New autopilot is a retrofit game-changer.
Bottom line: I really like the GFC 600 autopilot! My impression is that the GFC 600 will be the industry-standard retrofit solution for the Twin & Turbine fleet in record time. It is smooth, precise, interfaces easily with the pilot, and has a bunch of neat features that dramatically improve safety. I may sound like a salesman from Garmin with this article (not accurate…I received nothing from them!), but I think this autopilot deserves the praise I’m about to pour on it. Yes, it’s that good.
Although Garmin has yet to start an STC program for some Twin & Turbine airplanes, they have acknowledged there is demand and have placed many T & T aircraft on the list of airframes they plan to focus on in the next 12 months. So far, they have certified the GFC 600/500 on the Beechcraft Baron B55, Bonanza 36, A36 and A36TC, and Cessna 182. Programs currently in progress are the Baron 58 and Cessna 340. And on the agenda are several of the Cessna 400-series twins, the Socata TBM, and the PA46 Malibu/Mirage/JetPROP aircraft.
Editor Dianne White and I were both then invited to fly one of the first airplanes to have the GFC 600 installed: N452C, a 1999 Bonanza A36 owned by Tom Haas. Tom also owns Park Rapids Avionics in Park Rapids, MN (www.parkrapidsavionics.com), a prominent Garmin dealership that was selected to help launch the GFC 600. Some may remember seeing N452C at AirVenture Oshkosh last summer. It was on static display and Tom is justifiably proud of his fine aircraft. It is not only equipped with the GFC 600, but also dual G750’s that feed a G500 display. The panel was completely new (literally built for this amazing avionics suite), and this airplane is exemplary in every way.
I arrived on a cold early-spring morning with clear skies and light winds. It was a perfect day to test out the GFC 600. Tom graciously allowed me to fly left-seat on the flight. We flew around the Park Rapids, MN area testing the functions of the autopilot in just about every regime of flight, and also flew several approaches. Interestingly (it seems so to me), I pushed the autopilot on shortly after takeoff and I didn’t have to touch the controls again (even through several approaches with go-arounds) until 200 feet above the touchdown zone elevation on the final approach to landing.
Some features of the GFC 600 that I came to appreciate as it relates to the Twin & Turbine market:
Ease of Operation
For any pilot that currently operates Garmin equipment, the GFC 600 will be super-intuitive. Any pilot current with the G1000 (which has the GFC700 autopilot) will find the GFC 600 nearly identical operationally (although the buttons are in different places). For any pilot flying other equipment, the GFC 600 will have an incredibly short learning curve.
Go Around Button
This is probably my favorite safety feature on the GFC 600. Safety feature? Yes, I think it is a safety feature! In recurrent training, I see the Go Around fumbled by many pilots, and the GFC 600 makes the Go Around easy.
Simply push the Go Around Button on the throttle/power-lever and the autopilot switches both pitch and roll modes by pitching smoothly up and establishing wings level. The pilot then advances the throttle/power-lever and cleans up the airplane. The autopilot never disengages throughout the maneuver. I was amazed at the simplicity of a Go Around with the GFC 600.
Integration with the G500
I’ve found that making autopilot mode changes on the G500 is less-than-intuitive. Most are “left-handed” operations (which conflicts with the left hand flying the airplane), the buttons are either “pressed once” or “held” (and many pilots choose the wrong action), and the G500 displays the difference between HDG and GPSS Modes poorly (all of this will make sense if you operate a G500).
With the GFC 600, all of that changes. To change pitch or roll modes, the pilot pushes buttons that are clearly marked on the face of the GFC 600, not the G500. But the G500 interfaces with the GFC 600 and all is very seamless.
The left side of the GFC 600 displays the “roll mode” and the right side displays the “pitch mode.” Being easy to read, I sifted through the various modes quickly, not once being confused.
The GFC 600 easily fits in your hand and is super-light. It will take up very little panel real estate and might add useful load.
