Question of the Month: How Do We Transition to A New Panel?

One of the top questions the Flying Clubs team is regularly asked concerns the pros and cons of upgrading the club aircraft—or to sell it and buy an already upgraded aircraft.  Now, upgrading to a different model based on the ebb and flow of members’ preferences is one thing.  Perhaps the club has outgrown its loyal Cessna 172 and is ready to move up in capability and utility to a Bonanza, or whatever.  In this case, the decision boils down to growing the club by keeping the C172 and adding the Bonanza, or sell and up-model. 

The former make sense if the club is on a mission to grow, but, as I have written about in earlier Questions of the Month, a club must be really (really) sure that it actually wants to grow, as experience has shown that more members, particularly new members that are attracted to the club “just” because it now has a Bonanza, will lead to increased drama.  (See the October 2023 Question of the Month:  “What Are The Pros and Cons of Big Clubs?”).   If nothing else, the question that will, not might, arise is how to handle those members that only want to fly the C172…or the Bonanza…but not both.  How does the club set the buy-in, monthly dues and also on?  Take a look at the February 2020 Question of the Month for some ideas on this, but importantly, do not go down the path of establishing membership tiers.  (Have a listen to Flying Clubs Radio Edition 25 “Membership Tiers Will End in Tears”).

If the club is not really looking to “up-model”, then the question becomes…do we upgrade the existing aircraft or do we buy one already upgraded?  In 9 out of 10 discussions on this topic the upgrade question revolves around avionics (“the panel”)—the other ten-percent being cosmetic upgrades (paint and/or interior), engine and/or propeller.  In the engine category, we hear of clubs wanting a bit more power, so they contemplate an upgrade to, say, a 180HP engine.  Some makes/models (including C172) have available STCs (Supplementary Type Certificates) for such upgrades, but be sure you want to go down this path.  Many people incorrectly think that adding horsepower will make their steed go much faster, whereas in reality you might get a few extra knots in cruise, but will definitely suffer increased fuel consumption due to the thirst of the new engine, plus the fact that is will be heavier than the original.  Level flight top speed is affected by many variables, but all else being equal, it is the aircraft’s total drag that sets an upper limit.  What you will get, however, is a lot more “excess power” which will result in significantly improved take-off and climb performance—both really useful in high density altitude conditions. (For more information on this and energy management as a whole, see this month’s Safety Section).

On the topic of upgrade or sell-buy, my personal recommendation is unless there are other drivers involved in the decision, stay with what you know.  Yes—upgrading takes time, research, effort and downtime, but it all pales into insignificance compared with selling your known steed, and then buying  a completely new-to-you aircraft.

Let’s now move onto panel upgrades.  Whether the starting point is the original “round gauge” panel or whether you are upgrading an earlier upgrade, the thought process, financial decisions and shear pain are all about the same.  I’m in the latter position right now as I ponder the news from Garmin that the venerable GNS430W (that I installed in my Aerobat some years ago, when the panel was “opened” for ADS-B equipage) is closing-in on the inevitable end-of-availability of some parts, such as the screen and various chips. 

Read more about one club’s “journey” down the panel upgrade road in this month’s Club Spotlight article.

Either way, the decision to upgrade is actually an easy it or not do it.  The complexity then comes from the multitude of choices that will open up…and the ever-sneaky increases in cost that will occur as a result of each small step forward.   We can all dream of a dual-screens glass panel with redundant back-up gauges, an autopilot, AoA indicator and so on, but we must temper those dreams with several realties.  Firstly, what can we afford and secondly, what is non-negotiable and what is up for compromise (a bit like buying a house, really). 

For more ideas on choices, see this month’s Aircraft Spotlight “Choosing Your Avionics and Transitioning to Glass”.

From experience with flying clubs, whenever money is involved the club membership tends to trifurcate.  About a third (the regular flyers) are for it; another third (the infrequent users) will be against it, and the final third don’t really understand what or why it is desirable.  Given that the bylaws of most clubs will require majority approval to spend the amount of money we are talking about, it can be frustratingly hard to get this moving.  This was exactly the situation in my club of some years back, when a few of us wanted to comply with the ADS-B mandate…which is a whole other story…but the solution was to set-up a committee of 5 people (odd number), rather than try to involve the whole membership with every small decision.  The committee was empowered to research and present alternatives to the board for eventual approval by the whole membership.  This allowed work to progress, and, importantly, for the naysayers to better understand the what and the why. 

