Are You Getting the Best From Your Jet's Flight Panel?

Getting the best from your flight panel depends on many factors. Ken Elliott demonstrates how owning and operating an aircraft can be a unique experience – and where the avionics are concerned, there truly is no ‘one size fits all’…

Ken Elliott  |  15th January 2021
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Ken Elliott
Ken Elliott

Ken Elliott is a veteran with 52 years of aviation experience, focussed on avionics in General and Business...

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Cutting edge large business jet flight deck

While one operator may need a slew of upgrades, another may be quite content and fully functional with the same serial-numbered aircraft. Each flight department needs to make its own assessment – and the intent of this article is to provide a tool for you to map out that assessment.

Only once you have completely mapped it all out, you will know whether or not you have ‘got the best from your flight panel’, or whether an upgrade or retrofit is required during your next shop inspection or overhaul.

For this article we refer to ‘drivers’. Drivers are the requirements, mandates, needs, desires, cosmetics and improvements that feed into an upgrading decision. But, ultimately, it all comes down to a few main drivers, including:

  • Budget
  • Mandated equipment
  • Where you need to operate
  • How long you intend to operate the aircraft
  • What your priorities are, and who sets them
  • Who travels in the cabin
  • Whether the aircraft is placed for sale, recently purchased, or an existing ownership.

Diving Deeper into Upgrade Drivers

Assuming ‘flight panel’ refers to the aircraft’s cockpit avionics and all the remote equipage it controls, there are several key drivers regarding upgrades. These include: 

  • Resale
  • Wear and Tear
  • Obsolescence
  • Connectivity
  • Integration
  • Capability
  • Extended Capability
  • Airspace Mandates
  • General Mandates
  • Dispatchability
  • Situations Beyond Aircraft & Operation

We’ll take each of these drivers, providing information on their importance and how they fit into the wider decision of making the most of an extended MRO visit.

Usually an extended visit will be dictated by your inspection and overhaul cycle. This may include some airframe disassembly, up to and including a complete removal of the interior.

Apart from the distinct advantages with respect to cabin management systems, it cannot be stressed enough that the impact of a full interior removal on downtime and cost provides justification to consider any cockpit upgrade, too.

The reason for this is that most major upgrades require wire runs, and many require antenna replacements, both of which may depend on at least partial interior access.

What Skews the Upgrade Decision?

Before considering avionics upgrade drivers, we should also understand that all of them are skewed by ownership and transactional circumstances. This refers to both the ownership and operational state of the aircraft, which are listed here:

  • One owner not for sale
  • One owner always ‘for sale’
  • Corporate vs Individual owner
  • Fractional ownership
  • Chartered
  • In Pre-buy
  • Sold and undelivered
  • Post delivery
  • New aircraft delivery
  • Domestic and/or International Operations
  • Passenger or Freight
  • Public Utility or Special Missions

Each (or a combination) of these can prioritize, rule out, or lessen the impact of the upgrade drivers. If you are new to aircraft transactions and ownership, pay close attention to how you intend to:

-    Operate: Over time, where will you operate the aircraft, how often, and doing what?

-    Transact: Do you intend to resell after a planned time-period, divest at the end of lease, remove it from charter, etc.

These longer-term tactics will impact budget and corporate decision-making, and will form the background of how a flight department will function, operate and update its aircraft. In fact, your entire attitude to upgrading will be colored by how you plan to operate over time and what your transactional status is at any point along that timeline.

Only when you clearly form a long-term strategy of how your aircraft and flight department will evolve and grow (if at all) can you begin to properly address the upgrade drivers.

Breaking Down the Upgrade Drivers

Resale: This driver addresses the areas where it is essential to add a capability (for example, as a condition of the sale). This might include equipage for international operations where before the aircraft only needed to fly domestically.

Wear & Tear: As a rule, cockpits do not attract the same visual scrutiny as the cabin or the entry area. However, ‘dressing up’ the flight panel may be a sale differentiator, making a pre-owned model look younger. This could include both cockpit instrument and side panel refurbishment.

Wear & Tear involves conditional factors that include:

  • Appearance without the ‘bolt on’ look
  • Worn controls
  • Scratched, fuzzy displays
  • Dim displays.

Obsolescence: So many avionics systems are subject to obsolescence, and manufacturers are careful to provide adequate advance warning to operators – where they can be reached. Obsolescence essentially leads to replacement, rather than a simple upgrade of hardware or software. An example would be of legacy cockpit displays (either analogue or digital).

