When the FAA launched the LSA category a few years ago, the stated goal was to create a new level of simplicity, with lower acquisition and operating costs. Instead, pilots with a drivers license in pocket get wooed by gee-whiz panels and creating a feeding frenzy of upgrades that manufacturers are all too happy to provide. Does all that fancy integration represent real-world benefits and value? We think so, but only if you can match the avionics to the mission.
When the FAA launched the LSA category a few years ago, the stated goal was to create a new level of simplicity, with lower acquisition and operating costs. Instead, pilots with a drivers license in pocket get wooed by gee-whiz panels and creating a feeding frenzy of upgrades that manufacturers are all too happy to provide.
Does all that fancy integration represent real-world benefits and value? We think so, but only if you can match the avionics to the mission.
Whats your LSA For?
The problem with specing the avionics in most LSAs is its easy to underestimate the mission. If youre certain that your flying days will be scaled back to local flights on Sunday morning, we think a high-end portable GPS, com radio and transponder will do the job. Who needs weather, terrain, traffic and autopilots for that?
But if youre on the fence about how you will use the airplane, go for the more-equipped avionics option. Retrofitting it later will burn time and money, and may not ever be possible given required supporting systems and accessories. You could end up trying to unload the airplane to get into a more advanced model. In the current sales climate, this is a losing proposition.
This is especially true for anyone stepping out of a capable all-weather, go-anywhere machine like a Bonanza or Centurion into a basic LSA. Theres no doubt a LSA will limit your mission, but having a well-equipped machine with modern glass integration could be the difference between feeling under-equipped or comfortably confident. Its easy to feel culture shock when stepping backward.
If the glass panels in the majority of LSAs offend your sense of low-and-slow nostalgia, we say: Get over it. If you want true nostalgia, we think your money is far better spent on a real-deal, well-restored antique. If you must have a new airframe with old-style round gauges, realize that resale demand at the price you paid will be virtually non-existent.
The Glass Market
Tom Peghini, President of Flight Design USA, told us that every time a higher-end avionics package is offered, nine out of 10 customers want it. Flight Design stopped even offering traditional instruments in 2008 when the CTLS model was introduced. These buyers arent tech kids, either. The CTLS buyer base is 40-70 year olds.
Even J-3 Cub replicas are subject to the trend. According to Legend Aircraft, a large majority of their Cub buyers plan to use the airplane for going places. They dont care about glass when staying close to the turf strip, but when they wander off for that Saturday fly-in, they demand a panel full of avionics. Roughly 40 percent of buyers pick glass options in the Legend Cub.
Its easy to get sold on the safety aspect. Its easy to find yourself flying longer cross-country missions than you originally anticipated. Its also easy to become overconfident and toy with weather you really shouldnt be in.
High bang for the buck
Some buyers perceive the latest portable GPS systems like the Garmin touchscreen aera and big-screen GPS696 as “glass cockpits,” but they really arent. An integrated glass cockpit includes a primary flight display (PFD) driven by self-contained or remote AHARS and interfaced with an autopilot/flight control system. There may be a separate multi-function display (MFD), or typical PFD/MFD functions may be combined on one screen. The displays may have an integral GPS system or be driven by portable or panel-mount GPS. Integrated XM weather and traffic alerting are also common.
Dynon is making a big noise with its new SkyView suite. This double-screen setup includes true ADAHRS with synthetic vision, engine instrumentation, brilliant screen clarity and back-up battery redundancy. Pricing seems too good to be true. In the 2010 Flight Design CTLS, this dual 10-inch SkyView panel (the same size as a typical G1000 screen) comes at a $12,075 premium. A single G1000 display costs more than that. The CTLS includes a Garmin GTX330 Mode S transponder with traffic, a Garmin GPS696 with XM weather and an Artex 406 MHz ELT system. For $5450 more you get a Digiflight two-axis autopilot with vertical speed control, and $3133 adds a Garmin SL30 navcom with glideslope. The total package costs $20,638 or about a 15-percent increase to the CTLS base price of $139,800. The Garmin G3X cockpit for the Legend Smart Cub adds a similar $23,000 to the Cubs base price, but theres no SL30 in that setup.
What does this get you in the real world? Huge amounts of situational awareness, autopilot comfort for long trips and limited instrument approach capability. In both these cases, the GPS source is not an IFR-approved navigator, so thats only for an ILS approach.
