ADS-B Countdown: Act Now

Aircraft owners search for compatible solutions to the mandate.

pilot using tablet in airplane cockpit
Now is the time to act!Courtesy Garmin

By now you might be growing tired of talk of the upcoming ADS-B mandate. While avionics producers and installers likely are more welcoming of the regulation because it has spurred business for them, it's becoming a source of stress for aircraft owners and operators who have not already found a good solution.

Sevan Gerard and his partners, who together own a Cessna 172 in Oxnard, California, are part of a group of aircraft owners who have not yet decided how to approach the ADS-B dilemma. The Skyhawk they own was built in 1975 and has a very basic six-pack configuration with two VOR navcoms and a mode-C transponder. Gerard and his partners are debating whether to add a GPS system they can use for navigation or just a simple unit that satisfies the mandate.

“There are too many options with unclear differences and it’s difficult to clarify what the labor costs will be,” Gerard said. “Also, if we have to put that much money into a retrofit and not really feel like there is a tangible, immediate and visible benefit, then it’s a harder pill to swallow. That’s why it might be more interesting to include it as a part of a bigger upgrade so we can see some added value to the required expenses.”

As an aircraft owner myself, I can relate. I chose to completely update the panel of my Mooney M20C as a result of the ADS-B mandate. The upgrade shattered my budget. But the good news is that I'm very happy with the capabilities I get from my Aspen PFD/MFD combination, the Avidyne IFD 540/440 and audio panel and the L-3 Lynx NGT-9000 transponder.

The difficulty in getting clear answers regarding cost and the lack of “tangible, immediate and visible benefit” that Gerard mentioned are likely issues that have prevented many operators from becoming compliant, whether they own light airplanes or larger turbine aircraft. But it’s time to act. The rule goes into effect Jan. 1, and avionics shops are busy.

If you don’t book a time for the installation really soon, you will be grounded as the New Year’s party horns ring in the new decade.

The same is true in the bizjet world. Despite the best efforts of major aircraft manufacturers to educate their customers and bring their airplanes to compliance through their company-owned service centers, only 68 percent of the total turbine aircraft fleet in the United States is in compliance with the 2020 rule, according to FlightAware’s database of ADS-B -equipped turbine aircraft, last published in February at the time of this writing.

Avidyne and Lynx combination ADS-B unit
Many ADS-B units are compatible with systems from other manufacturers, such as this Avidyne IDF 550/L-3 Lynx NGT-9000 combination.Courtesy Avidyne

Gulfstream’s director of corporate communications and media relations, Heidi Fedak, said Gulfstream has been working hard to educate its customers through various operator events, emails and direct phone calls, and, as a result, the compliance rate for most of Gulfstream’s models is good. The trouble lies in early turbine products, such as the Gulfstream GIII, Cessna Citation 650 series, Learjet 31 and many others, which are showing less than 40 percent compliance, according the FlightAware. “There could be some portion of the fleet, come January 2020, which is going to find out that they’re not going to be able to fly the way that they’re used to flying,” said Kriya Shortt, Textron Aviation’s senior vice president of customer support.

While the FAA issued a policy statement April 1 regarding how non-ADS-B-equipped aircraft can get approval to fly in mandated airspace come January 2020, the agency made it clear that it would be “very unlikely to issue routine and regular authorizations.”

It’s worth noting that the required signals under the new rule, WAAS GPS and ADS-B Out, can’t be seen by the operator. It’s invisible data being transmitted to air traffic control, and in the cockpit there is no difference between ADS-B Out units and the old mode-C units—the current transponder requirement in busy airspace.

“The conveyance of the importance to a C-suite flyer has been difficult to overcome,” Shortt said. “There is nothing material that you can see, touch, feel or experience about the concept of ADS-B other than to say it’s something you have to have and it costs X.”

However, the ADS-B component that is not required—ADS-B In—is both tangible and useful. ADS-B In can be received even with low-cost portable units, providing subscription-free weather and traffic data. Many, but not all by far, panel-mounted ADS-B units have this capability, or can be upgraded to receive it, and they can, in many cases, share it with other equipment in the panel. In my case, the Aspen and Avidyne units can display weather and traffic data from my L-3 Lynx ADS-B transponder, which also has a dedicated touch display.

