Touch to navigate… see ADS-B traffic, monitor CHTs for optimal mixture leaning, set the autopilot or call up many other features. Putting Garmin’s retrofit-friendly G3X Touch and associated avionics through their paces elicits a severe case of ‘panel envy’ | Words: Colin Goodwin – Photos: Philip Whiteman

Another duff rivet, another failure to measure thrice and cut once. Building your own aeroplane is fraught with mistakes and challenges to one’s self confidence. I’ve said to many people that building my RV-7 was 65 per cent technical skill and 35 per cent psychological.

That might even be underselling the mind-over-matter part of the job. To get over the frustration of a day of making mistakes, I often used to put the tools away, pour myself a pint of London Pride and sit down with my copy of Chasing The Morning Sun, the enthralling account by Manuel Queiroz of him kicking cancer into touch, rebuilding an RV-6, and then flying that aircraft around the world in 39 days.

I don’t think I’m brave enough to fly an aeroplane from Tarawa to Honolulu non-stop. It would require enormous confidence in the Lycoming engine, and a more momentous leap of faith in my own workmanship for me to sit in an aircraft for sixteen hours as the lonely Pacific Ocean passed under my wings.

That’s what Manuel did, while sitting surrounded by 450 litres of avgas. And then he did almost the same length of journey again flying from Hawaii to San Francisco.

I will never make such a flight in my RV, not least because Mrs Goodwin would veto it. And not least because I have yet to paint the spare bedroom ceiling?a job which has been on the to-do list for longer than HS2, Crossrail and the third runway combined.

This, however, has never stopped Manuel’s wonderful book from being a tome to inspire. I read it several times during the build of Dumbo and several times since.

So it’s a bit of an honour to be sitting next to him in his much travelled RV-6, G-GDRV. Today the aircraft and its pilot have come from Gloucester, a penguin-like hop compared to Manuel’s epic journey.

It has, however, taken two cancellations for him to get to White Waltham?demonstrating perfectly that it is just as easy to kill yourself clacking into Membury mast in fog as it is to come down in the Pacific Ocean and be gobbled up by sharks.

Queiroz has flown in to show Whiteman and myself his recently finished new panel. There are some glorious moments in the construction of a kit aircraft?the fitting of the propeller, for example?that turn a wheelbarrow into something that might fly.

But, for me, nothing beat the fun of designing and creating the panel. During the lead-up to this exercise my nose would be pressed against the canopy of any homebuilt machine that I could find in order to carry out a bit of panel plagiarism.

This nosiness slightly loses its appeal after you’ve completed your aircraft for fear of catching a bad case of panel envy. I fear that is about to happen.

Another personal point of interest is that Manuel has just had his RV cleared for IFR/night flying, a process that I intend to follow myself when I have a) some more money and b) braced myself for the paperwork.

Manuel has a background in the motor trade, particularly in high performance cars and motor sport. He learned to fly in 1990 and since 2008 has been exclusively involved in avionics, first with RGV Aviation at Gloucester and then, from 2014, as a freelancer designing and building avionics systems, including panels, for permit aircraft.

His latest project is a fantastically detailed panel for an RV-10 that contains many of the components that we’re about to examine in his own aircraft. We’re going to go for a short trip from White Waltham so that Manuel can demonstrate his new system in action, but before that we need a run-down on some of the ‘panel porn’ that’s been fitted.

“G-GDRV’s panel was all analogue when I made my trip,” he explains, “but so much of the journey was spent flying over oceans it didn’t make a lot of difference, because most of the time you were just sat there hoping the engine kept running.

“I’ve upgraded to this new panel mainly because I thought it would be fun to do so, but also as a joint project between Garmin and Adams Aviation, who both wanted to be involved in the process of getting a Permit aircraft approved for IFR?a learning and fact-finding experience, if you like.”

The centrepiece of the new panel is a Garmin G3X Touch, an impressive slab of a glass screen that?as its name suggests?is a touchscreen device. Glass v ‘steam’ is as divisive a topic in light aviation as Brexit.

Well, perhaps not, but there are certainly several schools of thought on the subject. Me? I’m a fence-sitter, having fitted a combination of steam gauges (although none are vacuum) and a Dynon FlightDek 180, the latter being almost out-of-date as I was building. Old tech but still brilliant, competent and multifunctional.

Immediately at home…

As Manuel leads me through the G3X Touch’s functions it’s quickly clear that if I were building an aircraft today this system would be at the top of my shopping list.

I remember a good ten years ago flying in a Cirrus for a Pilot article on the then new and sexy Garmin G1000 system. I found it overly complicated, tricky to use in flight, and worryingly distracting. In my day job as a motoring journalist I am well used to being plonked in front of complicated ‘infotainment’ systems and having to master them quickly during a road test.

Sometimes it just isn’t possible to do so in a couple of hours. So when I say that I immediately felt at home with the G3X the words carry some weight.

That this is the case is very much down to having recently fitted a Garmin Aera 660 portable GPS to my RV’s panel. This touchscreen device is a joy to use and?more relevant to today’s task?is very similar in operation to the considerably more comprehensive G3X.

It’s like owning Apple products: once you’ve got the hang of one device you’re in the family and can easily learn all the company’s other gadgets from watches to laptops.

