By Uwe Nitsche. Uwe Nitsche is founder of the software development company Xgenta Ltd. (www.Xgenta.com)
Last week I had the opportunity to fly the Avidyne R9 demonstrator aircraft (a Cirrus SR22 G3) across Europe. The route took us from Oxford to southern Germany, to Vienna then Budapest and back to Gloucester. With a total time of fourteen hours there was plenty of opportunity to get intimate with the Avidyne’s new avionics system.
Having around 500 hours experience with the Entegra 1 system, I was looking forward to see what the improvements would be like in real life. I had seen the table-top demonstrator unit on two occasions before and came away from that experience with doubts about whether the new system would really be that much better.
Let me tell you that there is a huge difference between the demonstration unit –which does not have a GPS- and the actual aircraft. Looking back on it all it is really hard to imagine the impact on your flying when sitting in front of the demonstrator.
Let me run you through our flight across Europe to give you an impression of what it’s like.
The day began running late at our departure due to some last minute issues regarding our logistics. The first thing you notice especially in a rush is that the new R9 seems to boot up quicker than then the old system did, which is really nice when you want to get going right now.
Also the geo-fill data entry and the awareness of airways in R9 means it quite literally only needed a few key strokes to enter a massive list of waypoints especially around Germany courtesy of the DFS. More is less when it comes to waypoints. In any case R9 made it almost ridiculously easy to enter the lot and we were ready to go in no time. Frequency entry on a full numeric keypad is also really fast. Not a big issue when on the ground (who doesn’t remember “big ring for big numbers and little ring for little numbers” from the Garmin set) but a major advantage when in the air, especially during last minutes changes.
So off we went departing to Compton (CPT) in the climb out and onto the autopilot. We switched to London control with climbing turns and then vectors. On this day we enjoyed a departure through the London TMA instead of the dreaded southerly GWC-SFD-R803 route; however that means a few vectors for Airbus traffic and a first chance to play with the new “Vectors” button. This brings me to the first real problem with R9. It is so intuitive and similar to the old Entegra system in the Cirrus that initially we were flying it exactly like that. And that’s fine, I guess, but you’re not using the capabilities at all and I am sure that is one of the issues when playing with the desktop demonstrator as well. So initially we were changing the autopilot dutifully back and forth between “NAV-NAV / GPSS” and “HDG” mode to vector around traffic. Note this aircraft was not equipped with the new digital and attitude based autopilot yet but with the rate-based STEC 55x.
When you get a little more familiar with the unit and after a briefing over dinner in Austria that evening I became more aware of what I was missing out on.
Once the GPSS mode is engaged you should not ever need to go back to heading mode. Just hit the “Vectors” button and a magic dotted line appears in front of the aircraft symbol on the map.
Now use the dedicated course knob – it has lots of dedicated knobs so you no longer need to switch modes on the PFD – and this will sweep the dotted line across the map like a window wiper. Well that dotted line is now a GPS course for the autopilot to fly. Not just a HDG in the air but an actual track. This is absolutely brilliant in real life but again more on that later. As for now in our ignorance we were still using heading mode and needlessly switching back and forth on the STEC 55x auto pilot. Finally settled in en-route mode with the much more relaxed Brussels control we had time to do our en-route checks and play with the system.
Yes we were over the channel already-these Cirrus’ are wonderfully fast aren’t they?
Checking out the system
As there were two of us in the cockpit and both keen to learn the details we both started having a go at the buttons. Well, there are two screens and both are identical. The only thing is that due to FAA regulations the horizon must stay visible on the PFD at all times so although the buttons and menus are the same on both screens only the lower half changes on the PFD but with much the same content. So you can now happily fly with the engine page on the bottom half of the PFD whilst the co-pilot on the right plays with the map setup.
The PFD is only fixed to this mode during installation by a cable plug-in that tells it to act as PFD otherwise the MFD/PFD are fully interchangeable and there are no reversionary modes. If the PFD fails und you press PDF on the MFD voila you have two full blown PFD’s. Nice for installations with three screens (Hello Meridian and Extra 500). To be honest I would not be surprised to see this system in the commuter set shortly as it blows the socks of everything else out there especially at the current pricing.
Another thing I noticed was that I was zooming the map in and out all the time like I do with Entegra when I want to go from the big picture to the tactical navigation. R9 has a very clever joystick to move the map to your desired point. Much easier on the brain as scale stays the same, and naturally the map jumps back to the current position after a brief period of inactivity. There was the problem again for experienced Entegra pilots; you can fly the system just like the old one but you’re not really using it to its best and it takes real concentration to actually forget the old way. I was already feeling like an old fart imagining how young pilots without the baggage of experience in the “old” glass panel systems would marvel at the inefficient way I was using the system.
So after a few hours of button pressing, explaining the European airspace idiosyncrasies to my American friend and some light in-flight snacks it was time to brief the approach already and set R9 up for our arrival. Did I mention how wonderfully fast the Cirrus is yet?
