth had a nice display of their new Av8tor hand-held GPS and their soon-to-be-released GPS/Com/Nav units. I chatted with them about the Av8tor user interface, which one of the pilots I fly with purchased a few months ago. Though the Av8tor may not be as sexy as the equivalent Garmin hand-held GPS, at least Bendix-King has gotten the price-point right. You can purchase an Av8tor without XM weather for a fraction of the cost of a comparable Garmin unit. And you can add XM weather capability later and still save a wad of dough. Kudos to Bendix-King for thinking of the GA pilot's wallet: Few other manufacturers seem to be doing so.

Many of my readers know that I'm a fan of diesel engines, so I just had to visit the Thielert booth to see their Centurion 2.0 and 4.0 engines on display. The representative was deftly fielding constant questions about the company's recent emergence from bankruptcy and the status of their relationship with Diamond Aircraft and Cessna. But what struck me was the sheer size and weight of these engines. They looked massive and though they offer outstanding fuel economy, the acquisition and maintenance costs seemed quite high.

The Rolls Royce booth provided a real contrast to the Thielert. Their RR500 direct-drive turboprop engine is being marketed as a retrofit for high performance single-engine aircraft. I'm not sure how the cost compares with a comparable Centurion engine, but the 2000 hour interval before hot section inspection seems more reasonable than replacing a diesel engine's gear box every 300 hours. If the Thielert Centurion engines looked heavy, complicated and massive, the Rolls Royce turbo-prop looked small, elegant, simple, powerful, and bullet-proof. I'm not that fond of direct-drive turbo-props, but if I had my jet-A druthers and my wallet was big enough, I'd fly behind a Rolls Royce RR500 any day of the week.

I left this year's Expo with my wallet intact, having only spent money on parking and a bite to eat. I ran into dozens of Bay Area pilots as well as several friends who flew in from points far away. I got to see lots of cool toys and it was certainly worth the freeway traffic and the cost of entry.


Pete said...

What kind of plane was that 'v' tailed jet? Any chance you have a picture of it before you went dizzy??? I'd love to see it!


John said...

It's a Cirrus Jet mock-up, that's all. A nice picture can be found here.