Before we go flying and see the G3X Touch in action, a quick run down on the rest of the panel. To the unit’s right we have a Garmin G5. I’m sure you’ve come across this, or rival Dynon’s D3 Pocket Panel and AvMap’s Ultra EFIS.

All three are the best piece of avionics that you can buy for the money. The G5 is the back-up instrument in case the main unit has a hissy fit or simply dies. Interesting point here: the LAA used to be against a back-up instrument being from the same manufacturer as the main device.

“I managed to argue against the logic of this,” explains Manuel, “because in my opinion it doesn’t make sense to have two operating systems that could easily corrupt each other. Safer, I reasoned, to have units using the same OS.”

Next we have a Garmin GNC255A to deal with nav/comms, a Garmin GTX345 transponder which also incorporates ADSB In/Out, and last in the upgrade list we have a GMC 305 autopilot control panel which is also a Garmin product. As you can see from the photographs it’s a very neat set-up and not at all over-busy or cluttered.

Let’s go flying before we get into discussing how difficult it all was to retrofit and also the scary subject of cost. And the big question: do I think it’s been worth it or would I have stuck with the well proven circumnavigation set-up?

We’ve decided to head south past Guildford, because I know the area extremely well, so that Manuel can concentrate on showing me how everything works.

We’ll be flying across Farnborough’s ILS for Runway 24 so we’ll be able to see how the G3X system displays the localiser and glideslope.

Queiroz’s G-GDRV and my G-DMBO are quite different aircraft. Aside from the latter being much newer and lower-hours, the tech and the money are firewall-forward in my RV whereas in Manuel’s it’s the other way around.

His carburetted IO-320 and fixed-pitch prop do the job perfectly but I was seduced by a more powerful IO-360, fuel injection, twin electronic ignition units and a CS prop. It matters little because all RVs are fast once they’re off the ground. We have a much longer takeoff run than I’m used to but we’re soon cracking along.

The first detail that I fall in love with is the transponder. Not the unit itself?although it is a bit easier to use than my Trig unit (which doesn’t have ADS-B but is under half the price of the Garmin)?but its interface with the G3X.

Queiroz enters the squawk that we get from Farnborough using a keypad that he quickly brought up onto the screen; as the numbers are given to us he taps them in and they are automatically transferred to the transponder itself. It’s so quick that it’d be rare to enter the wrong squawk.

You can do the same for radio frequencies which would also reduce the number of blunders. Always embarrassing accidentally to ask Heathrow if you can do an overhead join when you thought you were talking to Denham.

As a back-up we have a tablet mounted to the panel on which navigation or traffic information can be displayed. Both of course can be shown on the G3X’s screen but it’s particularly handy and sensible to have the traffic information up permanently.

The navigation moving map is exactly the same as the Garmin Aera 660’s except bigger and therefore easier to use.

It’s quite bumpy today but using the touchscreen is not difficult. The best method is to use the frame of the unit as an anchor for your fingers or thumb and then prod the relevant icon. It’s easier than on many car touchscreens and the Garmin’s graphics are sharper too.

We’re flying on autopilot that Manuel can operate either by reaching across to the separate GMC305 controller or the G3X touchscreen bang in front of him. I think using the controller looks easier and more intuitive.

One function that his autopilot has and mine doesn’t is the ability to change the rate of descent. Very useful for making a controlled let-down through cloud.

Back in the circuit at White Waltham the lady inside the G3X lets us know that we’re 500 feet from the deck as we’re on final approach for Runway 25. “Thank you my darling,” says a polite Queiroz who then puts us down as if we’ve landed on whipped cream rather than on one of southern England’s most notoriously bumpy airfields.

One of the advantages of a tip-up canopy on a side-by-side Van’s RV is that when the canopy is open you have excellent access to the back of the instrument panel, unlike with a sliding canopy (like mine) that requires lying on your back with a joystick up one trouser leg and a torch held in your teeth as you try and find a problem.

This means that we can have a good look at Manuel’s installation. I’m staggered at how little wiring there is for such a comprehensive and multifunctional system.

“All the wires from the engine sensors such as EGT and CHTs go into a small box,” he explains, “that then converts them and introduces their outputs into the CAN BUS system. That’s why there are only a couple of DIN sockets in the back of the G3X.”

The other remarkable thing is how shallow the G3X unit is. I’d have to remove my whole instrument panel to fit a replica of Manuel’s system but it would fit easily, not least because I would be able to remove a lot of redundant wiring, not to mention doing away with my three back-up steam gauges.

High cost but huge value

So what’s stopping me? You guessed; it’s the cost. A quick tap on my Casio brings the total for the units that we’ve mentioned to just over £15,000 including VAT.

That’s pretty good value considering the capability of the system. (I’ve not counted autopilot servos, the back-up battery that Manuel has fitted to power an emergency bus, or wiring.)

Fifteen grand would be a lot for me to spend replacing a system that works, and has worked, very well for me. However, if I were starting a new project I would virtually copy Manuel Queiroz’s panel.

There’s little on it that I’d change, and if I’m honest I really do have a rather bad case of panel envy.

Image(s) provided by:

Philip Whiteman