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Avionics upgrades make the old new again
Talking to some of the players involved in business aviation recently clarified a picture we’ve watched for nearly two years now – the picture of an industry suffering slower sales of aircraft, both new and pre-owned alike.

Early in the slump, before the decline truly hurt, aircraft owners seemed to lean toward investing the minimal-allowable time and money in the upkeep of their airplanes. “They kept them flying and that’s about all,” one after-market equipment installer told World Aircraft Sales Magazine recently. “They felt there was no point in throwing a lot of money into the airplane when they wanted to sell it soon, and they simply wanted to keep costs as low as possible.”

According to our equipment installer, and several others from the maintenance and modification business, owners then started seeing benefits in upgrading the airplane they already owned. Pre-owned weren’t selling well, and many an owner with a new-plane order opted to cancel or defer. Whether stymied by a lackluster pre-owned market, or backed into a financial corner and making a new decision, both sides amounted to de facto decisions to keep flying the current airplane.

Consequently, questions were raised in the minds of the owners that centered around the health and vitality of keeping that proven aircraft up-to-date - after all, an upgrade costs far less than a trade up; if the airplane’s been in use for a while the chances are it has got some issues; and if it’s approaching anywhere near “average” age, it’s pushing 20.

Plenty of upgrade options exist, with each path offering its own set of benefits and costs - the choices for upgrades vary according to desire. But the choice with the most options – and the least-visible impact for the folks in the back – is the one most-coveted by those who fly the aircraft: cockpit avionics.

As the industry moved unrelentingly toward the convergence of its highest delivery numbers and the largest order backlog ever recorded, the operators who found the avionics upgrade option the most appealing seemed centered on owners who knew the airplane was staying with them for some time to come, and who wanted to keep the working-end as modern as possible.

For some of these business turbine operators and owners, that ownership commitment stemmed from the lead-time ahead of them before the next new aircraft showed up on the ramp. After all, keeping the machine in top form made sense – from an operational and residual-value perspective; an update only three, four or five years in the past meant a higher value than a 12, 14 or 15-year-old machine with a panel of a lineage even older than the aircraft.

For other operators, however, their ownership commitments covered a lot of considerations: all that finances could support; full satisfaction with the aircraft, both its mission capabilities and economic efficiencies; completing a long-term refurbishment that covered other aspects of the aircraft – paint and interior, powerplant.

These days, shop representatives say, the route to a new panel often is an off-ramp from economics-driven factors: the plane’s not selling but it’s more than worth improving, and it’s staying with the owner/operator for the long-term future.

Another element factors into the decisions about what and when: the development of the Next Generation Air Traffic Control system underway at the FAA. NextGen calls on the adaptation of technologies proven in more than a decade of operational tests – as soon, that is, as final standards are set for the equipment, and a timetable established for the changeover. Regardless of the reasoning, the decision can offer plenty of value on its own.

 

What’s to gain?
Certainly it’s apparent that flight crews enjoy a major benefit when a panel receives a current-generation overhaul. Most pilots of my acquaintance enjoy the visual simplicity of a modern panel.

Compared to the era of more than a dozen dials and instruments of a typical twin-engine turbine airplane, a modern cockpit featuring as few as two displays not only brings a sense of reduced clutter, but also typically a level of automation that helps flight-crew members stay on top of all the complex systems of a modern business turbine aircraft.

While the pilots enjoy the operational benefits of ‘redecorating the office’ with new equipment, they aren’t the sole beneficiaries. Owners should realize the benefits of more efficient operational capabilities with some of the new technologies available. Likewise, the owner and/or operator should see fewer maintenance bills and reduced downtime due to panel problems – particularly after the upgrade has had a decent shakedown period to iron out any bugs.

More and more, modern panels employ system architecture that provides long-term benefits for further upgrading without the expense of downtime of another whole-panel makeover. As avionics makers develop new features or improved functionality for their products the ability to incorporate them into the existing customer base serves to only strengthen the appeal of such equipment.

