From VFR to IFR

If youve got a serviceable VFR GPS thats upgradeable to IFR, heres what itll take to make it happen.

With the world of avionics changing faster than you can cycle a master switch, even those of us who deal with this stuff every day have our hands full keeping track of it all. Whats new? Whats best? And, increasingly, whats legal?

Because of the massive influx of new technology, theres a long tail of radios, navigators and displays stretching back more than a decade, leading many owners to ask us if the old RNAV, loran and even first-gen GPS they still have in the panel is legal for IFR.

Surprisingly, the answer is often yes. On the other hand, some recent installations weve seen of supposedly IFR-approved navigators arent legal at all. They dont have the right components, lack the switching networks and the required paperwork cant be found.

As more used GPS finds its way to market, expect to see more of these installations in an airplane you might consider for purchase. Does it matter if its legal or not?

It depends on what you plan to do with the airplane. In most cases, the legal nits dont matter on day-to-day, practical basis. If you file /G with a VFR panel-mount, youre unlikely to get busted. But its still not legal. And if you think youre buying an IFR navigator, make sure thats what youre getting, not a VFR-only installation.

VFR Only
The number of VFR-only GPS navigators in the fleet is relatively high. Some are even IFR approvable but not legally certified. Its not uncommon to see something like an older Garmin GPS 155 or even a Bendix/King KLN90B-both IFR units-installed on the cheap, with a VFR-only placard somewhere on the panel. That might lead you to conclude that the placard is an artifact, left over from a previous installation.

Chances are, however, the IFR navigator was put in by an owner who just got a good price on it and had no intention of using if for IFR. The shop complied-which it can legally do-and put the placard on the panel, thus avoiding the time and expense of an IFR flyoff and the additional paperwork.

Some owners, upon discovering this, assume that since they have an IFR-approvable GPS, getting it officially blessed for legal IFR is a piece of cake. Sometimes it is, but usually its not. Nor is it cheap. Lets examine whats required.

Keep in mind that every airplane is unique and we see all kinds of strange scenarios that suggest that what works for one wont always work for another.

TSO or No TSO?
As with most other avionics equipment, GPS units and their components are built to a TSO specification and in the world of GPS navigators the two most important are TSO C129 (A1) and TSO C129 (A2); A1 being enroute, terminal and non-precision approach certified while the A2 versions allow enroute and terminal navigation only, no approaches.

There are some enroute only boxes out there, such as the UPSAT GX-55 and some versions of Garmin and Bendix/King navigators that werent signed off for approaches in the particular airplane they were installed in. Whats the difference between enroute and terminal operations? CDI scale, mainly. The terminal mode allows a 1-mile scale while enroute is 3 miles.

The IFR TSO is quite specific about what an IFR navigator is supposed to do and how it must be installed. Some of the specifics include one-second position updates, fixes stored in a non-corruptible database, pilot selectable CDI sensitivity, RAIM integrity alarms and paths between fixes defined only by TO-TO navigation.

Now if your TSOd receiver has the official approved designation, it will do all this stuff and a lot more. But unless its installed with all the required annunciators-including the required coupling to a CDI-it may not be IFR legal.

Sometimes, a box that looks just like an IFR-approved navigator isnt. For example, you can put two physically identical GPS units-the Garmin GPS150XL and the GPS155XL-side by side. The difference is that the GPS155XL is blessed with TSO C129 (A1) while the GPS150XL isnt, falling under AC 20-138 for VFR-only guidance.

Similarly, before it made the KLN89B and the KLN90B-both IFR-approved navigators-Bendix/King had VFR-only versions.

To qualify for installation approval, the GPS sensor or antenna must also meet the TSO. Some of the earlier Bendix/King KLN90 navigators, for example, had a non-TSO antenna system. After all, they werent IFR boxes so they didnt need a TSOd antenna. Dont assume that you can use the existing antenna with any IFR navigator. Have your shop check the part numbers before proceeding with an upgrade.

Transplant It
Our advice is that youre in the market for a quality used IFR system, find an entire system that was removed from the same aircraft and purchase all components as a package. For example, the aforementioned IFR KLN90A/B can be had on the used market quite reasonably, complete with the required annunciation control panels and appropriate antenna removed from the very airplane it was approved on before.

While on the subject of antennas, the shop may want to replace any cable you already have in place. Let them. Although the existing cable from a VFR installation will likely work for feeding signal to the receiver, low-loss coaxial cable is required and for good reason.

Youre guaranteed top performance with the bonus and flexibility for longer cable runs with minimal signal loss. Most common is the expensive RG142 coax and if you dont have it already, it should be added to meet the IFR criteria.

With some navigators and applications, an RF signal notch filter, appropriate for the 1.5GHz band, should be installed to provide uninterrupted GPS signal flow. These filters were imperative with many earlier GPS systems and your shop may recommend one.

As a side note: With panel and fuselage space often tight, optimum placement of components is an ever-increasing challenge. Major manufacturers are learning what works well and not so well with different airframes and/or when mixing equipment. You can only hang so many antennas on a airplane without conflict. Even with the best possible combination of placement, outside factors such as noisy strobes and beacon power supplies will make their presence known, even if they have previously caused no problems.

The Baro Connection
Its a 50/50 deal whether that old beater VFR GPS currently in your panel talks to your altitude encoder. But your new IFR GPS will have to.

