How can you ensure a successful avionics panel upgrade? Brian Wilson highlights how an operator’s choices play a key role, from selection of the equipment, to how they work with the avionics shop, to how they take delivery of their upgraded jet. Here’s why…
As consumers, we’re inundated with advertisements that showcase all the features and enhancements a product possesses. Regardless of what those advertisements tell us, though, it’s vital that we take the time to distinguish what we need from what we want.
Let me explain: My friend and I share a passion of running. He recently bought a running watch with all the latest technology that cost quite a bit of money and offered countless features, all of which he will use and gladly pay for.
Having got caught up in his excitement I bought the same watch. Since I only care about how far and how fast I run, I use only a fraction of those features. I could have easily bought a less expensive watch to match the options I needed.
If settling on the best priced watch that matches the features I need proves a challenge, imagine how difficult it must be to research the right cockpit avionics upgrade! Let’s dissect the process, hopefully making life a little simpler for you…
Where do you Start?
The first thing you’ll need to do is find out which display systems have been certified for your aircraft. These sophisticated upgrades require either a Type Certificate (TC) or Supplement Type Certificate (STC) by the relevant regulatory authorities. You can consult with an OEM or MRO of choice to see which options are available.
Keep in mind that cockpit display OEMs are always looking for a ‘launch’ customer with which to perform an initial upgrade and certification. This path provides both advantages and disadvantages for the customer.
The advantage is that you will always benefit from reduced pricing, and in most cases the upgrade can even result in a substantial cost-saving. The disadvantages are the increased downtime due to the certification process and the patience needed to work through the initial interface challenges.
If you are on the conservative side, then going with a certified and proven system is the path to take. Those seeking the very latest system may benefit from seek out the manufacturer and enquiring if they’re interested in certifying their system on your aircraft type.
Determine Pricing and Downtime
Hopefully your research will have resulted in a couple of viable upgrade options for your aircraft. If so, it’s time to get some pricing and downtime estimates.
Avionics manufacturers and installation facilities understand that no one wants their aircraft out of action for an extended amount of time, so some upgrades employ prefabricated harnesses that route to a junction box, thereby using the existing wiring on the aircraft. The other end of the harness connects to the framework that hosts the new display. Since the new display was designed to directly replace the current one, downtime is greatly reduced.
By contrast, some display upgrades require a whole new instrument panel and lots of new wiring. Some even require updating of the autopilot, while others incorporate a common radio tuning unit which might require signal convertors to interface with the existing equipment.
Therefore, it is highly recommended that you receive proposals from three accredited and experienced shops. Once you have these, you can narrow the choice down to two shops and have them walk you through the upgrade while referencing real time experiences. And while you’re speaking with them, don’t forget to ask for referrals.
Separating Want From Need?
I speak from experience when I tell you that proposals will help you distinguish between the wants and the needs. That is because complex proposals will come with both a ‘basic’ package price and a list of additional options, which are called options for a reason…
Options enhance the display architecture but are not required to achieve the designed feature set. This pick and choose selection process will help you distinguish some of your desired wants with a monetary value; therefore, creating a value proposition that can be carefully evaluated before a final decision is made.
Remember, colorful brochures usually cover all the capabilities of the system, but not all the displayed features are covered in the basic package pricing. Some examples of options might include:
- Application or File Server Unit that allows electronic charts and strategic weather overlays. (Most pilots would prefer a system that automatically loads the appropriate charts after the destination airport is entered in the FMS)
- Paperless Flight Deck
- Wireless Data Loading
- Video Input Enablement (remote camera input)
- Second GNSS or GPS Receiver (backup comes in handy in remote parts of the world)
- High Frequency (HF) Radio
The ‘needs’ are very distinguishable as regulatory compliance, adolescence and higher maintenance costs are compelling reasons to perform the upgrade.
The clarity and sharpness of the new smart displays can be akin to removing an old household cathode-ray-tube (CRT) TV and replacing it with a new smart LCD TV. The weight saving alone provides significant extra payload and offers additional fuel planning flexibility.
Most displays today are touchscreen, providing crew-configurable presentations of graphical data in a multi-pane mode. Having Synthetic Vision and WAAS LPV capabilities will also allow you to land at your airport of choice under varying weather conditions.
All this combined enhances safety and makes the aircraft more productive. The crew workload is reduced, and crew coordination is increased.
How do I Plan the Upgrade?
Typically, an upgrade should be completed in conjunction with a maintenance event. In some cases, the installation facility can perform an upgrade during the allotted downtime scheduled for an inspection, nevertheless, a few extra days should be factored for completion of the ground and flight testing of the new system.
Remember, if you choose to be a “first of type” aircraft the downtime will be increased by a few weeks.
Regardless, ample time should be allowed for all parties to prepare for the installation. This is not the event where everyone should feel pressured for time. Everyone must participate as a team to achieve a positive experience.
While aircraft owners need to understand the complexity of the upgrade and buy into the required downtime, this would also be a great time to seek out charter aircraft to help fill the void while the company aircraft is grounded.
The aircraft’s crew, meanwhile, should use the time to see what training tools are provided by the equipment manufacturer. Most provide eLearning that allows access to training via a computer, tablet or smartphone.
At the installation facility, the engineering team should be requesting all the aircraft documentation within a few days of receiving the signed proposal. Equipment integration should have been reviewed during the proposal process, however, experience confirms that detailed analysis tends only to be completed after the sale.
The crew should be very active in this process ensuring all the latest documentation is provided in a timely fashion, and communication and patience should become standard practice throughout.
There are many parts to an avionics upgrade, and each will have its own lead time. It only takes for one long lead time to delay a project. The lead time dictated on the proposal should be taken seriously, yet in my forty years in the aviation industry, this is the most overlooked component. Improper attention to the lead times creates the first element of pressure and finger-pointing between the stake-holders.
What About the Delivery?
The delivery process for your aircraft should be addressed when you arrive at the shop. Seasoned maintenance personnel will tell you they “build in” an additional day or two between the actual delivery date and what they have told the owner.
Having been involved in over a thousand deliveries of aircraft I’ve seen normal people become like parents trying to get that last hottest Christmas present for their children! Here is how to avoid that from occurring:
- Discuss the delivery process when you arrive. The project coordinator should have a timeline detailing the milestones of the installation. Ample time should be allocated for the configuration and testing of the system by the installation team.
- The crew then needs time to transition from what they learned through their online training to actual hands-on experience with the system in the aircraft. They should be supported by both the lead technician and a Field Service Engineer (FSE) from the manufacturer.
- The FSE is worth his weight in gold during this critical phase and is usually a seasoned veteran who is very technical. The FSE will also have the support of his engineering team standing by to assist if needed. Don’t think you can call these folks two days before the delivery date and think they’re available – plan well in advance!
- Once a thorough ground test has been performed and everything looks to be in order it’s time for a test flight. In fact, two flights should be performed to ensure the system was adequately tested and any issues are resolved before you depart the shop.
Unfortunately, I have witnessed many times where the aircraft is running late, and the delivery time gets squeezed, resulting with an aircraft departing with numerous issues that must be resolved after more downtime. The only outcome is intensified anxiety between the owner, the crew and the maintenance team.
Avoid all this drama with proper planning and continued communication so your avionics upgrade produces all the positive outcomes you hoped it would.