When Garmins colorful GNS 430 hit the streets a year ago, even we couldnt find any significant warts to complain about. Evidently the market agrees; the 430 has emerged as the hands-down best-selling single piece of avionics in recent history.
So why fight it? Just call your avionics shop and order a pair of the blasted things and wait out the order backlog. Its the only smart way to go, right?
Hold the phone there, Leroy.
While the GNS 430 is nothing short of a stroke of brilliance, its also far from the only game in town. And as for installing two of them in one wallet-busting stroke of the pen-as some owners are doing-we can see some pluses, but some definite minuses, too.
Before committing to even a single 430 or two of anything new, we think every owner ought to do a comprehensive market survey of all available avionics in the mapcomm and navcomm field. Theres just too much new equipment out there to focus on a single box to the exclusion of all others. And theres more stuff on the horizon.
The New Age Panel
First, four assumptions. We think any avionics upgrade of any kind should at least consider a GPS mapcomm of some sort, if the panel isnt already so equipped. These boxes are highly capable and available in a range of prices. If youre spending the money anyway, why not spend enough of it to make the panel relatively state-of-the-art?
Some buyers are still purchasing new conventional navcomms and trying to nurse their old lorans for another few years, a decision which strikes us as dubious at best, unless made with a plan in mind. While its true that for general area navigation, a new GPS is little better than an old loran, its also true that a new navcomm-at least one based on 20-year-old technology-is far less capable than a GPS mapcomm that may cost about the same or less. (Compare a new Bendix/King KX 155 against an Apollo GX 65, for example.)
Second assumption: Considering the GPS option, DME and ADF have become proverbial protuberances on a wart hog. If you have either or both, they may be worth retaining in the panel, if theyre of recent vintage, since they may have poor resale value. Barring any special circumstances-say, your home field has only an NDB approach or the AWOS stations you need are only available on beacon frequencies-a new ADF makes no sense. The same applies to DME. GPS aces it in every regard.
Third assumption: With current purchases in mind, you can try to plan ahead, anticipating the ebb and flow of the GPS Wide Area Augmentation System (WAAS) and trying to buy boxes that wont be obsolete in a year or two. That said, we wouldnt worry much about upgradeability. Even the first-generation GPS navigators of five years ago-the Garmin 155s, Trimble 2000s and Apollos-are still perfectly functional, although somewhat feature sparse. Quaint though they may be, these navigators will soldier on for the foreseeable future.
Assumption four: Traditionally, any aircraft flown IFR has had two navcomms, by custom not by regulation. We still think having two is a good idea but theres no reason that both have to be conventional navcomms. Its perfectly sensible-and safe-to have one navcomm and one GPS mapcomm. Or two of the latter, as long as you have VOR/ILS capability in the panel.
The question du jour: Which two?
The reason for the GNS 430s success is obvious: Although GPS is still a supplemental navigation system, the 430 is not a supplemental navigator. On its own, its a self-contained map/navcomm that makes any aircraft perfectly legal for IFR. Its the first do-it-all GPS, by dint of its onboard VOR and LOC/GS elements.
But do you need two? Lets consider the pros and cons. First, the bottom line: Plan on spending in the neighborhood of $20,000 for two of these babies, give or take, minus whatever trade-in the shop will allow.Dont be surprised if the invoice totals north of $20,000, allowing for the inevitable unknowns. (Early buyers with 14-volt aircraft are spending a bit more to add a voltage converter, since GNS 430s are still available only in 28-volt versions.)
For that princely sum, youll have a pair of stunning color maps, two VORs, dual glideslope capability and two state-of-the-art VHF comms with 8.33 Khz step capability. Talking and navigating doesnt get any better than this, in our view.
What to do with two map displays? One on a big map scale, one on a smaller scale? One for approach and one for en route? Dual graphic approach capability? In our view, none of those options justify the high price tag of two 430s. The way we see it, only one thing does: External data input.
The GNS 430 is now capable of receiving and displaying lightning data from a remote WX-500 Stormscope and from BFGoodrichs Skywatch traffic system. Datalink for ground-based weather radar and textual weather is just around the corner-or so were told-and Garmin says the 430 will be able to display that as well, although theyre giving no timetable on those improvements.
That means while you navigate and talk on one 430, the second can display lightning or traffic data, while serving as back-up nav. Were not saying this is or will always be the best way to display this data, but its one way and the demos weve seen are adequate to the task, if not exceptional.
