As Special Light Sport Aircraft (S-LSAs) begin to occupy more hangars and flight-school flight lines, attention is shifting to aftermarket avionics upgrades. Some owners take delivery with little more than a handheld transceiver, which will hardly cut it in the real world. For others, their checkbooks are simply tempted by a smorgasbord of gee-whiz gadgetry.
Retrofitting LSAs is uncharted territory for most avionics shops and most of these lightweights might have unfamiliar engines and, in many cases, minimal electrical systems. LSAs are small, so available space and weight restrictions need to be considered. The rules for return-to-service following an upgrade are different for
modern S-LSAs than whats required of Part 23 aircraft or even a legacy aircraft LSA. Whats fine for your SportStar might not be legal for that vintage Ercoupe.
Here are a handful of avionics retrofits suitable for the average S-LSA. Also, were talking mainly VFR missions here, while occasionally toying with light IFR if the airplane even has such approval. To be clear: While these machines are considered “little airplanes” by most standards, its futile to expect a light invoice for avionics work, even if the equipment is bargain-priced.
Get Traffic on a Budget
Did you know that your Garmin 496 (or 396 or 495) can serve double-duty as a traffic display? Zaon Flight Systems $1795 PCAS XRX traffic alerter has a nifty interface that can be linked to Garmins portable without much high-tech effort. Using a power/data interface cable (available from Garmin), traffic data is sent to and then displayed on the screen of the Garmin 496 in TCAS-like symbology. The Zaon has audible alert output and selectable range from one mile up to six miles.
The device is passive, simply listening for replies from nearby transponders that have been interrogated by radar. Range, bearing and relative altitude (scalable from +/- 2500 feet to +/- 500 feet) of the target intruder is processed for display. The XRX measures 4 x 3.6 x 2.7 inches and sits atop of the glareshield-a prospect were not crazy about for crashworthiness reasons. The other issue is the unit needs to remain at least a half-foot away from obstructions, including magnetic compass.
Since the XRX has an antenna integrated within its case, no external antenna connections should be required, which cuts install effort. Zaon says the unit was designed for fabric, fiberglass, and metal airframes and for high- and low-wing
aircraft, which pretty much covers the field. The Zaon XRX data interface is functional with the GPS396/495/496, as well as with select AV8OR (formerly VistaNav), Blue Mountain EFIS and Anywhere Map units.
With so many S-LSAs delivered with a Garmin portable in the panel, we think this is one of the best upgrades you can make if you fly in a high-traffic environment. Linking the Zaon to a 496 works in certified aircraft too, but the Garmin only has a single serial input port. If your 496 is already connected to your panel-mount Garmin GPS for waypoint data load, youll need to choose between the traffic or GPS interface.
Pump Up the Audio
Maybe your LSA has a low-end intercom. Maybe it doesnt have one at all. The presence of a modern audio panel can change things for the better and offer great-sounding tunes on the fly. Designed specifically for LSA applications, the Garmin GMA240 is a non-TSOd and scaled-back version of the popular GMA340 audio panel. The GMA240 lacks marker beacon, ADF and DME functionality. Instead, the unit has dual-switched stereo-audio inputs for dedicated selection between an iPod and XM Radio (or any other two sources of your choice). The GMA240 also contains a four-place intercom.
A music volume control, music on/off button as well as a music mute key gives positive control of the tunes without having to reach for the music device. There is also an input jack on the face of the GMA240 for a portable music player or cell phone. The cell interface is full duplex and can be isolated from passengers for privacy. This is far more than the grander GMA340 offers in the way of music control and is a serious challenger to PS Engineerings PM8000.
At 15 ounces and measuring 1.3-inches high, the GMA240 wont eat too far into panel space or useful load. With a list price of $895, we think the system is an excellent value for cockpit communications, but as in any aircraft audio system, the quality of the installation is proportional to sound audio performance. Chose a
shop thats up to speed on modern audio system installs.
Put in a Real Radio
Talking your way through busy airspace on an Icom portable, even with a headset adapter, isnt much fun (trust us, weve been there). There are better options.
The slim-line, 760-channel SL40 comm radio is left over from the UPS-AT days and offers features that almost make it two radios in one. Measuring 6.25-inches wide x 1.3-inches high x 10.5-inches deep, and weighing two pounds, the unit is sized for saving space in the radio stack. A frequency- monitoring feature allows listening to the standby frequency at a lower volume than the active one. This is helpful for listening to the ATIS or AWOS, without leaving an active frequency. There is an eight-frequency storage bank, as well as a dedicated emergency channel available at the touch of a button. The SL-40 has stuck-mic time-out mode so it doesnt stayed keyed when you dont want it to. This saved our butt a couple years ago.