I think the IAS Mode is the best mode for a safe climb. It virtually eliminates the potential for a pilot to stall the airplane in a climb. In many of the other autopilots in the Twin & Turbine fleet, the only mode for climb is V/S or pitch-attitude mode. But, the pilot then must control that vertical speed or pitch attitude accurately or the autopilot could pitch the airplane to an excessive angle of attack and potentially stall the airplane. While in IAS Mode, if the pilot mismanages the power the rate of climb suffers, but the airplane never approaches the stall. Many of the T &T aircraft in the current fleet, especially older airframes, have autopilots that do not have IAS mode. To me, this feature makes the GFC 600 upgrade worth the upgrade if you are flying an autopilot that only has V/S or pitch-attitude mode for the climb.
As the aircraft slows to the bottom of the white arc on the airspeed indicator, the GFC 600 will release some back pressure on the yoke and allow the airplane to “mush” at a slow speed, but not stall. I tested this feature and found it to be a possible life-saver in case a pilot became completely distracted. For now, it’s the nearest thing available in the market that could be described as “stall protection.”
Garmin is appropriately careful to call it “under-speed protection” as opposed to “stall protection.” but I can see some situations where this feature could be a true life-saver by avoiding the stall. In many other autopilots in the Twin & Turbine fleet, there is no “under-speed protection.” A few will automatically disengage the autopilot if the stall horn sounds; on the others there is no disengagement at all. In these autopilots it will hold back pressure in the stall, which almost assuredly results in a deadly spin. In my opinion, this feature is the primary “safety feature” of the GFC 600, and probably makes the GFC 600 worth considering for upgrade even if only for this feature.
While hand-flying, I performed Steep Power Turns (the FAA maneuver required on most practical tests) at 45 degrees of bank. As the steep bank is sensed (even if the autopilot is OFF), the roll actuator applies pressure or “nudges” the controls back to a more level attitude. It’s not over-bearing, and the force can be overridden. But, it is a nice feature that could help a pilot avoid an unusual attitude. For those who have driven late-model cars with “lane protection,” it’s similar.
The Blue Button
This feature works well. In just about any regime of flight, the blue “level” button can be pushed, and the autopilot automatically engages and rolls the airplane to wings-level and pitches to hold altitude.
To be completely forthright, I’m lukewarm about this feature because I think it gives a pilot the illusion that the autopilot can “save the day” in any situation, and that is simply not accurate. If the airplane truly does enter into a “loss of control” situation, the pilot needs to fly the airplane, not trust the Blue Button to save the airplane. But, there are situations where the Blue Button could help (such as a non-pilot passenger taking command of the airplane with an unresponsive pilot), and I’m glad to have it available.
At press time, Garmin has yet to announce exact dates to start the certification program for the list of targeted aircraft, although several are planned to begin it in the next 12 months. When it becomes available, should you consider upgrading? Answer: Yes! For any airplane without IAS Mode or any airplane that only has pitch-attitude mode for climb, the GFC 600 upgrade will be a no-brainer. Aside from all of the safety features (which are each in itself a good reason to upgrade), the GFC 600 is quite simply a far superior autopilot. In fact, I think the GFC 600 will resurrect some aircraft that have lagged in the marketplace due to older avionics and allow them to trade at levels that will be much more representative of their true value.
For the pilot of an aircraft that already has a recent “Garmin panel,” I also think an upgrade is worthy of consideration. If that “Garmin panel” has the latest and greatest GTN’s (G750/G650) and a great display (G500/G500TXI), the GFC 600 upgrade will “complete” the panel to a best-of-breed variant that makes real sense. If your panel is a “Garmin panel,” but has older Garmin equipment (G530/G430) and a vacuum-driven attitude indicator, the decision will be much harder to make. I’d probably only upgrade to a GFC 600 if the rest of the panel were to also receive an upgrade, which will increase the scope of work (and cost).
Already available in a few Twin & Turbine aircraft, I suspect the GFC 600 will be available in many more in the next year. When it does, I’ll be one of the first to get in line. It’s going to be a game-changer!