Budget-Savvy Upgrades

For some owners, investing half the airplanes value in new radios might make sense. But you can still get more for less.

by Larry Anglisano

Wouldnt it be nice if money were no object? For a select few, this is the case. But for the rest of us, we can only respond with numb fascination when the guy on the other side of the avionics counter runs up a $30,000 estimate-just to get started on a basic upgrade.

On the plus side, avionics for small aircraft have never been so advanced, even if the prices are stratospheric. Most owners have to draw the line somewhere but where that line is has become a mystery to many.

It doesnt have to be hopelessly confusing if you’ll consider three questions: How long will you keep the airplane? How much serious IFR do you fly? Are you willing to let budget limits drive your decisionmaking rather than vice versa?

What we’ll attempt to do in this article is cite some real-world examples of upgrading a panel that desperately needs the most basic gear for practical IFR and, shall we say, enhanced VFR flying. Clearly, you don’t need the full boatload here, such as an approach-capable autopilot, dual Garmin GNS430s-or dual anything, other than navcomms. The sensible thing to do is to contain the project economically, not go overboard on an airplane that doesnt merit the investment.

Harsh Economics
Heres the scenario: a thirty-something-year-old airplane with radios to match, say a basic Cherokee or Skyhawk that has lived a good part of its life on line at Elvis Flying School somewhere in the heart of Tennessee. In a down economy, ill-equipped trainers sell fairly we’ll and they can turn into nice airplanes when given the care they deserve.

We recall a Cessna 150 owned by a Jersey flight school that sported the Beige Beast: an ARC Cessna navcomm missing its tuning knobs. When we squawked it, we were issued a set of Vice Grips to tune the VOR receiver and have a nice flight. Such airplanes still exist and you could own one. Maybe you bought the airplane right and have covered the basics by addressing the engine and paint but now its time to do something about the old radios.

You don’t regularly fly approaches to minimums but plan on a little light IFR. Before even considering new avionics, think about the overall value of the airplane. These days, a $25,000 avionics upgrade is not unusual and that sum buys less equipment than you think. If the airframe is worth $100,000, the upgrade will represent 25 percent of airframe value. Not bad, if you plan to keep the airplane for the foreseeable future.

But lets say the airplane you bought or own is a 1972 Cherokee PA-28-180, a nice combination of value, speed and payload capability. Book value is $51,000. Does it make sense to install $25,000 worth of avionics in this modest airframe? Not in this world. If you can afford that much radio work and given current interest rates, you can probably afford a higher performing airplane that already has some of the avionics you want.

As we reported in the August issue of Aviation Consumer, the current used market favors buyers, not sellers. If the airplane is a family heirloom and youre sure you’ll keep it until they yank your medical, fine. Otherwise, shop around higher up the evolutionary chain.

If an investment of 25 percent makes sense-and we think it does-a basic airplane merits an upgrade in the $12,000 to $15,000 range. If you don’t confine yourself to new equipment-see the companion article-that much money goes a long way.

Needy Now
Step one is to check and certify the pitot/static system and not a pencil whip job, either. Increasingly in older airplanes, we find a jumble of hardware store plumbing and patched together fittings.

A busy avionics shop hates the distraction of dealing with FAR 91.411 and FAR 91.413 certifications but in the end, your safety is on the line.

Bring the system up to snuff; its usually not that expensive.

Condensation, fogging of the glass and overall ratty appearance of the static instruments should be a clue. While youre at it, have the transponder check done, too. Its due every 24 months. This pulse system, consisting of transponder and altitude digitizer, is obviously necessary equipment that must work without a hiccup. In the old days, pre-9/11, you could slide through Class B airspace with intermittent Mode C. Try it today and you’ll find an letter in your mailbox from the FAA asking for proof of repair.

In many cases, if the transponder looks old and ragged, it probably needs replacement. How many times can mechanical squawk code switch decks get cranked in the heat of battle without serious wear and tear? New ones use push-button computer-controlled circuits and tell you what your pressure altitude really is, to make no mistake of where you are in the B space.

Most of the new transponders are solid state–which means longer life, less heat output and high reliability. Some units, such as the digital feature-rich Garmin GTX327 and GTX330, output and input with GPS systems simplifying a future GPS upgrade.

don’t bother sinking money into an older parrot; its just not worth it, even for a modest airplane. For a few hundred more bucks, replace the L-band antenna and coaxial wiring and save yourself some trouble later. We cringed recently when a well-equipped Seneca owner had a shop install nearly $50,000 in avionics yet they didnt touch the 20-year-old antenna system and encoder, which promptly failed in IMC. Pay now or really pay later.