If the dual 430 install appeals and you want storm and traffic data right now, pump up the checking account. Pump it way up. Out of the chute, a pair of 430s, the WX-500 and Skywatch system will inflate the bottom line to about $45,000. (Nope, no typo there.) What the hell, throw in a Sandel glass HSI and youre pushing $60,000. We suspect some late-model Bonanza and Malibu drivers might find this palatable but its a tad upscale for your typical Skylane or Arrow.
One solution some owners might consider is Garmins GNS 530, a larger screen version of the 430 due out next year. It will be capable of easily displaying nav and storm/traffic data on the same screen, without the clutter that plagues the 430s small and busy screen. However, at a probable $16,000 installed, the 530 is hardly a bargain box nor is it a solo act. Youll still need another nav or mapcomm for IFR redundancy.
Is there a good Plan B here, a way to get technicolor mapcomm capability into the panel without gutting the kids college fund? Given the large number of choices on the market, we think there are lots of Plan Bs, some of which wont include the GNS 430 at all. The only sensible way to consider them all is to list the available options with prices constantly in mind. (See page 6 for a chart.)
Because aircraft panels vary so widely, the one-size-fits-all solution is elusive. But its possible to make some generalities and suggest some possibilities. The largest unknown in the equation, in our view, is picking a path that yields a panel with staying power, not one that will be feature-poor within a couple of years. (Or months.) Given the pace of new product intros, this may be impossible. Our crystal ball has limited forward range and nearly everyone in the industry has been surprised by how quickly first-generation IFR navigators have been supplanted by more sophisticated equipment.
Consider this: New Cessnas are emerging from the factory with KLN 89Bs, a navigator the retrofit market is increasingly seeing as obsolete.
Two New Ones
Starting at the top, pricewise, is the twin GNS 430 option. Where and when does it make sense to install two? When budget isnt a factor and/or in an expensive airplane-a late model Bonanza, Baron, Mooney or cabin class twin where youd expect to see such capability.
In an airplane worth less than $100,000, were hard-pressed to see the logic of spending a fifth of the airplanes value on an avionics upgrade that could easily be outclassed by newer developments within a year or two.
If you plan to buy all of the remote storm sensing, traffic and datalink options, youll be heading for an investment nearing $50,000, again with no assurances that it will be state-of-the-art for long.
Even without the must-have remote options, the bottom line on two 430s will come to $20,000, at least. If the remote sensor stuff isnt on your horizon-say youve already got a good Stormscope and the Skywatch traffic system is out of reach-why spend that kind of money for two identical maps?
Better, we think, to consider a single 430-or another navigator altogether, along with a conventional navcomm of some sort in the number 2 slot. And dont rule out Avidynes new FlightMax multi-function displays, Apollos MX20 large screen MFD or Bendix/Kings KMD 150, all of which promise more flexibility and a larger if not always sharper display than the 430 has.
To a degree, Garmin will blunt the challenge from Apollo and Avidyne with the 530, but the larger displays will still have an edge in flexibility, in our view.
One Old, One New
If theres such a thing as typical panel out there, it probably has a pair of digital navcomms-KX 155s, in all likelihood-or one newer digital and an KX 170B or a Narco Mark 12. If theres any area navigation at all, its a non-IFR loran or GPS or perhaps a first-generation TSO C129 IFR GPS navigator.
In our view, the owner with the dual digitals has a logical and not-too-expensive upgrade option: Dump one KX 155 in favor of a single GNS 430, which assumes top-of-the-stack primary navcomm status and gives the airplane dual glideslope capability, always a desirable option. Allowing for a $2000 trade-in for the KX 155, the invoice will come to about $8000, a good upgrade value, in our opinion.
An owner with a single KX 155 or perhaps serviceable Collins Microline or Cessna digitals wont do as well on trade-in, of course. If youve got one KX 155 and one KX 170B, dont expect more than $500 to $800 trade-in for the 170 and budget $10,000 for the upgrade. Not a steal, but not bad, either.
What to do with DME and ADF? For trade-in purposes, this is an increasingly difficult question to answer. As we noted in the October issue, used DME and ADF still have decent trade-in value but salability-especially for ADF-is getting spotty and seems to vary with the phase of the moon.
Neither is needed for legal IFR but despite that and as illogical as it seems, both still have trade-in value.
The practicality of either is becoming limited. Youll have to measure any convenience of having DME/ADF against both panel space and the prospect of pocketing a couple of thousand bucks by trading them in while they still have value.
Either way, the potential is perishable. A year from now, the market may very well be awash with used DME that no one wants.
