It’s not often that a product is introduced that could potentially increase the chances of a successful landing – one that you can walk away from – in the case of an in-flight emergency. Recently, I had a chance to check out a product that fits that description called the VP 400 from a company called Vertical Power. The VP 400 was installed in an RV-7 owned by Vertical Power’s president and co-founder Marc Ausman.
On a very hot day, we took off from Van Nuys Airport and flew west toward the cooler coastal area. As we were climbing out over the San Fernando Valley, the moving map part at the bottom of the display showed a darkened image with a lighter circle around our location. This indicated that there was no airport within gliding distance.
We climbed up to 6,500 feet and once we started getting closer to Camarillo, a red and white barbed line appeared with a circle around our airplane, connecting us to the Camarillo Airport. We were getting closer to gliding range. When we got close enough, the barbed line turned white and the airport icon turned into a green circle. Surrounding airports that are not in glide distance turn red and borderline ones yellow. We pulled the power to idle and pushed a button on the display called “runway seeker.” Immediately, the autopilot took control of the RV-7, making adjustments in pitch and bank, often even adding flaps.
While I’ve had a lot of experience flying with autopilots, it was a little strange seeing those flaps moving up and down. And the short wings make the RV-7 a poor glider, making our descent into Camarillo quite steep. At times there were some significant changes in pitch, but the VP 400 did a stellar job of safely guiding us to the airport. I watched the EFIS display on the upper portion of the VP 400 where, once the runway seeker button was engaged, white highway-in-the-sky (HITS) boxes appeared. Initially, the system followed the boxes somewhat crooked, likely because of crosswinds at altitude. As we got lower, the path of flight became more and more aligned with the boxes.
Once on short final, a green box appeared on the EFIS at the runway threshold – the last box in the HITS path. While the VP 400 will not autoland the airplane, Ausman said the system will continue to slow the airplane down if the pilot is incapacitated. So while the airplane will most likely suffer some damage, it is conceivable that the journey would end without the pilot getting killed. Understandably, we didn’t want to test this capability, so we disengaged the system and began a climb toward Santa Paula.
Santa Paula sits in a fairly narrow valley, challenging the VP 400’s capabilities. While we had to stay too high for a straight-in approach the system calculated a circular path, showed on the moving map portion of the display, which would also bring us to the runway threshold. This is one clever system.
Ausman said the company expects to start delivering the VP 400 toward the end of the year. It will initially only be available for the experimental market, but Ausman hopes to also bring the system to certified airplanes. It may be a tough uphill battle to get it through FAA certification, but I believe this product has the potential to save some lives, not only in situations such as engine failures, but also for pilots who inadvertently find themselves in IMC conditions or if another in-flight emergency arises, such as a medical emergency. The VP 400 will safely bring the airplane to an airport while the pilot can attempt to correct any systems issues, wait to get out of the clouds or help a sick passenger.
You can see for yourself how the VP 400 works in his video, which features a demo flight and an in-depth narrative by Ausman.