In my early days as a mechanic, I could easily troubleshoot and repair all of the cockpit avionics systems. It was a simple process. If the unit was electrical, we would check to make sure it had electricity. If it was vacuum, then we would check to see if it had suction. The first required a volt/ohm meter check on the wire, the latter required looking at the vacuum gauge.Back to Articles
Maintenance considerations for today’s advanced cockpits
In my early days as a mechanic, I could easily troubleshoot and repair all of the cockpit avionics systems. It was a simple process. If the unit was electrical, we would check to make sure it had electricity. If it was vacuum, then we would check to see if it had suction. The first required a volt/ohm meter check on the wire, the latter required looking at the vacuum gauge.
If the system required a source of power, then I would remove and replace the unit and the system was fixed. After 40 years of cockpit avionics changes, most of those wires no longer exist and have been replaced with power/data cables. Many corporate jet technicians today might not even know what a vacuum gauge looks like.
Troubleshooting and repair of today’s cockpit systems consist of determining if the problem is with an airframe component, or with a sensor that provides information, or in one of the boxes that collects and processes sensor information, or it could possibly be a problem with the software program that performs the processing.
If the problem can be isolated to an airframe component or a sensor, then a trained technician can repair the problem or replace the sensor. If it is isolated to one of the processing units, then the component will need to be replaced with a repaired or new processor. If the problem turns out to be a software glitch, then it might take numerous calls to the manufacturer and several uploads, downloads, plus some testing, to solve the problem.
Today we have the EFD, FMS, EGPWS, TCAS/ACAS, ISS, weather radar, smart-landing, HUD and ADIRS systems in the cockpit, just to name a few. The only thing that I still recognize today from looking into these newer cockpits is the ELT (Emergency Locator Transmitter). All of these systems and their catchy acronyms create the need for extensive training, especially for the mechanics from circa 1970, like me.
Once all of these systems are installed on different communication platforms with different aircraft control systems, it can be confusing to say the least. Adequate training is the only way a technician is going to understand how to not only turn on and operate the systems but also troubleshoot them effectively so they can correctly repair the component without wasting lots of extra time and money.
All manufacturers of these systems offer extensive training for the flight crews. The key question to ask when considering what new Cockpit Avionics System to install is what type of technical support and maintenance training is available. It is also important to find out how thorough the training is, where the classes are held and the duration.
Many Original Equipment Manufacturers (OEMs) offer internet-based maintenance training that can save on travel expenses. Sometimes there are requirements for extra training on other manufacturer’s components due to the fact that they share information.
More Aircraft Types = More Training
When operating several different types of aircraft with different avionics suites, more time and money should be set aside for training to cover all the different systems. If you take your aircraft to a maintenance facility it is important to make sure the technical staff is proficient on your avionics systems. It may be hard to find a shop that will train their team on your specific systems at their cost but it is worth asking the question. If they won’t consider this, and then maybe it is time to shop around for another facility that has the qualified staff you need.
In my experience, it is a constant challenge to make sure technicians know the systems installed on an aircraft well enough to understand how they interact with all the other components for quick and cost-effective troubleshooting and repair. The bottom line is that it’s important that flight operations, no matter how big or small, invest in avionics maintenance training so the technicians can properly support the new equipment.
Another area to research when considering new avionics is the cost of updating the software. Today’s cockpit electronics are more like a computer than an instrument and have very sophisticated software. This software needs to communicate with other components and is designed to prevent system failures. The navigation systems have approach plates, terrain maps, and other information that require database updates. Some of these updates are bi-weekly, monthly, or whenever the system manufacturer feels something needs to be changed.
A normal update can take anywhere from 1 to3 hours to complete (if everything runs smoothly). It is not unheard of for a database upload to fail and require the process to be repeated, or require interaction with the aircraft or avionics manufacturer to help solve the problem. Some of these updates also require a dedicated laptop computer with specific software installed to accomplish these complex uploads.
After each upload, testing is suggested or required to assure the database uploaded correctly and is functioning properly. I always suggest that data uploads shouldn’t be started unless there is ample time for an unexpected upload failure or two.
Field Service Representatives
I also recommend that the maintenance personnel utilize OEM Field Service Representatives (FSRs) to help solve avionics maintenance issues. These representatives may be people sitting in a cubical with a headset on, or they could be out in the field traveling to your location to assist with troubleshooting and repair.
The FSR will research the history of past failures in other aircraft and use it to help solve the problem by comparing other results found in similar aircraft with similar avionics components. Getting the FSR involved early can save many labor hours and the cost of component changes so it is well worth the effort and time to build relationships with these Field Service Representatives.
Modern day digital electronics and avionics systems of today are more reliable, and seem to last longer than the older analog systems while providing numerous benefits not even imagined back in the 1970s. But when you are budgeting for the costs of these units, be sure to include the additional technical training, maintenance equipment and labor hours for software updates, that are needed to operate your new equipment successfully.