Let’s be realistic—when it comes to avionics installations there isn’t much that can be done in an hour, except getting the aircraft in the hangar and the toolbox rolled out. But since its introduction a couple of years ago, it’s been said that the now STC-approved and TSO-certified uAvionix skyBeacon wingtip ADS-B Out/LED lighting device is the one-hour ticket to complying with the 2020 mandate. The company even advertises the product as a “no install” solution.
To see just how long a mandate-compliant skyBeacon install really takes, we spent some time on the shop floor—with labor timer running—and followed along with a skyBeacon project. Spoiler alert: It wasn’t a one-hour deal.
Is It Approved?
For this field report, we found the poster child for a budget ADS-B upgrade—a basic Piper PA28-151 equipped with vintage avionics and serving hard duty on the flight line at Learn2Fly CT at Windham Airport in Eastern Connecticut.
The first step in any skyBeacon installation is ensuring the device will fit on the existing left wingtip. To review, the skyBeacon is equipped with both LED position lamps (red) and also LED anti-collision lights, which don’t have to be hooked up. The device is designed to bolt on in the location previously occupied by the OEM lamp assembly. This is external mounting, and wingtips with lights enclosed inside the fairing won’t work in the current configuration. Not sure? Start with the STC and its approved model list, or AML.
At press time the TSO’d skyBeacon has an AML-STC that encompasses 272 aircraft models and our PA28-151 test bed is one of them.
Still, we hear from potential skyBeacon buyers with aircraft that are not on the AML who report their shop won’t tackle the installation for lack of an STC. According to uAvionix, this isn’t a deal breaker and the approval should be straightforward when following the FAA’s ADS-B Out installation policy memo. It’s worth a read by linking to it at tinyurl.com/yxfqxhk3.
Ryan Braun at uAvionix told us both the industry and the FAA have been trying to get the word out on this alternate means of approving installations of qualifying ADS-B Out equipment. Specifically, the guidance allows for the installation of TSO’d and previously STC’d systems on other aircraft models (ones that aren’t on an AML-STC) without further data approval—or at least the data an installer would have to reference with a traditional FAA field approval. This is important, especially in the case of a skyBeacon install on an airplane that’s not covered by the current uAvionix AML.
According to Braun, the FAA has issued a blanket approval and only wants the installer to submit a completed and signed FAA Form 337, and uAvionix has samples on its website.
Why wouldn’t an aircraft be included on the skyBeacon’s STC model list? Consider a Piper PA32, as one example. The Saratoga isn’t included on the AML because most newer models have wingtip lighting with forward position and strobe lights, and a rear position light. The company didn’t add these aircraft to the STC because the skyBeacon doesn’t integrate a rear position light. On the other hand, some tapered-wing PA32 models do have forward position and strobe lights, so the skyBeacon would be a good fit, just as it was on our PA28-151. Let’s look at the installation on it.
What’s Packed Inside?
By nature of its design, the skyBeacon has to be mounted as far outboard as possible, parallel to the vertical and horizontal centerlines of the aircraft and at least 3 feet from the transponder antenna. The fin on the bottom of the electronics housing must point downward when mounted on the wingtip. A peek inside the device reveals why the installation is critical.
In addition to the 978 MHz ADS-B Out transmitter and LED lighting, there’s a WAAS GPS/SBAS receiver and a barometric pressure sensor with an altitude encoder. The altitude encoder isn’t a replacement for the primary Mode C altitude reporter, but instead it ensures that the skyBeacon always has access to timely pressure altitude data to transmit over ADS-B, regardless of the radar coverage environment.
The skyBeacon monitors the transponder’s Mode C replies to determine the aircraft pressure altitude (from the transponder’s altitude encoder). You will find areas that do not have radar coverage, however, meaning there is no guarantee that your transponder will be transmitting that data. Further, pressure altitude is an important piece of data carried by ADS-B, and is only allowed to have a latency of up to two seconds. Since most secondary surveillance radar systems do not interrogate at that high of a frequency, it is rare that you will have fresh enough data from the transponder. The obvious solution is to add an altitude source to the ADS-B system, but unfortunately, there is a requirement in AC 20-165B that specifies that the same altitude source must be used for both the transponder Mode C reply and the ADS-B broadcast.
Interestingly, the skyBeacon’s integrated altitude encoder doesn’t plumb into the aircraft’s static system as a traditional encoder does. Instead, it functions using a software algorithm. In essence, the internal encoder acts as a slave, automatically calibrating, or technically achieving “correspondence” with, the primary aircraft encoder at all times. uAvionix calls this Constant Calibration, and in the end it lowers both the cost of installation and long-term maintenance efforts.
The device also has uAvionix’s patented Power Transcoder, which ensures the correct synchronization of data elements between the secondary surveillance radar (SSR) replies and ADS-B transmissions. Those elements include Mode A squawk and transponder IDENT status. The Power Transcoder also works to calibrate the altitude encoder.
