By KEVIN KNIGHT
Competition is a beautiful thing. It keeps pricing honest. It makes everything more interesting. It gives pilots choices: Certified vs. experimental; piston vs. turbine; composite vs. metal; Garmin vs. everyone.
That occurred to me while planning a major panel upgrade for my 1967 Mooney Executive at Pacific Coast Avionics in Oregon this fall. Working in medical technology, I have a strong bias for research that includes technical data and feedback from end users.
The centerpiece of every modern IFR panel is a WAAS GPS/Navcomm. Since 1998 the most popular models have been Garmin’s GNS 430 and 530, with more than 100,000 installed. UPSAT made a run at Garmin in 2008 with its innovative CNX80. I had one in my late, great 1970 Cessna 210 and thought it was outstanding. However, it never caught on despite having WAAS, a large screen, fast processor, and terrific flight management system (FMS).
Garmin acquired UPSAT in July 2003 for $38 million and renamed the CNX80 the 480, placing it between the 430 and 530. Some people believe the acquisition was undertaken to limit competition.
Garmin’s news releases from that time stressed its interest in UPSAT’s ADS-B technology and other assets. Regardless, Garmin became the only seller of integrated GPS/Navcomms with displays.
Four years ago Garmin introduced the 650 and 750 panel mount systems. They featured touch screens that aren’t available on the GNS 430 and 530, and included WAAS. They also had a different form factor. Remove a 430 or 530 from the panel and a 650 or 750 cannot slide in the bracket or mate with the connectors. The only way to address that is with a costly installation at your avionics shop.
That led me to Avidyne Corporation of Lincoln, Massachusetts. It introduced the IFD540 in late 2014 as a plug-and-play replacement for Garmin’s 530. A similar replacement for Garmin’s 430 — the IFD440 —received FAA clearance in June.
Although hitting DIRECT TO is the default entry for most flying, I liked the FMS in my CNX80. Avidyne employs similar logic, but it’s far more intuitive and powerful than the CNX80’s. It also seamlessly interfaces with lots of other manufacturers’ avionics, making it relatively agnostic.
I called Avidyne’s 800# and asked customer service if it had some IFD540 users I could talk with. They suggested San Diego flight instructor Richard Sears who’s logged 7,000 hours in fixed wing aircraft and 2,000 in helicopters. He owns a Seneca and is VP of sales for a flight training company called LOFT at Palomar Airport.
When he bought the twin it had a Garmin 430 that was solid but dated. Sears considered his upgrade options and recalled his experiences with a Piper Meridian and Cirrus. They featured Avidyne’s high-resolution displays and other cutting edge electronics.
Sears said most GA pilots use GPS in the simplest way possible. If they’re flying IFR, Garmin makes it easy to string together VORs and the like. However, many professional pilots don’t consider that a true FMS, and it can be challenging when workloads jump.
Avidyne pioneered the integrated flight deck in GA and developed the R9 system to combine hardware and software into a seamless entity. The IFD540 and IFD440 were created to compress a lot of that power into a small package that could neatly replace a Garmin 530 or 430, saving pilots lots of installation costs.
It does everything the old Garmins do — and more — thanks to an FMS that receives regular upgrades as new capabilities are added. Built-in features include WAAS, terrain awareness, WiFi and Bluetooth integration, and aural warnings. It has a full-featured touch screen, which can be zoomed in and out, plus a compliment of buttons for easy use in turbulence.
The system’s chief architect is Steve Jacobson, who turned down a spot at MIT to attend the Air Force Academy, later becoming a decorated A-10 “Warthog” attack pilot in Bosnia and Desert Storm. After numerous combat missions, he became an Air Force test pilot in California focused on avionics, then earned a masters degree in electrical engineering from Northeastern.
“I have a Garmin GTN 750 in my helicopter and like it for what it is, but I’m not doing any
IFR in my helicopter,” said Sears. “I had put a GTN750 and GTN650 in a Mooney I owned and liked it from a layout perspective. However, there were some real drawbacks. If you’re talking about a serious IFR platform you really need to think about some things. For instance, you can’t plug a hold in the 750. On my IFD540 I can initiate a hold at any point on it. If I want to create a waypoint, I can put a hold there. Things like that.”
“When pilots come to our flight center at LOFT, I ask what’s the #1 thing that scares them,” he continued. “Most of them tell me ‘holds.’”
I got additional insights from 69-year-old Spokane pilot Norris Brown, who flew 800 hours in F-4 Phantoms during the Vietnam era. He is co-owner of a Cessna P-210.
After replacing his Garmin 530 with an IFD540 at Western Avionics in Spokane, Brown flew with the lead technician doing GPS and ILS approaches.
“It has this fancy terrain awareness feature but it didn’t make a peep when we got near the ground,” he recalled. “I did some checking and learned that when you’re flying instrument approaches you aren’t supposed to be warned. I took it up the next day and didn’t fly any instrument approaches. I flew toward some mountains and the terrain awareness worked great. It started yelling at me. It really got my attention. It’s basically the same as TAWS, but isn’t ‘legal’ TAWS.”
Brown and his partner paid extra for the 16 watt radio instead of the standard 10 watt output. Previously, when flying from Spokane to Portland, ATC said their radio wasn’t clear. That is no longer a problem.
“It’s been a seamless transition from the Garmin 530, and the flight plan process has been a whole lot better on the IFD540,” he said. “You don’t have to enter every VOR. You can do it with Victor Airways, which is really nice. If ATC gives me an inflight change, I just tap the screen and it marks the point where the change is required. Instrument departures are also a lot easier. It’s really slick, and they’re adding new features through software updates.
“In the time I’ve flown with the 540, I’ve been very glad I’ve had knobs instead of just a touch screen,” he added. “Entering data with one of those isn’t easy when you’re bouncing around.”
I’m gutting my panel in November when the weather turns cold and soggy in the Pacific Northwest. Because of my preference for an FMS, and the ability to use a full array of buttons or the touch screen during flight, the IFD540 is the best choice for my kind of flying.
It’s nice having choices.
Author Kevin Knight is a 1,000 hour, instrument rated pilot who lives in North Texas and the Pacific Northwest.