Another really important consideration for flying clubs and their members to remember is that costs are shared. If the club has accrued money in the bank, well… spend it…that’s why it’s there!   Without money in the bank, or if it is strictly reserved for the engine/propeller overhaul fund, then the club could impose an assessment on every member (which should be an option in the bylaws – if not change the bylaws!), but even so, be sensitive to how it is broached with the membership.  Proposing a $30,000 upgrade will inevitably meet with dissent, but propositioning that all 10 members pay just $3,000 each will be considered very differently, and remind the members that they all get to fly behind the full glory of the new kit.  Access to a $30,000 upgrade for just $3,000—nice!

On the topic of financing, a quick digression.  I’d occasionally get calls from clubs pondering how to “raise money” to fund an upgrade or some other expense like an unexpected AD, or higher than usual annual inspection, and I have heard ideas as whacky as raffling airplane rides, selling gift certificates, somehow inviting “sponsorships” for the club, and other “schemes”... for schemes they indeed are.   A non-profit social club (especially one that enjoys tax exemption) must be really careful about where its income comes from—the majority of which must be from members in the form of dues, etc.   Whilst it may be permissible for a club to receive some external funds, it must be really squeaky-clean careful about keeping good records in case of being audited, but, really, why would anyone “donate” to a flying club whose members fly aircraft for their own fun and enjoyment?  That makes no sense to me! 

The other ideas (raffles, gift certificates, selling club merch, and so on) are also non-starters and are actually down-right illegal in most cases.  For a more detailed discussion on this, see April 2021 Question of the Month:  “How May Flying Clubs Raise Money?”

Flying Behind the New Panel:

Alright, now that the panel upgrade committee has done its job and presented a few alternatives to the membership, and the arm-wrestling over options has somewhat calmed, it is time to get the plane in the shop for the work.  By the way, as a rough rule of thumb, the costs of an avionics upgrade will be approximately twice the cost of the actual equipment, after considering installation and any taxes.  Perhaps have the work done in a different state, with more attractive tax rates or aircraft tax exemptions?  Take a look at the AOPA Airport Advocacy website for more information about state taxes and exemptions.

The wait now begins…but use the time wisely and productively.  It is almost guaranteed that the work will take longer than initially quoted.  You never know what rats-nest of wiring will be found until the panel is opened up, and one thing always leads to another.  Throw in incorrectly ordered (or delivered) parts (12V or 24V?), back-orders and so on, and you’ll have some time on your hands to do the most important next step.

Most of us, with the noted exceptions who we read about in “accident” reports (accident in italics, as the results are hardly accidental, are they?), treat new-to-us aircraft checks outs very seriously, and not just because it is likely mandated by the insurance company.  We study the POH, perhaps take a quiz, sit in the new steed to find our way around, meticulously follow the preflight checklist and then take 2-3 hours of actual flight time with a knowledgeable instructor.  Good sensible stuff.

Flying behind a new-to-us panel should be no different.  Even if the airframe itself is familiar, a new panel presents a seriously steep learning curve…and we all know that an airplane cockpit (oops…flightdeck), is a poor classroom.  To illustrate the point, next time you are wandering around the hangars peak in to the cockpits of several airplanes to see the diverse array of instrumentations—not just what, but where.  Not being able to find an instrument using your usual scan can be really perplexing.  As another illustration, if you subscribe to General Aviation News, take a look at the April 11th 2024 edition, page 16/17.  Here you will see the panels of five different WWII era airplanes…imagine trying to fly behind any of those without any training!

Okay, point made.  Just as it is foolish to not get a checkout in a new plane, so too for a new panel. 

Here are some ideas to help with the transition.  The assumption here is that the new panel has a fair amount of “glass”.  I include equipment each as Garmin G5 and GI275 in this, as they are multifunctional units that require understanding and training to use effectively.

