An instrument panel covered in INOP stickers looks ugly and gives the rest of the world, and in particular passengers, the impression that you don’t much care for your aircraft. And if you can’t be bothered to look after the bit that sits in front of you, what about the bits we can’t see?
Everyone’s got their own ideas about instrument panels. For some the sight of a pair of glass screens and computer keypads spread around the cockpit is heaven, even in a 1967 Cherokee 140. Others are more traditionalist. As we noted in last month’s AOPA EXPO report, Waco biplanes – a 1934 design that has returned to production – can be fitted out with accurate reproductions of the original panel, or for modernists, with the latest in sophisticated glass screens. Both options will cost you.
Giving your aircraft’s panel an upgrade is partly down to taste but even more so down tricks you get GPS, VOR, LOC, COMMS and a multitude of detail functions and capabilities in a small unit. What’s more these Garmin units have got a good reputation for reliability.
Because upgrading your avionics is, short of replacing an engine, about the most expensive job you’ll carry out on your aircraft it’s vital that you spend plenty of time planning the work with the experts who are going to carry out the work. Not least, because unless you happen to be in the electronics industry yourself it’s a very complicated subject.
Much of today’s advanced kit will do even more tricks than is claimed on the box. Garmin’s GNS530W has some hidden talents that an expert will help you unlock. If you wade into your upgrade without learning about the shiny new equipment it’s very easy to spend more money than you need to because you could be unintentionally doubling-up functions.
Finding the right expert
In all areas of aviation personal relationships are everything. Right from your instructor up to the salesman that sells you your first VLJ. It’s particularly important when approaching avionics work because you really are depending upon your supplier for sound advice and above all, honesty. It would be incredibly easy for an avionics company to talk you into to buying an upgrade that included stuff that you don’t really need.
It’s important to be able to get on with the technicians and be welcomed into the whole process. And that includes after-sales service and help with ‘I’ve forgotten what this button does’ telephone calls.
Your avionics supplier will sit down with you and help sketch out your super new panel, but you can start doing this yourself at home. Mendelssohn Pilot Supplies and Aircraft Spruce and Specialities (in the USA) both have panel designing sections on their websites that allow you to spec your panel by clicking into their internet shops to select kit and build a virtual panel. For even more fun you can go further and buy a software programme such as ePanel Builder (find it at www.epanelbuilder.com).
You can have hours of fun designing your panel, dropping in switches and buttons and glass screens without spending a penny. Fun, but the result of all the playing is that you end up with a good idea of what you’ll be looking at in your real aeroplane.
The rat’s nest
Harry Lees from Lees Avionics calls it the rat’s nest. It’s what often confronts him when he sets about removing the old instruments and equipment that’s going to be replaced. What was going to be a relatively simple job of splicing a new nav/comm unit into the wiring loom now becomes rather more complicated.
There’s no sense, or safety, in having a lovely new panel but a grandma’s knitting basket of old, tangled and frayed wiring behind it. Not only can you end up with an even more unreliable panel than you started with but now having disturbed the mess there’s a chance of an electrical fire. It’ll add substantially to the bill but get it sorted.
Most of our other aviation costs have an upper ceiling. Even if the engine goes bang we can get a pretty good idea of what a factory replacement IO-360 will cost. With avionics you’re staring down a well and the bottom can really be where you place it. It’s so easy to get carried away. And here we’re back to good planning. If you can’t afford your dream set-up in one hit then plan an upgrade that can be carried out over several years.
Perhaps first work on the flying instruments, then later the avionics stack and finally, the really sexy stuff like stormscopes and weather systems. Start with the equipment that’s really going to aid safety and also increase your flying experience.
Don’t forget about the hidden costs. You might, for example, keep your thirty year-old 172 outside on the airfield but when it’s got a gorgeous new panel with �10,000 worth of screen in it will you want the elements getting at it or worse, someone with light fingers? You might want to hangar it and that’s more money.
Glass v steam and clockwork
More beer is drunk and bar tops hit with fists on the subject of glass cockpits versus traditional analogue gauges than almost any other subject in flying. The only glass you’ll see on a Tiger Moth is on the aero screens and gascolator because firstly folk who like Tigers are after an authentic vintage experience and second, they often don’t have an electrical system. But there is a lot of sense in fitting glass screens to a twenty year old touring aircraft such as a Piper Arrow or Cessna 182.
If you go glass you need to really do your homework and find a trustworthy avionics expert. Not least because you don’t want to spend tens of thousands of pounds on a system that is about to be replaced. Or miss out on new technology that’s around the corner.
There’s some fantastic new stuff coming to the market – such as Aspen Avionics EFD1000 Pilot which is just about to be EASA certified and takes the place of several analogue instruments including the AI and HI. It even fits into a standard 3in instrument hole. Hook this little toy up to a Garmin GNS530 and you have a very capable and simple avionics package that saves space and weight.
eBay, car boot and Oxfam
Without doubt there are bargains to be had in the secondhand market. Trouble is, avionics are expensive and complicated. A secondhand telly going phut halfway through the Strictly Come Dancing final is obviously serious, but not quite as bad as a �99 ADF setting fire to itself in cloud.
Ebay’s UK site has very few listings for avionics but the American site has at least half a dozen pages full of secondhand transponders, Nav/Comms and more. But can you trust it? Harry Lees at Lees Avionics repairs very little on site as the cost is usually as high or higher than getting reconditioned units from the US. Your Ebay bargain will not be such a great buy if it needs repair.
Upgrading to IFR
If you’re upgrading your or your group’s aircraft now’s the time to think about upgrading to an IFR fit, especially if a significant number of the group have an IMC rating. It will also make your aircraft more desirable when it comes to selling it.
The first task is to work out what’s required and like many things in aviation it isn’t straightforward. Try asking in your clubhouse what’s legally required for IFR flight and I’ll wager that you’ll get several different answers, even if there are commercial pilots propping up the bar. And to be fair there are different answers, depending on exactly where and how high you will be flying.
Upgrading your aircraft’s panel isn’t just down to finding a suitable bank to rob or selling elderly relatives. There’s a bit of paperwork involved, too.
Your avionics supplier will have to apply for minor mods from EASA. This involves making drawings of the intended installation, including location of aerials. This is then sent to the CAA at Gatwick who issue a technical visa which then goes to EASA. Then EASA issues the paperwork for a minor modification. It can take longer than the job itself and of course there’s a fee involved. It’s set at €250 but you’ll have to allow a bit more because it could take your supplier several days to prepare the paperwork.
Permit and kitbuilt aircraft
The most fun the gadget junkie can ever have is designing a panel from scratch for a homebuilt aircraft. Firstly, it’s your baby and second, there’s an enormous range of kit to choose from because a significant set of shackles are removed from the non CofA aircraft: it does not require CAA or TSO approved equipment. This means that you have a wide choice of substantially cheaper avionics and instruments.
Less than �2000 will buy you an EFIS system from Dynon or others that will undercut traditional instruments in cost, weight and ability. Non TSO steam instruments are far cheaper too, with ASIs, altimeters and VSIs commonly a quarter of the price of certified equivalents.
It’s rare to find Austers and Cubs with nonperiod instrumentation but if you are faced with a panel full of cracked faces, wobbly needles and INOP stickers, or you are particularly adventurous and like to venture deep into Europe, bringing your aircraft’s panel up to scratch need not cost a fortune.