Radio Flyer, Part 3: It’s in the plane, but how do I really use it?

In the past two issues, I have covered the decision process leading to selection and installation of the UPSAT Apollo Full IFR system in my airplane. My installation includes the GX60 IFR GPS/COM and dedicated indicator and associated annunciator panel, SL30 Nav/Com and dedicated VOR/ILS indicator, SL15 stereo audio panel with marker beacon and ICS, SL70 digital transponder, and the MX20 Multi-function display (MFD). With flight testing and certification completed, it was now time for me to learn how to really operate all this new stuff.

I decided to develop my own training schedule and break it into three phases. Phase I was to quickly get proficient at operating the SL30 Nav/Com, which is feature packed in it’s own right. I would also get proficient in using the GX60 GPS just for IFR enroute, “Direct To” navigation and not worry about approaches. This way, I could launch on cross-countries and take advantage of the IFR direct capabilities of the GPS, but use only traditional VOR/LOC or ILS approaches at the destination. With home study and two hours worth of flying, this task was accomplished with ease, along with learning the GX60’s many flight plan options and information sources. These two boxes work in excellent harmony for swapping information and pre-loading frequencies for later use.

The “quick reference” cards provided by UPS for all the pieces of gear are first rate. I have yet to refer to the full manual when flying because, with my prior study, the cards offer the perfect assist when I need a prompt to do a certain function. I also found that, if you understand the logic of how the GX60 operates in one mode, the same logic extends to all modes and it quickly becomes intuitive. I had a test under fire, where ATC threw something at me that I didn’t expect, requiring a function of the GPS I had not tried yet. But I quickly figured it out “on the fly” without the use of the book or cards. The GX60 has it’s own monochrome moving map, which works well. However, with the centerpiece MX20 MFD, I hardly ever use the GX60’s map. But it is a great level of redundancy should the MX20’s lights ever go out.

Of the many great stand-alone features of the GX60 GPS, one of my favorites is the Altitude Assist mode. One aspect of this mode is a warning if you deviate from your selected altitude beyond a buffer that you select. But the best one is an “auto-descent” capability, where you can set parameters such as your speed, desired rate of descent, the altitude at which you want to arrive, and how close to your destination. My parameters are 150 knots descent speed, 500 feet per minute, and arrive at 1,000 feet above the destination airport elevation, one mile before the destination. Then, as you’re flying along, the GPS gives you a message when it’s time to start down and will also capture your glide-slope needle. Just fly the needle and you’ll be there as requested, even if your ground speed alters during the descent. Superb.

The SL30 Nav/Com is actually two navs in one. While navigating on the “active” VOR/LOC/ILS, you can choose to monitor the standby VOR. When doing this, the active nav course information is presented on the OBS indicator, and the standby nav being monitored has it’s current radial shown as a digital OBS readout on the face of the radio. Full two-nav cross-checks can be done with one radio. Neat. However, you can’t do your 30-day VOR checks using this feature so, with only one VOR in my plane, I’ll either have to use a VOT or do the plus/minus six-degree landmark check. Checking it against a known position using an IFR GPS also is not approved, which is dumb. We can shoot stand-alone and GPS overlay VOR approaches with the IFR GPS, but we are not legal to check our VOR against it. (But if we have two VOR’s that are 180 degrees out of whack, but still within four degrees of each other, we’d be legal. Go figure.) The FAA needs to get with the program on this. When in the Com mode, you can also monitor the audio from the “standby” frequency, but it is muted if someone is talking on the “active” frequency. Com transmission and reception with the SL30 (and GX60) is loud and clear, even at great distances.

Another nice feature of the SL30 and GX60 combo is that the typical information that you’d see from a traditional DME (which I removed and sold), when channeled to a nav, can also be presented on the face of the SL30 for the active VOR being used. This information is being provided from the GX60 GPS via serial port. The display shows distance, ground speed, and time to the VOR selected. In that the ground speed is GPS based, it’s always accurate and not affected by angular errors, common to conventional DME when you’re not going directly to or from the station. Also, the GX60 GPS loads all the appropriate frequencies into the SL30 nav/com for your starting location, or your selected waypoint once you’re enroute. All you have to do is scroll through them on the SL30 and select them as you need them.

I am also so pleased that I elected to go with the SL15M audio panel. Originally, I was just going to keep my trusty King unit, but the clear audio, excellent ICS functions, and the ability to switch between Comm 1 and Comm 2 with the turn of a control wheel mounted “swap” switch is really nice. Additionally, the pilot and co-pilot can be talking and listening on different frequencies without disturbing each other. This is great for weather checks, calling for ground service, or staying with approach control while using unicom at an uncontrolled field. And finally, a voice activated intercom that really doesn’t need a manual squelch adjustment knob. Squelch never breaks unless someone is speaking.

Phase II of my self-designed training program was to take some trips and work the equipment as described above, but include work in the many features of the MX20 MFD. In less than five hours of flying from when I took delivery of the system, I was able to move around the MX20 with significant ease and customize its features to my specific needs. I also did some night flying to get used to the gear in the dark. Day or night, the displays on all this stuff are excellent. I am totally happy with the MX 20. You can set it up for IFR enroute charts, VFR charts, and a mapping function where you see colored topography just like a sectional. You choose (or not) to see airports, VORs, NDBs, intersections, all the different types of airspace, high and low airways, rivers, roads, political boundaries, and so much more as well as having the option of including as much or as little of the information about those items as you choose.