  • If you are new to “glass, don’t just wing it. There are many good books out there that will get you familiar with the terminology and general descriptions, including the FAA Pilot’s Handbook of Aeronautical Knowledge (PHAK), pages 8-12 to 8-14.If you will be flying your new panel under IFR, curl up with Max Trescott’s classic: “GPS and WAAS”
  • Visit the manufactures’ web sites:
    • Download the Pilot’s Guides for each piece of new kit
    • Subscribe to receive updates and service bulletins
    • Download any available “simulators” for the new equipment. This will allow you to get to know the new equipment at your own pace and to get to know “the buttonolgy”…basically, what knob does what….and probably most importantly, how to quickly get back to a familiar page when you find yourself lost in the maze of the menu system. It may be “intuitive” to the marketing team, but likely not for us the first time we see it
  • Many manufactures produce videos to help with training. There are also many third-party videos available, many from jumped-up, self-made “experts”. As always with the internet, be careful what you believe!
  • Do not underestimate the importance of knowing how to navigate the new equipment—not just knowing how to use it for navigation, but knowing how it works. With one unit taking the place of a multitude of traditional equipment, you can be quickly overwhelmed when “it” is doing something you don’t understand
  • On that topic, many manuals will boastfully inform you about the four or more different ways to do the same thing. My advice is to leave that for another time…you’ll be busy enough getting to know the basic features
  • Flying club safety officers would be wise to work with member-CFIs to produce an avionics checkout syllabus and training content:
    • Produce a quiz that will force members to use and get to know the Pilot’s Guides and checklists
    • If not available from the manufacturer, create preflight checklists for the equipment, so that members can determine correct operation before taking off. New avionics equipment go through start-up sequences that includes elf-checks of circuits and features. This is only useful if you know that it is doing, and how it reports errors
    • Provide training classes—classroom, and in the aircraft .Make this (as well as a flight checkout) mandatory for all members, even if they claim to have experience with similar equipment, since “similar” is a dangerous word around aircraft
    • Create a few scenarios for members to work on at home, then actually fly them with a CFI or safety pilot during a formal checkout. The purpose of this is to “train as we fly”, rather than doing disjointed “tasks”. Be sure to cover all typical flight regimes and situations…tis is the basis of SBT, Scenarios Based Training
    • Go beyond the “Direct to” button…create flight plans, how to change them in flight, and so on
    • If you have dual panels acting as PFD and MFD, know how to swap functionality if the PFD fails
    • Hold regular training sessions to allow members to grow in panel proficiency
  • Determine if there is a “simulator” (Flight Training Device) in the area that uses the same panel. Ask the local flight schools if they have or know of such a device. The idea is to use the device to gain basic “glass” knowledge and familiarly…for example, how to interpret the various readouts and tapes. For more on transitioning between round and glass in a simulator environment, see this article by Redbird: “The Pros and Cons of Learning to Fly with a Glass Cockpit”
  • For me, one of the most annoying things about sharing a plane that has configurable avionic features is that everyone organizes it differently. Depending on who last flew the plane, you may be faced a very different display than you are used to, which can be really confusing—especially in flight (“what’s it doing now”?).My advice is to have a club discussion on this topic when the plane is in the shop—before it becomes an issue.

    There are several options here:

    • Everyone agrees to a particular configuration, which is then the standard, and no one deviates from it. Yeah…good luck with that
    • Require that after every flight, the PIC resets the configuration to a predetermined standard. Alternatively, this could be done as part of the next preflight. Ask the manufacturer/installer if there is the option to customize the “reset” beyond just the factory defaults, which may wipe-out wanted configurations and data
    • Have each member produce their own checklist so they can quickly reconfigure the equipment to their preferences. I did this when flying a shared RV-12 that had dual Garmin G3X panels. Even simple things like the last person messing with the maps, or changing track up/north up, or changing spilt screen displays can throw you for a loop when in the air. Treat panel configuration as seriously as all other aircraft preflight configuration steps
  • This has been covered and stated above, but be sure to treat avionics checkouts as seriously as all other checkouts. Make this mandatory for members when the plane comes back from the shop, and for all new members going forward


 An avionics upgrade is a wonderful way to modernize the club plane, but also the club itself.  The required training will bring members together and you’ll likely attract new members, especially younger people who are used to flying behind modern instrumentation when using desktop flight simulators and also during their training.   Go on…take the plunge!

As always, fly lots and fly safely!








Stephen Bateman
Contributor, You Can Fly Program
Steve retired from AOPA in April 2024, but continues to contribute to You Can Fly programs. Contact Steve at [email protected]

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