Club Spotlight: Updating Avionics with the Blue Sky Aviation Association

The Blue Sky Aviation Association (BSAA) is a flying club based at Solberg Airport (N51) in Readington, New Jersey that is in the process of completing the third upgrade of its three aircraft to glass panels to improve safety and modernize its fleet. The club, established in 1957, has 54 members and about half of them are IFR rated. 

It all started a few years ago when BSAA wanted to replace a Cessna 182RG Skylane with a fixed-gear Skylane, which they thought would be a better option for a large club.  At the time, the club also had a 1998 Cessna 172SP, and a 2004 Diamond DA-40.

“We could not afford a newer Skylane with a glass panel. It was way beyond our budget,” Maintenance Officer Tom Halvorson, CFII said. “I proposed to the board that we buy an older airplane, and we upgrade it, which we could afford to do. Then we would essentially have a new airplane.”

In 2021, the club spent a total of about $210,000 to buy and later upgrade a 1981 Skylane. At the time a more modern 182 with a Garmin 1000 was about $350,000. The plan was to modernize all the club aircraft with glass panels as funding became available. After putting a new panel in the Skylane, the club had the funds to upgrade its 172 to mirror the Skylane’s glass cockpit. Last year they replaced the Diamond with a Piper Dakota, and by the time of publication, the Dakota upgrade should also be complete. 


Once the decision was made to buy a plane and upgrade the avionics, the next question was what to put in the panel and how to decide on a manufacturer.

As a member-owned club, it was important for the board to explain to the members its strategy and rationale for the avionics selection, as well as how it would be funded. “We have 54 members in our club and of course you’ll get 54 ideas,” Tom said. “There are so many options in the industry and so many people that have different opinions of what you should put in.”

For clubs looking to upgrade avionics, a good place to start is putting together a committee or identifying knowledgeable members to do research before presenting to the members.  For Blue Sky, this included reaching out mostly to club members who were flight instructors, and then designating a member to lead the effort.

“What you need is someone who is knowledgeable about aviation, experienced, and understands the avionics that are available,” Tom said. Being passionate about an upgrade also helps since it takes a lot of time figuring out what you want.

If you don’t have someone in the club that fits that description, Tom recommends you find someone who knows avionics to help guide you through the process, but cautions that the shop doing the work should not be your only source of information. 

For the Skylane upgrade, Tom was the person with the knowledge and experience, as he recently was involved in an avionics upgrade on a Cirrus that he is a partner in. He worked with a few other club members, including flight instructors, to look at various options from an operability standpoint as well as what was cost effective. They put together a plan of what to put in the plane and presented it to the members with the Boards approval.

Choosing Avionics

To begin with, Blue Sky decided to stay with one manufacturer to streamline the trouble shooting process in case a problem arises. They didn’t want to be put in a situation where different manufacturers might point to the other company’s equipment as the source of the problem.

Another benefit of staying with one manufacturer is to maintain a consistency in terms of how the equipment works. This helps members transition to the new equipment more easily and increases safety. Tom has flown with many different panels, including Avidyne and Garmin, so he has a familiarity using both. He said Avidyne and Garmin, while similar glass panels, operate differently, which is true with all manufacturers.

Other factors BSAA considered included the manufacturer’s service and tech support availability, and who might be around in 30 years. Tom noted both Avidyne and Garmin are likely to have continued success and longevity, but Garmin is the leader in the industry for certified aircraft.

“That’s why we went with Garmin. One they have good tech support, two we knew that they not only will stand behind it, but operationally throughout Garmin’s product line everything is going to be similar.” 

Once a club chooses what equipment it wants, it will have to explain the choice to the membership. “Having that knowledge, experience, passion, and support of the board and other club instructors, allows a person to not only evaluate different things, but to respond to questions such as why don’t we get a different brand HSI instead of the Garmin G5 because it’s half the cost.”

For the 182, the club chose to put in a Garmin G3X PFD/MFD with a G5 as a backup, a GTN650Xi GPS/Nav/Com, a GNC 255A as a second Nav/Com, the Garmin 350C audio panel, GTX345 Transponder with ADS-B in and out, and the GFC 500 autopilot.

Have a Budget and Get an Estimate

As everyone knows, there’s a lot of easy ways to spend money in aviation. “Planning what you need and budgeting for it is a critical component of the operation of the club,” Tom said.

Like most clubs, BSAA has an engine reserve fund. But it also has an insurance reserve fund, an upgrade and emergency fund, and an operating fund. The upgrade and emergency fund is to have money set aside in case something unexpected occurs, and to have funds for more expensive improvements like avionics, interior, or paint.

“The upgrade fund got from $80,000 to $90,000 and that paid for the Skylane upgrade,” Tom said. “We have reserves, and they are all budgeted and financed. We’re solidly in the black financially with reserves for emergencies and reserves for future upgrades.” 

Once you decide on all your avionics, its best to get a few estimates from different shops. “Keep in mind prices may change based on what the shop finds behind the panel,” Tom said.

The cost of the equipment isn’t likely to vary, but the cost of labor may be different. Don’t forget to check if there is sales tax on the work. Some states don’t charge sales tax for aviation maintenance and installations, while others do. If there is tax on the work, it can add several thousand dollars to the final cost. While going out of state might save you money, it could create other challenges. Besides having to fly the plane to the shop, if you have problems or need something looked at, it takes more time and coordination.

“When you have a problem, you can take the plane any place you want, but the shop that did the work is really the shop that you want to go to,” Tom said. “Convenience when you have an issue is pretty important.”

BSAA got three estimates when they did the 182 installations from shops in Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Massachusetts. The estimates were similar, and they chose NexAir in Massachusetts, because they had done Tom’s Cirrus, and he was pleased with their work.

