Cockpit Upgrades that Enhance Your Aircraft’s Value

What avionics upgrades are most popular with business aircraft owners, and do they add to the resale values of the aircraft? Chris Kjelgaard finds out.

Chris Kjelgaard  |  18th March 2024
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    Chris Kjelgaard
    Chris Kjelgaard

    Chris Kjelgaard has been an aviation journalist for more than 40 years and has written on multiple topics...

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    which avionic upgrades can enhance your jets value


    One of the biggest issues today for owners of business aircraft – especially older ones – is rapidly increasing obsolescence of the avionics equipment in cockpits.

    According to Walt Marcy, Avionics Technical Sales Manager for West Star Aviation, previous generation “federated” flight decks and electronic instrument displays manufactured by major avionics OEMs such as Collins Aerospace, Honeywell, Garmin and Universal Avionics are facing a particular obsolescence problem.

    A federated flight deck is generally described as an entire integrated flight control and display system manufactured by a given avionics manufacturer and deployed by an aircraft OEM as the avionics suite in a specific model of aircraft.

    In many cases, several aircraft manufacturers have selected the same federated flight deck system but tailored it to meet the unique needs of their aircraft models, says Marcy.

    According to Marcy, two primary reasons are driving today’s avionics obsolescence. First is that many flight deck systems are based on cathode ray tube (CRT) technologies that are no longer manufactured. This issue pre-dates the pandemic, he says.

    Many legacy aircraft have federated flight decks which make use of old-style CRT-based flight displays which are now obsolete, and spares for them are no longer manufactured and are therefore very difficult to find.

    Now, all new-production business aircraft come with LED-based electronic flight displays, and all Electronic Flight Instrument System (EFIS) display retrofit upgrades similarly provide LED-based units.

    The second reason resulted from the Covid pandemic itself, and it is now being referred to as a “Covid effect” issue affecting the worldwide availability of legacy computer silicon chips. The pandemic disrupted supply chains throughout the world, including deliveries of the chipsets the avionics OEMs needed to maintain their federated flight decks.

    A secondary issue was that many manufacturers of legacy silicon chips used the downtime provided by the pandemic to re-tool their production capacities to design and make newer, more relevant microchips.

    The chip redesign has led to a growing unavailability of legacy chipsets which has accelerated flight deck obsolescence, according to Marcy. That is because, in many cases, the chipsets needed to repair and modify components – including display units – are becoming scarce.

    Another issue adding to the avionics obsolescence problem has been that some aircraft owners have felt unwilling to spend significant amounts to upgrade the cockpits of their aircraft, Marcy says.

    Such owners felt that investing another ~20% of the entire resale value of the aircraft just to replace avionics units and displays was not justifiable, all the more so because until recently repair options for their legacy avionics installations were still available. 

    But those options are now quickly dwindling – and owners’ decisions not to upgrade avionics units and displays may well prove to have been short-sighted.

    Today, says Steve Elofson, Senior Avionics Sales for Duncan Aviation, “It does increase the aircraft’s resale value if it has those upgrades.

    “More and more buyers are connecting to brokers and experts and asking if the aircraft [being offered for sale] has the upgrades. So equipped aircraft come to the top [of the market] in terms of desirability.”

    Presumably such aircraft sell more quickly and for higher purchase prices than aircraft without the latest in LED EFIS displays and current-generation flight decks.

    The Evolution of Avionics Functions & Capabilities

    As avionics technology continues to advance and the integrated-circuit chips at the heart of every modern unit of avionics equipment and display become more powerful, more compact and more flexible in terms of their processing power and functional flexibility, two different but related avionics functions are becoming highly important and desirable.

    Those functions are designed to provide safety- enhancing situational awareness and workload reduction for pilots and to offer safety-enhancing automated capabilities for aircraft in distress situations.

    Safety-enhancing workload reduction for pilots is particularly important during workload-intensive phases of flight. For instance, it makes it easier for pilots to manage climbs and descents in busy terminal airspace safely, ensure landing approaches are stable and accurate, and perform landings routinely in difficult weather conditions.

    However, says Marcy, it is important to note that “the end result of [new avionics] technology is not changing for purpose. What is changing is the user interface.”

    The current generation of integrated flight decks and avionics controls offers a high degree of workload reduction by using touch-screen technology and fairly rudimentary Artificial Intelligence (AI) capabilities.

    Instead of pilots having to key long sequences of data and commands into flight management computers, they can touch the screens of their flight displays to instruct the Flight Management System (FMS) where they want the aircraft to go in three dimensions. Similarly, they can set-up precisely planned flight routes by tracing on the screen routes linking existing or self-generated waypoints and manage flight parameters and communications with little effort.

