The Avionics Market Was There For The Taking. So Garmin Did. (Corrected)


In the world of mass production things, 25,000 is not a very big number. It’s about an hour’s worth of iPhone production and an eyeblink in the trillions of metal oxide transistors that make gadgets like that possible. Ford makes that many F-150s in about 10 days and Tesla does a few more than that of its popular electric cars. But in the still pond of aviation, where we’re just barely past bashing airplanes together with rubber hammers and pry bars, 25,000 is a stupendously huge number.

So it was altogether fitting that Garmin last week announced it has delivered 25,000 integrated flight decks which, if laid end to end, would easily reach across town to where BendixKing used to have its headquarters. I just made that up, but it seems plausible and even if it isn’t, that’s a lot of avionics over 19 years and it doesn’t include the mega-selling GNS boxes. “Integrated” means the G1000 and its evolutionary progeny, the G3000 and G5000, which increasingly find their way into turboprops and bizjets. They don’t quite own the latter market, but you can imagine them getting there.

I have had the good fortune of watching all this unfold in real time over the past … let’s see, 30 years. By tech standards, that is a glacial pace when you consider that when Garmin was founded in 1989, Windows 3 had just arrived and the Intel 80386 chip was the hot system to run it. The Macintosh classic, with its single clunky disc drive,0 was the competition. What cellphone did you have then? You didn’t. They were a few years over the horizon.

There are several remarkable aspects of this story, but the defining one—it’s really more of a question—is why so few companies emerged to persistently compete with Garmin. BendixKing was ideally positioned not to be overrun by an upstart. In 1990, it dominated the OEM market with the Silver Crown system. You expected to see it in new aircraft and buyers perusing used aircraft ads in Trade-A-Plane breezed past offerings if they didn’t mention Silver Crown. Garmin’s capture of the market was gradual and it started with portable GPS.

Gary Burrell had been an engineer at King Radio and before that at Allied Signal and along with Taiwanese-born Min Kao, he launched Garmin in 1989. Kao was an expert in the Kalman filtering technology that makes modern, accurate GPS navigation possible. The inaugural product was the ProNav 100, with ProNav being the original name of the company. Because of trademark issues, they changed it to Garmin, a portmanteau of their first names. The product became the GPS 100. I still have mine. It’s a brick with sentimental value.

For a time there in the mid-1990s, it looked like GPS would be a vital and highly competitive market. It was the golden age of the GPS portable. In a 1996 report, I wrote this: “Although glutted and confusing, one thing is certain about the portable GPS market: If you don’t like the current models, wait around a couple of weeks, something else will come along shortly. With any luck, it might even better or at least cheaper than the current crop.” Besides Garmin, Lowrance, IIMorrow, Magellan and Trimble were all flogging GPS, although Garmin always seemed to be a step ahead.

When panel mount GPS came into view around 1994, Garmin still had competition from IIMorrow, Northstar, BendixKing, Trimble and Magellan. Remember Narco? Of course you don’t, but it was out there pitching a panel mount called the StarNav and even pre-dated Garmin’s entry into the market with the GNS line. From out of the blue, a GPS survey company called Ashtech popped up with a stunning color navigator called the AV-12. That was in 1995, three years before Garmin introduced the GNS 430 and later the 530. Avidyne beat Garmin to the market with big glass in the Cirrus and so did ARNAV, which pioneered the first large moving map display in the original SR20. Although it was crude by modern standards, it was out there first. ARNAV is gone, but Avidyne still represents credible competition for Garmin, at least in the aftermarket.

Yet on its way to multiple thousands of integrated panels, not to mention many multiple thousands of discrete panel navigators, indicators and, lately, electronic flight instruments, Garmin steamrolled over the lot of them, sometimes with products not necessarily better than the competition. For a time during the 1990s, I taught a traveling GPS training show for AOPA and my favorite, easiest-to-teach box was the Trimble TNL 2000. It was easier to use than Garmin’s GPS 155.

