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PLANE SENSE ON COCKPITS - Maintaining Today's Cockpits

My first experience with cockpit avionics 40 years ago was a lot different to what technicians see today. As a newly-minted mechanic and pilot, I was in awe of the Mark 12B NavCom radio with a VOR Indicator. A few years later, they came out with the latest and greatest navigation aid, the Apollo LORAN. There’s no doubt that, a lot has changed since then, and now the only place to find these units is in an aircraft that is on static display at a museum.

AvBuyer   |   31st January 2010
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Maintaining Today’s Complex Cockpit Avionics:
What you should know, and budget for.
My first experience with cockpit avionics 40 years ago was a lot different to what technicians see today. As a newly-minted mechanic and pilot, I was in awe of the Mark 12B NavCom radio with a VOR Indicator. A few years later, they came out with the latest and greatest navigation aid, the Apollo LORAN. There’s no doubt that, a lot has changed since then, and now the only place to find these units is in an aircraft that is on static display at a museum.

Climbing into the cockpit of a new aircraft today is a bit more like a ‘Star Trek experience’. My volt meter is useless and now I need a clean wipe and a bottle of glass cleaner in my pocket. Cockpits today look smooth and clean, and they work as efficiently as the latest computers in the Silicon Valley. The only problem is that these units do break - and when they do, it can be very time consuming and expensive to repair them.

With today’s advances in technology and improvements in navigation, additional equipment will undoubtedly be required. The upcoming Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast (ADS-B) and the NextGen Air Traffic Control System will require the updating of most cockpits with new and improved equipment.

‘OPTIONAL CHANGE’
A few years ago, RVSM was introduced with different phase-in conform dates for operators around the world. The operator had the option of not complying with RVSM - but in reality, who wants to operate a business jet below 29,000 feet? You would probably have a hard time finding an active aircraft today that has not complied with RVSM, so it would appear that this was a successful approach to moving us forward toward safer, more efficient flying.

Optional avionics equipment changes faster than the price of aviation fuel. It is common knowledge that flight crews like to improve the safety of flight, and these new ‘bells and whistles’ do more than just look pretty in the flight panel.

Heads-up Displays (HUDs), infrared cameras and equipment, traffic avoidance systems, weather avoidance systems and ground avoidance systems are all designed to reduce the workload in the cockpit, help reduce human error and improve safety. There isn’t a letter in the alphabet that isn’t being used at least once in the ‘official Avionics Acronyms List’ to describe all these new systems available today.

So, how do you determine what avionics you should install? Simply stated, it depends on your flight mission requirements. (Of course, your budget may be a deciding factor also.)

If your passengers have demanding schedules and need to get to their destination regardless of the terrain and weather [note: this should never over-ride the better judgment of a pilot], I would suggest putting everything that you can fit into the instrument panel.

Alternatively, if you fly fewer hours, shorter legs and in VFR conditions most of the time, a shorter list of equipment makes more sense. Your flight crew can provide good input as to what should be included in the cockpit when it is time to upgrade your avionics. There are numerous consultants that can also help you decide what to install in your cockpit...

REPAIR AND MAINTENANCE
To help keep your avionics maintenance budget in check, there are programs that cover the repair of the sophisticated electronics of today. For an annual and/or hourly fee, these programs offer repairs and (if necessary) loaner units. If you have few avionics repair needs, these programs may look expensive, but in reality it does not take many equipment failures to make these programs cost-effective in the long run.

Where cockpit avionics maintenance becomes a costly challenge is in diagnosing where the true problem originates. The previously mentioned Avionics Maintenance Programs can help as long as the black box or instrument is the problem, but when the source of the problem is wiring, a circuit breaker, or some other component that provides information to the black box, it usually means hours of troubleshooting and can become an expensive fix.

In the good old days, a technician could climb up with the trusty volt meter and perform minor tests. With the complex wiring, transistors, diodes, computers and some more elaborately named electronic components the old troubleshooting methods do not even come close to being adequate today. It takes special training, test equipment, laptop computers and special software that many shops may not have readily at their disposal today, so the troubleshooting labor hours can run into astronomical numbers. Make sure your budget accounts for troubleshooting with cockpit avionics.

For the older equipment, there are still a lot of small “mom and pop” avionics shops across the U.S. that are qualified and equipped to handle repairs. However, for the newer, more complicated equipment, you need access to trained and knowledgeable technicians.

Several of the large non-manufacturer associated maintenance shops go through the extra expense to obtain repair authority and factory-train their people. This allows these shops to provide in-house advanced avionics troubleshooting and repair. Some of these shops also have remote locations and provide road-service if requested.

Keep in mind however, that when you do have a shop send technicians to a remote location, you can expect to pay for the travel cost and labor hours for the travel and expenses. Again, avionics repairs in remote areas of the world should be considered within your maintenance budget planning. Be aware of the capabilities of the shops in the areas you are planning to fly the aircraft and consider worst-case scenarios.

This caution should be applied to all aspects of maintenance on these types of flights. A passenger can survive a flight without the Airshow system running, but a failure of your HF radios can be cause to cancel your flight. The cost and time necessary to ship loaner units and have a Technician dispatched to your location can be staggering.

THE MINIMUM EQUIPMENT LIST
Thankfully, today’s sophisticated equipment is very reliable and has redundant systems along with a Minimum Equipment List (MEL) for your aircraft, so you can usually get the aircraft to a facility that is qualified to work on your equipment.

A problem can occur when a company has a Minimum Equipment List that is non-specific to its aircraft. Using the manufacturers MEL or a “Generic MEL” that can be obtained easily through the OEM or internet without a lot of expense is sufficient for about 90% of the time.

If you have a Minimum Equipment List specifically designed for your aircraft with its current avionics equipment, it should allow you to relocate to another location with the appropriate capability to repair your broken avionics. A well thought-out and approved Minimum Equipment List is even more critical when you are operating in locations like Africa or Asia.

As another option, you may be able to obtain a special ferry permit if the broken unit is required by the MEL. You also need to remember, whenever you add equipment or even enhance existing equipment, it will affect your Minimum Equipment List and require you to update it and get it approved by the local Airworthiness authority. Avionics in today’s aircraft are the most reliable that I have seen in my 40-year aircraft maintenance career. Gone are the days of a gyro tumbling, or a needle sticking on the indicator glass - here are the days that you could have a blank EFIS screen or an FMS that is not working properly.

Either way, the aircraft will probably be grounded as a result and you will need to locate a skilled technician to troubleshoot the problem. Plan ahead, budget… and don’t forget the glass cleaner!

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