    Beyond that, technologies introduced within the past decade such as the Synthetic Vision System (SVS), which in night and IFR conditions shows a computer-generated 3D display of the terrain and weather around and ahead of the aircraft, and the Enhanced Vision System (EVS), which uses infrared sensors to provide a night-vision view of terrain at night and in cloud, are particularly useful during approaches, making IFR flying easier and safer for pilots.

    Pro Line Fusion Installed on a Bombardier CL604 by Duncan Aviation

     When SVS and EVS are combined into what is known as a Combined Vision System (CVS), business aircraft can routinely complete flights into smaller airports from which the visibility conditions would previously have forced them to divert. The flight completion rates into weather-affected airports of business aircraft equipped with EVS or CVS always show considerable improvements over their pre-equipage completion rates.

    Pioneered by Garmin, the software-controlled, AI-like Emergency Descent Mode and Autoland functions fitted with Garmin G1000 federated flight decks add a new level of safety enhancement for pilots and passengers.

    Predicting that Garmin G1000 Autoland will become a popular requested update for its customers who operate King Airs, Bill Forbes, Vice President, Avionics Programs for Elliott Aviation, says Garmin expects to obtain Supplemental Type Certification this year for King Air 300s and later members of the 300 family.

    Emergency Descent Mode detects if the cabin and cockpit have suffered a pressurization loss which might have incapacitated the people onboard and automatically performs a descent to a lower altitude at which the occupants of the aircraft can breathe naturally again.

    Autoland, to date only certificated for FAR Part 23 operations, goes further by contacting air traffic control if the pilot becomes incapacitated and the pre-briefed passengers press the Autoland activation button in the cockpit. The system can even land the aircraft safely at the nearest suitable, in-range airfield if passengers are unable to follow the ATC-provided flight control instructions necessary for landing the aircraft safely.

    While landing the aircraft, the Autoland function first sends out an emergency message on the 121.5 MHz international alert channel, then – if there continue to be no responses from the aircraft’s pilot or pilots – manages all communications with ATC and calculates the distances to all nearby airfields, automatically accounting for the aircraft’s required landing-distance parameters.

    Long aware of this background knowledge, it is easy for business aircraft MRO providers to identify the cockpit upgrades which their customers want most often, in terms of the equipment and aircraft type specified.

    In all cases, the MRO provider’s list of customer-preferred upgrades reflects the range of aircraft types and models in which the provider specializes.

    Popular Avionics Upgrades at Elliott Aviation

    For Elliott Aviation, which specializes in providing MRO for smaller business aircraft such as the King Air family and Light-to-Mid-Size Jets, Forbes says situational-awareness upgrades for Garmin G1000-equipped aircraft are becoming increasingly popular with its customers.

    However, flight deck retrofits “is our core activity”, he says, and as a result Elliott Aviation is handling requests from customers to install Garmin G5000 flight decks in place of

    Honeywell Primus units, and of Garmin G1000 flight decks in King Airs to replace their Collins Pro Line II equipment. Customers are also often requesting Elliott Aviation to perform upgrades to the Collins Fusion flight decks in their aircraft. Flight deck retrofit activity mainly involves installations of Garmin G1000s, G5000s, and G600TXi, as well as installations of Collins Fusion 1, 2, and 3 flight decks in jets and of the Collins Fusion line for King Airs.

    Elliott also handles retrofits of Honeywell Primus 1000 and 2000 flight decks, and Forbes says Primus upgrades can now provide functionality up to and including Synthetic Vision System capability.

    Another common retrofit activity for Elliott Aviation is replacement of the obsolete CRT-based, no longer manufactured Honeywell DU870 instrument displays in aircraft fitted with older Honeywell flight decks. The company has performed three or four such retrofits in Learjet 45s and also retrofitted DU875s in Hawker and Dassault models, as well as in Cessna Citation 560s, Excels and XLSs, says Forbes.

    Popular Avionics Upgrades at West Star Aviation

    West Star Aviation’s flight deck retrofit and upgrade business to date has mainly involved Dassault Falcon jets and aircraft in the Bombardier Global and Challenger families.

    Bombardier’s recent- and new-production business jets have the company’s branded versions of the Collins Aerospace Fusion flight deck. And West Star also does a lot of Garmin flight deck upgrade work on Textron/Cessna Citation Jets, according to Marcy.

