The Birth of Button-ology

By Michael J. “Mick” Kaufman

In thinking back to the days of rotating a knob to change a frequency and rotating the azimuth on a VOR indicator, it really was simple. All VORs were the same regardless of the manufacturer, whether it was King, Narco, Collins or Bendix.

Button-ology came upon us gradually.  First there were flip-flop radios with buttons. Then there were CDIs that had digital readouts with buttons to select “to” or “from” on the CDIs.

The Loran era is where big changes took place. I installed an Apollo 618 in my Bonanza and, wow, what a device that was. I flew home from the avionics shop thinking I had the world’s most sophisticated airplane. My next fight with the box was in IMC conditions, and I could hardly wait to try out that box while flying the airplane. All went well until ATC called “Bonanza 38 Yankee we have an amendment to your routing, advise when ready to copy”. After several failed attempts to amend my routing in the Apollo 618, I switched off that marvelous box, set in the proper VOR frequency, rotated the OBS indicator and it worked!

After that embarrassing situation, I spent many hours on the ground learning about the box, which then served me for many years to come. I should say that it served me well until the government decommissioned the Loran system in the USA.

In a previous Column of the “Captains Corner,” I wrote about working with a BPT client at a clinic. We could not find a menu to switch from GPS to VLOC to do an ILS approach, and the unit was not configured to auto switch, which is a user-selectable item. We finally found the menu item several layers embedded in the Garmin GI-275 Indicator; not in the Garmin 750 Navigator, as might be expected.

When we talk about button-ology, it must be understood that we have both hard keys and soft keys that can be used to change functions or menus. On the legacy Garmin 430/530, we had a hard key to switch between GPS and VLOC (VOR Localizer). Having a hard key means there is one dedicated button that does one function.

On the new Garmin 650/750 radios, GPS/VLOC button is a soft key. So, why soft keys? As more menus and functions are added to a device, there is not enough room on the device for more buttons or space is limited on the touch screen display.

The first time I was faced with making the switch from GPS to VLOC on the Garmin 650, I had an issue finding the button as it was not present on many of the menus on the Garmin 650. This is a function that is used a lot and if Garmin decided to make it a soft key, it should be accessible from every menu page on the radio. When we were introduced to Loran navigators several decades previously, we started seeing soft keys appearing and many functions were only available from certain menus.

My Bonanza has a Garmin 480 installed, and it has many soft keys and requires a totally different flow when programming compared to Garmin 430/530 structure. The 430/530 structure pretty much carried over to the newer 650/750 navigators. The programming structure of the Garmin 480 is based on the FMS (Flight Management System) used in heavy iron aircraft and is difficult to use for people who normally use the Garmin 430/530 programming structure.

We see pilots continue to upgrade their avionics. To this day, I wonder what they are trying to achieve. The Garmin 430/530 has almost everything that is useful, in my opinion, except for airways and custom-built holding patterns. The Garmin 480 in my aircraft has these functions, as well. We have found that round gauges are easier to fly than tapes when hand-flying — a fact that cannot be disputed.

So, what are those special items that entice pilots to upgrade their avionics?

First, there is support from the manufacturer. One hates to have a box that cannot be repaired, and we know from experience that this does happen. The Garmin 480 has had the end-of-life support from Garmin several years ago. I purchased and still have a spare box in my closet should my unit fail. The Garmin 430/530 boxes are also end-of-life boxes. There are some true avionics shops that will do field repairs. providing parts are available. I owned and operated a two-way radio shop for several years, working on public safety radios, so I have a lot of respect for those shops that can still repair our legacy avionics.

Currently, there is a major chip shortage. With computer chips in short supply, our avionics shops cannot get radios. This is true with the automotive industry, as well. Kenwood, a major manufacturer of public safety and amateur radio equipment, is almost out of business due to the chip shortage. According to a friend of mine that designed chips for a living, it takes about 6 weeks to set up for a chip run at the factory, so a lot of proprietary chips for custom projects are too expensive to duplicate.

Another reason that we find pilots upgrading avionics is for features that pilots think” they need. Many of these items — such as altitude preselect — are available as add-ons to their current avionics. I do not have altitude pre-select as I have seen them fail too often, mostly because of not being set up correctly by the pilot. Many avionics packages, such as the Garmin G1000. cannot be updated, as this system is designed to operate together, and only minor firmware changes can be made. The advantage of the system is that all components have been time tested and they play very well together.

The airlines are the last ones to do updates to their fleet and, surprisingly, many of the airlines do not have GPS. A pilot flying a 737 Max can go from one 737 MAX airplane to another, and all equipment will be the same. The Southwest Airlines fleet is identical with only the 737s, so they do not have some pilots flying Boeing and others flying an Airbus. This greatly simplifies training and training costs.

For airplane owners who do think they need those $100k avionics updates, keep in mind that pilots then need to get trained on their new equipment. There is new button-ology: where are those menus hidden? How do I do this? Did the avionics shop set it up properly? Did I keep that old legacy KFC-200 autopilot to save money, only to find out it does not interface well with my two Garmin G-275s?

Keep in mind from my previous comments in the “Captains Corner”, do not fly in IMC conditions until you totally understand your new equipment or any firmware update that may have been done.

In my experience with modern avionics, I do not recall seeing any equipment that has more than 4 layers of menus. This means when we hit a soft key, it brings up a new menu and if we push that same button, it brings up another menu. A soft key can be an actual button or an icon on a touch screen. By using touch screen technology, the manufacturer of the equipment can display more functions per page thus requiring fewer layers to find the desired menu.

I love touch screen technology for programming on the ground but during flight in turbulence, it is almost impossible to make changes to a flight plan. Thanks to Avidyne for giving the pilot a choice between dedicated buttons in turbulence and touch screen on the ground.

I once descended 1,000 feet below my assigned altitude while attempting to insert a new waypoint on a touch screen display to which I had been cleared while in heavy turbulence. It was my determination and frustration to get that waypoint added – and, unfortunately,  that got the best of my thought process.

Button-ology is here to stay and as pilots, we need to learn our navigators and autopilots well. Look for a flight instructor to help you, as it is difficult and takes many hours to learn your avionics well enough to fly in hard IMC. The problem is that there are so many boxes and autopilots with different set-ups on the market, most flight instructors simply cannot know all of them.

Please don’t jeopardize safety until you thoroughly know your equipment.

Until next time,



Michael J. “Mick” Kaufman