Palm Springs, California — Take almost any heading inaviation these days and evidence abounds of declines wrought by the whiplashoverreactions to 9-11 and the economic downturn already manifesting itself theday the Twin Towers fell. Yet once again an industry trade show has revealed thelatent dynamism of the aviation business community.
The membership of the Aircraft Electronics Association provided the evidence,amply, that the aviation community may still suffer from unhealed wounds thattime — air time, in particular — ultimately should heal. This year, 112companies exhibited wares at the annual AEA meeting, a new record for the tradeshow by about four firms. Last year’s Dallas setting provided the prior recordfor exhibiting companies, AEA executive staff told AVweb.
The preliminary registration numbers AEA provided put opening dayregistrations within 100 delegates of the attendance record — another high barset last year in Dallas. As of Saturday’s closing sessions, AEA staff told AvWeb,attendance reached 1,260 — still short of last year’s approximately 1,500…butwithin spitting distance. Not bad … considering. Regional differences, AEAstaff theorized, made the difference. "Dallas drew from a larger area moreeasily," explained Ric Peri, vice president of AEA.
This desert oasis with its striking mountain vistas provided an attractive,luxurious setting, but access from points east is neither as easy nor asinexpensive as the Dallas Metroplex. Still, following on the heals of nearlynormal events for the helicopter, FBO and sport-aviation communities, thisstring of almost-as-usual trade shows nearly masks the fact that many companiesstill report stagnant activity, sales slumps and other depressing-soundingrecession-style news. Much of the conflict in this picture seems linked to whereand what type of aviation business you examine.
For example, many FBOs and flight schools report that their businesses remainoff by anywhere from high single-digit percentages to low double-digit levels —say eight percent to 18 percent. The causes appear multiple. It is a slump withdepth, if you will, linked to a residual fear-and-paranoia among many low-hourprivate pilots and prospective pilots. Many of the up-and-coming remainuncomfortable with the idea that a misstep these days holds more than the usualpotential for violation — thanks to the requirement to know and understandintercept procedures, the ongoing mysteries of magically-appearing TFRs andairport-security checks of general aviation unheard of and unimaginable just afew short months back.
Not surprisingly, new sales of piston-powered planes remain slumped, thanksto a combination of the above factors and ongoing economic worries. Conversely,however, business-turbine sales backlogs remain healthy — in the tens ofbillions of dollars — despite the slower advance-sales numbers prompting staffreductions among some business-turbine aircraft makers.
Interest in business aircraft continues to benefit from theless-enjoyable-than-ever experience of travel by human mailing tube — anexperience still seasoned with endless reminders of our newfound paranoia aboutall things airline-related — too-frequently repeated warnings of our"heightened level of hassle," as one airline captain put it to me atPSP. "The (security) personnel have been coached to become more polite, butthe experience of multiple random checks still sets off those required to wavetheir arms two and three times between the ticket counter and the jetway,"this captain observed. "If it wasn’t exactly easy before, today it’sdownright unpleasant and threatening in its own right."
That perspective makes general aviation the best bet for the lowest hassleswhich helps drive the marker for upgrades for existing aircraft, which seempopular still. There are new technologies with new capabilities that offernew-found utility unimagined just three short years ago.
That brings us full circle back to why AEA 2002 felt a little quiet but wasstill a successful event: the businesses exhibiting seem determined to advanceeven if the crowd didn’t turn out in record numbers to see those advances firsthand. In fact, the event brought more news of more of those advances than wecould have expected given the often-gloomy reports coming in from the sourcesnoted above.
We shoulda known better; some of the stuff we got to see only recentlyemerged from the developmental shops of the manufacturers who debuted thoseitems at prior AEA events. Some we’d seen before and saw again with a few newspins on the tachometer; some came in with no prior warning. So it goes; like wesaid — we shoulda known better.
There’s no keeping the aviation community down.
Radar Ways: Data Delivery Expands Weather And TrafficOptions
All You Need To See From AirCell, Garmin, Honeywell AndOthers
It’s been a bit longer coming than the first two developers promised orwanted, but the pipeline is open and the data flowing for in-cockpit imagerysystems from Garmin and Honeywell, the two FAA contract holders for the FlightInformation System and the Traffic Information Service the agency unveiled threeyears ago. Enlisting these new data receivers in the MFD revolution brings newcapabilities to light-plane cockpits unimagined before the FAA’s actions.
Live weather images from ground- and space-based sources gives thesmall-plane pilot a virtual radar system; add a data link-capable Mode Stransponder and you get a virtual air-traffic radar system, as well — completewith traffic and resolution alerts from Garmin’s system. Not new, you say? Heardit before, you think?
Well, yes and no; what you heard and saw before largely came from word ofsystem development. AEA brought word from Garmin that it’s now shipping theGDL49 transceiver box needed to make the FIS accessible on the company’s 400-and 500-series display-based navigators. The GDL49 received its FAA approvals afew days before AEA and shipping started almost immediately; the new Mode Stransponder needed for TIS should start shipping within weeks, marking anothertransition from promise to reality. Thanks to the partnership between Garmin (www.garmin.com)and Echo Flight’s (www.echoflight.com) Orbcomm-satellite-based FIS, any GDL49user gets instant continental coverage – upon request, for the Doppler images;text-based weather information comes free, the pictures by subscription.