Garmin GDL 82 UAT
Like many solutions, this low-cost Garmin GDL 82 UAT has a separate antenna.Courtesy Garmin
uAvionix Tailbeacon
Replacing a tail light, this uAvionix Tailbeacon UAT unit promises quick installation.Courtesy uAvionix
Garmin GTX 345
This Garmin GTX 345 1090ES unit is one of the most popular systems available today.Courtesy Garmin

Only a few years ago, inflight traffic required special equipment, and real-time weather was only available in light airplanes through SiriusXM—for which not only equipment but also a monthly subscription is required. The XM service is still available, with subscription costs ranging from $29.99 to $99.99 per month.

Getting much of this capability for free translates into big savings. However, before you cancel your XM Weather subscription, make sure you don’t need any of the services it offers that are not covered by ADS-B In.

For light aircraft operators looking only to meet the ADS-B Out mandate, a growing number of affordable solutions have been popping up as the final days approach.

Owners of experimental aircraft have been able to get compliant for very low costs thanks to innovative products that can quickly be installed without the process of taking apart the airplane. For example, uAvionix introduced the skyBeacon and tailBeacon products, which replace exterior lights and add the required WAAS GPS and ADS-B Out equipment when paired with a mode-C or mode-S transponder.

The 978-MHz UAT hardware from uAvionix is $1,849. Garmin’s low-cost solution, the GDL-82, is slightly less expensive, and there are other UAT units available from other manufacturers around the same price point. But the ease of installation could make the final price tag for the uAvionix products quite a bit lower than other UAT products.

While the installation cost is unpredictable and can run into the thousands if a WAAS GPS antenna has to be mounted and wired, uAvionix’s installation is very predictable. The units simply attach to the aircraft in place of wingtip position lights or tail lights and require minimal installation time—less than an hour for an experienced technician.

While uAvionix’s solutions are great, they have restrictions. The lights have to be on for the units to work, they don’t provide the benefits of ADS-B In and the installation can be problematic for some airplanes, particularly those with wingtip tanks for the skyBeacon. Some customers reported problems with availability in a Pilots of America discussion online. This has not been the case with Garmin’s GDL-82, according to the same thread. Also, all UAT units operate on 986 MHz, restricting their use to flights below 18,000 feet.

Avidyne AXP340
This Avidyne AXP340 is a low-cost solution works with compatible WAAS GPS systems.Courtesy Avidyne
Garmin G600TXi
This Garmin G600TXi split screen can display ADS-B data separately or on the HSI.Courtesy Garmin
BendixKing KT 74
This BendixKing KT 74 1090ES unit can replace a variety of common mode-c transponders.Courtesy BendixKing

Beyond the inability to fly above 18,000 feet, the UAT systems might become problematic for international flying. Canada has not yet finalized its ADS-B requirement. But if the country north of our border decides to implement rules with only 1090ES equipment, you won’t be able to fly in Canada or to Alaska without additional upgrades. If you want to be sure you are covered, you should go with a 1090ES system right off the bat.

There are many 1090ES solutions from around $2,900 and up, such as: FreeFlight’s RANGR, which comes in 978 MHz and 1090ES as well as ADS-B In varieties; BendixKing’s KT 74, which slides right into the bracket of an existing KT 76 or 78 transponder; and Garmin’s GTX 335 and 345 (with ADS-B In), which have been popular options. There are even lower-cost 1090ES units, such as Appareo’s Stratus ES and Avidyne’s AXP340 that don’t include the required WAAS GPS component for operators who already have compatible WAAS GPS equipment, such as Garmin’s GNS 430W or 530W or Avidyne’s IFD 440/540/550.

One of the most capable units that also plays well with other products is L-3’s Lynx NGT-9000, which has its own digital display featuring traffic, terrain, weather—including Nexrad, winds aloft, ATIS, metars and TAFs—and airspace. Lynx provides 1090ES ADS-B Out and brings ADS-B In from both 1090-MHz and 978-MHz frequencies. The unit also integrates with many MFD systems, so you can display the data on a larger screen. Pricing varies depending on which capabilities you choose. For example, terrain and audible alerts are optional.

