Earlier this year, when Garmin made the surprise launch of the GI 275 lineup of retrofit flight instruments, designed to be close to plug-and-play replacements for aging small, round, analog flight instruments, the company once again changed the used-airplane game. It’s not the first time that it has done that. The company had previously introduced an affordable electronic instrument, the G5, affordable flat-panels, low-priced autopilots and even a couple of new lower-priced navigators, all of which have already gone into a lot of airplanes.
Still, the GI 275, in terms of overall impact, will likely eclipse the importance of all of those new products, and by a big margin. A 3.125-inch panel-mount round gauge that does the jobs of several different analog round gauges—and for a low price, too—the GI 275 will not only enjoy wide adoption, but also multiple instruments likely will be purchased, in most instances.
Because the GI 275 is a standard 3.125-inch round instrument, it requires no cutting of the panel, making installation a lot easier, translating directly into “a lot cheaper.” There are literally hundreds of thousands of instruments in panels out there that could be replaced. It could be more than a million replacement candidate instruments.
How We Got Here
Light aviation as we know it today is a segment that depends heavily upon the existence of more than 100,000 older airplanes. The majority of these were built during the two-decade-plus-long heyday of GA, from the mid-to late 1950s to around 1980, during which time historic demographic, political and market forces combined to create a vibrant ecosystem of small, piston-engine-powered light planes flown by active pilots. These aviators grew up as WWII was playing out and came of age in time to buy affordable, plentiful new single- and twin-engine airplanes manufactured by a number of thriving small aircraft manufacturers.
As time went on and making new aircraft became more and expensive, sales of newly manufactured light planes dried up. This was in large part because the planes that were built during the 1960s and 1970s, many of which were 10 years old or less, became an unbeatable deal for would-be owners. And the fewer new planes that manufacturers turned out, the more expensive each one was to build.
At the same time, by the mid-to-late 1980s, the pilot population was shrinking, and those used planes, still plentiful and fairly young, many of them with very low hours, dominated the segment. By the mid-1990s, existing planes accounted for as much as 90% of the aircraft marketplace, a state of affairs that has persisted until recent years. To complicate matters, unlike in the automotive world, where technology and improved reliability have continued to drive new sales, existing small plane models were (and still are) substantially similar to the new planes that are being built, ostensibly to replace their aging predecessors.
Things have changed of late. The fleet has continued to shrink substantially as planes are wrecked, scrapped or otherwise age out of the fleet. In addition, the truth is that used planes aren’t the deal they used to be. They’re going up in price as their numbers decline, and as much as we’d like to believe differently, age affects everything, from housing to our own health, in undesirable ways—and airplanes are hardly the exception to that rule. Time takes its toll on every component and system, from the fuel filler caps to exhaust stacks. And maintenance ain’t cheap.
It’s important to consider that new light planes aren’t all that different from their 40-year-old predecessors. They can’t be. Most “new” models are built based on decades-old type certificates. While manufacturers do work in improvements over time, most of them, from seat belts to sun visors, can be updated, often relatively cheaply, too.
The aircraft’s flight instruments, however, have stood largely frozen in time, with few viable replacement options. In most cases, owners of older airplanes could only grit their teeth and pay to keep the old gear going for as long as possible.
With the advent of the Garmin GI 275, a big part of that equation has changed. It’s true that Garmin’s own G5 flight instruments (HSI and AI) are popular and even less costly solutions to analog instrument replacement, but the GI 275 goes far beyond the G5’s capabilities, and considering its ease of installation, it will give the G5 a run for its money.
There are, in fact, a number of different GI 275s, and it’s quite possible to replace the functions of all six instruments in the classic six pack—attitude, altitude, vertical speed, airspeed, heading and rate of turn—with fewer than six instruments, as some incarnations of the GI 275 perform multiple functions. The primary attitude instrument, for example (in essence a mini primary flight display), shows attitude, airspeed, altitude, vertical speed, heading and more. In addition, it displays navigation inputs, allowing the pilot to fly a course based on a flight plan entered in a compatible paired navigator. In addition, it shows flight path vector and flight director cues. As small as it is, its powers are great and many.
