It's not very often that an aviation company comes up with an idea that simply hasn't been tried before -- after all, not much in aviation is really new -- but Aspen Avionics thinks that it has hit upon that elusive next big thing. In this case, however, the next big thing happens to be quite small.
Founded by Peter Lyons and Jeff Bethel just a few years ago, Aspen was envisioned as a company that would use new technology to create capable and value-rich avionics for the retrofit market. The first product it certified was an ingenious TAWS display that included an integral vertical speed instrument, allowing operators an easy and affordable way to plug a dedicated terrain display right into the VSI spot in the panel.
But the idea that has captured the attention of pilots is the Evolution display, a self-contained LCD primary flight display with built-in AHRS and air data, and offered at a price that would make even Skyhawk owners take notice. And to make the business plan work, Aspen needed to have the system certified to be installed not only in Skyhawks, but in hundreds of other models.
If the goal was to accomplish just those things, Aspen has already succeeded: It earned FAA approval for the EFD1000 primary flight display last year, and it recently won European approval for it, as well. In earning certification for its little PFD, Aspen has indeed achieved what many in the industry thought was, maybe not impossible, but certainly improbable.
But success in this business is defined not by what the government says is flight-worthy but by what airplane owners, voting with their wallets, choose to put in their panels.
So even if, in theory, the Aspen PFD is a compelling product, is it one that pilots would want to put in the panels of their existing airplanes? Is it one that I would put in the panel of my airplane?
What You Get
When I first heard some preliminary details about Aspen's plans for its as-yet-to-be named primary flight display, I was intrigued. And I naturally assumed that the product would be a bare bones display that would be wired to remote sensors. I was wrong on both counts.
Despite its small format, the EFD1000 offers a wealth of information. It is essentially a six-pack condensed down to fit in the space formerly occupied by just two instruments. It gives you a full-featured horizontal situation instrument (with dual pointers and map data), a digital attitude indicator with flight director capability, altimeter, airspeed indicator, vertical speed, and turn and bank.
Not everything goes in the unit. There are a couple of remote devices. The remote sensor module (RSM) mounts like a GPS antenna on the top of the airplane. It houses a backup GPS receiver and antenna, a flux sensor and accelerometers for position information, as well as an outside air temp probe. The RSM allows the PFD to maintain basic functionality in an emergency when the primary nav sources are lost. The PFD itself has a built-in backup battery that will operate the unit for a minimum of 30 minutes.
There are two other small external devices: an optional analog converter unit (ACU), which is needed in order to convert analog nav signals, such as output by a number of still-common nav radios, into digital signals to pass along to the PFD; as well as a small configuration attached to the wiring bundle that remembers the airplane's configuration information.
The entire package including the displays weighs less than 10 pounds. On most installations, the weight difference will be a wash or a slight improvement.
Flying Aspen Glass
One of the concerns that many pilots have when looking at a photograph of the EFD1000 is the apparent small size of the instrument system. And it's a question I shared. I was curious about whether the unit would be big enough to see clearly and whether its smaller size would lessen some of the important benefits of having glass in the first place.
I met Aspen's Scott Smith up in Tulsa, Oklahoma (KRVS), to try out the system as installed in the 2003 Cirrus SR22 that Scott flies on a regular basis. To get up to Tulsa I flew up from Austin in my PlaneSmart shared ownership Cirrus G3 Turbo SR22, equipped with the Avidyne Entegra flat-panel avionics system. The Entegra system, which features a pair of 10.4-inch diagonal displays and lots of additional capability, presented an opportunity for a little comparing and contrasting with the Aspen glass.
Scott's SR22 was originally equipped with the Sandel electronic HSI and an electromechanical attitude indicator. The Aspen EFD1000 Pro takes the place of the Sandel -- which, like any HSI, has some resale value, which will help cut the cost of the Aspen installation. The attitude instrument was moved to the spot the VSI formerly occupied (just below the altimeter), and the Aspen unit takes the two center spots.