Across an aisle at another booth, Honeywell (www.bendix-king.com) staffshowed off the coverage map for its up-and-running Wing Man service and withinthe next few months the 200 ground stations on the original plan will be up andrunning; by year’s end, coverage should extend to about 70 percent of thecontinent when users fly above 10,000 msl. At 5,000 msl, coverage will still beabout 60 percent. And those numbers will improve, ultimately giving userscomplete coverage with a continuous stream of subscription-service-availableradar images and free-to-see text weather.
And these guys are only the beginning of a race that only now actuallybegins. Avidyne (www.avidyne.com) unveiled its new DX50 data link transceiver;AirCell (www.aircell.com) showed off the new interface under development toallow the UPS AT MX-20 MFD to display images downloaded via the AirCell phonenetwork to its in-flight receivers; Satellink Technologies’ Merlin system (www.merlinwx.com)is nearly ready for prime time, thanks to its continuous data feed frombroadcast geosynchronous satellites — including graphic TFR depiction; EchoFlight, a pioneer and early embracer of data link services, showed off its lineof portable MFDs and panel-mount options for its services; Sandel (www.sandel.com)showed off its TSO’d ST3400 TAWS/RMI all-in-one box hardware.
A host of other companies are racing to enter the in-flight information racewith products that add horsepower to an already hot race. As one Honeywell staffmember put it, "After all this time, we’re finally at the starting line andcompetition is going to keep making this stuff better, faster and morediverse."
Perhaps the most-talked about debut came from WSI, which with the purchase ofPilot Weather Advisories promises to deliver all the detail of the WSI computerterminals familiar to many FBO users through a continuous-feed service likeHoneywell’s via a full-continental, on-the-ground coverage satellite-basedsystem comparable to Garmin and Avidyne’s no-shipping DX-50 respond-reply datalink transceiver and Satellink Technologies Merlin hardware.
If you entertained thoughts of adding data link hardware to your cockpit, youmay want to sit on your wallet a while longer — this competition promises toonly get stronger in the coming months, thanks to promises from some vendors ofadvances and debuts a few weeks hence at Oshkosh.
Speaking Of Satellites, There’s Music In Them, ThereBirds
Head’s Up Technologies, Satellite Radio And New MFDs FromGoodrich
Yep, the same music service you’re seeing advertised these days should soonbe available for you bird, thanks to the efforts of Head’s Up Technologies todevelop an in-flight receiver. Monthly subscription fees should run about $10 togive you access to about 100 channels of music, talk and sports, but theadvances announced don’t end there.
Goodrich (www.goodrichavionics.com) showed off its all-new i-linc MFD, whichon close examination seems to closely resemble a model made by another avionicscompany. Aside from the physical similarities, though, there are alsosimilarities in some of the options available, like electronic charts, platesand airport surface maps. And there are differences, as well, such asplug-and-play compatibility with other Goodrich products, such as the Wx-500Stormscope sensor, LandMark TAWs system and Skywatch traffic hardware. Thei-linc also works with a broad array of radar systems, giving the unitcapabilities as broad as any on the market.
Meggitt S-Tec (www.meggitt.com) introduced its all-new SA-200 Altitudepre-selector system for use with certain S-Tec autopilots like the FiftyFiveX.The company also debuted a new version of its MAGIC EFIS 500 ARM, a variant ofits electronic-flight displays designed for individual programming with thespeed markings to match the aircraft getting the units.
But the biggest news from the folks in Mineral Wells, Texas, concerned a newautopilot designed to take its attitude information from the same ADAHRS (airdata attitude heading reference system) sensors used to drive the MAGICdisplays. The MAGIC 2100 DFCS is a three-axis digital flight control systemfeaturing the full array of features you’d normally expect from a full-boresystem, including heading, nav and GPS steering modes, altitude hold andvertical speed management and altitude capture, even voice annunciation. The bigdifference is, however, really big — there are no attitude or directionalspinning-mass gyros. The solid-state ADAHRS provide all the reference for bothautopilot and MAGIC electronic displays — the logical evolution of a technologyrapidly trickling down to light-plane prices: about $50,000, in this case.
A new player entering the flight-instrument race is OP Technologies (www.optechnologies.com)with its Flight OP 200. Using Watson Industries (www.watson-gyros.com/index.html)solid-state AHARS hardware, the OP displays come in 10.4-inch diagonal (8.5-inchby 6.4-inch) and 8.4-inch diagonal (7-inch by 5.3-inch) sizes designed to cover most potential applications.
Speaking of AHARS and the like, expect to see more and more light-planesystems using hardware from Watson, Crossbow (www.xbow.com) and others, to drivethe ever-expanding array of flight displays and a growing number offlight-control systems rumored to be in the pipeline. With prices fornon-certified AHARS boxes already below $5,000 and certified units going foraround $10,000, the aviation community is quickly approaching the price pointwhere solid-state will edge out spinning-mass as the attitude and directionalsource for autopilots and flight displays — simultaneously.
Back in the realm of the everyday panel, PS Engineering showed off a newversion of its PMA7000 audio panel, its most-popular model, and NATS, orNorthern Airborne Technologies, (www.northernairborne.com) showed off a set ofbudget-minded, powerful, stand-alone intercom systems. More phone gear andelectronic-engine displays are also in the pipeline from developers who talkedbut weren’t telling.
We’ve seen the advent of solid-state attitude-and-direction sensors,in-flight datalink-based weather and traffic, modern airframe materials, evenelectronic engine controls. General aviation is rapidly nearing the point whereit will no longer be possible to complain about the steam-gauge-era technologyof the stuff we fly.
It’s good to be around for the revolution — as long as the airways remainopen for us to use them.