Flying - - FEATURES - By Stephen Pope

Why now is the per­fect time to up­grade your cock­pit with the lat­est tech­nol­ogy from lead­ing avionics mak­ers.

It turns out that air­craft own­ers who up­grade their cock­pits with the lat­est glass-panel avionics share some in­ter­est­ing sim­i­lar­i­ties with shop­pers for smart­phones, flat-screen TVs, lap­tops or just about any other broadly adopted con­sumer elec­tron­ics prod­uct.

When the first smart­phones hit the mar­ket sev­eral years ago they were cum­ber­some to use, lacked ca­pa­bil­i­ties and cost a small for­tune. Early adopters had to have them, of course, but most peo­ple held onto their old phones, at least for a while. Over time, smart­phone tech­nol­ogy im­proved dra­mat­i­cally and prices dropped, the two in­gre­di­ents nec­es­sary to at­tract a mass au­di­ence.

The mar­ket for retro­fit avionics has fol­lowed a sim­i­lar trajectory. The first retro­fit EFIS prod­ucts to reach the mar­ket a cou­ple of decades ago couldn’t do much beyond re­plac­ing a blue-over-brown electro­mechan­i­cal at­ti­tude in­di­ca­tor with a color screen. De­spite the as­tro­nom­i­cal prices for these rudi­men­tary early prod­ucts, some air­craft own­ers just had to have them. Most air­craft own­ers said thanks but no thanks.

Next came ac­tive­ma­trix LCD dis­plays and early ver­sions of syn­thetic vi­sion, which rep­re­sented an im­por­tant tech­no­log­i­cal leap but still were priced out of the reach of most buy­ers. Again, early adopters couldn’t reach for their check­books fast enough, while the ma­jor­ity of pi­lots watched the mar­ket with cu­rios­ity but with­out any over­whelm­ing com­pul­sion to up­grade their old but ser­vice­able six-pack in­stru­ment clus­ters with the shiny new glass dis­plays.

Fast-for­ward to 2018 and that’s all chang­ing. Sud­denly, prices for retro­fit avionics have come way down and func­tion­al­i­ties have ex­ploded. Af­ter the FAA re­laxed avionics cer­ti­fi­ca­tion rules a cou­ple of years ago, prod­ucts orig­i­nally des­tined for the Ex­per­i­men­tal mar­ket, such as the Garmin G5 dis­play and Dynon D10A EFIS, were made avail­able to own­ers of Part 23 pis­ton air­planes for en­tic­ingly low prices. Those who faced ex­pen­sive re­pair bills to fix or re­place older electro­mechan­i­cal in­stru­ments re­al­ized they could make the relics in their pan­els mag­i­cally dis­ap­pear for­ever by pur­chas­ing a new solid-state EFIS with built-in in­er­tial sen­sors and backup bat­tery for about the same price as a re­place­ment me­chan­i­cal ADI.

The FAA sweet­ened the pot last year by al­low­ing ap­proval of non-TSO’d au­topi­lots in Part 23 air­planes. Sud­denly, an owner of an ag­ing pis­ton air­plane like a Cessna Sky­lane or Piper Archer could up­grade to state-of-the-art glass dis­plays and au­topi­lots from a half-dozen man­u­fac­tur­ers for prices that make sound eco­nomic sense.

While this revo­lu­tion­ary change was oc­cur­ring at the low end of the mar­ket, sev­eral avionics-mak­ers be­gan in­tro­duc­ing highly ca­pa­ble retro­fit avionics sys­tems for high-per­for­mance pis­ton air­planes, tur­bo­props and light jets that could trans­form di­nosaurs into tech­no­log­i­cal beasts boast­ing the same ca­pa­bil­i­ties, or in some cases bet­ter ca­pa­bil­i­ties, than new air­planes rolling out of the fac­tory.

Clearly, the mar­ket for retro­fit avionics has ma­tured beyond the early adopter stage. Ac­cord­ing to the Air­craft Elec­tron­ics As­so­ci­a­tion, retro­fit avionics sales ex­ploded last year, surg­ing more than 20 per­cent over the pre­vi­ous year. So far this year the trend is con­tin­u­ing, with retro­fit avionics sales ris­ing an­other 12.6 per­cent ver­sus last year. We’re well into the “early ma­jor­ity” stage that prod­uct mar­keters so covet, soon to be fol­lowed by the “late ma­jor­ity” of buy­ers and fi­nally the “lag­gards” who will up­grade their crusty old Sky­hawks only af­ter ev­ery­one else on the field is al­ready fly­ing with up­graded avionics.

Of course, there will al­ways be those pi­lots who pre­fer fly­ing with round in­stru­ments to glass, and that’s OK — but let’s face it: They haven’t made it this far in the ar­ti­cle to know we’re talk­ing about them.

For the rest of us — the “ma­jor­ity” of pi­lots, who un­der­stand the value of the lat­est cock­pit tech­nol­ogy — we want to know what the new­est prod­ucts to hit the mar­ket can do for us and what they cost. On the next pages we’ll take a look at what’s new in the retro­fit avionics mar­ket to­day.


When the FAA a cou­ple of years ago re­laxed ap­proval stan­dards for cer­tain avionics in cer­ti­fied Part 23 air­planes, it opened a path­way for man­u­fac­tur­ers to skip the lengthy and ex­pen­sive TSO cer­ti­fi­ca­tion path­way and cre­ate new prod­ucts for gen­eral avi­a­tion based on ASTM stan­dards rather than the cum­ber­some DO-178 stan­dards for soft­ware, in the process some­times slash­ing mil­lions of dol­lars from the de­vel­op­ment costs of a sin­gle prod­uct. By achiev­ing parts man­u­fac­tur­ing ap­proval (PMA) and sup­ple­men­tal type cer­ti­fi­ca­tion (STC) for prod­ucts more typ­i­cal of Ex­per­i­men­tal-cat­e­gory avionics, man­u­fac­tur­ers were able to bring prices down con­sid­er­ably for hun­dreds of types through the ap­proved model list (AML) process. Even the avionics man­u­fac­tur­ers them­selves say they did not an­tic­i­pate how quickly air­craft own­ers would adopt these prod­ucts, but it turns out that the com­bi­na­tion of lower prices and ad­di­tional ca­pa­bil­i­ties makes for a win­ning for­mula.

While a stand-alone dis­play will add some nifty ca­pa­bil­i­ties to an older air­plane, to truly bring your cock­pit into the mod­ern age, a com­plete panel retro­fit is the way to go. It’ll cost more, but nowhere near the as­tro­nom­i­cally high price of a cock­pit over­haul just a decade ago as prod­ucts have greatly im­proved and the prices have come down to earth.

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