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Timing is everything; with so many changes ahead- planning is a must.

RVSM; DRVSM; TAWS; ADS-B. Taking a look ahead to the future of flight brings with it enough acronyms to confuse even the maker of alphabet soup. So many letters- so many definitions and- for some needs- so little time. That is why planning an upgrade holds so much importance for so many aspects of the business aircraft world.

To couple the letters- there are also so many questions- including what to do; when to do it; how much to do; who to do it; and where to start? Of course- answering these questions also brings up one final query: How to pay for it all?

As things stand today- some of the answers depend solely on the equipment flown by a corporate operator. For example- if the equipment flies on a turboprop engine and the service ceiling tops out at or below FL290- you can scratch from the list the work needed to meet standards for Reduced Vertical Separations Minimums (RVSM)- which applies solely to flights between FL290 and FL410.

Likewise for the January 1 2005 deadline for installing an ELT using 406 MHz for aircraft flying long over-water legs. If you are not crossing one of the big oceans- you can leave this one alone. However- if you haven’t yet met the requirement to install even a basic 121.5 MHz ELT in your turbine-powered aircraft- you were technically grounded as of January 1 of this year.

Since the world’s search-and-rescue coordinators plan to stop monitoring both 121.5 MHz and 243 MHz on February 1- 2009- use your smarts and make sure anything you buy today includes the 406 MHz transmitter hardware – otherwise- your ELT will be a voice in the wilderness in another five years. There is no sense in doing this job now with a 121.5/243 ELT and then face an upgrade requirement again later… but this gets ahead of the story.

This month we round out our trilogy on avionics by examining some of the factors to consider when planning for upgrade work on your aircraft. Beyond the simple act of defining what equipment you need to meet current and upcoming regulations- several other factors may come into play. Therefore- you should bear these in mind up front- according to advice received from installers and manufacturers.

Definition: Decide what you need as well as what you want in the finished panel...

Upgrading to TAWS? Updating TCAS? Adding a solid-state panel? A new flight-control system- advanced GPS hardware – or maybe an all-new panel with the works?

Perhaps the most fun – and most critical – aspect of working on an upgrade flows from the task of defining the work package and the equipment to include. While no hard-and-fast- right-or-wrong methods come to mind- employing some of the same yardsticks used to decide on an aircraft can help here. These include considering how the aircraft is used. Does it fly high enough to benefit from RVSM? Does it cross the Atlantic – even infrequently – for calls on The Continent?

Most importantly: Will new equipment play well with existing hardware- or- as often happens- does the replacement of one system require upgrades to others simply to preserve compatibility?

Making choices that make sense and making all the changes likely needed for years to come offers some economies of scale- the potential for eliminating downtime downstream- and the satisfaction of knowing that everything is up to date. For this reason- if no other- executives at Wichita’s full-service upgrade shop Bevan-Rabell Inc. suggest consulting early with an avionics dealer.

'There’s nothing more frustrating than finishing a major upgrade- writing a big check- flying away and discovering that all those new boxes don’t necessarily play well together-' explained Tad Keller- vice president with Bevan-Rabell. 'Worse still is finding out that some other requirement looms ahead and meeting that regulation means another trip back to the shop – with more downtime- more money and more hassle.

'You want to get involved with a dealer as early as possible- because we’re able to help an operator define the work package and assure that all the parts play well together-' Keller continued. 'We usually can tell operators about regs and requirements downstream and suggest whether the rules can be met in one visit.

'And- in our case at least- an operator can opt for other work- such as an engine hot section- replacement or overhaul- interior or paint work- even annual or 100-hour inspections-' Keller noted.

'If you’re planning on your airplane being down for a chunk of work as big as a major avionics upgrade- you might want to look at all the other needs that fall in the same timeframe- and pick a shop capable of handling them all in one stop.'

Estimates: Know what you’re spending and on what equipment and services...

Once an operator decides on a package- that package can be shopped around to installers and retailers with relative ease. The reasons are multiple.

First- of course- is cost. As Bevan-Rabell well knows- a competitive package can attract business from anywhere around the world. 'No single city or town generally provides shops like ours with enough business to sustain itself- so we work hard to be competitive both locally and globally-' Keller continued. 'And there are plenty of good shops that keep us on our toes- both here in Wichita and around the world.'

An estimate should lay out what equipment you’re buying; the costs of installation; any special needs that accompany that work – such as cutting an all-new panel to hold the equipment as well as work outside the avionics upgrade.

If the package includes interior and paint- look for that work broken out as such; ditto for any engine or airframe work- required inspections or AD compliance efforts. 'Making sure the different packages get broken out makes it easier for the owner to weigh the value of bids that don’t include everything-' Keller explained. 'So if you get a complete bid from us- then a bid on only the avionics work from another shop- and another on the airframe work- you can make an apples-to-apples comparison of the relevant packages.'

Moreover- knowing what the individual packages come in at also helps- should you try to negotiate a better deal with one vendor or another. 'I know it helps us be more competitive when we get an airplane in for avionics- panel- and airframe and engine work-' Keller noted. 'The more we get it in for- the better we can price the entire package.'

