Interview With Dan Schwinn Of Avidyne, Part VI of VI
In the conclusion to
our long-running interview with Dan Schwinn of Avidyne, we
primarily talk about generalities -- although we do keep coming
back to avionics. Are we in the midst of a revolution? What
capabilities are coming? Can avionics take the place of -- or
enhance -- the backup safety function best illustrated by the
Cirrus Airframe Parachute System? What about Avidyne for
spacecraft? What about the future of GA? Will our grandkids be able
to fly the way Dan describes his seaplane commute?
Aero-News: I have a couple of questions. You
talked about this three-year cycle. You didn't call it a three year
cycle, but you mentioned, "where we were three years ago," versus
"where we are today," versus "where we'll be in three years." So
obviously we're in a period of very rapid change.
In your opinion, is this a revolution we're going through, or is
this perpetual change going to be continuing on [indefinitely]?
Dan: I usually tell people that if you look at
five years ago, like 2000, to five years from now, 2010, it'll be
the most rapid change of light general aviation instrumentation and
avionics that there has been in history. In any decade in
But I also think that there's a fundamental change
which is happening, which may cause it to continue that level of
rapid change for a while. And that is, the integrated platform
going on to these airplanes.
Piper sells a Meridian. Last year. It has the Meggitt glass,
which is pretty good, it's got the Garmin radios, which are pretty
good, it's got the S-Tec autopilot, which is pretty good. And L-3
sensors, and Honeywell radar. All of these systems are good
sensors, good systems. And they all work well. But they have very
limited interactions with each other.
Aero-News: Cause they were developed in a
Dan: Now that same airplane, five years from
now, all of those systems, whether they're made by different
companies or the same company, will all be on high-bandwidth data
buses, sharing all the data that they have. And you will basically
have a platform, the airplane and its avionics as a platform,
where, if there is some futuristic concept that you want to do, all
the bits and pieces will all already be there, and they'll all
already be hooked up!
And if I can put a software update into the radar, and into the
display, and turn it into a ground terrain following radar, it'll
all already be hooked up.
Aero-News: So it'll be like adding a network
node onto the bus....
Dan: Or maybe, not even a node. Maybe doing a
software upgrade across the entire network.
So what'll end up happening in the future, is by adding node
hardware, or by updating the software of the various systems,
you'll get composite functionality. Where it might modify two of
three systems. Let's see, if I've already got a radar altimeter and
I've already got an autopilot, and I've already got WAAS, I can
probably make an autolander.
Well, nobody's talking about autolanders, but that airplane
that's delivered in the future is basically going to have all the
bits and pieces to do that.
Aero-News: It's a hard sell to pilots, an
Dan: Ah, but it's not to their significant
other. If the pilot has an incapacitation event. Like the Cirrus
thing that happened.
Note: see these two Aero-News links:
Aero-News: Well, it certainly beats the
parachute, doesn't it. Not that the parachute hasn't been an
Dan: The parachute's a great idea. But what I
tell Alan Klapmeier is, I say, I'm a fan of the parachute thing.
But I think some of those parachute pulls we should be able to save
them by avionics. And some of them, they did need the parachute
pull. Like the guy with the aileron that went out. You know, that's
a parachute pull.
Schwinn is referring here to the October 3, 2002 deployment
by Lionel Morrison -- see:
Aero-News: A couple of these people that were
lost in IMC over mountains... that's different.
Dan: They oughta be able to fix that with
Aero-News: But it's better to pull the
parachute than to wind up in an NTSB report. (Note: pulling the
parachute gets you an NTSB report too, just not a fatal).
Dan: So, that's kind of what's happening over
the next few years. The integration will happen. All the systems
will end up talking to each other, exchanging much more data. And
then you're going to have the ability to create composite functions
that are beyond what anybody's really thinking about right now.
So that's what I think, over the next five years everything'll
be integrated, and the user interface'll be a little better, and
the airplanes'll be easier to use, and way more reliable, and all
that kind of stuff. Some people can relate to that.
But I think the part
that's beyond that, is very interesting composite functions start
appearing. That can't work on an airplane -- they could, but it's
much harder to do [without this integration].
Aero-News: Add some new capabilities that we
can't even imagine.
Dan: Yeah. That's right.
Aero-News: And let me ask one more question.
