Flight test: G1000NXi Archer LX
- Credit: NA
The addition of a Garmin 1000NXi panel makes the versatile Archer even better to fly, both as a training and touring aircraft | Words Dave Unwin - Photos Keith Wilson
To anyone flying near Booker that February morning our formation must have been a curious sight. With the Archer tucked in tight and slightly below the R66 it may even have looked like the helicopter was carrying the aeroplane as an underslung load. And, as the combination of TCAS and Sean's sharp lookout kept reminding me, it seemed as if everyone was flying near Booker that morning!
The test aircraft, G-IBEA is a 2018 Archer LX, and I'm introduced to it by BEA CEO Sean Brown at BEA's Booker (Wycombe Air Park) base. From a distance it looks essentially like any other Archer, although the myriad roof-mounted aerials?and particularly the double blade-type for the ADS-B unit?provide a subtle but significant clue that this is not your grandfather's, or even your father's, Archer.
The walkround reveals nothing especially interesting, although I think that the build quality and overall finish are of a very high standard, and considerably better than earlier models. Power is provided by a 180hp Lycoming, but it is now a fuel-injected IO-360 that is hidden underneath a composite cowling.
It turns a two-blade, fixed-pitch metal Sensenich prop and is fed from a pair of tanks located in the leading edge of the wing, with a combined capacity of 182 litres. A small hatch in the top of the cowling provides access to the oil dipstick. The undercarriage features fully-faired telescopic struts, and all three wheels are the same size.
The wing consists of a centre section that carries manually-operated flaps and tapered outer panels fitted with simple 'flat-plate' ailerons. The flaps have four settings: 0, 10, 25 and 40 degrees. A sensibly-sized door on the starboard side provides access to the big baggage bay which can carry up to 90kg.
An interesting aspect of the wide-span narrow-chord stabilator is that the anti-servo/trim tab is almost as long as the stabilator's trailing edge. All the control surfaces are dimpled for extra stiffness, and are operated via cables, pulleys and bellcranks. Unsurprisingly, the landing, taxi and position lights are now LEDs.
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In common with many other Pipers, access to the cockpit is only possible from the starboard side, as there is only one door. However, it's a large door that opens wide, while the non-slip wingroot walkway is also sensibly sized.
Thus far, I hadn't noticed any particularly noteworthy changes from previous models, although there are in fact several differences between Echo Alpha and the LX I tested at Vero Beach seven years ago.
The real transformation has occurred in the cockpit, or more precisely, the panel. It is very different. The previous combined Garmin G500/analogue arrangement has been replaced by a purely digital display, and there are no analogue instruments at all?not even a compass.
At its core is the new G1000NXi, which Garmin has certified for a wide range of aircraft. Indeed, the overall arrangement of the panel, throttle and control yoke is reminiscent of the Piper M600 (there's even a TOGA?takeoff/go around?button set into the throttle) and is doubtless now standard fit to all new Pipers. This commonality certainly makes transitioning up to one of the M-class a lot easier.
The instrument panel carries two twelve-inch screens (a PFD and an MFD), with an Aspen Avionics EFD-1000 'Evolution' standby instrument to the left of the pilot's PFD.
The EFD-1000 is undoubtedly a much more useful device than the altimeter, AI and ASI it replaces, as it also has navigational data. Upon turning on the master and avionics (most of the electrical switches are in a neat overhead panel, which makes an already uncluttered instrument panel even clearer) the first things I notice are that it boots up much more quickly as it now uses a dual-core processor (earlier G1000's used a single core), that everything is done quicker, and that the graphics are sharper.
In fact, it seems to me that the radio turns on practically instantaneously, allowing us to check the ATIS while the rest of the system initialises.
Almost as soon as it hit the market, the aviation community was unanimous that the Garmin G1000 represented the future of avionics, and the system soon established its pre-eminence in the GA world. It really did represent a huge advance in avionics and its latest iteration, the G1000 NXi continues this upward trajectory.
Although it may look essentially the same as the original G1000, the NXi represents a quantum jump in performance. However, before continuing, it is important to remember that not all of the myriad features (such as animated NEXRAD datalink weather) work outside the US and Canada and, furthermore, that some of the facets detailed below are not enabled in the Archer.
So, what is new with the NXi? We've already touched on the wireless connectivity and dual-core processor, but the NXi offers a great deal more. Along with SafeTaxi diagrams of the airport and the TerminalTraffic system (which provides surveillance of ADS-B-equipped aircraft and vehicles operating within the airport environment) there is now SurfaceWatch.
