Aircraft Spotlight: Choosing Your Avionics and Transitioning to Glass

Basic aircraft design hasn’t changed all that much in the past 60 years. Whether you’re flying a Cessna 172, 182, or 150, or any of Piper’s aircraft that trace its lineage to the Cherokee, the airframe has essentially been the same for decades. What has changed over the years is what’s in the panel. With an avionics upgrade, everything that is old can be new again.

Whether your club has an aircraft with a legacy panel of round dials or older avionics that you might want to modernize, it’s worth considering investing in some new equipment. But where should you start? 

Do you go all in and replace the vacuum system with a large screen Primary Flight Display (PFD), a GPS/Nav/Com, and an autopilot? Or perhaps you prefer to keep some round dials and just get an attitude indicator/HSI like the Garmin G5 or GI 275 that fit in the space for an existing gauge?

Maybe you have a Garmin 430/530 that is no longer being fully supported and just want to find a replacement sooner rather than later.

There are a lot of good choices and options – both in equipment and manufacturers. Blue Sky Aviation Association Maintenance Officer and CFII Tom Halvorson recommends finding a club member who is knowledgeable and experienced with avionics to lead the effort (See this month’s Club Spotlight).

The first step in determining what equipment to get is to evaluate the type of flying your club does. Do your members fly mostly VFR or are there IFR-rated pilots that may want more advanced features, like an autopilot?

Once you have a clear understanding of how your members fly and the equipment that might serve that mission, take stock of what you already have in your panel. If you upgrade the GPS, will the autopilot you currently have interface well with the more modern electronics, or should you consider getting a new autopilot too? Do you have a second Nav/Com, like a KX155? Will it suffice or does that need to be replaced?

While you’re considering all the new high-tech equipment, don’t forget to determine the budget. Some clubs, like Blue Sky have an upgrade reserve for investments like avionics, interior, or paint. Avionics upgrades are expensive to begin with and can significantly increase in cost as you add equipment. Like with many things, the finances may be a deciding factor in what your club may choose.

Once the club knows what it wants to install, shop around and get a few estimates. Keep in mind some states charge sales tax for aircraft maintenance and installations, while other states do not. Sales tax can easily add several thousand dollars to the final bill. The tradeoff is convenience. If you choose to go out of state to save some money, you’ll have to get the plane to the shop, which takes some time and coordination. Also consider things like the shop’s hourly rate – it can vary from shop to shop, and that too can add up quickly on a time consuming installation.

End of an Era

Earlier this year Garmin issued a Service Advisory that encouraged GNS 430(W)/530(W) owners to consider transitioning to newer equipment as parts are becoming scarce and the company’s ability to service the popular units is becoming a challenge.

It’s amazing to think the 430/530 debuted in 1998 and has been in service for more than 25 years. Database updates and tech support will continue to be available, so there’s no rush to replace the unit immediately, but flying clubs might want to begin planning for an upgrade.

One solution is Avidyne’s IFD 440/540 line that are designed as a slide-in replacement, using the same tray, connector, and wiring harness as the existing GNS 430/530. This is the fastest and most cost-effective replacement.

While Garmin has only recently announced support of the GNS 430 will become more challenging, Avidyne first introduced the IFD 440 as a slide in replacement back in 2012. What that means is the equipment has been on the market for some time and proven itself. However, the operability of the Avidyne equipment differs from Garmin products, so if you do switch, you may have a bit of a learning curve before you get proficient with the buttonology.

To avoid having to learn how to operate a different system, Garmin offers several GPS models from the top of the line GTN 750Xi, which has a large screen and can incorporate the audio panel and transponder, to the smaller GTN 650 Xi, or the more affordable GPS 175, which is the same 2-inch height as older navigation equipment but has many of the advanced features of the other units.

Once you’ve decided on what GPS/Nav/Com to go with, the next question is what kind of flight instruments you want. You can save weight and maintenance expense by replacing the vacuum system gauges with a variety of options.

If you have a more limited budget the G5 replaces the traditional instruments and can be configured in attitude, DG/HI/HSI and turn coordinator positions. It has a 3.5-inch square screen and fits in the standard instrument cut out. It is common to see dual G5s replace the attitude indicator and DG. Aspen’s E5 Dual Electronic Flight Instrument offers a similar set up as dual G5s, but all in one unit.

Another option is the Garmin GI 275, which is round, allowing you to keep the classic look of your panel with all the functions of modern technology. The screen resolution is a bit better than the G5, and although it is round instead of square, the screen size is about the same.

If you’re looking for a larger unit that has more functions, the Garmin G3X, Dynon SkyView, Avidyne IFDs, or Aspen Evolution are all options that can display a range of information on a single screen.

As with any upgrade, learning how to use the new equipment is going to take some time. Consider investing in a ground power unit so your members can sit in the cockpit and power up the new avionics on the ground without running the engine. That way you can take all the time you need to learn where the buttons, menus, and information are while you’re safely on the ground.

In addition to the manuals to flip through, there are online courses and videos that demonstrate how to use most equipment, which can be quite helpful in getting acclimated. And of course, take advantage of your club instructor or other members who can show you how to operate the avionics.

Choosing to invest in modern avionics will add new life to an old aircraft. It provides the pilot with more information and can ease the workload, which enhances safety. It’s also a lot of fun learning how to use the new equipment and gives you another reason to go out and fly more.

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