So why did Garmin succeed so brilliantly where the others stumbled? In my view, several reasons all wrapped up in one word: will. Garmin always had a single-minded focus on new product introductions. Trimble did two dedicated portables, IIMorrow (later UPSAT) did a couple as did Magellan. Lowrance was more prolific, but none of them managed either the cadence of introductions or the features Garmin rolled out in no fewer than 15 portables. When the first color portables appeared from Garmin in 2004, it was pretty much game over for the rest.

From the beginning, Garmin was a technical/engineering-focused company always on the hunt for young talent. I forget who told me this—might have been someone at Garmin—but the company was famous for hiring “20-20s.”  Engineers who were 20-something years old at $20,000-something a year. Whether that’s true or not–Garmin’s Carly Hysell says it isn’t–that was the buzz then and it explained why Garmin always had technical projects simmering while BendixKing never seemed to. When Garmin arrived with portables capable enough to display real time aircraft attitude, it was a tour de force no other company matched and it wouldn’t be matched until iPads starting using inexpensive portable AHRS.

Garmin has been relentless in its marketing, with persistent, in-house prepared promotion and customer and technical support and a laser-like focus on the OEM business. That explains why the vast majority of new aircraft are equipped with Garmin glass. Don’t want a full-blown G1000? OK, fine, how about a G3X Touch, then? Still too much? Whatsamatter with the aera 760 or GI 275 gyros with GTN navigators? You simply can’t escape a Garmin solution that works. As one of their salespeople told me once, “We won’t stop until we get all of your money.” Grim truth, maybe, but of such stuff is success made.

Garmin also did something wise about diversification. Trimble and Ashtech, for instance, were GPS survey companies and they diversified—halfheartedly—into aviation, which was already well served and a small market. Garmin went the other way, leveraging its aviation-derived expertise into the marine, outdoor and fitness segments, the latter two of which were driven by an energetic demographic bubble. It paid off. According to Garmin’s annual report, aviation accounts for $712 million of its $4.9 billion revenues, with a profit of $192 million. Not too long ago, aviation had the highest percentage profit margin, but now the outdoor market, at nearly twice the revenue of aviation, shows a higher margin, at least for 2021. I don’t know if these are standalone business units responsible for their own internal capital, but if you’re trying to develop new products, it’s much better to be in a highly profitable company than in one that isn’t.

The first time I visited Garmin, maybe around 1991 or 1992, the company was housed in one of those office strips of the sort small medical practices have. Now, Garmin HQ is two feet short of being the tallest skyscraper in Olathe, Kansas. I’m pretty sure if you stacked up a few days worth of G1000 production, you could easily reach the top.

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  1. Good atrticle, Paul. Garmin is, indeed, an interesting company that has taken on several “Goliaths” and walked away the winner. To me, they have a lot in common with Apple, but for a more diverse group of customers. Both are single-minded in innovation and coming up with the next indispensable product. Their victory over Bendix-King is a tour de force of how the senior company developed corporate sclerosis while the more nimble upstart outmaneuvered them at every turn. B-K is now basically a seller of rebranded products from other companies. To me, their one big mistake was to not build the GTN line (650 & 750) plug and play with the GNS series. That gave Avidyne an intro by making their 440 and 540 line direct replacements for the aging GNS units. My personal preference is that the Avidyne boxes are more user friendly than the GTN series, but that is just me. Garmin makes excellent and reliable products and deserves to be the big dog in avionics. It is hard to imagine anyone ever replacing them, but then, that is probably how Bendix-King felt in the early ’90s.

  2. Garmin is just another exemplar of American tech success. Young, hungry and agile they out competed the complacent sclerotic, bureaucratic behemoth that was Bendix King.

    The reality is they are now the industry behemoth with lots of young, hungry, and agile competitors like UAvionics.

    I remember reading an article in the early 2000’s from a Garmin engineer. He laughed at King, saying that after living on the success of the KX 155 for 20 years they were about to get their ass handed to them by the GNS 430.

    Well the G1000 turns 20 next year……

  3. Yes congratulations but with some reservations.
    Garmin has a reputation with aircraft installers as sidelining equipment much earlier that necessary. Planed obsolescence if you will. That also works for Apple.
    My GPS NAV is now not supported by Garmin or Jeppesen. I could survive on once yearly database updates as an light ac IFR pilot, but no, thats it, good bye.

