Leading Edge: Magenta

Magenta never looked this good. Courtesy Ben Younger

In late October, Garmin introduced an emergency autoland system that will fly an airplane to a suitable airport taking into consideration enroute weather and obstacle clearance, extend gear and flaps on final, control throttle position to a safe landing and even an engine shutdown; all the while communicating with ATC, and I imagine at least one not-very-calm passenger who has pushed the red button. The debate over magenta lines and we children who follow them is a moot one. Whether or not you rely on automation, it is happening. VORs are quickly disappearing. GPS is decidedly the future-proof standard bearer for navigation. Magenta is our present and future. The debate must move from discussing “if” to “how?” How do we remain proficient in this era of automation? How best to use these new tools?

The argument (read: fear) is that more avionics capability allows the errant pilot more room to maneuver into dangerous territory—as opposed to reinforcing current personal minimums. The technology improves, and we push our luck. Or do we? In the latest Air Safety Institute Nall Report (with analysis of 2016 data), weather-related accidents were down 65 percent. I’m just going to say it: The magenta line is our friend.

Flying home from Greeley, Colorado, in my ground-up restored 1972 Bonanza, I leaned heavily on the brand-new Garmin panel in my airplane. This was my first flight in six months, and I was more than a little rusty. Aside from the GTN 750 navigator, the avionics were completely new to me: PFD/MFD, autopilot, radios. Didn’t seem to matter much. The genius of the Garmin units is they match to your ability level. I just needed the basics heading home from Greeley, because I was not instrument current and had no plan on flying in anything but VFR. I used the GFC 500 autopilot in nav mode, and it took me straight across the country while alerting me to traffic, weather and airspace. I was also breaking in a new motor, so I needed to focus heavily on the engine instruments. The Garmin 700 EIS illustrated everything clearly. Though the avionics are capable of far more than I was asking, those potential abilities are hidden. It’s not distracting to fly behind the Garmin panel. You’re not lost in a sea of buttons. It’s all just waiting behind the scenes for when you need more capability. This is more impressive than perhaps it sounds. This is the way technology should work for us—transparently.

As I approached Eppley Airfield in Omaha, Nebraska, I dived a bit deeper into the Garmin’s capabilities. I asked ATC if I could fly in the Class C airspace for the 30 minutes required to qualify for the ADS-B rebate. They approved the request, telling me to stay north and west of the airport. I created a custom hold using the GTN 750, inputting the length of the legs and the area in which to fly. The autopilot took the navigator’s commands and flew a perfect racetrack course over and over until I secured my $500.

I was heading toward the smaller Burke Lakefront Airport on the coast of Lake Erie; I made it as far as Cleveland that first day. Burke is only 10 miles from Cleveland International and sits smack under the Class B shelf. About 15 miles out, the push-to-talk switch stuck open, making communication impossible. I was heading toward very busy airspace in the dark and could not talk to ATC. My heart rate went up a little, but I was prepared. I grabbed for my handheld radio. Batteries worked, but—in my never-ending quest for declutter—I had tossed the adapter that would have allowed me to connect my headset to the handheld. I had to remove my beautiful new Bose noise-canceling A20s, squawk 7600 for lost comms, and begin screaming into the handheld with the volume turned all the way up.


Always use flight following. Always. Because I was getting VFR advisories, ATC knew where I was going and what I was doing. I found out later they could hear me perfectly fine over the handheld. I just couldn’t hear them. Over the noise of the engine and wind, I couldn’t make out anything beyond a few broken phrases and words. Importantly, I heard, “Cleared into the Bravo”—my permission to fly into Class B, with ATC watching over me. Next, I made out the words “light gun” from an otherwise incomprehensible sentence. From my private pilot studies, I remembered what red meant, but I drew a complete blank at solid green versus flashing green.

I descended into the Class B with the water on my left and the Cleveland skyline just off to my right. It was beautiful. I was about 2,500 ft agl over the field when I saw a solid-green light from the tower. With permission to land, I just needed to turn downwind and make one lap of the traffic pattern then descend to the runway.

Turning left out over the black water, I lost the horizon. Instantly. No boats, no stars, nothing. I felt a slight sense of vertigo and diverted my eyes to the panel. With the press of a single button, I converted the 10.6-inch screen of my Garmin TXi from a PFD/MFD combo into one large artificial horizon. I got my bearings back and entered a standard-rate turn until the city lights, and the accompanying horizon we live by, came back into view.

VFR isn’t always VFR. A conventional gyro would have given me the same information as the 500 TXi. But the brightness and resolution of the TXi’s screen—and most important, its size—allowed me to transition to instruments quickly.

I landed and shut down the motor and avionics master. I sat in the quiet for a moment. I was surprised at how tense I had felt through the experience. Not being able to talk to the tower was stressful. Accidents can occur from something as simple as a door opening in flight. This experience hammered home the age-old adage: Fly. The. Plane.

Read More from Ben Younger: Leading Edge

That night, the advanced avionics helped me. Not the automation—I was hand-flying—but the screen’s size, clarity and presentation allowed me to acquire a high level of situational awareness in a fraction of a second. The magenta line itself is only half the story. Much benefit can be found from these systems even when hand-flying. Other features my Garmin panel has, such as push-to-command, allow the user to tune into the destination ATIS or even the closest airport tower or controller using only your voice. Any technology that allows your hands to remain on the yoke and not press buttons is valuable. This is not automation that’s going to get you into trouble. Only out of it.

My friend Doug told me to fly into Burke because you can walk to downtown from the airport. He also said there are tons of hotels. While that may be true, when I arrived, not a single one of them had a vacancy because of preseason Browns football and some induction ceremony at the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.

A lineman from the Signature FBO, Michael Cunningham, got on the phone for a good 15 minutes calling every hotel in the area until he found me a room in Kent State. Yes, it was a 41-mile drive, but it was better than sleeping on the floor in the pilot’s lounge, and he loaned me a new crew car for the 80-mile round trip. There’s been some bad press as of late about the “chain FBOs.” Michael’s hospitality goes to show that the only user interface that matters when dealing with a faceless corporation is the person you’re standing in front of.

Exhausted, I followed another magenta line to my hotel in Kent State. I ended up at a gyro takeout joint at 2:30 a.m., listening to a band called the Full Flavor wrap up their set with a Woodstock-worthy performance for the 20 people left in the place. Every unplanned stop in GA can bring you somewhere you would have never otherwise seen. Follow the magenta line but be willing to hop off it when something catches your eye. It’s a big country.

Ben Younger belongs to the Garmin Ambassador program; this disclosure has not been included in his previous columns.

This story appeared in the Jan/Feb 2020 issue of Flying Magazine

Ben Younger is a TV and film writer/director, avid motorcyclist and surfer—but it’s being a pilot that he treats as a second profession. Find him on Instagram @thisisbenyounger.

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Subscribe to Our Newsletter

Get the latest FLYING stories delivered directly to your inbox

Subscribe to our newsletter