This optional feature not only tells you if you're lining up on the wrong runway (or taxiway) it also tells you if your chosen runway is too short for a safe takeoff or landing. It can even provide runway distance-remaining annunciations!
Other great facets (some optional) are the HSI mapping feature on the PFD primary flight display, and of course the synthetic vision, geo-referenced VFR and IFR en route charts, ADS-B In and Out, TCAS I and TCAS II, electronic approach plates and previews of standard airport departure and arrival procedures.
There's a flight path marker which is displayed on the synthetic vision and shows the calculated effect of variables such as airspeed and wind on the aircraft's trajectory across the ground, and colour-coded terrain-shading (green, yellow and red shows if your aircraft is 2,000, 1,000 and 100 feet above the surface).
There's even a vertical situation display (VSD) on the MFD which provides a geo-referenced profile view (it resembles the bottom portion of an approach plate) of your descent in relation to terrain surrounding the airport and your flight plan. And, of course, with WAAS GPS-based guidance from the autopilot, you can fly everything from coupled holding patterns to all kinds of precision and non-precision approaches. And at the end of a flight the built-in Flight Data Logger has automatically stored all critical flight and engine parameters on an SD card, which is invaluable for preventive maintenance.
I've always thought the G1000 to be a fantastic piece of kit, but the Nxi has taken the science of avionics to another level entirely. As with all things digital, you do need to sit down with the manual to get the best out of it, but it is reasonably intuitive due to the shallow menu structure. And, as you may have realised, it is extraordinarily powerful.
Although it looks very much like the hugely successful G1000, it has been significantly enhanced on practically every level.
Even before you arrive at the airport the G1000NXi makes life easier, as it's possible to plan the entire flight at home on an iPad or similar device and then wirelessly upload all the data (such as waypoints, VRPs, SIDS and STARS) into the aircraft. This app-to-avionics interface not only saves time but also reduces the chance of making a mistake, as you can plan the flight in comfort.
Furthermore, should you need to update any databases, this can also be done at home and then uploaded wirelessly. If there were room, it'd be no exaggeration to claim that I could easily fill this entire flight test by simply writing about the G1000NXi, so to try and maintain some kind of narrative flow I've boxed up the avionics information separately.
The start-up is slightly different as the engine is now injected but taxi and takeoff are 'typical Archer'. The max weight for 'EA is some 185kg heavier than the original 1960 PA-28, but it does have thirty more horses.
Ambient conditions are a freakishly-warm (for February) 21°C, with a gentle crosswind from port. The POH claims only 490m are needed to clear a 50ft obstacle at MAUW on an ISA day and this seems perfectly plausible.
As we move into formation with the R66 cameraship I get the distinct impression that the handling seems crisper than any other Archer I've flown. It could be the newness of the airframe but 'Echo Alpha' really does feel quite taut. (Most of us have flown either a PA-28 or its Kansas-built C172 contemporary where it has felt like the yoke was connected to the ailerons with well-worn bungees.)
The shoot doesn't take long, although the Electronic Stability Protection (ESP) doesn't like the 'breaks'. Basically, when Keith calls "3-2-1-break" I like to roll away from the cameraship with as much bank as I can get, up to and occasionally past ninety degrees.
However, the ESP system takes a dim view of such behaviour! It uses the same actuators, processors and sensors as the GFC700 autopilot, but functions autonomously. Essentially, if pre-set parameters in roll, pitch or airspeed are exceeded it introduces a correcting force while still providing the pilot with feel.
If you roll past 45? of bank there's a subtle but significant resistance through the yoke, and past 60? it becomes a powerful self-righting force. Keith likes a nice crisp break, so I temporarily disable the system by pressing the AP disconnect button.
With all the photos in the can, Sean passes me some 'foggles' so I get my head down and my eyes on the instruments. At this juncture I would typically assess the cruise performance, then control and stability, but the formation session with the R66 has told me all I need to know about control, while I suspect the stability is the same as any other Archer.
While writing this air test I thought that although every pilot has heard of the PA¬28, they may not know the whole story. For decades a steady stream of 'rag 'n tube' taildraggers had flowed from Piper's Lock Haven, Pennsylvania plant, and this type of aeroplane was the company's stock¬in¬trade until the introduction of the iconic PA¬24.
The success of this all¬metal aircraft and its tricycle undercarriage confirmed what Piper's board already knew - their product line needed updating, and there was a serious need for a trainer to complement the more advanced Comanche.