For navigation functions, including glideslope, the SL30 is a combination navcomm thats packaged in the same box as the SL40. It drives the MD200 nav head or various EFIS displays, including the Dynon 10A common to many LSAs. A digitally-encoded OBS setting and To/From radial can be displayed on the screen of the LS30 as well. Like the SL40, the SL30 offers standby frequency monitoring-for both Com and Nav.
While were talking radios, if you are paranoid over a potential radio failure, you
might consider a dedicated external communications antenna that can connect to a portable comm transceiver. The drill is to install an antenna on the airframe (a bottom-mount design could result in less interior teardown) and route a coaxial cable with panel-mounted input jack for plugging in the handheld. On a bad day, this could be the best $500 you ever spent. Antenna work on fiberglass airplanes is often more complex that most owners realize, so consult with your shop on different options.
roll your own Glass panel
Dynon has enjoyed huge success in the Experimental aircraft world and their products are becoming equally popular for LSA applications. Garmin has enjoyed equal success with the GPSMAP496. Roll these products up together and add a Gizmo Dock mount for the Garmin and you have impressive amounts of panel-mounted capability. Many LSAs are coming this way, but it could also be done aftermarket.
The EFIS-D10A is a compact and full-featured flight display that fits a 3 1/8-inch instrument cutout and weighs less than two ounces. For small panels, this makes for an easy installation while eating little real estate. The screen on the D10A is four-inch diagonal LCD with 329 by 240 color pixels. The instrument has built-in ADAHRS with a full array of flight instruments with speed and altitude tapes. Theres also the option of angle of attack data.
Another option allows for two hours of backup battery power, in the event of an electrical failure. Through a serial interface, the EFIS-D10A can receive input from several GPS portables to display GPS track data on screen (using an NMEA data label). Panel mounting the GPS496 and making the connections behind the panel is easier than you might think, using a Gizmo Dock GPS mount.
The Gizmo Dock is still off limits to certificated aircraft, but is fair game for S-LSAs. The dock mount that houses the GPSMAP496 requires a 6.25-inch opening (youll also need 4.25-inches of vertical space on the panel). A tilt adapter is available for angling the GPS for optimal viewing. As for the GPSMAP496, theres no shortage of bells and whistles packed inside and theres adding the Zaon traffic mentioned above. Youll need the Garmin power/data interface cable for interfacing the 496 with the aircraft electrical bus, so the unit comes on when the avionics master switch is on. The data portion of the cable connects the serial output to the input of the Dynon for GPS track input.
Air Gizmos also makes dock mounts for other portable GPS units as well as a dock mount for iPod music devices. The dock mount that houses the Garmin 196 through 496 series is $99 plus the angle adapter. Street price of the GPSMAP496 is around $2450. Dynons EFIS-D10A is $2200. In our view, this five-grand setup (plus install labor) offers huge capability for a song-if thats what you want from your LSA.
Some have suggested that the small screen on the D10A-series makes engine instruments a tough read, which for some might be true. Dynon offers engine monitoring in a similar mounting footprint through the EMS-D10. But then again, LSAs have small panels. If you must have a bigger display, the EFIS-D100 is an option, but it eats more panel space.
Dynon has autopilots in development that should work well in the LSA world and Tru Trak already offers them. So its really a matter of how much you want to spend on capability for your “sport” aircraft.
Compared to LSAs, owners with Part 23 aircraft can only dream of such capabilities for the lower costs associated with this gear, not to mention the privilege of a liberal approval process.
Be forewarned, however, that the electrical systems and components in some LSA models are crude and connecting some of this high-tech gear can pose challenges. An LSA maintenance expert admitted that many LSAs simply dont have beefy enough alternators to support a full panel of avionics. With all the avionics and landing lights on while throttled back to lower power settings, some airplanes have a charging system deficit. He also admitted that many LSAs share ultra-light DNA and just arent suitable for flying serious weather.
Shops have their hands full, too. We recall one avionics shop that had to special order an oddball circuit breaker-from Germany-for one LSA model during a simple transponder installation. Adding to the hassle was the chore of fixing broken wires that instantly pulled away from factory-installed connectors once the panel was opened up.
Well stop short of labeling LSA models as glorified ultra lights, as one owner who sold his modern LSA did. We see them differently. They arent as robust as Part-23 aircraft, but are more flexible when it comes time to customize them to meet your mission.
Larry Anglisano isAviation Consumers avionics editor.