  4. For a VFR flyer, Garmin’s competition in avionics is the device I’m posting from. Installed avionics are one of the few things that make an Apple product look like a bargain.

    Steam gages and a recent iProduct for SA (or droid if so inclined) cut out the more expensive forced obsolescence, database updates and arcane GUIs. While you can argue about the last one, no one can question that having the GUI available to poke around in (including planning and flying with the same device whenever/wherever) makes GUI self-training much more natural/pervasive. Don’t get me started on the Vegas style avionics color explosion or tapes for no good reason…nominal indication should be monochrome and needles aligned, and all tapes full range. Save the color for where it highlights a change…a little more consistent human factors over marketing pretty would help all.

    Any of the above, and the ability to xref terrain databases for vertical nav, access external weather/traffic data in a graphical display puts Uncle Sam’s finest in my career to shame, but that has yet to convince me that spending my engine reserve on avionics provides any extra utility for VFR…but the folks competing there represent the innovation that will invade Garmin’s profitable general population market.

  5. I have an old ancient Magellan hand held GPS that I use as a backup unit when I fly. In addition to the Garmin that’s panel mounted. Magellan gives me the very basic information, takes longer to load, and occasionally freezes. The Garmin rarely ever glitches. But I always carry a backup just in case.

  6. Garmin shares one trait that always bugged me about the relatively stone-age Jeppesen subscription .. the trailing cost of updates. The thing is/was, the data is/was always complete and always there. The user might have to look for some essential nugget, but they can/could rely on its accuracy. Lives depend on that.

  7. Garmin puts out some innovative products but the cost is excessive for their aviation products. Basically the same hardware sells for marine use at 1/4 the price. I recently saw a midget mustang with the Dynon screens. Having recently flown a friends plane with the latest Garmin screens I must say the Dynon presentation is much easier to use.

    The cost should have gone down. These units are no more complex or capable then Ipads. It is all in the software. Sadly GA manufacturers are slowly killing all segments except EAB with costs.

    • To be fair, the EAB equipment doesn’t have to go for expensive TSO testing. The Garmin G5 started life in the EAB world, and that version is still cheaper than the Part-23 version of it even though they’re the same product.

      I like the Garmin products, especially if you stick with the brand because they all just work together. But it would be nice to see some actual competition in the market, and if anyone could do it, I think Dynon could.

  8. Great article. Garmin did one other thing that was smart. When someone else displayed talent for engineering and looked like competition, Garmin bought them.

    I flew behind an Apollo CNX-80 for quite a while. A very capable IFR navigator, the first one certified with WAAS and LPV capability. Coupled with the MX-20 multi-function display it was a heck of a product. Garmin bought the company, and instead of shutting them down made good use of their engineering expertise in it’s own product line. The engineers were kept in place (Garmin AT is still in Salem, Oregon) Garmin’s G600 hardware looked suspiciously like two MX-20s turned sideways and boxed up side by side.

  9. Garmin is not doing so well in the Part 25 world. Honeywell and Collins are entrenched in that market. Some corporate pilots that have used the G-5000 have commented that it is too much like a Cessna 182.

    I doubt a Garmin FMS will ever make it into a Boeing or Le Bus.

  10. If you all remember, part of what also harmed BK was high prices. They ‘had’ the market so they could do what they pleased and sat on their laurels vs inventing new lines. Along comes youthful Garmin with a better product — in some cases a revolutionary new product like the GNS and G1000 — and just totally gobbled up the market before B-K knew what hit them. If you think back to the late 90’s era lines of airplanes filled with Silver crown one year and suddenly filled with Garmin stuff, it happened in the blink of just a few years.

    I think Garmin better be careful that they don’t go down the same rabbit hole with prices or planned obsolesce, too. One wrong move and Dynon or uAvionix could do the same thing to them. One innovative product could infuse capital into those companies and they’d be off and running. In fact, I’m eyeing new functions for my airplane and will be paying close attention to stuff offered by those companies.

