Gulfstream’s G550 showcases technology

 - October 12, 2007, 6:55 AM

Perched at the top of Gulfstream’s lineup of luxury business jets sits the G550, a longer-legged and heavier version of the G500 for which the original GV and GV-SP lend their names. The $45 million G550’s list of improvements over the G500 includes true New York-to-Tokyo nonstop range, increased payload-carrying capability, higher cruise speed and shorter takeoff distances. But of all the enhancements Gulfstream has made to the crown jewel in its aircraft family, pilots have been anticipating none more eagerly than the airplane’s ultra-modern Honeywell PlaneView integrated avionics and Kollsman enhanced vision system (EVS).

Among the more important assets in the G550’s upgraded portfolio are the integrated avionics and standard EVS. Together they firmly reestablish Gulfstream as one of the world’s foremost purveyors of business airplanes, a company that is relentless in its mission to stay at least a step or two ahead of the competition–especially its Francophone foreign rivals, namely Dassault and Bombardier.

First, the avionics system: the PlaneView cockpit consists of four 14-inch displays that replace the six CRTs in the GV. Based on Honeywell’s Primus Epic avionics architecture, it features reduced avionics box count by incorporating the fault-warning computer, data acquisition unit, air-data computer, GPS, EGPWS and other electronic systems in modular avionics units. Rather than replacing an entire black box after a system fails, maintenance personnel can now simply swap out a printed-circuit card.

Unique to the G550 is the Gulfstream-designed sidewall-mounted cursor-control device (CCD), which allows either pilot to manipulate an array of functions and display menus at the click of a button. Similar to a computer mouse or track ball, the cursor controls are a convenience that pilots can choose to use or not. For most functions, crews will be comfortable entering data the old-fashioned way–on the glareshield display control panel and through the FMS. But for more complex handling of moving maps and systems functions on PlaneView’s Honeywell i-nav (interactive navigation) displays, the cursor controls come in handy.

Standard equipment on the G550 also includes a Honeywell/BAE visual guidance system (VGS) and EVS, still the only such device certified in civil airplanes for use with a HUD. The two are linked to provide an actual view of the world on the VGS in high-resolution raster format, allowing pilots to see the airport through fog or haze and at night. To date, Gulfstream has equipped 34 airplanes with EVS and plans to finish another 38 installations by the end of the year.

During a recent visit to Gulfstream’s headquarters in Savannah, Ga., for a first-hand look at the new airplane, Gulfstream G550 program manager Mike Mena took the time to point out the differences between the PlaneView cockpit and more traditional integrated avionics systems. Pilots can resize many of the windows on the cockpit displays for a customized look, choosing, for instance, to keep the ADI at two-thirds size or expand it to span the entire PFD.

Expandable and Adaptable
The G550 also distinguishes itself by including standard triplex FMS, all working in unison and ready to take over if one of the units should fail. For added redundancy, the G550 also features three Laseref V inertial reference systems, a pair of 24-channel GPS receivers, three navcoms and three complete air-data systems. The modular avionics units housed in the radio rack consist of circuit card assemblies with processor cards to host a vast compendium of functions, such as FMS, symbol generation, HUD, radios and so on. In many cases, all these functions are occurring simultaneously in a single box.

“It will be possible with this cockpit to add enhancements in the future as they become available,” said Mena. “We think it will be possible in the near future to add some interesting new functionality, such as Jeppesen approach plates, to the navigation display.”

Mena also said Gulfstream is serious about implementing some form of synthetic vision system in the G550, which would overlay the EGPWS database of terrain onto the ADI. This transformation would turn the traditional blue-over-brown portrayal of the earth and sky into a more realistic picture that pilots could use to help them avoid CFIT.

During a flight in the G550 from Savannah north to Asheville, N.C., many of the concepts that Mena explained on the ground suddenly made perfect sense. The CCDs, for example, feature a nicely designed armrest and thumb toggle with push-to-talk switch on the sidewall instead of the yoke. It’s a good design for turbulence, and actually a natural place for either pilot to rest an arm. But as noted earlier, there are no functions that require the use of the CCD (the airplane can be dispatched with both devices inoperable) and in most cases pilots likely will enter nav information, tune radios and make changes to the automatic flight control system using the glareshield knobs and buttons just as they did in the GV.

Another point worth noting: while all the disparate functions of the PlaneView cockpit were somewhat intimidating on the ground during lab demonstrations, in the air the system was far simpler to use. In the air, only certain functions need to be given attention at any given moment, while on the ground all the information comes at the observer as if a fire hose has been suddenly turned on. It’s one thing to have an engineer in the test simulator explain how it all works, quite another to see the system in action on a real flight.

In short, pilots who’ve flown Gulfstreams in the past or even just integrated glass cockpits should have no trepidation about transitioning to PlaneView. There is a learning curve, but this is a well designed and intuitive concept.

The EVS was never put to a proper test during this demo flight to Asheville, but its usefulness is well documented. Since it was a clear night with visibilities of 10 miles or greater and only some distant cirrus on the horizon, it was difficult to gauge how useful the system would be to a pilot on approach in thick haze or fog, where infrared operates best. It was more plainly evident during the demonstration how EVS can serve as an aid to the pilot during taxi. Except in turns, when the pilot needs to look left or right to see what may be lurking to either side, enhanced vision allows safe on-airport maneuvering, even in zero-zero conditions.

In 1995 Gulfstream began discussions with Honeywell about rethinking ideas formulated in the development of traditional display technology with a totally new study of formats and functions. PlaneView, said Mena, builds on the capabilities of the Honeywell SPZ-8000 series while introducing many new features and functions, including i-nav, CCDs and EVS, but from the ground up this was Gulfstream’s cockpit as much as it was Honeywell’s.

In creating PlaneView, Gulfstream invited the input of experienced Gulfstream pilots, both from its customer ranks and the FAA, who came to Savannah, where the developers have installed a full-scale PlaneView mockup, including all the precise components that fly in the real airplane.