As is usual for European ATC fashion we were expecting a slam dunk approach into our VFR destination. No IFR approach for us that day. Here again a wonderful feature of the R9. The waypoint list is much more than what you are used to from Entegra. This is after all a full blown flight management system rivalling that of your average A320 (although I could not find a route-cost feature on R9 usually found in the heavy iron). So, simply go onto your desired destination point in the route list and enter the desired altitude. Once done a green diamond shape appears on the VSI. This will now continuously calculate required descent rate and indicate that by moving down steadily.
[Image: required descent rate]
You could now wait until it hits -500fpm and call control for a descent and IFR cancellation. But this wouldn’t be R9 if there was not a yet better way, but more on that later. We started our descent to arrive overhead our destination, with an incredulous controller asking “vere ve vere from” -I’m a German national myself so am allowed these jokes.
[Image: Level at destination]
Explaining we’re from Oxford, that’s Oxford England, like in London, made no impression as he coolly told us ve could not land! “Vorsprung durch Technik” …surely not. It seems he had not received the mandatory one hour notice for non-Schengen arrivals and wouldn’t let us land unless we declared an emergency. Well, we briefly considered this as our passenger was waiting below us in the Bavarian beer garden which looked mightily attractive from up here but my German sense of duty got the better of us and we diverted to Friedrichshafen International which has a permanent border police station. To the tower’s credit he did call ahead and EDNY was ready for us providing the fastest large airport turnaround I have ever seen and only rivalled by Ryanair (I understand their pilots are only allowed out of the seat during en-route segments). The funny thing was -or not so, depending on your viewpoint- that border patrol just waived us through, no need for any passports. I can only assume they knew of our plight. We quickly paid the landing fees and off again…no wait…security check off course. Right, this might just have been an elaborate ploy to sneak something like water exceeding 100ml into our Cirrus. In any case they were all good humoured and 20 minutes later we were united with our anxiously waiting passenger.
A quick refuel and off we went again, one last look at that Bavarian beer garden over my shoulder and back to Munich radar for our airway rejoin. At this point it became clear our pilot flying could actually enter the flight plan quicker than I could read it from my own notes. This was ridiculous as I had done the planning after all. This R9 thing was getting spooky.
We had an uneventful flight to Vienna with beautiful views of the northern Alps, followed finally by that beer and some more demonstrations on the ground. Fortunately Avidyne had wheeled out their own demo pilot for that evening so a drink was in order. That night speaking with the Avidyne VP we compared notes and I found he had gone through the same transition using R9 “the old way“ just like Entegra, before really uncovering the great efficiency improvements. He left me with many tips which would come in handy the next day.
Next morning came way too quick and filing IFR through AFPEX on my laptop (thanks NATS!) during breakfast we were ready to roll all too soon. Same routine as before only this time I didn’t bother reading the flight plan as Mr. Magic had already typed it in with less keystroke than it took me to do the planning and this is a bit of a theme. I had already read on the COPA forum that people were reporting they no longer bothered copying clearances as they can type them in faster that writing them down and frankly I thought they were overegging it a bit but I could now see that in many instances that holds true, a bit like you can enter the xponder code quicker in the old Entegra suite on the Garmin rather than writing it down, just that here you can do everything quicker.
The next day
Off we went from a VFR field similar to the UK “…climb not above 3000 remain outside controlled airspace, talk to you later…” only later never came. Turns out Austro control could not find my flight plan and I started to feel somewhat embarrassed being the European between the two of us in the cockpit and in charge of filing. However, after calling back and forth with his controller friend in Budapest he came back on the frequency to tell us that, although he did not understand how, Budapest did indeed have our flight plan whilst he had not but was now happy to let us climb. However, by that time we had progressed across the border and decided to follow the Danube to our destination VFR. This threw us some whole new challenges. Now don’t get me wrong the aviation English by the local controllers is brilliant but really pronouncing their local station names is not my forte much less understanding them and here came a new trick out of the R9 hat. You just type in the frequency the controller tells you, wait a few seconds, et voila, the name of the station is calculated based on your GPS position and presented in the PFD. So, off course I’ll contact Gyor-Per control Ma’am no problem! Hah! That’ll teach them. Now I can’t wait to try this in Scandinavia. Suddenly repeating the next station name has lost its entire fear factor.
[Image: Budapest Control name read out on PFD]
So, on we went dodging airspace ahead being amongst the VFR crowd. Only we were armed with the R9 vector mode. Just draw your line on the map to the edges of each bit of airspace and much like Captain Kirk’s tractor beam you go there. Having a dedicated button for this makes it independent of what the PFD is “focused on” as well. This was an issue with the old Entegra as you only had one button doing Baro, Heading, Altitude and VSI plus you needed to press side keys for the number of digits you wanted to add into altitude. None of this here – unless you really must insist- just use dedicated twirl knobs for altitude and heading on the key pad and the baro on the PFD or MFD.
