R44 at Big Bear

My Robinson R44 on the ramp at Big Bear Lake

Its not surprising for me to be writing this update here on my website. The title does not surprise anyone that has known me for any length of time. Some of my friends feel that I have a great helicopter, equipped with some very good avionics and there is nothing left to work on. I disagree.

We are blessed to live in an era when technological advances happen everyday. This is as true in aviation as it is in the Internet Data Center business (American Internet Services) where I keep watch as the CTO of 200,000 sq. feet of data center space spread over five different data centers. The bottom line – I LIKE TECHNOLOGY!

So when something new comes along that I like, I typically end up owning it. When it comes to things like computers, TVs, radios, etc…its pretty easy. When it comes to equipment for my helicopter, its a bit more complicated. Unlike your car or your bedroom, when you add or remove something from an aircraft that was not put there by the manufacturer (or covered under what is called an STC or supplemental type certificate), the FAA needs to be involved and needs to approve the installation. The reason is simple – mess up installing a radio in your car, no big deal – but do so in an aircraft and people could die and that makes the process totally different.

So in this case, I have to look at more than just the cost of the equipment, but also the cost to remove and install the new equipment and the cost to manage the paperwork process (called a 337) to get the equipment “approved” for my helicopter. So it was no small issue for me to decide to remove my MX20, GDL69, XM Remote and ID-800 Icom Ham Radio and replace it with new hardware.

So what exactly am I going to install you ask..? Well, I am installing the new Garmin 696 moving map GPS and a new Icom 2820 Ham Radio.

Garmin 696 and MX20

Garmin MX20 and Garmin 696 with ID-800 Radio Head (below MX20)

Above is the picture of the 696 in its temporary position next to the MX20. When I bought the 696 to test it out, it came with a yoke mount which was useful attaching it to my current mount for the MX20 (round bar). This allowed me to test the unit for a few weeks right next to the MX20 which it would be replacing. Don’t get me wrong, the MX20 is a fantastic unit and it was great to have the extra situational awareness, real timeweather, traffic and terrain along with my Jeppscharts, but the 696 is so far ahead of the MX20 it was worth the investment.

Several of the big things I found with the 696 had to do with the usability of the unit itself. First, they have implemented an FMS style control much like the G1000 for those of you that have flown with that unit. The MX20 was an Apollo unit, so I can not really blame Garminfor the way the unit operated from a menu standpoint, but they hit a home run on the 696 in my opinion.

Second, the amount of information that the unit displays and how it displays the information is much better than the MX20. The terrain feature is great, but it goes a step further and shows you terrain clearance based on your vertical speed at any given moment in time. The accuracy of the GPS based altimeter was stunning. It was never more than 100 or 200 feet off for me everywhere from sea level all the way to 10,500′ MSL! Having lived with the MX20 for the last year, its a nice change to see it far more accurate since it works hand-in-hand with the terrain features. Its nice to actually get an alert when its necessary and not 1,000′ off the top of the mountain because the altitude encoder on the MX20 is so far off (its a separate unit).

Third, the representation of airspace is much better than on the MX20. When approaching airspace (a lot of class B space around where I fly) it shows you the boundries using a nice light line, but if your altitude is going to take you into the airspace, it colors the line thick and dark alerting you to the fact (along with a pop up warning) that you about to enter airspace. Its a small thing, but nice to see in action. Overall the representation of data and information is crisp and clear and very easy to read even at 40 years old. The MX20 in contrast appeared to be using old style graphics and the screen was no where near as vivid. Take a look at the picture of the two screens above and you can see what I mean about the difference in how vivid the displays look.

Forth, the screen is easily readable in direct sunlight. This is fantastic because my MX20 stunk in the sunlight to the extent that I had to have a hood manufactured to shield the MX20 from sunlight. In the case of the 696, it works and looks so well, I have eliminated the shield which had cut down on some of my forward visability.

