Buying a Plane? Important Avionics Considerations

Ken Elliott delves into business aircraft transactions from an avionics perspective, highlighting some important considerations from a buyer's point of view...

Ken Elliott  |  18th February 2022
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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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    Two pilots flying a private jet

    While the tight market for new and pre-owned business aircraft remains, buyers may not find the exact aircraft meeting all of their needs and desires, including the avionics installed, the interior, the paint, and more. Focusing on avionics specifically, there is a strong likelihood that something will need to change, be added, or be upgraded during a transaction. It would therefore be helpful for buyers to know what the key areas are to focus on, both before and during a purchase.

    There are two aircraft zones for avionics: Cockpit and cabin. Understandably, the cabin attracts the most scrutiny from the buyer, simply because the passenger experience is crucial. Underlying that experience, though, is the ability of the aircraft to complete the mission, which partially depends upon the workings of the cockpit.

    As with any purchase, being a savvy buyer makes all the difference.

    Being somewhat educated on the aircraft industry, or trusting someone to represent you, will allow for an easier aircraft search and a smoother purchasing process. It is not possible to be knowledgeable of the whole industry, but it is possible to focus on specific aircraft classes, quickly grasping the important buying information. 

    The Avionics Basics

    From an avionics perspective, the basic systems are similar across all versions of business jet and turboprop, except for specific requirements covering transcontinental and regional flight routes, as well as operating certification classifications, such as Part 135 v 91/91K. 

    Separately, smaller jets and most turboprops are certified for production and equipage under Part 23 (Normal Category), and larger aircraft are certified under Part 25 (Transport Category). The requirements of the avionics differ in design and operating requirements, but surprisingly the features offered by Part 23 avionics can often exceed those of Part 25.

    As a buyer you will quickly note that the avionics-suite providers can be counted on one hand, to include Collins Aerospace, Honeywell Aerospace, Garmin, and Universal Avionics.

    Many other providers exist who either do not manufacture the primary suite of avionics, or whose suites are not available as Part 25 versions.

    The manufacturers of aircraft (OEMs) will typically select the same avionics provider for their different models, but occasionally have been known to switch at least some avionics during production runs.

    Looking at the major aircraft OEMs and their current aircraft, you will notice how the primary avionics are shared between three providers:

    • Bombardier – Collins Aerospace & Garmin
    • Gulfstream – Honeywell Aerospace
    • Dassault Falcon – Honeywell Aerospace
    • Embraer – Collins Aerospace
    • Textron Cessna – Garmin & Collins Aerospace
    • Textron Beechcraft – Collins Aerospace
    • Pilatus – Honeywell Aerospace
    • HondaJet – Garmin

    When it comes to pre-owned aircraft, the field can look quite different.

    In general, the older the airframe is, the more likely the avionics will be a mixture of different products. For example, Garmin offers suite upgrades to aircraft that have different existing products.

    Worth special mention here, and listed above as a major provider, is Universal Avionics. 

    Originally, Universal specialized in Flight Management Systems (FMS) but has evolved by growing into flat panel displays, and now, as an Elbit Systems company, provides advanced low-vision solutions.

    While not employed as a standard platform for any of the major aircraft manufacturers, Universal Avionics can be found in many pre-owned aircraft cockpits, and is highly regarded.

    All the major avionics providers produce reliable avionics support, and offer approved service centers located around the world. 

    Aircraft Buyer Avionics Pointers

    As a buyer and future operator of an aircraft, look out for the following:

    • Standard factory warranty period remaining, and if the seller has extended the avionics warranty: Most avionics providers have extended warranty programs that apply specifically to their equipment, but not the aircraft or installation. These are optional, so prospective aircraft buyers should check on this.
    • Obsolescence of legacy systems: This could be anything from Cathode Ray Tube (CRT)-based cockpit displays to Cabin Management Systems. Buyers should ask for a current equipment list of all the avionics, and run it by a trusted avionics shop to see what is close to retirement, or what is likely to require an upgrade soon.
    • Part numbers needing an upgrade: There is a subtle nuance of avionics in which you can have the same identical product but with different part numbers or software revision versions. Although all the equipment perform the same basic functions, part numbers and levels of software are a clue to the options available, additional functional capability, operational capability and upgradeability. While all of these are important, worth further mention are:
      a)    Operational capability – where the product may work perfectly well for where the aircraft operated for the seller but lacks the function necessary for where the buyer needs to operate. This could be moving from domestic to international flying; or from being based in the US to Europe; or flying into runways where the buyer needs advanced Navigation capability.
      b)    Upgradeability – when for sale, if there’s an instance that a product in the aircraft has never been upgraded since delivery and is no longer able to be upgraded, the buyer could need to replace it to meet new mandates or operational changes.

