Let's face it, buying avionics is fun. They're big boy's toys for sure and in today's market there is a lot of choice in the experimental market. Big screens, touch screens, engine monitors, flight directors, built in autopilots, the list goes on and on with the manufacturers all competing for your dollar and all saying they understand the home builder. But do they?
What about backup instruments? Are they necessary? Do you really need that old fashioned, 'steam driven' stuff cluttering up your panel in this day and age?
Well here's a little story that might make you reconsider the answer to some of those questions.
Every two years there is a requirement to have your altimeter checked for accuracy and so it was for my fairly new Garmin G3X back in 2012.
When I was looking to update my panel a few years back, the G3X had caught my attention. It looked great to me with all of its functionality, even if some of it doesn't work in New Zealand due to Jeppesen not supplying the relevant data for a many places outside the USA.
The fact that the G3X was made by Garmin, who have a lot of experience with certified products, seemed like a plus. I couldn't resist. I purchased it while it was fairly new to market in the hope I would save some money by being an early adopter. (Mistake #1 - Garmin later dropped the price to become more competitive. Existing customers just had to suck it up)
Having an electronics background, I purchased the required tools and installed the equipment myself. A benefit of the experimental market.
Every two years there is a requirement to have your altimeter checked for accuracy and the G3X is no exception.
The tolerances for the checks are fairly tight, particularly at 0 feet. That tolerance being +/- 20'. Back in 2012 when I had my check, the altimeter of my G3X sat right on the limit. In fact to me it looked closer to 30' feet but since the technician had a new piece of gear I think he was being kind. He passed me for two years but with the discussion we had, I knew it was going to come back to bite at a later check. Like a lot of these things, I put it to the back of my mind for two years.
Two years seemed to go by in two months and before I knew it, the check was almost due again. It was time to deal with the issue I had at the previous check. And truth be known, over the past two years I had noticed that my altitude readout was always a little low when setting QNH on the ground.
I consulted the install manual for my G3X looking for how I might alter the calibration of the altimeter. The manual said I required the 'field calibration tool' to carry out a calibration. I didn't really want to buy another tool but if I needed it then I needed it so I went on line in search of said tool. Hours went by and still no sign of the tool so I sent off an email to Garmin.
As I'd experienced before, there was no response from the appropriate regional Garmin office. So after a couple of days, as I now am accustomed to, I sent another email to the USA Garmin. Still no reply. For my next attempt I figured I'd go to the source by emailing the G3X team directly. Overnight I received a response from a very friendly Team-X member. Let's call him 'Fred'.
Fred explained that the Field calibration tool was a bit of software that was downloaded from the Garmin Dealer website. He also advised that I wasn't allowed access to this so I was to remove the offending piece of equipment and send it to the local dealer. I was less than impressed and sent off a reply explaining that I had installed the equipment and with New Zealand's small market, it was highly likely that the local 'experts' didn't even know what the equipment looked like let alone be able to calibrate it. I didn't really feel like paying them to learn. Fred was adamant.
So, backed into a corner, I removed the equipment and sent it off to the local 'expert' Garmin dealer. Remember, all I was doing was sending off a piece of computer gear to have a few ones and zeros rearranged because Garmin doesn't allow the owner to download the software to do it themselves.
After a few days I received a phone call from the dealer to advise that despite spending a few hours on it, they were unable to calibrate the unit. In their opinion there was something wrong with the unit and they could have a replacement unit shipped for around $1500 + GST(15%) and shipping. Needless to say I had my unit returned to me. It had operated just fine and was only about 10' - 20' outside tolerance. I didn't feel like shelling out that kind of money on something that in my opinion should be able to be carried out by the owner. That little exercise cost me around $240. I didn't want to do it in the first place and I was no closer to a desirable outcome.
I contacted Garmin again with the news that what I expected might happen, had indeed happened. The Fred advised that Garmin would supply a replacement unit at no cost. That was a kind offer. To me it would be easier and cheaper to let me download the calibration software but if this is the way they wanted to go, so be it.
A week or so later I received notice that I owed customs $1300 for the import of the goods. That didn't seem like a good deal to me. Clearly someone had made a mistake so I contacted Garmin again who emailed me an invoice for $0. That had the immediate effect of DHL (the shipping agent) to say something like.. "Oh, ok .. That will be $60 for a paperwork change. And by the way, you still owe us $1300."
To cut a long story short, the whole thing spiralled out of control so I was forced to advise DHL to contact the sender (Garmin) who could have it returned.
From this point on, Garmin stopped replying to my emails.
My plane had been grounded for about two months at this stage so I decided to scrap the whole idea. I purchased a mechanical Altimeter to use as my primary altimeter and installed it without delay to get back in the air.
Six weeks later I received an email from DHL who advised they would be destroying the goods as they couldn't make contact with Garmin. Probably both DHL and Garmin at fault here and while it seems a terrible waste, I guess that's what happens. It's ridiculous to think that due to some stupid policy, the home builder can't download calibration software in favour of forcing them to support the local dealer.
So there are many lessons here but one or two of note might be:
1) Perhaps having mechanical backup isn't such a bad idea. Not just for failure in flight but in the case where you need to remove parts for repair, you won't be grounded.
2) When companies say they understand home builders, do they really? What is their background? It's easy to make these claims without understanding the full ramifications.
3) Some companies have building blocks to their equipment that they call 'line replaceable units'. It sounds harmless enough but what does it mean when it comes to repair? Are the units repairable or does it mean they are simply replaced? If you live outside the USA it might be a bigger deal than you imagine.
4) Again, if you live outside the USA there is a very real possibility that the equipment won't do everything that it's advertised to do. There may be many reasons for that but it's worth checking before you hand over your hard earned cash because they won't discount you just because the gear won't do everything they say it does.
Food for thought?
Today I recevied a message from DHL advising that Garmin are paying the Customs charges and so the equipment will be delivered.
This is very generous of Garmin and they didn't have to. Its is a shame that it came about that Customs received money that, to me, they shouldn't have received but nonetheless I'll be pleased to get a better system installed (Hopefully) and I will attempt top get Garmin a refund when I ship the old unit back although my chances are probably 50% at best although they still don't answer their emails and I don't have a return address!
In the future Garmin advise that they hope to publish a software update to allow this to be edited from the programming menu. A welcome addition.
I don't think this negates any of my considerations above but it should help my short term situation.
So it gets worse.
I replaced the GSU73 after all this. I was really surprised to see that as soon as I applied power is said it was loading software and then powered up with no data lost. I mean EVERYTHING was the same. All my settings and calibrations were all there. It must save them somewhere in the system in order for them to be doaded across the CAN bus or something. Great.. but wait.. is it?
The altimeter is also the same! I can only assume that the calibration settings also get loaded across and the two GSU73's were about the same.
So it seems that even their experts don't really understand their own system.
I guess I'll have to either sit and wait out a software fix, which is OK since I have a steam driven Altimeter that is better than the G3X or dump the whole thing. I still basically like the system. Some parts are a bit small for my old eyes and colour choices aren't optimum in my opinion (I can see what they are trying to achieve) but its basically a resonable system. I think I'll wait. Its almost amusing at this stage, especially now I'm back flying.