One Old, Another New
Considering the ongoing upheaval in the avionics market, any owner can be forgiven for just wishing it would all go away or that some company would simply introduce the end-all, be-all box. The GNS 430 comes close to that paradigm, which is why its selling so well. But its still not what we would call the drop-dead easy solution for every panel, chiefly due to high installed cost.
One advantage of ruling out the GNS 430 entirely is this: Theres more competition and more choices in the mid-range boxes and the prices are low enough to make an interim wait-to-see-what-happens buying strategy practical if not attractive. On the downside, you wont get a color moving map out of the deal but you can buy 80 percent of the capability for a little more than half the money.
What do we consider a mid-range choice? Say youve got a 1975 Cessna 182 or the like with a decent digital navcomm such as a KX 155, a clunker second navcomm and old DME/ADF. If you want GPS approaches and a second comm without spending a fortune, Apollos GX60 or Garmins GNC 300XL are the two best values out there, in our view. The Apollo aces the Garmin in the price/value test, due to its lower installed cost.
Compared to the GNS 430, neither has what we would consider a knock-out moving map, but both are serviceable, relatively easy to use and, above all, economical to install. GX60 installs average about $6000 while the GNC 300XL installs for about $7500. Essentially, besides losing the 430s color map, youre giving up external sensor display capability and the combined VOR/LOC/GS. A single conventional navcomm covers the former; if youre not considering remote sensors, the latter is irrelevant.
In the overall scheme of things, both the GX60 and GNC300XL are inexpensive enough to serve as functional placeholders until the ultimate do-all boxes come along, if the 430 turns out not to be it. In our view, a KX 155 combined with a GX60 or GNC 300XL is a well-priced, capable five-year solution that allows any owners to upgrade on a budget while waiting out future developments, including the ever elusive WAAS.
IFR on the Cheap
In some ways, the proliferation of IFR GPS solutions has most benefitted the low end of the market, the Warrior and Skyhawk owners who want minimal IFR capability without spending much and who dont care if they have a moving map or not.
We recently heard from a Connecticut reader, the owner of an early 1970s Warrior with the ubiquitous KX 155/170B combination, but no DME or ADF. The airplane is legal IFR but the owner wants to upgrade to IFR GPS. In our view, Apollo had this market in mind when it developed the GX55, an enroute and terminal navigator but with no approach capability. In the Warrior owners example, the GX55 will legally substitute for DME and ADF (except on NDB-only approaches) for an installed price of about $4000. (The GX55 is a pin-for-pin, plug-and-play for IIMorrow Flybuddy loran or GPS panel mounts.)
For minimal IFR-the occasional forays through low-hanging decks, not grit-your-teeth-200-and-a-half ops-a single comm is acceptable and we think a single VOR definitely is, if backed up by IFR GPS. The owner could thus remove his old KX 170B or leave it in the panel as a second fiddle or, for another $2000, opt for the GX60, which would provide a second digital comm, plus GPS approach capability.
With so many new product introductions-and more in the wings from Garmin, Bendix/King and Apollo/UPSAT-predicting price trends is a shot in the dark at best.
As weve noted, the prices on first-generation TSO C129 navigators have dropped precipitously, but so has the value. Most are being remaindered or discontinued, soon to be replaced by later, more capable gear, some of it combining GPS with VHF comm.
Since its formal introduction a year ago, weve seen very little price give in the Garmin GNS 430. In fact, in a somewhat unusual move, it was introduced at a lower introductory price, which then escalated. (The intro price a year ago was $8595 retail. Current retail is $9250.) Given the demand, we would be surprised to see any substantial price reductions during the coming year.
Garmin is planning next year to introduce the GNS 420-a GPS color mapcomm but without the VOR/ILS capability and also the GNS 400, which is a color GPS navigator without the comm capability.
Were not sure if these represent good values or not and we wont know until we see what else is on the market when they become available. In the wings from Apollo/UPSAT is the SL30, a conventional standalone navcomm that includes such high-end features as a monitoring function, frequency storage, stuck mic timeout and a built-in VOX intercom. At $3995, the SL30 will give Bendix/Kings venerable KX 155 serious competition.
The KX 155A, part of the new Silver Crown Plus package from Bendix/King, has thus far been dedicated solely to new Cessna production. Further, its a 28-volt design and has only some of the advanced features of navcomms offered by Garmin and Apollo, specifically autotuning from the GPSs frequency database.
Given Garmins success and Bendix/Kings fading if well-established dominance, there are several other navcomm choices but none come with overwhelming recommendations from us.
