A Behind-the-scenes Look at Garmin Autopilot Certifications
Max Unruh’s official title at Garmin is aviation product manager of autopilot systems. In layman’s terms? He’s a part of the team that decides which aircraft to certify for Garmin autopilot solutions. That means he helps to determine which aircraft is up next for certification, as well as which model will be the ideal test aircraft. By his count, he’s completed about 54 aircraft contracts in his two years at Garmin, 40 of which were for the GFC™ 500 or GFC™ 600 digital autopilot.
It’s a long process, says Unruh, and aircraft owners wait with baited breath as they refresh the list of currently supported aircraft, as well as those certification programs that are in progress and those that will begin in the next 12 months. But if you don’t see your aircraft included, don’t despair — there’s a way to toss your hat in the ring for your own plane, and Unruh is sharing some insight into the process for an extra edge.
What does Garmin look at when selecting a test aircraft?
Unruh looks for a unique combination of aircraft characteristics that tick all the boxes necessary for certification. “I have a high bar for incoming aircraft, and the selection process is not easy,” he says, noting that the owners who are selected typically report feeling like they’ve won the lottery. When he considers an individual aircraft, Unruh looks at:
- Aerodynamic characteristics of the airplane
- Rating of the engine and common engine upgrades that are available out in the field
- The range of gross weight possible, from largest to smallest
- Whether the plane has any Garmin avionics installed already, particularly a display and GPS source at the minimum
How do I submit my aircraft for autopilot certification?
The answer to this one is simple: If you are interested in GFC 500 or GFC 600 for your aircraft, just fill out this form. And even if your plane isn’t chosen immediately, says Unruh, that doesn’t mean it’s not being considered.
“I go in and review that information,” says Max. “It’s personally reviewed by a Garmin employee. And when I am looking for an aircraft, I use that list heavily. That’s probably my best fishing hole.”
The form requests that you provide your name, email address, which autopilot model you’re interested in and your aircraft make, model and registration number. There’s also a section to include additional details, and this is where Unruh has some pro tips.
“The pertinent details are whether or not the aircraft has any mods that make it different from the type design or any type of damage history and modifications,” he says. “I really want to know what kind of Garmin avionics they have installed. And one really nice thing is when an owner puts down their phone number.”
Another pro tip? If you’re connected with owners of similar aircraft, have them submit theirs for consideration as well.
“I like when owner groups post their aircraft on our website en masse,” says Unruh. “It generally helps to have a passionate and engaged aircraft owners group!”
What does the autopilot certification process look like once an aircraft is selected?
Once an aircraft is selected for autopilot testing and a contract is executed, the aircraft is flown to a Garmin facility and thoroughly inspected. The Garmin mechanical design team then starts exhaustive research by analyzing the aircraft as well as various manuals and documents to select servo mounting locations. Experimental parts are trial-fitted, and the autopilot is installed. Approximately halfway through the program, the aircraft transitions into flight testing. The Garmin flight test team checks every configuration, including forward and aft center of gravity, lightweight and heavyweight, and all corners of the speed and altitude envelope. The last aircraft milestone is when the autopilot goes through final certification testing to confirm the autopilot performance is as expected. Once the Supplemental Type Certificate (STC) is issued, the installation kits and all associated parts are built and made ready for shipment.
What’s next for the GFC 500?
Next on deck for consideration for the GFC 500, says Unruh, are lighter twin-engine piston aircraft. He’s got his eye specifically on the Twin Comanche. If you’re a Twin Comanche owner, you should be outfitted with at least a GI 275 electronic flight instrument to be ready to equip with the GFC 500 digital autopilot.
Crossing your fingers that Garmin certifies your aircraft next? Help us to help you by filling out the autopilot interest form here.