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Keeping Avionics Upgrades Simple

Five practical tips for keeping Business Aviation avionics modifications simple

Conrad Theisen   |   13th September 2016
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Conrad Theisen Conrad Theisen

Conrad Theisen is Director of Avionics Sales for Elliott Aviation, having been with Elliott...
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There are so many different systems, components and airframes flying today that finding answers to what is the best avionics upgrade for you can be incredibly difficult, notes Conrad Theisen, Elliott Aviation. Here are some pointers…

There are about 30,000 turbine-powered aircraft in the US that have been manufactured during the past 50 years. Within that timeframe there have been many major advances in technology and government regulations. These developments, along with parts obsolescence, all impact the components in the cockpit.

Significantly complicating the situation, many of these airplanes have had avionics upgrades over the years, whether to improve safety or to take advantage of new features that became available.

With so many systems being built over the past half-century, the only easy part to understand is that there is no simple, ‘one-size-fits-all’ solution to the operator looking to upgrade their cockpit avionics. While many operators see value in a complete avionics retrofit, for many that option is neither practical nor cost effective.

Thus, understanding your options and knowing the right questions to ask your service provider will be critical to making the right decision for what will be the best solution for your aircraft and mission.

1. Understand Integrated vs. Non-Integrated Systems

An integrated avionics system is one in which all of the components are made together as a group in one system, including the autopilot system. A non-integrated avionics system, on the other hand, is one that has newer components working with older ones. This may be displays, transponders, flight management systems or other components.

Keep in mind that a non-integrated system is just that: it involves the replacement of components.

The new components weren’t originally engineered to pair with your system as one fully-integrated package. To illustrate, imagine trying to hook up a VCR to an HD smart television at home…you’re likely to find the right parts to make it work, but you will not realize its entire value without streaming in HD, or hooking up to a Blu-ray player.

Many times, these non-integrated systems include equipment from two or more OEMs. Non-integrated systems can seem an attractive option because they can initially cost less, but it can be a very expensive and time consuming process to engineer the interface with a new autopilot. Thus you should approach a cockpit upgrade understanding the full extent of any non-integrated system upgrades.

2. Understand Upcoming FAA Regulations

The FAA’s upcoming mandate requiring all aircraft flying in controlled US airspace to be Automatic Dependent Surveillance–Broadcast (ADS-B) compliant draws ever closer. ADS-B Out will essentially eliminate the need for old, unreliable radar systems by using GPS technology, allowing air traffic controllers to safely reduce separation minimums.

While ADS-B Out does not give aircraft operators any direct benefit, ADS-B In will. When choosing an ADS-B Out solution, there are some that offer you ADS-B In benefits of getting graphical traffic and weather either on your primary flight displays or on a Bluetooth connected mobile device.

Thus, an operator - while seeking to comply with the FAA’s NextGen mandate ahead of the 2020 deadline—may find it well worth their while to fully-explore the options available to them, along with the cost for any added benefit.

3. Understand Avionics Obsolescence

Similar to consumer technology, avionics technology becomes outdated. New FAA mandates are passed, safer ways of operating aircraft are introduced, better ways of communicating with the ground and other aircraft are available, and better, easier ways of displaying your information are developed.

Ways to fly airplanes with the latest avionics are continually evolving to make air transportation safer, easier and more efficient. As with advances in consumer technology, advances in avionics eventually leads to obsolescence.

In fact, many of the items that are in airplanes have been driven by consumer technology.

Take Cathode Ray Tubes (CRTs) as an example. A CRT is a vacuum tube that uses phosphor to display an image on a screen. Every television manufactured since the 1930s had a CRT display until plasma and LCD (and now LED) displays began to be made. As interest in new televisions began to rise, the demand for CRT declined to the point of obsolescence.

During their peak, CRT displays were used as primary flight displays. Now that there is no consumer demand, there are no factories willing to manufacture new CRT displays, making locating a replacement incredibly difficult and expensive.

This situation can be particularly concerning for aircraft operators since primary flight displays experience long periods where they present a static image.  That constant presentation causes a CRT to experience phosphor burn on its screen. A primary flight display that shows phosphor burn beyond tolerances can essentially ground an airplane until a replacement unit can be located and installed.

Thus an operator using obsolete avionics equipment should shop around for the many alternatives, understanding their related benefits.

4. Understand Yearly Avionics Maintenance Costs

With factors such as meeting mandates, upgrading software and keeping older technology from failing, it can be very expensive to maintain an aging avionics system. In many cases, it can cost about $30,000 per year.

If you run into an issue where one of your more expensive components (a radar, for example) malfunctions, the cost of repair or replacement could be more than $50,000. OEMs do offer avionics programs that cover a portion of yearly avionics maintenance costs, for a fee, which may or may not suit your own operating needs.

You do have an alternative to signing up for an OEM avionics program, however.

A good aftermarket avionics supplier will give you trade-in credit on old parts that are in working order, potentially making for an extremely competitive price on replacement equipment purchased from them.

With the success of the Garmin G1000 system as a retrofit for older aircraft panels, for example, there is now a thriving market for aftermarket equipment; particularly for high-fail items such as tube-driven primary flight displays.

Thus, an operator might consider having a full set of spare equipment on hand at their facility in case one of their components fails.

5. Understand the Value an Upgrade Can Bring

Maintaining your current avionics will not increase aircraft value, but upgrading to a fully integrated avionics system can increase the value of your airplane when it comes time to sell.

While you are not going to see a 100% return on your investment, we have seen major value increases. For example, having installed over 200 Garmin G1000 systems in King Airs, Elliott Aviation has seen increases in value to a retrofitted aircraft of close to an 80% return on the investment.

What’s Best for You?

Understanding what to do when faced with the decision of upgrading your avionics can be tough. Ultimately, you have to make the decision that will be best for you. Do your research, talk to reputable shops and talk to other operators.

Never feel pressured into making a decision without fully understanding all of your available options. Weigh the pros and cons and when you come to your conclusion, you will know that you made the right call!

Read more about: Business Aviation Avionics | Business Aviation Maintenance | Business Aircraft Modifications

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