WHY NOW IS THE PERFECT TIME TO UPGRADE YOUR AIRPLANE WITH THE PANEL OF YOUR DREAMS
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.
PISTON AIRPLANE AVIONICS
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.