Mid-Price Upgrades

The choices are staggering when re-doing the panel in a high-performance airplane. Advice: make a list of the must-haves then pare that down to suit the budget.

by Larry Anglisano

See if this sentiment rings a bell: you own a nice Archer or a mid-1980s 172 and your shop informs you that the modest avionics upgrade you have planned will cost $35,000, fully half the value of the airplane. Without blinking, you ask the shop: when can you start?

This sort of thing happens every day, although the pace of high-dollar upgrades for modest airframes has slowed some. When our budget avionics upgrade article appeared in the September, 2004 issue, we were surprised at the number of owners who hadnt considered what near cutting edge avionics upgrades cost and what they mean to the resale value of an entry-level airplane. Loading more than half of the airplanes value into new avionics makes little sense in many cases and our advice is to simply upgrade the airplane. In other words, buy one that warrants the extra gear and pay the invoice.

Or suck it up and deal with the fact that your airplane will be overpriced, an attitude many owners take with pride. If youre in that league, more power to you. Its your money and your airplane.

For this follow-up article, we’ll have a look at the possibilities and common sense priorities for avionics in mid-priced airplanes. By that, we mean high-performance models such as Bonanzas, Centurions and Saratogas of say mid-1980s vintage and earlier. Were thinking of airplanes priced at $250,000 and under.

We still think the 25 percent rule makes sense. That is, if the avionics you want will cost more than 25 to 30 percent of the airplanes value, pause a while and think it over. If youre sure you’ll keep the airplane and cost/value is not a driver in your ownership decisions-and for some owners, it isn’t-forge ahead. Otherwise, consider an airplane that already has some of what you want installed (especially an autopilot) and try to buy it right.

Start Simple
The same basics that we mentioned for the budget upgrade apply here and include ensuring that the pitot/static system and related instruments are up to snuff. High-performance airplanes are all about IFR flying for business and personal use. Besides up-to-date basic flight instruments, we think a back-up instrument package of some sort is a must, either an electric gyro or back-up vacuum system. If an installed or planned autopilot uses a vacuum-driven AI, the vacuum back-up may be the best buy.

As for basic vacuum gyros-that is steam gauges-we prefer the popular Sigma-Tek line and for electric horizons, we like the Mid-Continent 4300 series, available with a battery back-up. Its rated for 7500 hours mean time between failures, more than double the life of most other electric horizons. It will cost every bit of $4000, cutting a deep swath into the budget. But if the airplane is a go-places-in-most-weather machine, its presence in the panel is worthy. In fact, there’s no reason why this electric gyro couldnt be used as the primary attitude gyro as long as the autopilot permits.

Altitude encoders and related equipment have to work without a hiccup as you climb into and through weathered-up airspace. Silly, we think, when some shops go through the effort of installing expensive new transponder gear but use existing 20-something-year-old encoders, cables and antennas. The same holds true for comm and nav antennas; most beg to be replaced.

Speaking of transponders, if your old Bendix/King KT76A is still in good shape and you need to save some money, there’s nothing wrong with keeping it. But if the unit is long in the tooth, we think replacing it is a good policy. A new Garmin GTX327 can be installed for about $2400, which we see as good bargain. Given security worries, we think having a reliable transponder is a must. If you want traffic avoidance gear, upgrading to the Mode-S GTX330 is an option, of course, but at $6000, it may not be an affordable one.

Nav Management
When it comes to equipping a high-performance airplane with modern but traditional navcomms, the options are limited. We believe that the proven Bendix/King digital Silver Crown series equipment is worthy primary gear, even for a high-performance all-weather airplane. Whether new or used, installing this equipment is a reasonable decision even if its plain-vanilla IFR gear when compared to pricey alternatives.

Not long ago, this equipment was the standard for airplanes high in the food chain including Malibus, Caravans and TBM700s, for example. The problem many owners face is while they need to upgrade the navcomms, they also need modern IFR GPS equipment. We believe that if you fly IFR regularly, without IFR GPS, you’ll be at a disadvantage. So its a given that you’ll consider Garmin GNS430 or GNS530 or GNS480, formerly the CNX80.