    Airventure 2022 will be interesting. IF MOSAIC does what we all hope it will, it could be another game changer. As Yars says above … ‘an asteroid’ still could strike.

  11. Of course a couple of major items that you left out are that a large majority of the legacy early GPS/ Nav/Com radio companies got their start from Art Collins of Collins radio. There was King Radio and around the same time there was Wulfsberg radio both in Kansas and around the same time there was Global Navigation in Tucson who BTW got their big push by designing some products for King Radio and then when Global Nav merged with Wulfsberg radio in Prescott Arizona they bacame GWS, (Global Wulfsberg Systems). At Embrey Riddle university in Prescott Arizona there is a photo of Art Collins, Ed King and Paul Wulfsberg, the 3 of them working side by side at Collins radio designing early Nav and Com radios. The Paul Wulfsberg merger which started Global-Wulfsberg in the mid 1980’s in Prescott Arizona then became Global-Wulfsberg-Systems who actually had a working GPS for high end Business jets prior to Garmin and of course prior to GPS GWS also had their hand in loran C. And then you mention IIMorrow but you forget that before II Morrow they were Morrow who made SSB HF Marine radios for the Alaskan fishing fleet and they were the original local boys and girls here in Salem Or. who eventually became Garmin AT. After the Morrow marriage fell apart they became IIMorrow after a bad breakup that I won’t get into and of course then IIMorrow became UPS-AT. And eventually UPS-AT was saved from the hands of of the wicked Brown boys in panel trucks by the grace of Garmin. I had the fortune to work for every one of these companies starting with Wulfsberg radio in Prescott then becoming Global-Wulfsberg then Global-Wulfsberg-Sundstrand-Data control then Global-Wulfsberg-Allied-Signal then briefly GWS Allied-Signal-King radio then coming home to Arizona again with Chelton-Cobham/Wulfsberg radio then doing a full 360 and finding myself back to my Kansas roots back at Garmin AT. As you see the world of American avionics has its roots in almost every one of these early companies that you mention but one thing in common with every one of them is that most if not all of them got started by Art Collins.

  12. And of course Garmin did not kill King radio either, it was the hands of Allied Signal and the penny pinching of Allied that eventually killed us at King Radio. While I only worked for the Allied/King/Wulfsberg radio division in Olathe for 2 years whereas I was at Wulfsberg radio for over 22 years, it was during the time frame when Allied Signal came in and totally decimated King Radio/Global-Wulfsberg-systems and all of their other holdings and this was my first hand experience at who truly destroyed King radio.

    • I thought that Paul’s article was quite good. But I agree with you that the lack of investment in new product development, after the Allied Signal acquisition, was the beginning of the death spiral for King Radio. Allied was more interested in immediate profits back to the parent. As a footnote, Gary Burrell was the Engineering VP at King Radio when I was there…. small world.

  13. When Allied Signal merged and moved Global-Wulfsberg to Olathe from Prescott AZ, all that they wanted from the merger was the Global navigation line of GNS GPS navigators and no engineers. They just wanted to get their hands on Global’s GNS/FMS navigator lines which is not to be confused with the Garmin GNS lines either as Global also had a line of high end FMS/Navigators named with various GNS designators. Allied never tried to understand that Global Wulfsberg was an old company with many employees who had deep roots in Prescott Az. Many of these engineers for instance who worked in the tactical FM/AM radio division also had spouses and children who worked on the Global Navigation side and vice versa. Unfortunately; Allied signal/King Radio never attempted to know their new Global-Wulfsberg-Systems employees and as a result a significant amount of RF talent was tossed by the wayside in Olathe Kansas in the late 1990s early 2000’s and this RF talent field then found itself at other Companies especially after a brief move back to Arizona after which they were once more mistreated when Cobham Avionics in the UK did the exact same thing that Allied did to what remained of more than 30 plus years of RF talent, hence a significant amount of RF engineers of all ages found themselves at the better company.