Connectivity: This refers to external connectivity for the flight crew and data services. An example is Air-to-Ground and Satellite internet capability for service provider bi-directional cockpit data.

Integration: Referring to the overall impact of adding a capability that requires multiple modifications to accommodate the interaction of data between systems, an example of this driver is ADS-B Out, where the Flight Management System, Transponders and Global Positioning Sensors need to integrate.

An avionics technician working on a light jet's wiring

Capability: Represents a change to the aircraft (avionics in this instance) that enables crucial operations, airspace access, or to meet an airworthiness mandate. A good example is Performance Based Navigation changes in order to meet Oceanic Track requirements.

Extended Capability: While capability may be essential to afford new operations or aircraft usage, extended capabilities would be considered optional and possibly specific to individual flight department requirements. An example would be Electronic Flight Bags or embedded charts and maps.

Airspace Mandates: If you want to fly a specific route or fly a dedicated approach, there will be an airspace operating requirement that, in turn, drives the aircraft equipage. These mandates are all about where and how you can operate. An example is Communication Pilot Datalink Control (CPDLC) as datalink is required to operate Oceanic and certain Continental routes.

As a sub-driver relating to airspace mandates, aircraft can be divided into groups, based upon their range capability, as range dictates where and how they may operate. These include:

  • Short – Across regions and localized states
  • Medium – Continental
  • Long-Range – Between adjacent continents, including oceanic
  • Ultra-Long Range – Anywhere

General Mandates: Surveillance is key to safety, and while the actual mandates may change by category of aircraft they tend to be required by most business aircraft, irrespective of the airspace you operate within. Examples include Traffic Collisions Avoidance (TCAS), Terrain Avoidance (TAWS) or Emergency Location (ELT).

Dispatchability: What is crucial for one operator maybe less so for another because the need to dispatch is more critical. Many flight departments have OpsSecs, and these spell out the flight conditions for dispatch. Others base their launch on the importance of the trip, and whether the executives can fly commercially, delay the meeting, or go virtual.

As a general rule, the more operators need to stick to schedules, the greater likelihood they will keep the flight panels current. Simply put, just missing one crucial meeting is not worth it, so equip for all eventualities.

Situations Beyond Aircraft & Operation: There are many different factors that feed into cockpit upgrade decisions, not least of which is budgetary. Others might be:

  • Downtime availability
  • Equipment lead times
  • Slot availability
  • Offset of aircraft resale against upgrade cost (viability)
  • Differentiation between two very similar aircraft currently for sale
  • Nice to have (because you may want it, as appeals to you)
  • Environmental considerations
  • Fuel costs (as when oil prices are high).

What are the Other Cockpit Avionics Considerations?

Selecting where to take the aircraft for MRO is a personal decision. Overriding, is whether to use the aircraft Original Equipment Manufacturer (OEM) or a third party MRO shop. Considerations relating to that decision should include:

  • Their familiarity with the primary avionic suite;
  • Any liability infringement of OEM warranty coverage (where applicable) when using a third party;
  • The ability to integrate to an existing avionics suite;
  • Knowledge of, and experience with, the custom aircraft interior;
  • Knowledge of, and experience with, wire routes and equipment locations.

Some of the factors that can impact the need or timing for a cockpit, or system upgrade are:

  • Updating from an analogue to digital aircraft;
  • Updating to cockpit flat panels (perhaps due to obsolescence);
  • The need for an additional display (an option in place of updating all cockpit screens where a third screen can accommodate charts, maps, video or synthetic vision);
  • Instances of low Mean-Time Between Failure (MTBF);
  • Instances where MRO visits are more frequent than you’d like;
  • When it is time to deal with interior wear and tear;
  • When it is time to repaint the aircraft;
  • Where conditional factors can influence the upgrade decision, such as:
    1)    General appearance
    2)    Worn controls
    3)    Scratched, fuzzy displays
    4)    Inability to add a feature or a function
    5)    Dim displays
    6)    Database update limits have been reached
    7)    Software update limits have been reached
    8)    Integration limitations require new ancillary avionics.

Avionics panel lit up in a darkened turboprop cockpit

Have you Considered ‘Equipment Bundling’?