Altitude information must be fed to all IFR installations from an encoding altimeter or blind encoder. Why? Because the altitude feed is necessary for RAIM computations and is also used in conjunction with navigators that have VNAV descent profile features.

Most common altitude encoders output gray code data format altitude information. However, some navigators- the entire line of UPSAT/Apollo units, for example, accept only serial data, a more precise datastream.

In these cases, either an appropriate serial encoder must be installed or a gray-code-to-serial happy box converter will be needed.

The point is, while better shops go the extra mile to provide the baro interface to even VFR boxes, some shops dont bother. Plan for it if you want an IFR-approved system.

Similarly, if the transponder/encoder system is getting tired, nows the time for upgrade because theres little room and tolerance for marginal equipment when interfacing IFR GPS. As we have reported, newer transponders such as the Garmin GTX327 and UPSAT SL70 output altitude data in either serial or gray code format for the purpose of feeding a navigator. Its nice to have the choice but itll cost money to get there.

Remote Hardware
All IFR installations require varying degrees of remote annunciation-except the Garmin GNS530/430 and Bendix/King KLN94, in which annunciation is integral to the navigator. But when remote annunciation is required, it must be positioned within the pilots normal instrument scan.

These mode annunciators and control switches advise the pilot of any messages transmitted from the navigator and appropriately arm and activate the approach, if the navigator is approach capable.

Also required for both enroute or approach certification is a course deviation indicator which displays GPS navigator left/right and nav flag information. This can be accomplished with most HSI systems and many options are possible for interfacing with rudimentary nav heads, as we reported in the March issue of Aviation Consumer.

In any case, if your existing VFR GPS doesnt display steering information on a remote head, this will be the most costly part of getting it approved for IFR, assuming its a TSOd box.

The Paper Chase
Now that IFR GPS has become relatively routine, most FAA FSDOs seem to know whats required to make these systems legal. We dont hear many horror stories about FSDOs requiring a $10,000 contract to a DER to write a POH supplement. However, theres no question that some FAA regions are quicker at IFR approvals than others.

We polled several shops on both coasts and most report that the IFR GPS approval process and satisfying the expected criteria usually goes without a hitch. Whats important is that approval paperwork is clearly drafted and all the details appropriate to the installation are noted.

System integrity has to be proven and all of the hardware and interfaces weve described here must be referenced.

Most shops that routinely turn out IFR GPS installs arent running into snags with the FAA. Buyers should remember that until its officially approved, the system is to be used for VFR navigation only and placarded accordingly. Consult with your shop beforehand and review the exact procedure for your region.

Generally, what FAA offices seem to want is proof of absolute system integrity. Most owners underestimate the amount of paperwork and testing required for an IFR GPS, whether approach or enroute certified.

A Flight Manual Supplement is drafted and this booklet is specific for each installation. It describes all aspects of the GPS installation and includes general system information and specifications, emergency operating procedures in case of malfunction, system limitations, normal procedures, proof of flight testing and applicable FAA paperwork, such as FAA Form 337.

Most FSDOs are specific about flight test data. If the navigator is approach approved, multiple GPS/overlay approaches must be flown to prove that the system will navigate the approach and the missed procedures.

If the navigator is interfaced with an autopilot, it must be proven that the autopilot will fly correctly.

Other parameters include passing through fixes within a specified degree of accuracy and proper interface with existing on-board stuff, including a radio interference test.

Once the Flight Manual Supplement is approved by the FAA and the shop, it has to remain in the aircraft at all times, since its part of the AFM.

Were not sure how interested the FAA is in enforcing these fine points in the regulations. Theoretically, if you fly an IFR approach and are ramp checked and found wanting in the paperwork department, its no different than getting ramped without having required weight and balance aboard the aircraft. According to our polling, there have been violations but we dont know how often it has happened. We dont think its a good idea to ignore these legalities but its your ticket.

If the navigator and/or installation are certified for only VFR, a placard must be installed on the instrument panel that says as much. Weve even heard of folks failing an IFR ride because they filed a /G plan without having the GPS approval paperwork. We assume the examiner was paying back the applicant back for weaseling out of the ADF portion of the test.

Although system certification has become straightforward, we have seen many instances in which a customer has purchased an aircraft that was represented as being IFR GPS-equipped, only to find that the documentation was missing.

Either the seller had an IFR system slapped in to make the aircraft more attractive but never followed through with the certification paperwork or the work was done and never filed properly.

We have also worked on a few factory-new Mooneys-going back to the early 1990s- that were represented as IFR GPS-equipped but that didnt have appropriate annunciation for the GPS system. Somehow, they slipped off the assembly line unfinished.

In any case, expect your shop to proceed through the installation with a fine-toothed comb because theyre accepting responsibility for the integrity of the system.

In short, making an IFR system out of a VFR system can be relatively painless or a nightmare, with everything in between. In many cases, it may actually be cheaper and more practical to buy a used transplant system and keep the VFR GPS in the panel as back-up or sell it on the used market and apply the proceeds to the IFR installation.

Also With This Article
Click here to view “Enroute Only or Approaches, Too?”
Click here to view “Checklist.”

-by Larry Anglisano

Larry Anglisano is Aviation Consumers avionics editor. He works with EXXEL Avionics in Hartford, Connecticut, where he does GPS flyoffs, among other tasks.