One major consideration to make before upgrading is the ongoing effort to overhaul the nation’s Air Traffic Control architecture. NextGen, as it’s called, will require systems and capabilities to assure compatibility of all aircraft using the ATC system – and now is not too soon to consider the updates required. The downside to moving now: not all standards and requirements have been set by the FAA. Nonetheless, ADS-B and WAAS, RNAV and RNP are acronyms that will increasingly dominate the business aviation world.

Options, options and more options…
Not in a position to do a full suite upgrade? Then maybe simply replacing instruments or displays is the answer. Such an approach costs far less than doing a complete systems refurbishment. A variety of avionics makers offer solutions.

 

Avidyne
Avidyne is enjoying widening acceptance of its latest product - the Release 9 Entegra System Avidyne certificated earlier this year. In the retrofit market, Avidyne has won business with replacement solutions for the venerable King Air propjet line from Hawker Beechcraft Corp.

Avidyne came out of the gate with its Alliant avionics package for the King Air 90 and 200 series aircraft. This package brings many of the benefits of modern digital flat-screen panels, up to, and including digital automatic flight controls, state-of-the-art air-data processors and computers and additional capabilities like integrated traffic and weather avoidance to the old propjets cockpit.

Avidyne is also working with Southern Star Avionics on the Envision cockpit replacement for the King Airs. This upgrade includes displays, a digital S-Tec/Cobham 65X autopilot, and other integration with aircraft systems and hazard-avoidance equipment.

 

Garmin
Garmin (like Avidyne) has won STC approval for its G1000 suite in the King Air, bringing to the propjet all the same capabilities found in other G1000 installations. This includes the company’s GFC 700 digital autopilot, two 10.4-inch PFDs and a 15-inch MFD to show weather, traffic, engine and aircraft information, charts, plates, taxiing guidance and XM satellite weather.

 

General Dynamics
Gulfstream built a considerable number of GII and GIII jets, and operators now can tap the planemaker’s parent company for an upgrade that updates the panel with LCDs from Sagem.

Based on Sagem’s 10.4-inch displays, the GD program integrates flight instruments, engine-condition information, navigation and precision-approach graphics. Other iterations are in the works by GD that employ Sagem’s systems, including programs for the Challenger, Falcon and Hawker lines.

 

Honeywell
Honeywell offers a set of flat-panel display solutions for operators flying older Primus 1000 and Primus 2000 integrated systems. Sized to fit into the same panel openings as the original CRT displays they replace, the DU-875 and DU-885 LCDs plus new control heads allow for a move to digital displays that doesn’t involve a full-panel swap. Furthermore, the upgrades bring to the two older Primus systems the promise of new capabilities – among them XM satellite weather, and electronic charts and plates, as well as other possibilities.

With several models of the Citation, as well as Learjets, Falcons and even new Global Express models still shipped with CRT displays, there is a deep pool of prospects for this Honeywell enhancement to an older Primus panel.

Honeywell also continues to win buyers for its Primus Epic CDS/R upgrade, which delivers a tailored Primus Epic-based integrated panel solution for several business jet models. Falcon 900 operators and others find the upgrade worthy – particularly for the added capabilities available through the system’s graphics and file-sharing hardware.

 

IS&S
Innovative Solutions and Support made big news with the launch of its program to upgrade more than 2,500 older Cessna Citations with its high-quality flat-panel display solutions. The company’s partnership with Cessna on this program makes the upgrade available through any factory or authorized Cessna Citation Service Center around the world.

The displays replace the flight instruments and engine-information gauges, while adding capabilities such as moving-map navigation displays and integration of traffic and weather information on the MFD.

IS&S reportedly is moving aggressively on other upgrade options for other models in the wake of the financial failure and shut-down of Eclipse Aviation. Eclipse turned to IS&S after parting ways with Avidyne, but by the time IS&S panels were certificated, and being fitted into the Eclipse 500, the planemaker was near its end. A revival of that effort could bring IS&S back into the OEM business. In the meantime, the company’s displays are an option for any number of upgrade solutions.