Fifth, there is a lot more screen area to work with. I like the layout (I also have a AvMap) and think it works well for the 696. It allows the ability to move and put the data where you wantit, when you want it and does so while leaving you with a lot of extra real estate for the map itself.

Lastly, in keeping with technology keeping up, updates can be done via an SD memory card or via USB (the same USB that connects to the XM data antenna). The MX20 I was constantly pulling the CF card out to do my updates and its not like you can just replace that card if something happens. It contained the OS as well as the data on the card itself. On the 696 you can install extra maps on the card, download data, etc. I prefer to (and do) use the USB port to update my units. (I have a 496 in the R44 as well).

The software that came with the unit was great, worked well and allowed me to move over all of my waypoints from my 496 over to the 696. Some other small things – I like the way the flight plan layout looks. I like the fact that with weather enabled, when you pop over to look at your airport information it shows the wind speed and direction in the info box, I like the way the airport infomation is laid out with all the data.

Overall I think Garmin did a fantastic ob with the unit, the layout, the speed of updates, and command structure and, in general, the overall way the units works.

So I took the next step and decided to have the MX20 removed and the 696 installed in its place. This required a lot of work and rewiring since the MX20 had all of its data remoted form other units (GPS input from Garmin 430, Altitude from an encoder, TIS from the Garmin 330, Weather and XM info from the GDL69) and all of those wires had to make it to the front of the helicopter.

The bracket that held the MX20 had to be reworked for the new mount that I had built for the 696. Here you can see the nut plates that were installed to match up with the new bracket that will be holding the 696. A new mount had to be made due to the fact that while using the RAM mount that came with the 696, there is too much movement and vibration with the arm out where I wanted the 696.

The installation is in process, but here are some pictures of the progress and layout so far on both the 696 and the ICom 2820.

Bracket for 696

Modified Robinson mount (used for 530) for Garmin 696

By using nut plates instead of rivets this allows us to build the matching 696 holder with slots (if we want to) to allow easy and quick repositioning of the 696 unit itself. We are still playing around with the mount for the ICom 2820. Here you can see its backing plate is tied to the cross bar for the 696. The head unit attaches to the plate and the actual radio sits under the passenger back seat.

The 2820 is unique for this appication in that it has its own onboard GPS antenna which means I do not have to remote GPS to it for positioning on the JFindu Web Site used for tracking GPS enabled Ham Radio units. (Second Picture below).

Both mounts

Here you can see both mounts.


Airborne Tracking of R44 Helicopter via Ham Radio

On the Garmin 696, I had a special mount (and a special power/data cable) made by my avionics folks (Pabas Radio) to put the 696 exactly where I wanted it. Because nut plates were used, the unit can be removed if necessary in less than 5 minutes.

Garmin 696 Mount

Here you can see the 696 mounted in the helicopter along with the 2820 control head to the right of it. The carrier for the 696 is sheet metal that was made specific for this unit and screws directly to the back of the 696 with the four mounting screws used to secure the 696 to the RAM mount hardware. Its then cleaned up and painted black so it matches everything else.


When the unit is installed and I sit in the pilot’s seat, I still have about 4″ between the bottom of the GPS and the top of my legs. Plenty of room !

Plenty of Room

Once I get done with everything, I will post the “finished” pictures and let everyone know how it all worked out!

Richard J. Sears

Hi – I am the author – Richard Sears. I have been a pilot and flight instructor for over 20 years!

If you live in the San Diego area and would like to arrange a free airplane or helicopter flight for your child (age 8 to 18) through the EAA Young Eaglesprogram please email me at richard@sears.net

If you are a Scout Master, I can work with your troop on the Aviation Merit Badge and provide all ground training and flights necessary to meet the latest requirements of the Aviation Merit Badge. I am a registered Merit Badge Counselor with the BSA San Diego – Imperial Council.

All my flight time is donated, there is no cost to the parents or the troop.

Parents are always welcome to ride along and get hooked!

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