The Upgrade From Hell

Want trouble? Schedule the paint, interior and a major panel upgrade at the same time.

Strange behavior in a woman at a certain times of the month is often blamed on her hormones. The medical label for this is pre-menstrual syndrome or PMS.

As a pilot who is also a physician and an aviation medical examiner, I have noticed similar peculiar behavior in myself and other pilots and I can tell you it has nothing to do with hormones. This version of PMS-what I call panel mania syndrome-manifests itself when a simple avionics upgrade evolves into an obsessive quest to own more electronic gadgetry than the space shuttle has.

Symptoms? A preference for a glossy avionics brochure over the centerfold of another well-known publication, the foolish notion that the project cost wont exceed the value of the entire airplane and an equally nave conviction that the job will require less time than a normal pregnancy.

What follows are a few grains of truth panned from a bout of quirky PMS. It began after I bought a 1982 Cessna P-210 equipped with Cessna avionics. Ive tried to see the humor in all of this but there are bitter lessons here, too. Perhaps you can benefit from my mistakes.

No Creampuff
There were a few problems with the equipment. Parts of the displays were burned out in one of the radios. The autopilot was cranky about holding altitude and there were other minor glitches. My plan was to fix just what needed fixing but this soon spun out of control and in no time, I was contemplating a color- coordinated metal panel crammed with redundant digital avionics glowing seductively through ring lighting, eager to respond instantly to my slightest whim.

Which brings us immediately to tip one for combating PMS: Decide what and where and barring unforeseen disaster, stick with it.

Upgrading from the current list of available new avionics without having examined all the options is mind- boggling. Resist the tendency to discard working equipment from your panel, for once you have succumbed, you are but a synapse away from the overpowering obsession to junk the entire stack and start from scratch. At this stage, the who you choose to install the gear may be the most critical choice you make.

Where? Assuming you have a rough idea what equipment you want, where on the panel do you want it located? If youre upgrading a box or two, the location may be pre-ordained. If, however, youve contracted PMS and begin with an empty panel (metal, of course), ask your shop for help to arrange items so you naturally reach for the box you want and placed in the most logical location in the stack. For example, I put my S-TEC 55 autopilot in the number two slot right under the Apollo SL10 audio panel. For me, its more convenient there than stuck at the traditional bottom of the stack. Visual navigation gear, (Argus, GX50, Stormscope) is clustered, with the remote maps left of the GX50. Similarly, engine gauges (MP, Shadin, JPI, tach) are grouped on the far right. Basic stuff, yes, but some owners still neglect to get it right.

Concerning equipment selection, a word of caution to the unwary: Every shops dream is to create a state-of-the-art electronic masterpiece that qualifies for panel of the year. If the shop suggests installing the 30-grand-plus Skywatch traffic avoidance system, for example, consider how much air traffic you routinely encounter. If you live in West Texas, as I do, a near miss by another airplane is a few miles not a few feet.

On the topic of equipment, I would urge augmenting the main panel with a power source and antenna hook-up to operate a portable navcomm and GPS. Configure it so that both units use airplane power or batteries.

I have lost my panel radios twice, once in IMC. Both times a handheld radio was invaluable. Other back-ups I favor include dual alternators and dual vacuum pumps. The ultimate redundancy, of course, is two engines. (Mention of two calls to mind another serious pilot malady, TWIN for Two Wallets Is Not enough, an affliction which cripples owners of twin-engine airplanes. The poor sot who contracts both TWIN and PMS is doomed.)

But, I digress, next tip: Assuming you have PMS-and were talking custom panel-picking the right shop is crucial. Not all shops can do a decent job on a major panel re-do, even though they can install individual boxes with no problems. Has the shop done custom panels? For a custom panel, you need brain-surgery expertise.

Cost in writing? The figure is not realistic if you don’t require aviators green gas (oxygen) once you look at it. Down time? Despite optimism, double whatever they tell you, then add two weeks. Two months tops, I was assured by the shop that did my P-210 panel. Six months later, I had to pry my bird out of its avionics nest.

References? It wont hurt to get some feedback. Would you let your daughter go on a date with the prospective shop owner? Remember, you may have to live with this panel for a long time. Once he crawls underneath your glareshield, he has your peace of mind, your stomach lining and the health of your wallet firmly in his grasp.

The location of the shop is almost as important as who does the work. It should be close enough so that you, the interested owner, will drop by frequently to check your project. Conversely, if you choose a shop without considering your proximity, a hands-on inspection becomes difficult or impossible.

With no owner around, your dream panel may migrate to the back of a busy shop (mine did). Phone calls don’t work. The squeaky wheel (owner present) gets the grease (work finished on schedule).

Also, if you have a custom panel done, or if you mix an untried component combo that curdles, be prepared to take the airplane back to the avionics shop, possibly several times, to have stuff tweaked. And you’ll pay those expenses, not the shop. (Generally speaking, there are exceptional shops that will defray these expenses.)