When it was time to upgrade the 172, the BSAA board decided to use the shop at Solberg, which does most of the club’s maintenance. Adventures Aviation, which also has a shop at nearby Sky Manor Airport (N40), became a certified Garmin dealer, so they thought it made sense to get the work done with their usual shop. 

“The board knew, because of the volume of business we did with Adventures Aviation that we would get a fair price,” Tom said.

Similar equipment/configuration

The new panel on the 172 is nearly identical to what the club put in the 182, which was done on purpose. The main difference is the 172 has the GTN650W and a Garmin 430W, which they already had in the plane. It does not have the GNC 255 as Nav/Com 2 like the 182 does.

“As a Board we made a decision that we wanted all of the avionics in our planes to be as identical as possible,” Tom said. “That was a critical thing. We didn’t want things to be any more different than they had to be.”

Not only is the equipment similar, but the club wanted the physical location on the panel to be the same. While it’s not identical, all three planes will have the autopilot on top of the stack, then the audio panel, followed by the GPS. 

However, the G5 in the 182 is to the left of the G3X. There wasn’t enough room to put it on the right, where the club wanted it, because of the radio stack. In the Dakota, which the club bought last year to replace the Diamond, there is room, so the G5 will be to the right of the G3X.

Another advantage of designing your own panel is the ability to put things where you want. For the Dakota upgrade, the club is moving the avionics master to be closer to the pilot and the ignition key from under the yoke to the left side so it’s in a similar position as the ignition key on the Skylane and Skyhawk.

When they bought the Dakota, it had dual G5s, a GTN750, and the GFC 500 autopilot, as well as a low time remanufactured engine. To match the equipment on the Skylane and Skyhawk, the main work the club had to do was add the G3X and remove the vacuum system. It is keeping one G5 as a backup.

Having similar panels makes it easier for members to move from plane to plane, which is important for BSAA safety. Tom estimates that 60 percent to 70 percent of the members are checked out in all three planes. Everything operates the same way and the all the buttons to push are the same. The standardization helps increase familiarity and that reduces possible mistakes, which in turn makes the club a little safer. 

“As a club we’re dealing with three planes and wanted things to be the same so that people aren’t looking at fuel gauges in different places in different planes,” Tom said. “We wanted to standardize the stuff. From a safety standpoint, it makes it safer for a person moving from plane to plane. They know where to look.”

Another thing the club did to make the aircraft more uniform is setting up the equipment the same way. For instance, on the G3X the engine monitor information can be on the left side or the right side of the display. All of BSAA’s planes are configured with the engine monitor on the left. The shop was informed how the board wanted the screens configured and what information should be displayed, so when the plane came out of the shop everything was ready to go.

“Even for the stuff that is changeable by the pilot, we wanted the shop to have it already programmed so that we are starting with what we wanted during the final checkout of the upgrade,” Tom said. “With the two other planes, mirroring everything as closely as possible to the Skylane was the goal.”

Transition Training

The last thing to consider when upgrading the panel to glass is transitioning your members to the new equipment. If your members are used to a traditional six-pack scan, it will take a little time to get familiar with where information is displayed to develop a new scan, even though all the information is now on one screen in front of you. More important is learning all the features and figuring out what buttons to push to get to the information you are looking for.

“We had to take into consideration the task overload that occurs when training people on something that they have never used before,” Tom said. “We knew we needed a transition training plan, and that training plan would vary depending whether the member is experienced with a glass panel or not. We were not so much concerned about the physical flying if the member was already checked out in the plane.” 

With the help of all club instructors, Blue Sky developed a syllabus to teach members a basic understanding of the equipment and how to get around the menu pages to access the information needed. There first part of the syllabus in a ground school curriculum included making sure the database is updated, where to find the fuel quantity, and how to use the audio panel. They also have components to learn the navigation aspects of the GPS and how to use the autopilot.

An important part of the training is learning about the alerts and emergency procedures if something fails. Once the member has demonstrated a proficient knowledge of using the equipment on the ground using a ground power supply, they’ll fly with an instructor to use all the new components in flight and to ensure understanding of the buttonology.

The club also developed an advanced syllabus for IFR flight. This too has a ground and flight portion with training on approaches, and other IFR related procedures plus utilizing the G5 backup in the event of a failure of the G3X PFD. 

The goal is to train members on the equipment on the ground to avoid the possibility of task overload in the air and getting lost in the menus and screens rather than looking out the windows and flying the plane.

The decision to upgrade a club aircraft from the traditional round vacuum gauges to a glass panel has many advantages that improve safety as long as pilots understand the buttonology. The new avionics provide a wealth of functions and information that can have a profound impact in the cockpit – whether it is better decision making because of weather information right in front of you, reduced workload, or more precise information that is displayed all in one place.

If your club is thinking about improving avionics, it’s important to plan ahead – financially and in choosing the equipment to install, as well as the shop that will do the work. It’s an amazing opportunity to design your panel exactly how the club wants it. Once it’s installed, take the time to read the manuals, watch online training courses, and learn how to use the equipment on the ground before taking to the skies. Then get behind all that new glass and go fly an airplane equipped to take advantage of modern technology to fly more, and to fly more safely.



Blue Sky Aviation Association


Solberg Airport (N51)

Readington, NJ




[email protected]

Year formed



1979 Piper Dakota ($180/hr.)

1998 Cessna 172SP ($154/hr.)

1981 Cessna 182R ($186/hr.)


Rates are Tach time, wet

Joining fee

$3,000 bond (refundable) and $3,000 initiation fee (non-refundable)


$130 per month





Related Articles