Similar in design and construction to the PA¬24, the PA¬28 was designed in 1960 by John Thorp and Fred Weick and entered production the following year.
It met with instant approval from both flight training schools and private owners, and Piper subsequently produced well over 30,000, spread over forty different variants on the same Type Certificate, ranging from 140hp two¬seaters to 235hp four¬seaters, with normally¬aspirated and turbocharged engines, and both fixed and retractable undercarriages.
Due to time constraints, I didn't get a chance to examine the cruise performance at the optimum operating altitude (typically around 8,000ft, although the LX has a service ceiling of 14,000ft) but 75% power typically gives a TAS of around 125-130kt while consuming fuel at around 38-40 lph.
Obviously, if you fill the tanks you can't fill the seats, but if you do fill the tanks the range is over 520nm, plus 45 minutes IFR reserve. A more representative 'mission profile' is that it can easily carry about 300kg (say three adults, or two adults, two children and some luggage) over 300nm.
Now, although I am Instrument Rated for singles, multis and seaplanes, I am not an 'instrument pilot', and my rating is definitely not current. Nevertheless (and despite it being a little bumpy), within five minutes I am flying to within +/-50ft, +/-5 degrees and +/-5kt, which would've been a 'pass' on a check ride.
However?and I can't emphasise this enough?the previous sentence says a lot more about the Archer's capabilities than my own. With a twelve-inch PFD there's a nice, big clearly-defined horizon, plus large 'command bars' to follow, accurate and well-rendered 'synthetic vision' and an easily interpreted 'Highway In The Sky' presentation.
Finally if, while hand-flying, I'd become incapacitated by either illness or vertigo, all I'd have to do is punch the blue LVL button on the panel and this automatically engages the powerful autopilot and returns the aircraft to straight and level flight.
As we head back towards base, Sean says he wants me to fly a GPS-only LPV (Localizer performance with vertical guidance) approach into Booker. One of the many extremely useful facets of the G1000NXi is that you can fly such approaches down to ILS-comparable minimums at airfields which are not equipped with ground-based electronic approach aids, such as an ILS or VOR/DME.
As you can imagine, this opens up literally thousands of runways and is a real game-changer. However, the circuit is extremely busy, and the controller (who does sound a little stressed) isn't as enthusiastic as we are about the idea! Instead, I fly the standard overhead join, but keep the foggles on and just follow the command bars which Sean drives through the Heading Bug.
On short final Sean says "OK, look up", and the runway's right where it should be, although if the visibility were restricted and I wasn't quite sure where the runway was, I could still continue, as the synthetic vision is overlaid on the PFD. Furthermore?and to illustrate just how accurate the system is?the synthetic vision is identical to the view through the windscreen.
I'm slightly 'hot 'n high' but a bit of a slip gets us back on the slope, and after a bit of a float a smooth touchdown rounds off another fascinating flight.
Conclusions? Well when the Editor tasked me with this test I was initially reluctant. I'd flown an earlier LX in 2012 and the diesel-powered DX in 2015. Was a 2018 LX really going to be that different, or was it simply the aeronautical equivalent of putting a modern satnav and infotainment system in a Cortina Mark 1? The answer is a resounding no!
The engine may be the heart of an aeroplane but the instrumentation and avionics are its 'brain'. And installing the NXi has given the Archer a very powerful intellect. Are pilots buying it? Well, Piper has sold 32,000 PA-28s over the last sixty years and sales are, if anything, as strong as ever, as the company delivered around 100 in 2018.
Why? For the burgeoning airline academy market it makes perfect sense. With its all-digital cockpit, synthetic vision and even a TOGA button it's the perfect low-cost lead-in to an airliner's cockpit. However, the type still also appeals to the discerning touring pilot.
The grass-field capability allows departure from 'Hedgerow Airstrip', while the integrated avionics would easily allow an approach and landing into Heathrow Airport (if you could get a slot!) And there's another important factor that's well worth bearing in mind when touring in a PA-28.
If you should experience any issue with either the airframe or engine, in all probability the mechanic will be familiar with both Piper and Lycoming products. But it is the integrated avionics that really separate this Archer from every other one that I've flown. Remember, this aircraft is an SEP.
It's a PA-28 not an MD-82, yet in some respects it's better equipped than a jetliner. And I'm not exaggerating.
Sean said the same thing?and as he used to fly 747-400s for BA, he should know. (The -400 doesn't have synthetic vision for a start!) And who ever thought you'd see a TOGA button in a PA-28?