Which of these boxes is the right one? It depends on your previous exposure to flight management equipment and your approach to flying IFR, plus the overall budget. In our view, the Garmin GNS430 is the best overall bang-for-the-buck for utility and reliability, hands down. These units have become as common and reliable today as the Bendix/King KX155 was 15 years ago and they fit virtually any airplane.

Shops know how to install and repair this equipment, pilots have a relatively easy time working them and their interface potential in the airplane leaves some room to grow, albeit not as much as a GNS530 or an MFD.

If you find that there’s money left in the budget for fancy add-ons such as datalink, weather and traffic, the GNS430 screen size will be limiting. So you’ll need a second GNS430 or better, in our view, a larger and brighter GNS530 or multi-function display, such as the Avidyne or Garmin AT MX-20.

If youre among the many obsessed with shooting WAAS approaches and itch to fly behind a true nav management system, the GNS480 is worth considering. We compared the GNS530 against the CNX80 in our July, 2004 issue; draw your own conclusion on what makes sense. In our view, not many owners really need the WAAS approaches yet and most wont for some time to come. If youre a techno-geek, WAAS may be a must have, otherwise, skip it for now.

Bottom line on this category of boxes: the GNS430 is the top value and its flexible and easy to use. But its limited for such add-ons as datalink or traffic due to screen size. If you want those features, consider an GNS530 or an MFD.

What if you have an older IFR GPS in the panel, say a Bendix/King KLN90B or a first-gen Garmin box? These have little trade in value so we say if there’s room in the panel, keep them there for back-up.

Engine/Fuel Monitoring
A carbureted Cherokee or a Skylane probably doesnt need an engine monitor but we cant see any reason why a high-performance airplane with a six-cylinder fuel-injected engine and perhaps turbocharging shouldnt have one. In our view, theyre safety-of-flight add-ons that help with routine leaning and diagnostics. In our view, there’s no argument about their efficacy.

Our top choice, as reported in the September, 2004 issue, is the JPI EDM700 system, with the EI UBG-16 a good alternate choice. While youre at it, consider the add-on options such as turbine inlet temp for turbocharged airplanes, oil temp and OAT. All of these options ramp up the cost but better to plan for it when you pull the trigger than add it later, when you get around to it. Itll cost more then. In rank of importance, we think engine monitors should be above traffic and weather datalink. The latter are nice-to-haves but anything that will keep the engine running is a plus, if you ask us.

The JPI and EI systems can be fitted with fuel flow data, another plus. Otherwise, we like the Shadin MiniFlo products for this task. Data from fuel transducers can also be fed into Garmin products for enhanced fuel management. Speaking of fuel transducers, you want the best fuel line you can get to ensure a reliable and durable splice into and out of the transducer. This is a fine line for installers, when you consider the liability involved in disturbing fuel systems. The FAA paperwork and approvals are responsible for a sizeable percentage of what it costs to install engine and fuel monitoring systems, as the FAA takes this work seriously, as we’ll it should.

Because a Bonanza is capable of crossing half the country in a day of flying, we think a functional autopilot is just as essential as an engine monitor. If your airplane already has a serviceable autopilot, youre way ahead. If it doesnt, adding one is the elephant in the kitchen of avionics upgrades. Autopilots are hugely expensive and will usually be the most expensive single element of any upgrade and perhaps one that most owners will drop in favor of other equipment, an understandable compromise.

This can be a gray area decision with no crisp edges. If you have an early 1980s airplane equipped with the popular Bendix/King KFC200 series autopilot, youve got a dated system but a smooth ride. But maintenance may be an increasing expense.

The attitude gyro for this autopilot, commonly the KI256 Flight Director, is pricey and as with any attitude-based autopilot, its failure is inevitable and will render the autopilot DOA. Parts and overall support for the KFC200 are available from Honeywell but we caution that early generation KC200 computers-as we’ll as early KI256 flight directors-arent worthy of exchange or repair.

Considering that the installation of the now current Bendix/King KFC225 digital system will cost close to $40,000, your options are limited. In this case, we think all roads lead to Mineral Wells, Texas, the home of Meggitt/S-TEC, which has an STC autopilot for most models.

S-TECs systems are rate based, meaning they rely on the electric turn coordinator for roll rate output. This offers some redundancy in the event of vacuum failure and offers flexibility in choosing an attitude gyro. Some argue that the ride of a rate-based autopilot isn’t as smooth as that of an attitude-based system and while that may be true, is the better ride worth 40 grand?