Budapest by R9
Before we knew it we were at Budapest and handed over to our destination airport. As this was an unlicensed ex Russian military field it was not in our database but creating a new airport is just so easy with R9, including correct ICAO identifier, full name etc. It was –quite literally- done in a minute. So down we went on our own vectors encouraged by a cheerful voice on the info frequency repeating all our position reports followed by “number one to land” This was one mighty field for a non licensed facility but that is a story unto itself.
After a short stay and demonstration we took off back to Germany, this time opting for FL090 to escape from the sweltering heat (yes, in October). Another uneventful flight and this time we had called ahead and were allowed to land. Only this time the tower wouldn’t let us depart as we had not clearly stated that we had no intention of becoming permanent residents and actually wanted to go back to England. Briefly toying with the idea of claiming to be departing for France (another Schengen treaty state) we were relieved to find the kind man in the tower had cleared us over the phone and fax with some border agency and would let us leave. No time for ice cream for us that day as we were running late for our arrival back at Gloucester. This then became the theme for our last leg home. With the FMS showing us arriving at 18:33z and the airport closing 18:30 things did not look good. Fortunately my audacious American pilot ignored all conventions and got us all the directs he could, even across the whole length of Belgium only thwarted by the European inability to clear cross border.
We did everything we could to gain speed and with a 27Kt headwind decided to try our luck at FL120 where we found only 20Kts headwind and an extra 5KTAS true airspeed, courtesy of thinner air with even better fuel flows. As we were closing in on the Channel I started briefing all the options usually thrown at the unprepared or foreign pilot when arriving in the UK under IFR. We had four options; fly the filed route (most unlikely), receive the dreaded COSTA – Clacton route followed by the usual controller confusion which usually ends in a descent towards SPEAR and “leaving controlled airspace, basic service…”, or the southerly route LYDD-R803 etc, or our own option to cancel IFR and descent underneath the London TMA.
Whilst I was calling out the alternate waypoints to be added to our flight plan, which I am used to adding to the GNS430 so that I only have to delete the unwanted ones, it quickly became apparent that this is futile on R9 as adding a waypoint usually takes only one keystroke plus enter key anyway. We played with this by programming the direct route via DVR-DET-BIG-OCK-CPT-DCT and then hitting the “L” key for laughs and sure enough Lydd was suggested and entered by hitting the enter key. It’s truly amazing.
So when the expected re-route via Clacton came we were ready and cancelled for a low level channel crossing as we had no time to lose. This is where our altitude and R9 came into its own. Now we wanted to descend a t max airspeed but still arrive at our waypoints below controlled airspace. R9 has a genius feature for this. Preselect your descent rate and altitude and a small green arc appears on the map showing where in space you will actually reach this based on current flight parameters. Absolutely no math involved! Well, at least not for the pilot. So now descent calculation becomes a video game.
[Image: descent calculation into uncontrolled airspace]
You turn the VSI knob and “place” the arc on or before the waypoint you want and R9 does the rest. Using this we maximised our forward speed, kept the engine warm and avoided all airspace busts without ever breaking sweat. I felt the eyes of Thames Radar on us at all times as we had thwarted their evil plans for extra air miles. Absolute genius. As a CFII myself I wonder if in future descent planning still needs to be part of the curriculum as this is just so easy.
Thus armed we continued our way over and around all airspace just in time to receive a direct into Gloucester’s main runway. By this time it was getting dark and R9 helped out again; hit the Vector key, now set the FMS to the runway heading (you’re leaving the AP on GPSS while it’s flying the vector) now dial the vector to intercept the final approach where you want it and it’s really hard to get lost this way. We landed 18:26 due in large part to R9 which allowed us to squeeze every inch of performance out of our aircraft, especially in the descent.
So, is it any good?
Considering the early version of the software I was flying (the reason for the drop off at Gloucester was another update) R9 performed solidly. Many things I could not play with yet such as at the pilot configuration keyfob which much as my personal key on my car sets everything the way you want it. This is great when flying in a group of pilots. One of the reasons I am not maximising the GNS430 is that I have learned all the default screens by heart as there seem to be no two pilots who prefer the same setup and I find it quicker to reset the units to default before each flight so I can actually find things. This is no longer an issue with R9 as the next release will have pilot specific USB sticks that you plug in on start-up and will auto set all your favourite settings.
So is R9 totally flawless? No. It’s a brand new system and we found a few minor software issues here and there. And as it is all software one would expect the next update would fix that. The worst I can come up with is that the daylight screen of the keypad LCD is not aesthetically pleasing (whilst the night screen is a piece of art). Otherwise I think R9 will lead the industry for a long time to come and currently only seems to be held back by the ability of Avidyne to certify all components and variations quickly enough. It is not unlikely that the next generation of pilots will look back on our first generation of glass cockpits the same way we look back at six-packs; with a smile and expression of pity on their faces.
(All Images are my own copyright and are free to be reused)
Sunset over Dover