    He says West Star Aviation’s avionics retrofit business mainly involves upgrades to flight decks in the Collins Aerospace Fusion line, as well as upgrades involving the Honeywell Primus 1000 and 2000, and Honeywell’s Epic packages.

    (Dassault uses Honeywell Epic flight decks for its Falcon jets, which are then given Dassault’s ‘EASy’ brand name. Gulfstream Aerospace also uses the Epic range, which it brands ‘PlaneView’ for its aircraft.)

    No upgrade path is available for the older Honeywell Primus 800 flight deck, but Canadian Marconi does make a plug-and- play retrofittable LED display for the system which West Star can install, Marcy adds.

    For Bombardier Challenger 604s, no upgrade path from the original Collins Pro Line 4 flight deck to the Pro Line 21 is available, but a direct upgrade path is available for retrofits from the Pro Line 4 to the Fusion line.

    Popular Avionics Upgrades at Duncan Aviation

    According to Elofson, “[Honeywell] DU875 upgrades are a very popular upgrade,” and upgrades from Collins Pro Line 4 flight decks to Fusion in the Challenger 604 are also a common job for the company. “Quite a few [aircraft] have been done, but there are many more needing to upgrade.”

    In fact, says Elofson, “there are a significant number of aircraft facing obsolescence issues right now.” (Elliott Aviation’s Forbes says his company is also seeing strong customer interest in the Challenger 604 Pro Line 4-to-Fusion upgrade: “It is being very widely accepted”, because the upgrade offers “significantly better situational awareness.”

    However, the same upgrade “hasn’t caught on quite as much in the Citation Jets”, he adds, because those aircraft have lower hull prices than the Challenger 604 and the price of the new flight deck consequently represents a much higher proportion of their total resale values.)

    Duncan Aviation also performs retrofits of the Garmin G5000 system in Cessna Citation Excels and XLSs, and the Garmin G600 into the early Citation Jet models. Later model Citation Jets are upgrading from Collins Pro Line 21 to Fusion.

    The company performs a lot of flight deck upgrades on Bombardier aircraft, not only retrofitting older Challengers with new flight decks but also updating existing Collins GlobalVision flight decks in Global jets with new state-of-the- art features and capabilities such as the SVS/EVS Combined Vision System, ADS-B In, and Surface Vision.

    Other Value-Enhancing Business Aircraft Cockpit Upgrades

    Several other cockpit upgrades that Business Aircraft MRO providers are performing on their customers’ aircraft are becoming increasingly common. These upgrades improve the cockpit’s navigation, communications, and situational awareness capabilities.

    For instance, notes Elofson, an upgrade is now available for Bombardier’s GlobalVision flight deck which offers a capability known as “Vertical Weather”. This upgrade allows the cockpit’s forward weather detection and display system to provide a vertical view of the tops and bottoms of storm cells ahead of the aircraft, as well as turbulence detection.

    It gives pilots much more complete information about and awareness of potential hazards in any areas of severe or unstable weather in the direction the aircraft is flying, and allows them to avoid areas of potential weather hazard more easily.

    Another weather-related cockpit upgrade which is becoming increasingly popular – but which is often provided to pilots’ electronic flight bags in addition to flight deck displays – is Sirius XM (SXM) Weather, says Elofson.

    An installed SXM receiver allows pilots to compare the information their onboard weather systems are giving them of the weather ahead with the wider, more complete multi- source view that SXM Weather provides, improving their situational risk-awareness and decision-making capability.

    Also becoming increasingly popular as a cockpit upgrade option is the installation of digital Controller-Pilot Data Link Capability (known as CPDLC in North America, as FAA Data Comm domestically in the US, and as Link 2000 in Europe), according to Forbes.

    Moreover, for aircraft capable of flying longer-range international routes, particularly transoceanic sectors, installation of a similar ICAO FANS-1A digital comms package is growing in popularity, Marcy adds.

    Forbes says Elliott Aviation does “a lot of FAA Data Comm” upgrades, which ensure that pilots never miss an ATC instruction because of voice frequency congestion. In addition to its other benefits, CPDLC/FAA Data Comm usually gives pilots much quicker departure clearances at crowded US airports than they otherwise receive by means of a voice instruction from a controller.

    Some installations come with “Push to Load” capability, which lets pilots have their aircraft execute ATC Data Comm (or CPDLC) instructions automatically by pushing a button on their flight management computers after they have read and agreed with the ATC instruction.

    More information from:
    Duncan Aviation: www.duncanaviation.aero
    Elliott Aviation: www.elliottaviation.com
    West Star Aviation: www.weststaraviation.com

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