The uptake is that a few GI 275s can effectively replace all of the flight instruments in an analog panel, and they can do it incredibly cost effectively.
Indeed, the economics of it are compelling. For around $5,000, an aircraft owner could install a single primary display. And for around $20,000, an owner could replace the entire classic six-pack of flight instruments and come away with what’s essentially all the capability of a flat-panel suite but with far lower installation costs.
Just how many and which instruments will pilots choose to install in their planes? It’s hard to say. For starters, there are many possible combinations. Decisions will be driven in part by the existing equipment in the airplane, and others will be based on the available budget of the owner or the value of the airplane the instruments are going into, though with used plane values rapidly rising, that calculation is changing as we speak.
Here are the primary roles the chameleon that is the GI 275 can play.
Primary Attitude Indicator
When serving as, to use Garmin’s term, a primary attitude indicator, the GI 275 offers a number of upgrades over any analog gauge, as well as a host of improvements over the company’s popular G5 instrument. For one thing, you get rid of the vacuum-powered gyro, which is a huge safety improvement. You also get all kinds of added features that no analog gauge ever dreamed of having.
Display of altitude, airspeed and heading on the instrument. It’s all there before your eyes.
Lateral and vertical deviation indications and selected nav source.
There’s also altitude pre-select for autopilot interface when paired with the GFC600.
Heading bug select.
Optional synthetic vision, which overlays a 3D view of the outside world, including traffic, terrain, airport locator tags, obstacle (like towers and high terrain) and more.
Display of flight path marker (when tied with the optional synthetic vision), for immediate reference not to what the gauges say but to where you’re actually headed.
There’s even a built-in VFR GPS, with optional glare shield-mounted antenna that can be driven by the GI 275’s internal battery even in case of an aircraft electrical loss for limited, direct-to guidance from the GI 275 itself.
With the battery installed as part of the setup, it’s got a 60-minute backup battery life, and that’s a conservative figure.
CDI (Course Deviation Indicator) and HSI (Horizontal Situation Indicator)
The GI 275 can be used as a navigation display, using a variety of navigator inputs to display course deviation indications laterally or vertically (for glideslope on ILS or RNAV approaches), all while having the capability of displaying additional data, such as moving map, weather, terrain and traffic.
Primary Engine Display
When used as a display of engine information for normally aspirated or turbocharged piston engines from Continental and Lycoming four- or six-cylinder engines, the GI 275 can display RPM, manifold pressure, cylinder head temperature, exhaust gas temperature, turbine inlet temperature and more, including leaning assist, while also issuing alerts for exceedances, as allowed for and detailed in the handbook.
Multifunction Display (MFD)
The GI 275 can, when configured and installed to do so, display, in Garmin’s words, “additional page functions and features beyond a traditional flight instrument,” though what there is about this instrument in any regard that doesn’t go beyond a traditional flight instrument is hard to say. Regardless, when it’s set up as an MFD, the GI 275 can:
Act as a moving map, with displays of terrain, traffic, weather, airways, airspace information and more.
Serve as a dedicated traffic display when paired with a Garmin GTX 345, GNX 375 and GTS 800 series traffic hardware. It will display Garmin’s cool relative traffic motion display it calls TargetTrend. It also supports a number of third-party traffic sensors.
Display Garmin’s SafeTaxi utility.
Act as a display of terrain with color-coded shading to show areas of high terrain around the flight and with audible and visual alerts.
Display Sirius XM and FIS-B (ADS-B) weather.
Show pertinent airport information, like frequencies, runway lengths and more.
Act as a radar altimeter display when paired with the GRA 55/5500 units.
Replace the primary attitude indicator in the Garmin GFC 600 and a variety of third-party units, as well.
