VirtualHUD Wingman: A VFR-Only EFIS?

An inexpensive portable horizon display with Garmin GPS connectivity, the Wingman has a great display and smart features but lacks magnetic heading data.

Portable gadget freaks will love the idea of a handheld and battery-operated attitude display that you can plop on top of the glareshield. We hate portables for the cockpit and even we were intrigued by the $1495 Wingman EFIS.

HUDs Little Bro

Former NASA engineer William Steele founded VirtualHUD in 2006 around his ForwardVU Virtual heads-up display (HUD). The ForwardVU projects heads-up flight data on the backside of the spinning propeller while eliminating the pricey optical gear required of high-end HUD systems. The Wingman was later engineered as a stand-alone EFIS to compliment the HUD system.

Steele realized there could be a market for an inexpensive portable EFIS system. He was right. By description and price alone, interest in the product has been brisk.

Still, we wonder just what purpose the Wingman can serve since the company aggressively warns that the unit is an informational aide only. Under no circumstances should it be used for IFR flight. They then counter that by saying the unit is intended as a backup attitude indicator.

On the other hand, weve heard that death and destruction lawyer-talk with other portable products. We read the subtext between the lines as saying, “If you auger while using the Wingman for real attitude awareness, we told you so.”

All-in-One Package

The system is GPS based and displays standard EFIS attitude symbology (no speed or altitude tapes). All of the electronics, including the internal attitude sensors, GPS engine and antenna, are contained within the units thin casing. It actually resembles Garmins aera portable GPS. The back chassis offers only a serial connector and power switch.

On the front is a crisp and bright, 4.3-inch, color touch-screen display that we found awkward to manipulate. Adjusting the screen brightness is accomplished by activating and dragging an onscreen brightness bar. It was either too sensitive or not sensitive enough for our sweaty fingers in a bouncing, hot Florida cockpit. The screen is glove friendly for pilots who favor flying with their hands in Nomex.

The horizon display is well-defined with the familiar blue on brown graphics. But heres where it differs from a traditional attitude gyro. Roll and pitch indicators show you the relative roll and pitch angle of the Wingman chassis itself and not that of the aircraft. Each “tick” mark on the roll and pitch indicates 10 degrees. Tapping the center of the horizon display mimics gyro caging or display centering. You can also adjust the pitch-level reference as you would with a mechanical gyro.

When the unit is connected to an external GPS via the power/data RS232 port on the rear of the chassis, the Wingmans data fields switch over to the data being

submitted from the external GPS. Further, external GPS connectivity projects active flight path information via basic HITS (highway in the sky) path markers leading to the programmed waypoint. Fancy that.

When operating stand-alone, and once the unit acquires a GPS fix, it will display five data fields including the number of GPS satellites its tracking, Zulu time, GPS altitude, GPS speed and GPS track. Note that this isn’t magnetic heading. VirtualHUD says there would be too much inherent interference to build in a magnetometer.

Upset Recovery

One function we liked was the upset recovery mode, which makes the unit a tool for aerobatic fun. There’s no mistaking when the unit senses itself in an unusual attitude. The display goes full intensity and bright red when you exceed 45 degrees of roll, or +30 or -25 degrees in pitch.

When pitch upset recovery mode is triggered, four black chevrons indicate which direction you should be pushing for recovery. If they are pointing up, haul back. If they are pointing down, push down. The pitch and roll indicators point to the current attitude. Roll upset recovery mode is similar. The drill is to roll the aircraft so that the chevrons point to the top of the display.

Once the upset has been corrected, the display automatically reverts to its previously dimmed setting.

The Wingman was designed to be portable, but it can be mounted on the surface of the instrument panel using a supplied adapter plate. But don’t plan on mounting to the control yoke as you would a portable GPS, because mounting it on a moving surface will give the attitude sensors bogus indications.

Since the units slide power switch is on the back of the unit, an external power switch can be used to turn the unit on and off without the need of accessing the back of the unit. This is smart thinking since surface mounting will be the only option in some aircraft. We saddled a unit up using the supplied suction cup

windshield mount; it held nicely in place and offered excellent visibility thanks to that bright display.

The unit has an internal rechargeable battery, which is good for roughly two hours. We played with one unit longer than that on internal battery and it kept working. Youll want to plug it into the electrical system using the DB9 connector that terminates in an accessory plug. The unit is also supplied with a standard USB connector and can be powered by a standard USB device, including a computer, cell phone charger and solar panel charging systems.

Conclusion

Were not entirely impressed with the performance of the demo units we trialed, or the responsiveness of the company in planning for this review. We had trouble with the GPS receiver lock-on in our test aircraft. We also witnessed a new owner having trouble connecting the unit to his Garmin GPS. To be fair, one of the units we tested had beta software, but a unit with later software was never delivered for testing.

If VirtualHD plans to make a go of the product, theyll need to get the service effort down. The unit is sold exclusively through Sarasota Avionics and Gulf Coast /Pacific Coast Avionics. These are firms with a proven track record for solid customer service.

We think the Wingman EFIS could grow legs and expand into something more useful for real-world ops. An offering that provides magnetic heading would solve a dilemma for many applications. Best case is the product matures to the point where it wins PMA and TSO approval, where it can actually be reliably useful when you need it the most: in the clouds. Worse case, it remains a smartly designed and portable gadget with lots of gee-whiz appeal for VFR operations.

Editor in Chief Larry Anglisano has been a staple at Aviation Consumer since 1995. An active land, sea and glider pilot, Larry has over 30 years’ experience as an avionics repairman and flight test pilot. He’s the editorial director overseeing sister publications Aviation Safety magazine, IFR magazine and is a regular contributor to KITPLANES magazine with his Avionics Bootcamp column.