Garmin’s recently introduced GNX 375 also has a touch screen that provides the ability to navigate and even shoot LPV approaches, though the $7,995 unit can only be installed in Part 23-certified aircraft weighing less than 6,000 pounds.

Garmin GTN 725 in older cockpit
Operators of older turbine aircraft are using ads-b as an excuse to add updated technologies, like the Garmin GTN 725.Courtesy King School

The process of choosing the right solution becomes even more complex for operators of older turbine aircraft. The biggest decision for owners of older avionics systems is whether to make further upgrades while the panel is ripped apart. For some, it’s whether to park the airplane all together.

Gulfstream’s GIII fleet, as mentioned, faces this challenge, with only 31 percent compliance so far. “The GIII entered service in 1980 and we stopped manufacturing them in 1987, so investing in those aircraft may not bring the return it will for other aircraft within the Gulfstream family,” Fedak said.

In the 1980s and earlier, airplanes were most certainly delivered without WAAS GPS, so installation of even a simple stand-alone ADS-B system becomes expensive because a GPS antenna needs to be installed and wired to the unit. But there are some reasonable solutions available for those airplanes too. When John and Martha King first researched options for an ADS-B installation for their 1974 Falcon 10, which would also add two Garmin GTN 750 MFD/GPS/navcoms, the price tag for the installation was quoted at around $150,000. For about a third of that cost, the Kings chose the GTN 725 GPS/MFD, which provides GPS approaches, something the Falcon was not capable of before the upgrade, along with a host of other capabilities.

One solution that has been popular with early Cessna Citations is BendixKing’s CNI 5000 suite. It replaces the two KT 70 transponders with KT 74 1090ES ADS-B units and adds the required WAAS GPS antenna and receiver. The cost is $21,500, said Roger Dykmann, vice president of sales in North America for BendixKing. ADS-B In also can be added to the system for an additional cost. The expected installation time is 80 to 90 hours, with an additional 30 hours for the ADS-B In option, as it requires another antenna. The new face plate for the CNI 5000 is certified for the Citations. This installation retains the navigation and communications systems.

BendixKing CNI 5000
The BendixKing CNI 5000 is a solution for older citations.Courtesy BendixKing

While there are terrific professional shops that can help, turbine aircraft are complex and working with factory-owned service centers ensures that the technicians are intimately familiar with the aircraft and can give good advice.

As of this writing, Gulfstream still has availability at its company-owned service centers for customers to get compliant before the end of the year, but they’re starting to fill up.

While Textron Aviation’s Beechcraft and Cessna piston products are serviced by local avionics shops, the company-owned service centers offer numerous ADS-B options for its Beechcraft King Air, Hawker and Citation fleets.

“They all have options that will work,” Shortt said. “The compatibility lies in an owner’s or operator’s appetite to price. Whether they’re going to go with an integrated system or if they’re looking for more of the stand-alone base requirement.”

Shortt said that if customers can’t get solutions at local service centers in the desired time frame, another center in the network will be able to provide the required support.

Airplanes that are fewer than five years old are, for the most part, already ADS-B compliant. Textron Aviation started delivering airplanes with ADS-B in 2014, beginning with the M2, Shortt said. Legacy airplanes, such as the CJ4, which was introduced nearly a decade ago, started being delivered compliant in 2015.

You might ask yourself: Do I have to get ADS-B? If your flight missions don’t go beyond fun hops in uncontrolled airspace, don’t worry. Your money is better spent on avgas. You can even fly IFR as long as you stay out of the airspace defined in the ADS-B rules.

Aside from some exceptions, your airplane must be equipped in any Class E airspace above 10,000 feet—not including areas below 2,500 feet AGL—or inside or above Class B and C airspace and within mode-C veils.

Choosing a system is a complex dilemma. There are many options, and the best one for you depends what capabilities you can afford. Weigh your choices wisely and get booked with your avionics shop now.