Once you’ve determined that a skyBeacon will fit the wingtip, the first step in the physical installation is gaining access to the existing position and anti-collision (if equipped) lamp assembly by removing the left wingtip.
Since our installation included connecting the skyBeacon’s anti-collision lighting, part of the task was modifying the wiring of the existing Whelan Xenon high-voltage anti-collision lighting system. This original Whelan system utilizes a remote-mounted power pack that converts 12 volts of DC power input to over 450 volts of power output to drive the strobes.
The Piper had an OEM rocker switch that turns the anti-collision lights on and off and we simply used the existing switch, the existing circuit protection and the existing strobe wiring (after bypassing the Whelan power supply). This yielded 12 volts of DC power input to the skyBeacon’s strobe circuit.
Obviously you’ll want to verify that you do indeed have 12 volts of power input after the wiring change before connecting the strobes. Connecting 450-plus volts to the device will certainly induce a smoke show.
When connecting the skyBeacon’s anti-collision lighting, the electrical installation consists of three wires. The red wire connects with the power wire coming from the aircraft’s existing position light circuit breaker, the yellow wire connects with the aircraft’s anti-collision power wire (after bypassing any high-voltage power supply) and the black wire connects with aircraft ground. The skyBeacon may be grounded to the aircraft structure via the mounting screws, but we suggest finding a solid ground, and it will be required when mounting the device on composite structures.
Worth mentioning is if the aircraft doesn’t have an existing anti-collision lighting system, the installer will need to install a command switch, circuit breaker and route a power wire out to the left wingtip. This will obviously add to the cost and effort of the project.
The installation kit includes mostly everything that’s required, including three 6-32-inch button-head machine screws for securing the device to the existing nut plates in the end of the wing. Two O-rings per screw must be used between the mounting screw and skyBeacon assembly.
For a variety of Cessna applications where the skyBeacon might not be a direct bolt-on, uAvionix offers a wingtip adapter. It’s priced at $100 and is covered by the STC. It works on the Cessna 150/152, older 172C models, 182, 185 and some 206 models.
Once the wires are connected and secured and the skyBeacon is mounted, simply reinstall the wingtip. The physical installation on our Piper example was accomplished in around 1.5 hours, plus roughly one hour to make the changes to the Whelan strobe power pack wiring. If there wasn’t strobe interconnect, the physical install could easily be accomplished in an hour or less. But that’s not the end of the job.
As with any ADS-B Out system the skyBeacon needs to be programmed and configured. For this process, the device has built-in Wi-Fi for a secure connection with an iOS or Android smartphone or tablet. The Wi-Fi is intended for ground configuration only and it automatically disables after five minutes (from power-up) or when the aircraft is airborne. When you connect the installer utility app, the automatic shutdown is overridden so you can take your time entering the critical installation data. The uAvionix skyBeacon Installer app is downloaded from the Apple App Store and from Google Play.
We found the configuration process to be reasonably straightforward and launching the skyBeacon installer guides you through the programming process. Still, you’ll need to have some aircraft-specific data on hand for verification, including the ICAO number. This is a 24-bit number issued to the aircraft by the registration authority of the aircraft. These addresses are generally written as a 6-digit hexadecimal number. There’s also the emitter type (light, small or large aircraft, etc.), which assists ATC with tracking.
You’ll also enter the call sign, plus the aircraft’s Vso number in knots. This V-speed allows the skyBeacon to automatically switch between airborne and ground modes and is set to the aircraft’s stall speed. If the aircraft has ADS-B In equipment, you enter which frequency (978 MHz, for example) it uses.
There’s also the option of configuring Anonymous Mode. When you set it, this enables the skyBeacon to transmit a self-assigned or random ICAO and non-identifying call sign when the squawk code matches the defined VFR squawk code. The manual says you aren’t eligible to receive ATC services when programmed for anonymity. Other configuration items include the aircraft’s length and width (in meters), the GPS antenna offset and a transponder monitor threshold. The configuration also has a setting that turns the position and anti-collision lighting on or off.
Up and Running
All told, this installation was accomplished in around four hours. Half of that was the physical installation, including the programming, and the rest was completing the FAA Form 337 (which has to be signed by an IA), the flight manual supplement, instructions for continued airworthiness, a brief flight test and modifying the aircraft checklist to ensure the pilot turns the navigation light switch on after every startup. If not, the skyBeacon won’t turn on.
At a typical shop labor rate of $100 per hour, and the cost of the skyBeacon at $1850, we easily declare the strobe-equipped install a solid value. Deduct the FAA’s $500 equipage rebate from the invoice and we think a skyBeacon ADS-B Out/lighting upgrade is a no-brainer for basic airplanes.
Our thanks to Paul Pelletier, an A&P at Learn2Fly CT at the Windham Airport (IJD) in Connecticut, for accommodating this field report.