Finally- look for shops experienced in the work and equipment- as well as in the aircraft itself. 'The first-time installation of any system in a given aircraft typically takes more time than the second- the fifth and so on-' Keller noted. 'Beyond a certain point- the times don’t improve much.'

You will want to be sure the work is at least within the experience range of the shop- even though the equipment combination may be new.

Deadlines: Work backward from regulatory or operational cut-off times...

'Get this started early-' continued Keller. 'With so many things changing so fast – and so many other things in the wings – you don’t want to wait too long to schedule the work. As we get close to these different deadlines- our phones generally start ringing off the hook with folks looking for a shop to help them out… tomorrow.'

Deadlines are also an area of expertise for the established avionics shop- as well as the manufacturers and the trade association they share- the Aircraft Electronics Association (AEA).

Regulatory deadlines are only one time-oriented consideration. 'The shop needs time to plan the upgrade- to make sure the hardware will be available when needed- to design the installation and redesign the panel that will hold the new gear- layout wiring bundles – a whole bunch of items-' Keller explained.

If a piece of equipment is so in-demand that shipments run weeks behind schedule- the shop needs to allow for that. Similarly- if a final installation requires a check flight with regulatory authorities- that is another scheduling item to consider.

'We want to make sure that we’ve got a slot for the customer when they want to – or can – do the work-' Keller noted.

'Even some of the simpler work – like trading out an old avionics for something state-of-the-art – can fall victim to bad timing- backorders- vacation cycles- holiday periods… There is no perfect time to start the process-' Keller advised. 'There is a terrible time- though- and that’s when it’s too late to make it happen.'

Downtime: Plan ahead for the loss of use in order to have alternatIVe lift available...

So- you have selected a shop- the equipment is on order- the question of covering the investment costs has been answered- and dates set for dropping off your old bird and picking it up again with its all new panel.

Presuming your situation matches that of the overwhelming majority of operators- what do you use for travel during the downtime? After all- most business aircraft owners operate but one aircraft.

Several solutions exist- from simple and cost effective to simple and expensive. The simplest solution is to avoid- if possible- scheduling travel during the upgrade window. Cost effective- it is; easy- it may not be.

For companies dependent on the aircraft for routine- predictable needs- charter or a short-term lease may be the best approach. Ditto for companies who deploy their aircraft as-needed- especially when the destinations range far off the scope of our hub-and-spoke common carriers.

Charter companies and flight-management shops live to help clients deprived of their regular wings by routine or extraordinary circumstances. With the dates known- pinning down dates of need becomes relatively easy.

The airlines- of course- are always happy to see you board – particularly when you buy the ticket on short notice for specific dates- conditions that tend to demand the highest prices- but can you think of a better incentive than the cost of full-fare airline tickets for coordinating your upgrade and replacement lift?

Finance: Only you and your accountant know how best to pay the tab – so consult early...

When the time comes to put the aircraft in for its upgrade- an operator had better have a deep bank account- good credit or both; this work isn’t getting any cheaper- although the capabilities of new equipment often more than makes up for the costs.

'People use all sorts of methods to finance the investment in a new panel-' said Keller. 'Regardless of how they do it- the result is the same: They get a hot new panel- usually with new capabilities; we get a check.'

So just as you planned on the timing- the work package and the installer- you should look ahead to how you want to pay for this new package.

For some operators- the simple act of writing a check will be all the thought needed. Most business-owned- business-operated aircraft- however- present tax liability issues complicated enough to warrant a visit to the accountant. An accountant who knows your assets- your liabilities- cash flow and the status of depreciable items can advise on the best way to pay the tab.

Cash flow may support simply writing a check; it may not. Even if possible- writing the check may not serve the best interest of the aircraft’s owners. Refinancing the aircraft – particularly one fully depreciated – offers an avenue for leveraging off existing equity in the machine. Refinance may also help offset some of the costs by bringing an interest rate lower than that available at the time of purchase. Financing only the costs of the upgrade offers another avenue available for the correct conditions.

Regardless of the finance mode employed to pay for the upgrade- the accountant can make sure the investment depreciates properly on the corporate tax return- perhaps lowering the actual cost.

Training: Pilot type-ratings aside- safety demands training in these new systems...

The sophistication of many new avionics systems seems bewildering at times- the capabilities boundless. In some instances- the capabilities are beyond what was previously available. 'It can seem overwhelming-' Keller noted.

With training and some familiarization time- though- a crew should be able to resume flying the upgraded airplane with a comfortable margin of safety – one that should grow with experience of the system.

Different manufacturers offer varying approaches to user training- ranging from classroom- and cockpit-based- to interactive computer-based- and simulator time.

Learning what’s available for your new package should be a part of the selection process; giving the crew time to learn and use prior to heavy need should be considered a must.

'Fortunately- a lot of this new stuff works more logically than in years past- thanks to improved interfaces and better manuals and training-' Keller said. 'Once the crew understands the fundamentals- it’s basically just a matter of use and continued exploration of what the equipment does.

'Remember: The last thing you want is a crew that doesn’t understand the fundamental operations of the new gear; pilots who increase the risk of problems because they have to consult the manual or help list – and at the worst possible time.'

• More information from website: www.bevanrabell.com


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