    In both cases, the existing part number and software status will inform the avionics shop whether the aircraft has outdated equipment, and the shop can then advise what it will take to resolve.

    While most equipment lists provide model numbers and not part numbers, fortunately an additional review of the aircraft logbooks and flight manual should help the shop discover the necessary information. 

    During a pre-purchase inspection (PPI), there should be a review of the aircraft documents -  including logbooks and flight manual - where the inspection should reveal part numbers (and possibly software status) that can be checked by an avionics shop.

    Pre-Purchase Inspection (PPI)

    As with any major acquisition, a pre-purchase inspection is the normal practice - and the buyer can elect where they want it to be completed.

    For corporate aircraft, the inspection is a significant event, and no stone should be left unturned. Aside from airframe, engines and APU, the avionics form part of the PPI. Most operators are subscribed to some sort of maintenance service program that should faithfully reflect the aircraft as it is equipped.

    For the buyer, here are some areas to focus on when reviewing logbooks, other documents, and the overall accuracy of the maintenance service program(s):

    • Repeated repairs to the same avionics system could be a potential red flag.
    • The records should reflect the aircraft as it is equipped.
    • Inspections, such as RVSM, ELT, 91.411 & 13, Comms, CVR-FDR underwater beacons and ADS-B should be up to date.
    • Check the ADS-B Out is Version 2 (not 0 or 1).
    • Check that the systems listed are fully installed and operational, not just provisioned.
    • Do the Flight Manual Supplements reflect the equipage and operational approvals.
    • Check for a Radio License.
    • Check for the completion of Instructions for Continued Airworthiness (ICAW) items.
    • Are all STCs and Form 337 modifications fully documented and recorded?
    • Both the ‘Weight & Balance’ and ‘Electrical Load Analysis’ should be available and reflect the current modification status of the aircraft, including cabin modifications.
    • Ensure there are aircraft wiring prints, including a custom set for the aircraft serial number of interest.
    • Some avionics have paper operating manuals. Request for any that came with the aircraft.

    Apart from documents also check or complete the following:

    • Registration and other codes should be properly strapped for ELT and Transponders.
    • Request a full avionics systems ground check.
    • Software and all databases should be up to date.
    • Request a list of ‘transfer of ownership’ actions for the avionics, such as unexpired warranties, database, and service provider subscriptions.

    By taking the time, and with patience, the buyer and their representative(s) can select the right aircraft out of several that may, on first appearance, seem identical in their avionics equipage. Buyers can also proactively prevent potentially expensive repairs, modifications, service bulletins or compliance requirements from occurring later.

    The last thing a buyer wants is to purchase an aircraft, only for it to sit on jacks in a service hangar for weeks afterwards while it undergoes corrections for all that was overlooked at the time of acquisition.

    Trust is a big factor in any transaction but remember that with all the trust in the world, major discrepancies can be overlooked due to a lack of knowledge or due diligence. Choose knowledgeable representation during an aircraft selection process and ensure checklists are used to guarantee due diligence throughout.

    The person/people reviewing a selected aircraft may be a subject matter expert for that model, but not so much for the avionics and their capability. There is no harm in paying extra to have an avionics specialist also review an aircraft and its records.

    Other Work During or After PPI

    When an aircraft changes hands, it is a good idea for the buyer to check avionics options that are available and not yet installed.

    Very often, during a pre-purchase inspection, the aircraft is ‘opened up’ giving an opportunity to add wiring or new equipment at less installation cost than during normal operation. 

    The aircraft manufacturer will often have Service Bulletins, Aircraft Service Changes (Gulfstream), or Modifications that add features to existing systems. Examples are Synthetic Vision, Moving Maps, and Enhanced Vision. Smaller (and popular) options include cockpit and cabin outlets, electronic flight bag provisions, electronic ports, power for carry-on devices, galley provisions, and changes to cabin LED lighting.