A common practice for cockpit and system upgrades is bundling. Apart from the bundling of major aircraft upgrades such as paint, interior, cabin management and avionics, there are – within the cockpit itself – further bundling opportunities to take advantage of. These may include:

  • Interior & paint
  • Lighting
  • Cabin to Cockpit interphone
  • Accommodating pilot personal devices
  • Cockpit displays
  • Cockpit non-flight panel(s)
  • Air Purification (Aviation Clean Air System)
  • Security (cameras, missile defense and cyber)
  • Vision systems
  • Adding OEM Service Bulletins
  • Updating databases (including method of update)
  • Software updates
  • Hardware (improved/additional capability)
  • Access improvements
  • In-flight maintenance tracking and fault diagnosis.

Separately, bundling can occur within the hardware category listed above. Currently popular is:

  • Enhanced vision systems (EVS), including new generation Head-Up Displays (HUD);
  • Synthetic vision systems (SVS);
  • Electronic charts and maps;
  • Wi-Fi Internet (for the crew);
  • USB ports (for the crew);
  • In-flight fault diagnosis;
  • Avionic suite upgrades (including cockpit displays);
  • Cockpit display-only upgrade;
  • Obsolete Laser reference systems;
  • Datalink via Air-to-Ground, and via Satellite;
  • Performance Based Navigation (PBN) such as LPV;
  • Space-based Automatic Dependent Surveillance Broadcast (ADS-B Out);
  • Adding ADS-B In and flight tracking;
  • Auto-flight improvements; and
  • Electronic Flight Bags, including cockpit integration.

What’s the Suggested Initial Approach for the Upgrade?

Working with your preferred MRO (either OEM or Third Party), is key to selecting and planning a cockpit upgrade. The goal of this article is to help you consider all the factors that go into deciding on the upgrade in the first place.

Approaching the MRO, having completed your own background research, prevents misunderstandings and removes the suspicion of whose interest is best served – yours or the MRO.

As the owner operator you need to know what to ask, and understand your own operational situation. The MRO does not know your priorities, where you fly, and what you set as dispatch limits. Neither does the MRO does not know your budget, your long-term plans for the aircraft, or the whims of the most senior persons being flown.

So, by now you should have reviewed how all the drivers and other provided considerations of an upgrade may pertain to your flight department. You will have seen how different systems can be bundled, and what all the cockpit solutions are for you to consider.

From here, the MRO will let you know their recommendations, and different ways they can be accomplished. Hopefully, they will show you how each can impact your downtime and how they will allow for future growth in features and capability.

Just as you have priorities and limits, so do MROs – and they will differ, so there is no harm in consulting with more than one MRO provider. For example, talk to the OEM and a Third Party to gather different perspectives and choices. Make sure you ask for all the options available to you.

MROs will be very happy if you turn up with the following, when you’re planning and pricing an upgrade:

  • An accurate current equipment list with part numbers
  • Photographs of the cockpit (all of it)
  • Access to digitized wiring diagrams for your aircraft serial number, including all changes since it was delivered new
  • Access to up-to-date service records
  • Interior material specifications

In addition, be proactive and ask them if there are any additional records they may need.

When discussing upgrades try to find out how the facility will engineer and certify the work. It could be as straightforward as following a manufacturer’s pre-approved Service Bulletin, or as complicated as custom engineering with a Supplemental Type Certificate (STC) requirement, as part of the mix.

Sub contracted certification, which is common, is still the responsibility of the MRO. To an operator, certification should be a behind-the-scenes, seamless operation, if planned correctly. Crucially, find out the real downtime expectations and ask about equipment lead times. Issues with downtime and lead time can truly soil a good MRO relationship. Both of these are hard for MROs to pin down, whereas costing is more predictable.

Lastly, be prepared to go into contract and to bring the aircraft back later, maybe more than once or twice. This allows the MRO to order equipment, prepare engineering and plot the certification of the project. And, it allows for provisions to be installed if there are long lead times or anticipated certification delays.

In Conclusion

Any cockpit upgrade and avionics installation is all about preparation, planning and MRO engagement early in the process. Consider all your options and measure them against the many considerations in this article. Your flight operations are unique to you. Your long-term plans and priorities are specifically yours and the MRO provider needs to hear that from you, so it can advise what is best.

When it comes to resale, for any pre-owned aircraft it is how that aircraft meets the personal needs of the buyer that counts. As you will never know for sure what those are, it is best to keep the aircraft current, not overlooking the cockpit and its interaction to remote systems.

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Read More About: Avionics Upgrades | Avionics | Avionics Mandates | Avionics Retrofits | Turboprops

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