The standard MX20 database includes complete IFR enroute charts that look just like the Jeppesen IFR enroute charts. However, one of the software options available is the complete collection of the Jeppesen approach plates, aka ChartView, which not only includes all of the published approach charts but SIDs, STARs, and full airport diagrams, as well. As such, once the gear is alive, the GPS tells the MFD where you are, and the MFD pulls up the airport diagram and shows you where you are on the airport. With this option, you can select any published instrument approach (not just GPS) and it will be displayed on the MFD for you to watch your progress as you shoot that approach. If you don’t buy the ChartView option ($2,500 plus subscription), then you get a VFR depiction of just the runways and no terminal or taxiway information. This is still great as a warning, if you’re getting close to a runway.

On VFR map mode, you’ll often see many red “tower” symbols showing where obstacles are. Red indicates that they’re either at or above your altitude. As you climb, they turn yellow, signifying that they are now within 500 feet of your altitude. The next color is green, which signifies obstructions or terrain within 2,000 feet of your altitude. The “terrain” flag keeps flashing until you press the Terrain function to see the full terrain map. This screen presents terrain in a format just like color radar. The colors mean the same as described above plus, if you see black, it means you are at least 2,000 feet above the highest terrain. The database also includes all obstructions of 250 feet AGL or higher.

I have flown this system in haze over hilly terrain, and through a minefield of towers at an ATC mandated low altitude in the New York City area, and the MX20 pointed out all the conflicts. The big, easy to read screen allowed me to do this while keeping my head mostly out of the cockpit. From night operations to bright, direct sunlight, the MX20’s readability is excellent.

You have complete control to set up each map as you want, and to customize anything special you want. For example, you can select just VOR symbols, or the symbols and all the box information about them. The MX 20 has it’s own database, so if you want to know about an airport or nav displayed on the map, pan to it and ask. Another great feature is this: Tune in a VOR on the SL30 and it pops up as a different color on the MX 20, with the course selected on the OBS displayed on the MX 20. Tune in a Localizer or ILS and the complete final approach course “feather” is displayed. You also have many options as to how your screen operates. For the enroute phase, I selected the Custom map and set it up to show VORs, airports and special airspace, but I deleted the topography. However, if a terrain or obstacle threat occurs within about two minutes of flying time in any direction, the flashing terrain warning box will pop up to tell you to have a better look.

I like using the MFD in its 50-nm range setting. It paints a compass-ring around the aircraft symbol at the 50-nm edge, as well as an intermediate ring at 25-nm. This ring, plus my course line and the “track-up” view, gives me a very functional EFIS type presentation. (You can select your track or desired track in the “up” position, or you can select “north” as up.) Flexibility is the operative word, readability and usability the operative aspect, unmatched situational awareness is the operative result.

Phase III of training? This is learning the world of GPS approaches and the approach mode of the GX60. There are multitudes of approach types that can be flown. The manual spells them out. First I studied the type of GPS approaches available at my most frequently used destination airports, then I studied how they should be flown. Then I found some local approaches that matched the type and went out and flew them in VFR conditions. I became comfortable with the process, what the GPS should be doing, and what I should expect to see from my panel. Then I raised my approach minimums for that type of approach, when it came time to do the first few in actual conditions. When that opportunity finally came, I flew my first approach in IMC with precision and confidence.

The MX20, although not approved for primary IFR work, still offers unmatched situational awareness and comfort during any type approach, but most important for me, the new-to-me GPS approaches. The full approach is displayed in blue, with named markers at each transition point, and the active leg shown in pink. There is no confusion as to where I am on the approach. This means a lot because, with GPS approaches, you’re often doing multiple course changes and reversals instead of the more traditional “single-course” VOR/NDB/LOC non-precision approaches. Fly the needle, follow the prompts on the GPS and annunciator, but keep the MX 20 in the scan. Often your approach procedure calls for you to cross the same way-point more than once. When you hit it the first time, it doesn’t know that you’re maneuvering and figures you’re going to the next waypoint. It is in this situation you must know to suspend the GPS’ prompts by activating the “Hold” function until you get turned around, then release the “hold” function when you’re ready to resume as depicted. The thing is, the annunciator should show specific readouts at any given phase of the approach. Learn to look for those and, if you don’t see them, set your equipment if you have time or miss and do it again.

Even on traditional ILS/LOC/VOR/ NDB approaches, the situational awareness information is wonderful. Fly these approaches and you can watch yourself progress along the localizer or VOR path. This is really exceptional when being vectored to the final approach course. It’s also great for watching your progress during holding and procedure turns.

Unlike a number of GPS approaches I have flown using other manufacturers’ equipment, the GX60 allows you to do a change-up quickly, with minimal button-pushing. Starting out on the full approach, then getting vectors to final, takes only a couple of quick moves. Decide after a miss that you don’t want to go to the holding point, then push-push and you’re off and running to where you want to go. My Phase III continued as I learned and practiced the different types of GPS approaches. But my comfort and respect for the Full Stack system is now as steep as the learning curve required to utilize it fully.

I was not in a hurry to learn it all immediately. I set a six-month goal to be fully up to speed on all the gear and approaches. I wanted to learn it slowly and learn it correctly, so I could remember it. I will practice it regularly, each six months, along with my usual ritual of general recurrent practice in my airplane. I also had many trips during that first six months. They all had GPS approaches and even when it was VFR, I still shot the full approaches just to build and keep the skills. Operationally, the gear has been great. With more than 40 hours logged in the first three months of flying the stack, I have yet to find anything about the system I don’t like. I am pleased with my decision to abandon the “must have two VORs” line of thinking. I am also pleased at how ATC seems to be grasping the “GPS direct” concept. At least in my experience, I have noticed that on my familiar routes, where previously I was required to stick to the airways, or direct clearances were for short distances only, they now work with me the majority of the time to allow me to use the new /G designator to its maximum advantage.

The bottom line is that I couldn’t be happier with my research process, the selection of the UPSAT system, the facility that installed it, what it has done for my airplane, and the value I get out of flying it.

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