The Master of “Good Enough”

Pilots will always remember Ed King as the man who built their radios.

If you grew up flying light airplanes during the heady years of the 1960s and ’70s, chances are about ten to one that you had one of Ed King’s VHF transceivers in the panel. King had earned a degree in electrical engineering, which he applied to churning out components for the industry giant of that age, Collins Radio, back in the 1940s. Collins bought him out, and he set up a new company to design and produce a better radio for light, general aviation aircraft. “Panel-mounted” radios were compact and fit right into the instrument panel, whereas the high-end airline equipment was “remote mounted” on racks in compartments that were out of reach of the crew. But King liked the challenge of reducing the “form factor” of a box while maintaining the performance and quality of the airline stuff.

Until King came on the scene, aircraft communication radios were, well, pretty awful. He set about designing circuits based on crystals that would provide a steady and reliable frequency — like the “clock” in your PC’s microprocessor — with the result that King radios soon got a reputation for reliability, ease of use, and crystal-clear voice communication.

In those days, it was a big deal to build a radio that was 100-percent “solid state,” a term that meant “no vacuum tubes allowed; transistors only.” King mass-produced them with alacrity, soon adding navigation components such as automatic direction finders, VHF omnirange receivers and, eventually complete integrated navigation systems. And all of it fit into the airplane’s panel.

Anyone close to the general aviation business in those days (I was writing for FLYING Magazine, and, being the junior staffer, was assigned the “avionics” beat; also, nobody else wanted it) came to appreciate Ed King as an engineer who mastered the art of knowing when his designers had put together a box that was “good enough.” It did the job at a reasonable and affordable price — and it left enough profit margin for the company to invest in the next generation of products. Where some avionics makers piled on the features, flashing lights and push buttons, King kept it simple.

Perhaps the most memorable single product to come out of King Radio while Ed was there was the KNS-80, which combined in a single panel-mounted unit one 200-channel navigation receiver for VORs and localizer beams (used for instrument approaches), a 200-channel DME (distance measuring equipment), a digital area-navigation computer and a 40-channel glideslope receiver. All those sub-systems must have been pretty closely crammed together, because the box required a fan to provide cooling.

The KNS-80 allowed a pilot to draw a straight line on the chart between origin and destination, then offset the various VOR navaids along the route, in effect moving them to the desired track on the ground. When that thing came out, GA pilots thought they’d seen it all. And it had only six buttons and a pair of concentric knobs. It took a little time and effort to learn how to use it, but your average Joe Pilot in his Cessna Skyhawk could fly “direct,” just as the airline guys did.

Sure, Loran-C came along, followed by today’s GPS, and now the -80 is almost a bit of nostalgia. But they’re still being sold (used or refurbished) and serviced, and as one shop’s ad says, “Even today, the KNS-80 represents a great value.”

Ed took his company public, which made the ultimate sale of it to Bendix Aviation inevitable. Allied bought Bendix, merged with Signal, and eventually, became part of Honeywell, which is where you can find the Bendix/King brand today.

Later in life, his love for the sea took over, and King Marine Radio was launched in Florida and became quite successful. Ed King died on June 3, but pilots will always remember him as the man who built their radios.

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