Today flat-panel avionics are a fixture in new-production airplanes of every description. So the real question is, when will avionics companies be ready to offer cost-effective flat-panel retrofit packages for the used fleet?
With recent product launches from Aspen, Garmin and Avidyne (the subject of this story), the answer seems to be, now, and that's a great thing for owners of good old airplanes with aging avionics.
It's somewhat counterintuitive, but the fact is, it's actually a lot more complicated to develop a flat-panel retrofit program than one for a new airplane, simply because there are so many more variables to consider when retrofitting: What changes did the original manufacturer make to the panel from year to year? What kind of optional equipment is installed, and how does that affect the retrofit? What changes have previous owners made to the panel? What kind of autopilot system and HSI is installed? It's a daunting task.
All of this is why Avidyne chose the Cirrus SR-series airplanes - which exist in fairly large numbers but have a great deal of commonality - to be the first platform for its flat-panel retrofit program, which it calls Envision. The system is essentially the same as the company's Entegra system, which it installs in a variety of new-production airplanes, including the SR20 and SR22 from Cirrus, in which Avidyne has installed displays in more than 3,000 airplanes.
So it made a lot of sense that Avidyne chose the SR22 to be its first Envision program, since it has more knowledge of that platform than any company this side of Duluth. In fact, the SR22, the most-produced single-engine airplane today, has become nearly synonymous with Avidyne's Entegra flat-panel displays - both PFD and MFD. So it's easy to forget that there are hundreds of pre-Avidyne SR22s and SR20s in the fleet, a fact that represented quite an opportunity for Avidyne.
To make Envision a reality, Avidyne teamed with Southern Star Avionics out of Mobile, Alabama. Under the partnership, Southern Star created the STC for the model and will supply kits for it to a nationwide network of avionics shops that will be trained in installing the systems in customers' airplanes. Southern Star says that the upgrade will take about a week to perform. That's short by any standard, but Southern says it's confident in that estimate, because its kit is so complete that installers won't be wasting any valuable time tracking down fasteners or couplers. It's all in the kit.
What a difference that week will make. The system has all the baseline capabilities of the full-up Entegra system, and customers have the option of installing such goodies as Avidyne's MLB 700 datalink weather receiver - XM Weather is also available - TCAS, active traffic and terrain awareness. The system will also link up with several existing safety utilities that were installed in the original airplanes.
The original configuration for the candidate SR22s and SR20s included analog flight instruments with a Sandel HSI, and either the Arnav or the Avidyne multifunction display.
The Envision system replaces all of the original steam gauges with a single PFD with digital AHARS and air data. The safety benefits of just that upgrade could be worth the price of admission
But there's a lot more. On the MFD side, most customers with the Arnav MFD will choose to replace that with the current state-of-the-art Avidyne EX5000 MFD, which offers a tremendous boost in utility, with such available features as satellite weather, traffic, terrain, IFR charts, checklists, engine gauges and more.
Backup instruments, required as part of the STC, are located on a subpanel below the PFD, which is also a part of Southern's conversion kit. The look and functionality is identical to the subpanel on SRs equipped at the factory with Avidyne's PFD.
Customers have the option of keeping their analog engine gauges or replacing them with electronic engine gauges on the MFD (with critical info also displayed on a box on the PFD), as is done on current Cirrus models. The addition of the engine page is a more extensive and expensive proposition than you might think, as it involves the addition of a data acquisition unit (DAU), as well as engine sensors and probes. The end result of that additional expense, however, is the same extensive engine capabilities as brand-new SR22s have.
I spent a day with the folks from Avidyne and Southern Star at the Mobile Downtown Airport, which is where Southern Star developed the STC for the Cirrus (as well as for the 400-series Cessnas). It was an interesting experience, in that I flew from my home base of Austin, Texas, to Mobile in a late-model Cirrus (a PlaneSmart-managed shared ownership airplane - planesmart.com) and then flew my demo flight in Southern Star's beautifully refurbished SR22.
What I discovered was that, even though the late-model turbocharged SR22 G3 I flew in was an improved airplane in many regards compared to the 2003 SR22 refurbished by Southern Star, the avionics capabilities of the older Cirrus were nearly identical to those of the G3. True, their '22 didn't have satellite weather, TCAS or CMax charts, but it could have been equipped with all of that, as well as with WAAS capabilities when paired with WAAS-capable Garmin GNS 430W navigators.
So how much? As with any large retrofit project, the costs can vary depending on how much the customer needs and wants. Those needing just the PFD upgrade will probably be able to make the move to the solid-state world for less than $50,000 installed. The addition of an MFD (done as a separate STC) or various safety utilities such as TCAS or weather or Jeppesen charts will add to the price tag, as will the addition of the display of engine gauges on the MFD, which require the installation of a data acquisition unit (a computerized brain for engine monitoring) and various sensors and probes.
Will it be worth it? In terms of safety and utility, that's an easy answer. Yes.
In terms of value, it's a bit more complicated, but only a bit. Almost without exception, you don't get your money back in airplane value when you upgrade the stack. In this case, however, you'll almost certainly get most of it back. If you look at the difference in price between a 2003-vintage non-PFD airplane and a 2004 PFD-equipped model with similar time, you'll see that there's a big delta, as much as $75,000 based on typical asking prices. That's the ballpark cost of an extensive Envision upgrade. So in those terms, if you're planning to sell the airplane down the road a ways, it sure looks like a good bet. You probably won't make money on the deal, but you probably won't lose any either.
For a lot of Cirrus owners, however, the real reason to do the Envision thing is because you just get better avionics with the upgrade. Improved utility, improved reliability and improved usability clearly add up to enhanced safety. The math doesn't get much easier than that.