If youre close, no big deal, if not, invest in a large bottle of Maalox.

Youve Done This Before?
Tip Three: Beware of untried equipment mixes. A note of caution to those who are unaware that mixing different makes of avionics equipment may provoke a mismatch migraine. To illustrate, my shiny new Apollo/UPSAT GX50 GPS wouldnt operate when connected to the equally shiny, equally new Shadin air-data fuel flow computer.

Specifically, with single-engine selected on the Shadin, the GX50 receives no altitude/fuel flow data. With no altitude input, the GX 50 will abort GPS approaches. The above happened, and my shop placed urgent phone calls to Apollo/UPSAT for help.

Must be the Shadin, they replied. A replacement Shadin didnt help. I took delivery of my airplane and flew around GPS-less for three months waiting for a fix. Meanwhile, UPSAT, for obscure reasons, attempted to re-create this glitch via computer simulation.

They reported that their computer had no problem with data transfer between the GX50 and Shadin. This implied a wiring error which meant having several shops check for this at my expense. Finally, at three months, UPSAT tested the actual equipment. Not surprisingly, they found the problem.

Within 48 hours they called with a fix. Select twin engine on the Shadin set-up instead of single, they instructed. The single-engine choice didnt transfer data fast enough for the GX50 to initialize, whereas twin-engine increases the data transfer enough to satisfy the unit.

Meanwhile, back in the airplane, waiting for the fix, I flew around three months with no fully functional GPS. To remedy this, I had a serializer installed. This device takes altitude data from the encoding altimeter and converts it into necessary code for the GPS. Being several states away from the original shop which did the work, I had this job done closer to home.

Disgustingly, no joy in convincing UPSAT and Shadin to pick up the tab for the expense caused by their equipment clash. The point of the above scenario is this: If the shop has not actually, successfully, installed your proposed equipment mix, I would strongly suggest you choose one he has actually wired.

Ignore this suggestion if you crave becoming the beta test for an untried equipment marriage. It might work. It might not. It might eventually be made to work. It might never work. If it crashes, you can look forward to daily calls to the manufacturers tech reps and to be put on hold while Joe looks for Harry out in the test lab.

These guys may even be mildly interested in your dilemma if the mix is especially exotic. However, don’t expect them to have even a twinge of your sense of urgency to unscramble the tangled electrons. Their job is to fix leisurely in the lab. They, unlike pilots, know better than to fly in airplanes full of twitchy avionics.

One At a Time, Please
Tip four: don’t mix projects. A panel rebuild is a major, major deal. To preserve your sanity, don’t add another project while the airplane is down, such as upholstery or paint. In my case, I made the ill-advised decision to do a custom panel and paint and interior simultaneously.

Under the influence of PMS, I reasoned: a.) The airplane would be down for the panel job; b.) there was a paint, interior shop behind the avionics shop and c.) I would save time by doing both concurrently. What happened? Avionics fell far behind schedule. Ten days before I was to pick up the airplane, they reluctantly released my unfinished airplane with unfinished panel to the paint shop.

Needless to say, my paint job reminds me of the TV ads for fast, cheap, auto painting. If it ever rains again in West Texas, I hope the new and old paint match.

There was a frenzy of activity the weekend I got there to take delivery. Avionics hurriedly installed equipment in the panel. Simultaneously, the paint shop attempted to get the interior back into the airplane. Once home, I discovered my cabin would not pressurize.

The rear seat had not been bolted back to the cabin floor. The resulting air leaks contributed to the inability to pressurize. Sloppy workmanship? Absolutely. Reason? Insufficient time for the shop to do their job. Contributing reason? Owner (me) too far away to personally keep the avionics project on schedule.

Neither shop will admit fault nor pay the expense to repair the cabin pressurization squawk. How long did both jobs take to complete? Twelve months. Six planeless months to do the panel, paint and interior.

After I took delivery, it took six more months to finish loose ends such as the back-up wiring for the GPS and handheld navcomm, installing new check lists for the Stormscope, visiting several avionics shops seeking a remedy for the GPS problem and awaiting the equipment software fix from UPSAT.

Except the software fix, all the rest could easily have been done by my radio shop in the half-year he had the airplane. Yes, Virginia, it really does take longer to complete than a normal pregnancy.

Any chance of PMS relapse ? Maybe. Matter of fact, Ive just read about this great new electronic HSI that allows you to add 14 more nav, DME or GPS read outs on the 3-inch face. It also displays weather info and stock quotes off the Web.

In case you get bored and are tempted to look outside the cockpit, this gizmo will let you play blackjack or hearts. The cost installed? About the same as a fully equipped bass boat. Relapse ? What relapse ?

-by Allen Anderson