  14. Garmin _earned_ the business by providing more for potential customers, more often.
    One does not ‘take’ a business, there is no ‘share’ of a market.

    It managed to invest in more and new products. That suggests good selling and good financial management.

    Another early user friendly navigator was the Northstar, quite popular, but IIRC the company did not do much more. Eventually purchased by Canadian Marconi who made doppler navigators, FMS navigators and earlier Omega (a long gone long-range system).

  15. Keep in mind that ‘Bendix/King’ is really the remains of King Radio company, who the AlliedSignal empire took over and put it with their Bendix radio lines.

    King Radio was started by Ed King when Collins Radio would not invest in developing for the less-costly-than-airliners market.

    King progressed to be a solid supplier of radios to the airline market, at much lower cost than Collins radios, with very good product support more efficiently than Collins.

    Unfortunately King did not find its way to competing for the B767 market which had a new generation of avionics. PW and I’ll bet AC wanted King.

    Then along came Gary and Min, as you relate, doing what King had done – better products. Congratulations to them!

  16. One other thing that Garmin “did right” is to use industrial design engineers to make their products appealing to the eye. Back in the 1970’s King used an industrial design firm in Wichita. Garmin went one step better and brought industrial design in-house. Garmin has a small talented group of industrial design engineers in Olathe for all their products and it shows.

  17. “BendixKing never seemed to.”

    Short-sighted, unimaginative.
    Well run companies can afford some back-room doodling, Boeing was in the 1970s when sales were slow – leading to the common flight deck on fuselages of different diameter: 757 and 767.

    An extreme case was the ‘just harvest’ mentality at one time in the company that made GPWS into something – United Control/Sundstrand Data Control/AlliedSignal/….

    Fortunately some people in corners were figuring out how to enhance GPWS with map data, hence EGPWS which is standard today.

    • With the blemish in SDC/AS of trying to shut others out of the market, losing in court eventually.

      And there was the big US airline that locked up the first few years of production of the Boeing 247 airliner. Which motivated its competition to take a chance on Donald Douglas, who developed what became the renowned DC-3 that eclipsed the 247.

      Then Douglas got timid, avoiding making a twin out of the DC-10, to compete with the A300. (Douglas made presentations to airlines but did not proceed to develop the twin by removing the center engine and redoing the tail.)

  18. All of the above. Great article about visionaries in avionics. Somehow I feel as part of GARMIN’s history as I had a bunch of their portables and panel mounted boxes. I instructed on the G1000s from their beginnings, however I still consider the 400/500 series as the most efficient units. The GNS430W being my favorite.

    • That’s what is getting me through my instrument training. Not the most user friendly interface, definitely showing it’s age, but once you learn the secret handshakes it works very well.

      The trick is to do the secret handshakes under the hood, getting bounced, and not screwing up control heading and altitude!

  19. Garmin did have teething pains. Our Mooney M20J had one of the first GNS 430s installed and we were some of the first pilots to fly GPS approaches. I remember flying a GPS approach to Waterbury Oxford when course guidance provided by the GNS 430 just stopped. It was supposed to transition to the FAF but no amount of prodding could get the GNS 430 to establish the final approach course. Fortunately we were practicing in VFR conditions. The hypothesis was that the GNS had trouble with three airspaces that were transited during the approach. We submitted a bug to Garmin and a month or so later an upgrade was issued. The field upgrade process is a major advance pioneered by Garmin and contributed to their success. My guess is the other avionics manufactures never dreamed of upgrading in the field. It was “not a thing”. In this era of OTA upgrades, we forget how novel field upgrades were at the time.

  20. Amazingly I bought one of the first Garmin moving maps that showed up in the market in 1994, nothing compared to today’s like my 496. But it got the job done of getting me across the Caribbean and back, also at the time when the US was jamming the GPS signals due to the invasion of Haiti that was taking place at that time. It was a brick, literally, soon after I finished my trip, I sold the unit because one day I went to fly, I pressed the go to button and realized, I need to get back to basics. I did not get another moving map until 2000 when I got my instrument rating and realized the value of a moving map for situational and positional awareness. Great article on Garmin.