A basic S-TEC System 30 dual-axis system costs about $11,000 installed and this doesnt get you options such as automatic pitch trim and glideslope coupling. For those features, the flagship System 55X is what you’ll need for about $15,000, installed. With integral GPSS digital roll steering for a precise interface with a modern navigator, this system is available for many airframes.

For a time, the S-TEC 55X systems were creating trouble for certain model Cessna Centurions, causing pitch problems. The fix was the redesign of the altitude hold transducer and this seems to have fixed the problem. To stifle rumors, the 55X can be installed in Turbo Centurions and the system works we’ll if the proper transducer, install practices and routine maintenance procedures are followed.

Century Flight Systems is still in the market with their reliable Century 2000 system. It can be decked out with lots of options including autotrim, flight director and glideslope capture. There are also packages available with the NSD360A vacuum-driven slaved and non-slaved HSI.

The controller for the Century 2000 is large, however, and eats real estate in crowded panels. We still wish that the long-promised digital Triden system would become available with common STCs. But it isn’t a player yet.

Garmin and Chelton are shortly to enter the autopilot market with new offerings. But the STC list for these devices hasnt clarified yet and we have no field experience with them. For now, S-TEC is the high-value choice. Otherwise, nurse along the autopilot you have and be mindful of the point at which fixing it crosses the point of diminishing returns, if it hasnt already.

Toys on Hold
When youve added up the install cost of all of this stuff, the total is likely to be breathtaking. It may be time to put some things on hold. An audio panel might be one place to trim the budget. We covered audio panels in the previous article and the same advice applies here. You can get away with a Bendix/King KMA24 and an intercom, if you can live without the tricks of split audio, stereo input and cellphone interfaces. If the audio is working fine, its one place to save money.

For integrated audio panels, we think that the Garmin GMA340 audio control system fits the budget and is solid, reliable and provides good audio for up to six seats. The same can be said of the PS Engineering products; the two are close in performance and cost.

Stormscope and datalink weather systems are expensive additions and whether theyre a must-have depends on the kind of flying you do. Given the performance of the most recent round of datalink equipment, were definitely tilting toward datalinked NEXRAD in place of Stormscope, if you can afford only one.

A good Stormscope-a WX-900 or WX-500-will cost $6000 to $7000 and it does only one thing: lightning detection. If you have a suitable display, you can get into datalink for about the same sum. The XM-based datalink has both NEXRAD and ground-based lightning detection and while the lightning isn’t nearly as good as a Stormscope, the NEXRAD is a superior means of weather avoidance, in our view.

The datalink field is changing daily and were looking closely at XM-based technology with new interfaces from Garmin for the GNS430/530 and, from Avidyne, an add-on for existing Orbcom-equipped Avidyne EX500 MFDs.

If you have a light twin or a single with older radar, an MFD like the EX500 or MX-20 I/O will add fresh capability while giving you better weather presentation with the ability to overlay traffic, terrain and charts. But thats a high-dollar deal that we’ll look at in a future article.

As you can see, putting a state-of-the-art avionics package in a high-performance, IFR-all-the-time airplane easily reaches budget-blowing proportions. If the airplane needs a replacement autopilot system, other system upgrades such as MFDs and traffic may have to wait.

Does a $65,000-plus avionics package for a $160,000 to $200,000 airplane make sense? Actually, it might and if you want an up-to-date panel, it might not be avoidable. This class of airplane may be all that you can handle from a piloting, maintenance and insurance aspect so it may be a life-long keeper.

If possible, try to buy an airplane that someone else has equipped with the heavy stuff-autopilot and engine monitoring equipment. you’ll have more money to spend on MFDs, datalink and traffic and, of course, money that will be needed for engine reserves whether you have engine monitoring or not.

The other option? Go as bare bones IFR as your comfort level allows and save for the ultimate, a high-end airplane such as a small turboprop or pressurized cabin-class twin that needs heavy duty avionics. we’ll look at that class of airplane in a future article. But a word to the wise: the dollar amounts involved might make Donald Trump squeal in protest.

Also With This Article
“Money is No Object,” “Be Reasonable,” and “Bare Bones” Upgrades
“When Traffic and Weather Together Wont Fly”
“Used Garmin: Maybe No Bargain”