 

Jetcraft Avionics
This retrofit specialist offers a solution for low-visibility conditions through STCd installations being developed– a package the company calls EVS-II and AT-HUD. By combining the images from a highly sensitive infrared sensor with a compact Head’s-Up Display, Jetcraft brings to the cockpit a complement to SVS systems with the additional advantage of lower landing credit, and a clear-day monochromatic view of the real world. Further, it puts that image directly in the pilot’s field of view.

The Advanced Technology HUD employs fiber-optic technology to keep the HUD hardware small and light, while allowing it to operate without heat or the sound of a cooling fan right above the pilot’s head. Jetcraft’s stand-alone solution also may be interfaced to a variety of Heads-Down displays where, for example, in Europe it is a requirement for the co-pilot to be able to monitor Heads-Up display information.

 

Rockwell Collins
Iowa-based Rockwell Collins has offered a ProLine 21 panel upgrade for Falcon 50EX and Falcon 2000, two models already using Collins ProLine 4. The four-display update runs well under $1 million and offers new capabilities along with the benefits of digital LCD displays.

Duncan Aviation launched this program, and the benefits seem to attract many takers. More recently the company completed flight tests of a WAAS upgrade for the ProLine 21 system installed in a Hawker 800XP, the first model STC’d for the new GPS-4000S WAAS GPS receiver.

Rockwell Collins also won an Approved Model List STC to extend the benefits of WAAS to all aircraft equipped with the ProLine 21 and ProLine 4 panels. And the company expects to complete WAAS/LPV tests on several other business aircraft before year’s end.

 

Universal Avionics
An early adopter of WAAS – the Wide-Area Augmentation System enhancement to GPS – Universal’s Flight Management Systems (FMS) has enjoyed a lead on competitors slower to pick up on the benefits.

WAAS opens the door to LPV approaches – Localizer-Performance with Vertical Guidance – based solely on GPS data. With the FAA busily adding LPV approaches around the country (already about 2,500 - and growing), the WAAS option can open up airports previously served by approach minima that made business turbine operations less feasible.

But with the near ILS-level minima of the LPV approach, Universal’s WAAS-enabled FMS systems open the door. Universal’s EFI-890R upgrade is available for more than a dozen business jets through its installing partners. And the system can host Universal’s Vision 1 synthetic-vision system, providing a high-resolution, high-detail, clear-sky view of the world as stored in the EVS memory banks.

 

Rolling your own
Of course, not every upgrade must be part of a larger package, and older business turbine aircraft can benefit from a wide variety of partial upgrades that help incrementally improve the aircraft’s capabilities.

For example, PFD display systems for smaller FAR 23 aircraft can find a good home in FAR 23 business jets with older electromechanical and spinning-mass gyro instruments. Avidyne and Cobham both offer solutions.

Those old stand-along VHF Com and Nav boxes can be replaced by all-in-one solutions from Garmin and Honeywell, choices such as the GNS 530W from the former and the KLN 770 from the latter. Both integrate into a single large-display box the VHF navigation and communications hardware, the approach hardware (Localizer, ILS) and IFR/WAAS GPS navigators.

Garmin’s 500W- and 400W-series GPS-only solutions serve as a suitable navigation solution for operators who want to add only the benefits of GPS – but these boxes can also work as a FMS solution when coupled with a suitable autopilot system that can steer directly off the GPS course signal.

Garmin, Honeywell and Avidyne all offer PFD and MFD solutions that can replace stand-alone weather or traffic displays while adding navigation graphics to an aircraft with an existing GPS.

The permutations are huge. So how do you proceed? Start by making a call to your favorite avionics shop or factory rep, and let them take you through the products and processes available for your plane. After all, if it’s worth keeping, it’s worth keeping up to date!

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