Out top choice for a new transponder is the Garmin GTX327. We believe it leaves room to grow, while equipping the airplane with reliable position reporting. Top choice for a used box is the Bendix/King KT76A, a well-proven and reliable transponder although not solid state. Under $500 will buy a decent KT76A, but make sure that the expensive and dated cavity tube is healthy before buying.

Hold the Line
Primary radio/nav gear is next, if the airplane has older technology. But at this juncture, put some harsh limits on what you need, what you don’t need and what you cant afford. don’t bother with DME or ADF unless the airplane already has this in serviceable form. Chances are, you wont be flying any real NDB approaches and chances are only slightly better that you’ll we’ll and truly need to fly GPS approaches. Nice to have, sure, but expensive to install. That said, a panel-mount GPS makes sense, perhaps a VFR-model upgradeable to IFR later. Autopilot? Not in the cards, sorry. Its out of limits for the budget.

Our test case here is the photo at left. It happens to be an Arrow worth something in the low 60s but the economic principle explained above still apply. Best deal? Go used. A couple of KX155 navcomms and a KMA24 audio panel will serve you we’ll and both are plentiful on the used market. don’t overlook the audio system; its integral to the avionics suite as a whole for as long as you own the airplane. Boxes like the CNX80 and GTX330 transponder output voice audio and your audio panel must be equipped to play along. The KMA24 is proving capable of playing voice traffic and the like from most new NMS gear so we don’t see any reason to avoid them, if you don’t mind buying equipment thats out of production. Find them on the used market for around $500, a bargain.

How about GPS? Following our reasoning that you don’t necessarily need IFR GPS, consider a Bendix/King KMD150 VFR GPS.

That particular upgrade has a pair of used KX155s, a KMA24 audio panel, PS Engineering intercom and a KT76A transponder, all for roughly $12,000. Thats about the installed price of new Garmin GNS430.

What you don’t get out of the deal is the ability to file as a /G and fly GPS approaches. What you do get out the deal is capability to fly into most airports in the country and certainly those with ILS and VOR approaches. Ask yourself this: how often have not been able to fly a trip because you didnt have the equipment. Our guess is the answer will be: not often, if ever.

New: Gotta Have It
Want new or at least newer technology equipment? On a budget, that will be a strain; you may have to compromise and go with some new and some used. Garmins GNS430 remains the gold plate standard for GPS mapcomms. Its reliable, easy-to-use and is now turning up on the used market. But its not our first choice as a used box. Like Japanese cars, used 430s and 530s command premium prices and if one is out of warranty, a trip to Olathe, Kansas for service could easily yield an $800 repair bill. Suddenly, a few hundred dollars saved buying used is eaten in routine maintenance.

If you decide you absolutely must have at least a new GNS430, the upgrade path here-still modest in terms of capability-will top out at $18,000 to $20,000; a fair piece of change for an older airplane and not the best value for the money spent, in our view.

So what is? Consider this: Garmin still markets the we’ll regarded GNC300XL mapcomm. Although eclipsed by the glitzy color models, this mono-display navigator has full GPS approach capability and an excellent comm radio. Better yet, you can install a new one about $5000.

Add it all up and you can have a new GPS mapcomm-with approach capability-new transponder, used KX155 and audio panel and the pitot/static work for about $11,000. Thats a heck of a good value. If you absolutely lust for a color display, add the KMD150 for a total buy-in of $15,000. Thats cheaper than adding the GNS430 and the color screen is larger.

As is obvious from this analysis, there’s no one perfect upgrade path. Remember that older and some newer airframes simply werent designed to house the electronics that were loading into them.

What may be appropriate for a Bonanza isn’t right for an Archer and an owner of the latter is unwise to think otherwise. Avionics installation has become airframe intensive and wiring is just a fraction of the average upgrade project. If you fly a basic airframe, cover the IFR essentials first before going gadget crazy. And even then, resist investing too much money in a modest airplane. After all, there’s no point in building the dream panel only to sell it to the next owner at a fraction of what you have invested.

Also With This Article
“Nice to Have, Most for the Least, and Plain Vanilla IFR”