Tecnam Aircraft offers a Garmin GNS430W with GI106A indicator as a $16,500 option for its aircraft. Theres also the Advanced Flight AF-3500 EFIS system with an angle of attack system, Garmin aera mounted in a AirGizmo Panel Dock thats part of the “Flight School Glass” package and carries a $14,000 premium. Here, we think the GNS430W option makes better sense for student training or personal travel if youre willing to push an LSA to approach-level IFR. For just an emergency out, a basic navcom with ILS capability would do the trick.
Is IFR legal in an LSA? For now, if its equipped for such and the manufacturer doesnt prohibit it (note the double negative there), its legal. There are also a select few LSAs (Tecnam, Evektor and AMD) that sell IFR models. These are deemed IFR by the manufacturer and have nothing to do with the regs for LSAs. They usually sport real IFR GPS navigators and niceties such as backup instruments, pitot heat and real alternators.
That said, most LSAs make poor instrument platforms due to near neutral dynamic stability and low wing loading. This is no fun even in VFR under-the-hood practice, let alone really getting inside a bumpy cloud. Theres at least some value in using these airplanes to practice instrument approach procedures and for working on PFD scan technique. But if this is your driving reason for buying an LSA-and more than one LSA buyer and flight school has told us this is their plan-youll need to accept several limitations.
Real-world IFR, even in practice, is becoming more and more driven by WAAS IFR GPS. Its not required for instrument training, but training without it leaves a gaping hole to be filled in when stepping up to bigger, more-capable aircraft
To legally fly GPS under IFR, even for just direct point-to-point navigation en route, and, technically, even IFR in visual conditions, the equipment and installation characteristics must fall under TSO C129 (non-precision GPS approach) and TSO C146A (WAAS vertical-guidance approach). Portable GPS units which drive most LSAs are right out here. But even a fully certified GPS navigator must be coupled with a display thats on the navigators AML-STC list. Deviate from this approved equipment list and the installation could be legal, but deemed VFR only. Also, if youre using a TSO C129 GPS, youre supposed to use a VOR receiver as a backup.
On the other end of the capability curve, we think glass makes sense even for the basic LSA cockpit. A Dynon D-series EFIS is cheap, capable and reliable. While you might never look inside during the day except for the occasional glance at altitude, the EFIS display could be a lifesaver if you get caught out on a dark, moonless night. A portable GPS in a Gizmo mount, a com transceiver like the Garmin SL40 and GTX327 transponder is a complete package for well south of $10,000. We think its a good value.
Upgrading an LSA in the field is an option. Anything goes for modern designs, as long as the installation is approved by the LSA manufacturer. The approval comes in the form of a letter from the manufacturer that becomes part of the aircrafts records, a sign-off of sorts. These approvals are usually far easier to get than a certified aircraft FAA field approval. So adding a GNS430W to a good used LSA is a viable option. Non-certified gear is fair game. Antenna work could be tricky for composite fuselages, so choose a shop with experience in this.
Significant upgrades to vintage airplanes like the classic J-3 Piper Cub and original Aeronca Champ is probably not worth it. They have limited equipment to start. Theres limited space to house the accessories and effectively install antenna systems. Some might not have capable (or any) electrical systems. Panel space can be nonexistent. Stick with a quality handheld transceiver saddled up to an external antenna, and, if youre wandering far, a portable GPS.
When it comes to glass cockpit integration in LSAs, were on board. The mission profile for most models includes at least some distance traveling through diverse airspace and terrain. While IFR-legal would be a nice plus for getting up or down through a high-ceilinged cloud deck, well stop short of recommending LSAs for serious instrument flying.
But dismissing information-rich display technology for the sake of keeping things simple is just silly, in our view. You can and should use this gear for tactical avoidance of weather and terrain.
If distance traveling is part of your mission, we suggest springing for an autopilot option that handles both pitch and roll. We cant label any given avionics suite a hands-down winner over another but were impressed with Garmins G3X. Its operating logic should be familiar to pilots whove used Garmin portable GPS. On the other hand, the new Dynon SkyView offers redundancy and similar functionality with much bigger screens.
One last thought: If you can still pass a medical and are torn between a high-end LSA and certified aircraft, it pays to shop the used market. You can buy a pre-owned G1000 Skyhawk for well south of $200K-or about the same price as todays well-equipped LSAs.