Michel Avionics (TKM) offers pin-for-pin, digital flip-flop replacements for the KX 170B or Cessna 300 series. Weve tested this radio and find its operating scheme-especially frequency selection-a bit quirky and shops have complained about quality control issue.
But these products perform well and have found many customers. Youll have to come up with your own external glideslope receivers, however, since these radios-like the KX 170B they replace-dont have integrated GS, although they will channel GS and DME frequencies.
But the only reason to opt for this navcomm over a new KX 155 or Apollo SL30 is price. In some cases-you may want a quick replacement at a budget price and no installation hassle-that may be reason enough to opt for the TKM. But make sure the shop goes over all the ramifications concerning glideslope and DME channelling.
Although it used to be a major player, Narco Avionics has faded into the fringe, at least in part due to its customer unfriendly service policies. However, even though it continues to pursue factory-only service, the company now pledges rapid turn around on repairs and, frankly, the trickle of complaints we used to receive about Narco seem to have dried up. But, perhaps, so have their sales. Shops we talk to still seem to reluctant to recommend Narco, given the range of other choices.
Narcos state-of-the-art navcomm is the Mark 12D+, which features digital flip-flops and 10-channel frequency storage, making it somewhat more capable than Bendix/Kings KX 155, except for the lack of integrate glideslope. Narco also makes a line of direct replacement radios for its own earlier Mark 12 series, plus the Cessna 300 series. Both of these use existing indicators, which may reduce the install costs.
Last, Northstar still sells the C1 SmartComm, a 760-channel transceiver made by Becker that ties into its M3 and GPS 60 GPS navigators. Long before Garmin and Apollo introduced position-sensitive comm tuning, the SmartComm had that feature as an option for Northstar owners.
However capable-and we think it is-this combination hasnt proven to be a hot seller, probably because the sales trend is so strongly in favor of self-contained mapcomms and, by comparison, the Northstar M3 seems dated and of appeal primarily to Northstar loyalists.
At $2000 installed, the C1 isnt a bad value if youre determined to keep an M3 in the panel. Otherwise, we see no reason to seek it out.
Not to cop out here, but we find it as difficult to make one-size-fits-all recommendations as owners do in sorting through the growing choices in the navcomm and mapcomm field.
To arrive at a smart buying decision, first decide if your short-term plans include external sensors such as the WX-500 Stromscope, traffic information from BFGoodrichs Skywatch or Ryans new TCAD and/or ground datalink weather.
If the answer is no or a lukewarm maybe and you dont have a hefty upgrade budget, you can rule out two Garmin GNS 430s and/or any of the big multi-function displays such as the Avidyne or Apollo MX20. You wont be missing much, frankly.
In that context, a single Garmin GNS 430 paired with another digital navcomm will give you heaps of capability with only two boxes in the panel and money in the bank to consider another upgrade later. When WAAS stumbles into existence, the 430 will probably play that game, although at this juncture were not sure exactly how.
For the time being-unless you honestly operate into outlying airports under IFR-the 430s GPS approach capability is not rich pay dirt. It or any IFR GPSs strongest suite is the ability to provide legal area navigation and to substitute for DME and ADF. Eventually, the 430 may do precision WAAS approaches but it doesnt yet.
With those caveats in mind, our top choice for two navcomms is one GNS 430 paired with a KX 155, if you already have one in the panel. If not, we think Apollos soon-to-be-released SL30 navcomm represents a better value than a new KX 155, since it has more features. In fairness, however, thats a conditional recommendation until we actually test one this winter. (At press time, Apollo told us the SL30 should be available by the end of the year.)
For an on-the-cheap-wait-and-see upgrade in a panel that has one (or even two) working digital navcomms, we like Apollos GX55 navigator. For a mere $3000, it offers legal IFR area navigation and can stand in lieu of DME and ADF. The truth is, you could slap one of these into a Cessna 150 with an old Cessna 300 navcomm and have nearly as much IFR capability as new airplanes coming out of Independence. On the other hand, adding up the install costs, a full A1 box may be worth the additional investment.
If you have a few bucks more and want the approaches, then a digital navcomm paired with either the GX60 ($4995) or Garmin GNC 300XL ($4795) are nearly equal in our view and installs cheaper because it doesnt need a resolver-type indicator.
by Larry Anglisano and Paul Bertorelli
Larry Anglisano is a test pilot and avionics consultant at Exxel Avionics in Hartford, Connecticut.