EBACE: Honeywell reveals new version of Primus Apex avionics system

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Honeywell is revealing a new version of the Primus Apex avionics system with the company's SmartView synthetic vision system incorporated at EBACE. Earlier in May, Flight International had the opportunity to test the new hardware in Phoenix, Arizona.

It was pitch black outside as our Pilatus PC-12 accelerated smoothly down the runway and climbed gingerly into the air, powered by a 1,200 shp Pratt & Whitney PT6A-67P turboprop. As we retracted the landing gear and turned north towards the mountains, in the cockpit the pilot in command, Honeywell's Kevin O'Hara, and I had unprecedented situational awareness of the rocky terrain below.

The reason for that is a new version of Honeywell's Primus Apex fully integrated cockpit avionics package that adds the company's SmartView display. The full glass cockpit system consists of four liquid crystal displays and is based on the Primus Epic package found on high-end business jets like the Dassault Falcon 900. But the SmartView adds a new dimension with its synthetic vision capability, runway symbology, and flight path vector all on the same display. All that greatly increases the pilot's awareness of his surroundings. But the SmartView display can also be coupled with the navigation system, which then overlays the planned flight path in the form of a flight director symbol.

The pilot can either fly the route manually by placing the flight path vector onto the flight director, or elect to have the autopilot take over.

The entire system is designed to be intuitive to the pilot, and as such the company decided to make the display symbology closely resemble a head-up display. The SmartView incorporates a pitch ladder, tapes for airspeed and altitude, a vertical velocity indicator, heading indication and an energy caret. There is also an option to display traffic and weather radar.

But the most important feature is the graphic representation of the terrain in front of the aircraft's flight path. Together with the flight path vector and flight director, the SmartView affords the pilot outstanding situational awareness and makes the task of flying much easier.

Sandy Wyatt, Honeywell's lead test pilot, who was sitting in the jump seat behind O'Hara and myself, says the idea behind the Apex was to make the routine chores of flying as simple and painless as possible.

An aircraft like the PC-12 is designed to be flown by a single pilot, often a wealthy businessperson, who may not have the kind of proficiency that a professional military or airline pilot would. The addition of the SmartView should help those pilots operate the aircraft more safely.

Wyatt's contention appeared to bear out during our flight. Shortly after take-off, O'Hara deactivated the autopilot and allowed me to hand fly the PC-12. While I have hundreds of hours flying general aviation aircraft, I hadn't flown for the better part of a decade, nor had I operated a machine with a full glass cockpit. In fact, my only recent experience was "flying" a Boeing F/A-18F Super Hornet simulator.

Despite my total lack of recent experience, I was quickly able to learn how to input data into the aircraft's flight management system using the cursor control and keypad. Moreover, I was able to easily fly an instrument approach to the Prescott airport using the flight director and flight path vector down to instrument flight rules minimums.

The SmartView graphically displays an image of the runway - and it provides a visual indication of the approach path. All the pilot has to do is simply place the flight path vector on to the runway numbers and use the energy caret to manage the airspeed and rate of decent. Basically, the procedure is to slightly push the yoke forward while pulling back on the throttle - if the energy caret is pegged at 3˚ down, you are on a perfect glide slope. Indeed, when I looked out of the window at about 200ft (61m), the approach was perfect.

But as part of the demonstration, Honeywell wanted to show off the system's performance during a go-around. The flight director provides a climb path clear of obstacles.

The original plan was to fly a simple go-around and redo the approach from a much higher altitude so that O'Hara could demonstrate how the system helps pilots during adverse conditions - in this case, a very high and short final. Unfortunately, other slow-moving traffic meant we could not complete that demonstration at Prescott.

Instead, I flew the aircraft back to Deer Valley, where O'Hara took over to demonstrate the procedure. With the backdrop of Phoenix, the runway symbology came into its own. With the suburban neighbourhoods drowning out the runway lights, it was far easier to spot the runway and fly the approach on the SmartView than with reference to the outside world.

Indeed, O'Hara flew the approach with a modified version of the one I described before. But because of the higher altitude, he pegged the energy caret at 5˚ down. It was a perfect approach and perfect landing.

I must say I was impressed with the whole Primus Apex system and the SmartView display. But there are some areas that could be improved.

The system uses a trackball mouse type interface to switch between various objects on the four cockpit displays. While the system is quite simple and intuitive to use, it would be far easier if there were an option for a touch-screen display. However, when I asked if that might be an option for the future, a Honeywell representative flatly told me that the company does not make touch-screens for cockpit displays.

Additionally, there is no provision for an HUD. While the current system is excellent, it does take a few moments to get oriented when suddenly looking up from the head-down display. If the system were to be coupled with an HUD, it would make the transition to visual flight a lot easier.

But the Honeywell representatives say they are not considering adding an HUD. They assert that would actually be a distraction, although military aircraft such as the Boeing F-15E Strike Eagle have had infrared navigation imagery projected on an HUD for decades.