    Note: The seller, and the broker representing the seller, will have an incentive to complete the PPI process and close the sale. They may discourage, or not mention modifying/upgrading the aircraft.

    Such work is not part of the sale or PPI, unless it’s negotiated. The way to accomplish such effort as a buyer, is to close the sale, then conduct additional work.

    This can only be successful if the aircraft remains open for modifications and does not have to relocate to close a sale in a different state, region, or location. In the latter instance, however, provisions for future equipage can be completed and certified, to take advantage of access.

    Buying New? Some Avionics Advice 

    Most new aircraft are equipped with comprehensive avionics suites that, along with the initial maintenance tracking and service support programs, are included in the complete OEM package offered to the buyer.

    Each OEM genuinely wants to provide a turnkey product, with everything intuitively integrated into seamless functionality, leading to complete customer satisfaction. Their websites offer ultimate cabin comfort and ergonomic cockpits. 

    The integrated approach is reflected in the avionics being listed as a branded suite. The inevitable cockpit picture confirms the singular suite approach with wide screen displays above, in front, to the sides, and below, throughout the cockpit, and all from the same supplier. 

    For the buyer of a new aircraft that is comforting and suggests product support will be easy. The OEM’s have gone to enormous lengths to support their customers.

    However, the buyer needs to know that cockpits and remote-mounted avionics are not all from the same manufacturer, and that two aircraft, even with similar serial numbers, may not be equipped identically when you review all of the avionics systems.

    Buyers should ask questions about options that are not automatically installed on the serial number of the aircraft of interest, requesting more information on the various systems and how they’re individually supported.

    If the OEM has a special service support program that is comprehensive and devoid of a list of exclusions, then that should be sufficient to ensure all avionics are covered for repairs and regular software updates.

    Once you own and operate a new aircraft, monitor the warranty period as it runs its course, and plan for coverage beyond that. The OEM’s compete with third-party providers to offer global support of the aircraft and equipment on a renewable basis. Explore the potential options before the warranty expiration. And make sure any post-delivery options that you have added are covered in the service plans.

    Following are some popular avionics system options for new aircraft:

    • Head-Up Displays, Enhanced Vision & Synthetic Vision
    • Ka-band Wi-Fi Internet
    • 4G (soon 5G) Air-to-Ground Wi-Fi Internet
    • In-air flight planning and other streaming flight services
    • Software updates covering options and capabilities not available when your new aircraft rolled off the production line
    • Security Systems
    • Service provider programs involving unique aircraft integration
    • Operational options that may need enabling on pre-equipped aircraft, such as RNP-AR, FANS 1/A and Domestic digital DCL
    • Quick Access Recording (QAR) and maintenance tracking programs
    • Flight tracking.

    To Summarize

    For buyers, selecting an aircraft - whether pre-owned or factory new - is a matter of digging below the marketing veneer to make sure the aircraft you intend to purchase precisely fits your need.

    The avionics portion of that is to ensure the aircraft has all the options and relevant software to operate how, and where you need to fly. 

    When researching pre-owned aircraft, it’s also a matter of ensuring the records match the aircraft, that everything works as required, and that a fully-functioning system is installed and not just provisioned. 

    Naturally, there are many more due diligence checks for a pre-owned aircraft, while the avionics are often ranked low in the priority of a pre-purchase checklist. At the very least, check for obsolescence, frequent occurrence of the same faults, that the aircraft matches its records, and is equipped and ready to fly where you need it to.

    When buying an aircraft, do not overlook service provider programs for systems such as internet and satcom. And remember that subscriptions for databases and software will need to be maintained. A change of ownership involves multiple steps, and many of the additional services add to the maintenance costs, and subsequently the operating costs.

    With avionics, never be afraid to ask and encourage a second or third opinion. Avionics is an incredibly complex and extensive area. It’s so extensive that most engine, APU and airframe systems are touched by avionics in some way, including for in-flight operating status.

    All the major OEMs have embedded avionics design, engineering, completion and service departments, including at their satellite facilities. The same may be said of all the major MRO shops, except that their design begins at the Supplemental Type Certificate (STC) or other modification level.

    Happily, because of the depth of knowledge that can be found at the hangar and back-shop level, there is no shortage of resources available whether you’re a veteran or a first-time aircraft buyer.

    Read more articles on Avionics for Biz Av 

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