This is just kind of an "out there" thing. But one of the things
that fascinated me about going to Mojave for the X-Prize launches
was the way that that was, in its own way, a very integrated
aircraft. In-house at Scaled, with about 100 people working on the
project, they built their own airframe, they designed their own
motor, even though they had it built elsewhere, they came up with a
whole new concept of re-entry, and they built a [primary flight]
display to support that, which, if you're going exoatmospheric, you
need a different sort of display. They actually constructed one
that had the attitude references that, for example, Mike Melvill
needed to correct the rolls on the X1 flight. And they learned a
But Rutan certainly dreams of exoatmospheric GA. He dreams of GA
going into space. He dreams of a bizjet that you can take off here
and fly yourself from New York to Tokyo, by going up there.
Dan: Essentially, ballistic.
Aero-News: I don't even know where his dreams
go. I wouldn't be surprised --
But for you, have you given any thought, have you put any of
your imagination or your people's imagination towards navigation or
flight displays for space travel?
Dan: We haven't very much. We actually talked
to Scaled somewhat when they were working on their display,
I think that we'd probably be the most likely choice, when they
start to try and build a vehicle that needs to be certified. On the
one hand, we tend to be kind of at the head of the pack in terms of
doing advanced stuff, and on the other hand, we make certified
avionics, and the FAA approves 'em, and all that kind of good
Another one of these really forward looking things that we think
that we might be able to participate in, is: there's the whole
Jetsons idea, and sometimes what SATS is trying to do, is everybody
is going to have a car-plane thing in their driveway.
Aero-News (cynically): That's really gotten a
lot of legs since 1946.
Dan: So that may be a little far out. And at
this point there's so much skepticism associated with it that it's
almost a credibility buster. But one thing that I don't think needs
to be, is that....
...You know, the pace of utilization and growth of general
aviation has not kept up with population growth since 1940, '50.
Now, there were a lot of airplanes sold in the sixties and
seventies. But the utilization really wasn't really going up that
Aero-News: The barriers to entry are very high,
and not just money --
Dan: The barriers to *stay in* are somewhat
high. So, there's a contribution that we might be able to make,
there. Which is to vastly reduce the difficulty to safely operate
an airplane. Both in terms of initial training and operation, and
in terms of retaining your currency.
And, so much of being a safe pilot is being prepared for
situations you're never going to handle. So I see part of our
future direction being, not necessarily the Jetsons thing, but
really, just trying to get it so airplanes are not becoming more
and more complex. And the airspace isn't getting more and more
intimidating. And the systems management in failure conditions
isn't getting more and more complex -- in fact, all that stuff is
getting easier and easier and easier.
Aero-News: The big red PANIC button, "Take me
Dan: The big red PANIC button, or just, enough
redundancy and enough system capability so that no matter what
Mother Nature throws at you, you're going to be able to handle it.
You have that confidence.
And the system is certified. it's not that it's there, "maybe."
It's gonna be there.
Those are the kinds of things that we really think about, in
terms of how we can, in a very long-term, visionary way, impact GA
Obviously, we're not about airframes and engines, and a lot of
airframe and engine stuff is going to have a huge contribution to
this. Look at what Cirrus and Columbia and Eclipse have done by
being willing to build completely new airframe configurations. The
engine guys tend not to move that quickly, but there's a whole
bunch of new engines that are sitting there, right over the
horizon. So that may significantly change things.
We think that the avionics side of things is really, really,
really significant to change that equation.
Now, how hard is it to get into this, and how hard is it to stay
efficient at it and make something useful out of it, get some
utility out of it?
Aero-News: I have to tell you, first time I sat
behind an Avidyne panel, in a Cirrus SR22, [long story shortens to:
I thought it would be hard to use, but it was surprisingly
natural]. And about ten minutes into the flight, I was appreciating
things like traffic, that I'd never had before. I'd been out there
flying in that same airspace, and I didn't *know* that there was
somebody 900 feet above.
Dan: Yeah. They're all over the place. And
that's the kind of experience. You're an experienced pilot, and
you've flown ultralights and all these other kinds of airplanes.
Well, I was talking to somebody yesterday whose sister in law's
father just went out and bought an SR22. And has never flown before
in his life.