Working With The GI 275
One of the biggest wonders of the GI 275 is that, despite its small size, it’s easy to see, interpret and use. The display is super sharp, as you can see in the accompanying photographs, and the screen, which takes up the entire bezel, is also very bright. Things that seem as though they might be difficult to see and do with it in fact are neither. It’s easy to distinguish one traffic target from the next, for instance, or to read details on the map.
Just as importantly, if not more so, Garmin has nailed the symbology on these instruments, so even when there’s a lot going on, such as on the primary attitude instrument, which displays about a dozen different things simultaneously, not only is it possible, but it’s easy to pick out just the thing you’re looking for.
It’s also no chore to control the instruments, though Garmin had to get creative to make that happen, using a combination of knobs and touchscreen gestures to allow pilots to quickly and accurately work with the display. To go from page to page, you just use the outer concentric ring, and to make selections and enter values, you use the inner knob. Touch control isn’t only possible but necessary for pilots to use in order to select the function they’re aiming to control. This could be inputting a target altitude. Touch the preselect field, which activates it, and then use the inner knob to select the target altitude. In other cases, you can use classic gestures, like pinch to zoom and panning, which you do with a single finger.
There are a couple of gestures that are new to Garmin avionics, including the long touch, analogous to a knob press, to do things like sync to standard barometric pressure. There’s also a new swipe gesture you can use to immediately pull up pop-up menus, which you can also access with a button push. Menus, by the way, are placed on the display in a way that makes sense for that particular instrument. None of these gestures, of course, are Garmin inventions. If you use a smartphone or any one of a hundred other modern electronic devices, navigating around the GI 275 will likely be second nature.
That’s an important point, because before long there will be a lot of GI 275s in the fleet, and this is not entirely because they’re cool, though they definitely are, but also because it will be more cost-effective in many cases for owners to replace aging instruments with a GI 275 than it would be for them to fix the legacy gauge.
When the panel welcomes a new instrument, pilots get all kinds of safety benefits, including saying buh-bye to failure-prone vacuum-powered instruments (and perhaps the vacuum system itself—how cool would that be?). This is in addition to greater reliability, capability—look again at that primary display with synthetic vision—and usability.
Cost of the GI 275 will vary depending on what role it fills. A basic (but still very capable) CDI or MFD display sells for just $3,195. Other displays, all of which have additional hardware, sell for just a few or several hundreds of dollars more. A primary display (or a paired reversionary mate) has built-in AHRS and air data and goes for either $3,995 or $4,995, depending on whether it also supports an autopilot. Right now, the GI 275 works with the Garmin GFC 600 and numerous third-party models, as well, and Garmin is working on a solution that will make it compatible with its popular GFC 500, which right now only pairs with the G5 flight instrument. The inclusion in the GI 275 of an analog-to-digital converter, needed by many legacy autopilots that rely on old data formats, will sweeten the deal, as legacy converters can be hard to find and expensive to repair or replace.
So this is happening, and you can expect to see the GI 275 in a plane near you, and soon. Garmin has been shipping the units for more than a month as of this writing, and they’re selling, no surprise, very briskly. And, as I mentioned, the market is huge. According to Garmin, its AML list includes more than 1,000 general aviation and business aircraft, from light singles from Cessna and Piper up to pressurized twins, like the Mitsubishi MU-2. How many GI 275s will Garmin sell over the next few years? I will only venture to say that it will be a really big number.
Why? Well, in the original release of the GI 275, Garmin’s VP of aviation sales and marketing, Carl Wolf, might have said it all: “If it’s round and in their panels, pilots can likely replace it with the GI 275 to receive modern flight display features and benefits in a powerful yet compact touchscreen flight instrument.”
And the addition of such instruments will go a long way toward modernizing existing aircraft and breathing new life into an aging fleet, which at this point desperately needs just such an addition of smart, affordable technology to go with a fleet full of airframes and engines that will, for the foreseeable future, keep on keeping on.