Aero-News: Alan pushes that. "Learn to fly in
Dan: We've got to make that experience, really,
pretty easy. Because if you think about people, in a lot of cases,
if they don't get the bug early -- and then they're basically,
broke due to aviation, forever -- a lot of people, they make some
money after they've been working for a decade or something like
that, finally they're financially secure, but they're not like kids
anymore. So they want to do this in a relatively -- first of all,
it's got to be safe. And second of all, it can't be *that*
difficult. And I think that it's *that* audience that we really,
really have the ability to impact the experience that they
Aero-News: Let me tell you a story. We
had a guy come to us. He had started to learn to fly in 1966 and
ran out of money. Well, now he's retired, he has the money, his
wife says it's OK, he can come along and learn to fly. And I said,
"OK. Let me sit down for an hour with you and tell you what has
changed since 1966."
Dan Schwinn (laughing): In other words,
Aero-News: And the poor guy went out of there
with his eyes this big. He is going to come back and fly with us,
but "classes of airspace? What's that?"
Dan Schwinn: TFRs, Positive control
Aero-News: You need a signoff to fly a
taildragger? I said, not only do you need a signoff, you probably
won't get insurance. All that's changed, just in our own lifetime.
Maybe not your lifetime [aside to Jamie Luster, who was born long
after 1966]. But my lifetime.
My father's first lesson, I sat in the baggage compartment. No
seat. In the Cessna 150 he took his first lesson in. If an
instructor did that today, he would be kept miles from his ticket
for the rest of his life.
So things change, they change for understandable reasons,
everyone is trying to pursue safety in their own way.
Dan: If you think about a car in 1950 and a car
in 2005, there's been steady progress along the way. They've gotten
safer and easier to drive and a lot more features functions, and a
lot more comfortable.
You think about an airplane, and it was dead flat [laughs in
wonder] until just recently, you know? [laughs]. Or maybe it was
just rising really slowly.
So I think there's a lot of catching up to be done. That's the
standard people have for their cars.
Aero-News: And that's something, certainly,
Alan and Dale have worked on that, to try to make that a carlike
experience. The new Cessnas, they finally addressed the problem
that everyone has, where they get a license and the first passenger
they want to bring is the significant other that does not have the
flying bug. [Point of tale is flimsy, shoddily built planes alarm
Things change. People have a higher expectation. I mean, I love
old cars, I have a 65 Mustang. But compared to a modern car, it's a
piece of junk. It's flimsy.
Dan: It somehow manages to be much heavier, and
much less safe.
Aero-News: It's actually much lighter and much
less safe. It's about 2800 lbs. A current one is probably 3600 or
so. Most of which is stuff that keeps you from getting killed if
you hit something. All the safety equipment that we've come to
expect in cars is absent.
Dan: Safety and comfort.
Aero-News: My pickup truck -- cheapest one I
could buy, nine thousand dollars -- came with airconditioning.
Dan: Power windows?
Aero-News: No, it has cranks. But people get in
the truck and look for the switch, because they're so used to them
And people come to our flight school, and I take 'em out to a
1979 172 with a door like a piece of tin, cracked Royalite....
So the wave of the future is coming in so many ways. New
powerplants, new materials, new concepts of design, and the quality
of the experience is different for everybody, right down the
I would hate to see the general aviation I know and love go and
be replaced by a scene where everybody goes to an ab-initio program
to get an airline job. Already there's only a few cranks out there
working on round engines or flying fabric airplanes.
Dan: Or, even, private aviation gets to the
point where it's just a real rich man's thing.
Aero-News: It could get like it is in Japan. In
Japan, it's almost forbidden.
Dan: Or it could just be that nobody does it.
Cause it's just not worth it. And you know, that's kind of what I
You know, I have a seaplane. I fly down to Cape Cod, land in the
water, I drive it up on the beach near my house. And I can drive it
back and forth to here. So that means I can go down to the
seaplane, put whatever I want in it, take off -- there's not even
an airport there, never mind security -- and aim directly at
Boston, fly directly to Boston except end up at Hanscom.
And you wonder whether or not that world is still going to exist
in another fifty years.
We're trying to make that happen [GA to stay viable]. And
especially with the guys like Cirrus and Eclipse. I mean, we can do
a lot, but at the end of the day, for some stuff you need an
airframer who's willing to really go out on a limb, and both of
those companies have done that.
Vern and Alan are probably the two main visionaries in the