Five Avionics Upgrades You Need Now

Now that the weather is turning warmer, the days are growing longer and you’re having a hard time thinking of anything other than your airplane and all the places you’ll…

Now that the weather is turning warmer, the days are growing longer and you’re having a hard time thinking of anything other than your airplane and all the places you’ll fly this summer, you’ve probably been dreaming about upgrades too. If you’re the typical aircraft owner, your wish list is probably a mile long and includes everything from the latest touch-screen GPS WAAS navigator to a full glass-panel retrofit with a gorgeous synthetic-vision display that will make every flight a sunshiny joy.

Here’s the cold reality: Even if you can afford to buy anything you want, chances are you can’t afford everything you want. That means you’ll have to make choices — sometimes, difficult ones. And, of course, your list will need to be segregated into two columns: the need-to-have stuff versus the nice-to-have. For example, if the display on your GPS receiver keeps blanking out in turbulence, it’s fairly obvious what your next purchase will be. On the other hand, if everything in the airplane is working fine but you have several upgrades in mind that you think would make sense, that’s where the choices become harder.

Every aircraft owner’s wants and needs will differ, but there are certain items that for a great many of us just beg for updating. For many owners, one of the most obvious is the autopilot. That’s especially true if your current rate-based autopilot can’t seem to fly the airplane nearly as well as you can. Of course, if you’re not willing to replace the mechanical servos and actuators that do the actual pushing and pulling on the control surfaces, the greatest autopilot in the world might not be of much help. But if the mechanics are sound, a digital autopilot could be just the thing to make those long cross-countries all the more enjoyable, especially the last 10 minutes as the autopilot deftly captures the ILS and flies a perfect approach.

Another piece of equipment many of us probably ought to consider upgrading sooner than later is the emergency locator transmitter. The FAA hasn’t forced us to switch from 121.5 MHz technology to the new 406 MHz satellite technology yet, but we all know that adding the new box makes perfect sense from a safety standpoint.

With this in mind, here are five products we’ve selected that you may want to consider buying first. They might not all be the flashiest to look at, but they’ll deliver a solid return on your investment — and these days, that’s as important as any factor when it comes to making big-ticket upgrades.

>>> Garmin GMA 350 Audio Panel
LIST PRICE: $2,395

If you haven’t experienced it yet, Garmin’s latest digital audio-panel technology will impress you from the moment you slip on your headset. Turn up the volume, and you’ll be hearing the future of cockpit audio, with 3-D sound that’s designed to mimic how the human brain hears.

For instance, with this state-of-the-art audio panel, you’ll hear calls from the tower in one ear, ATIS through the other, and the voices of your passengers as though they’re coming from their seat positions, even the seats behind you. Rather than hearing all sounds as though they’re originating from the same place and are laid atop each other, suddenly you’re hearing the sounds as nature intended, with the major benefit being the ability to better interpret sounds from different sources.

Think of it as having a conversation at the same time with two or more people standing on either side of you. As long as you can clearly hear the sounds separately on different sides, interpreting and understanding what’s being said becomes much easier.

If that wasn't enough, the GMA 350 also features voice recognition technology for hands-free communication switching and control. For example, simply press the "push to command" switch and say "Comm One" or "Comm Two" and the unit switches automatically between radios. Best of all, the voice technology
really works. Helicopter pilots, especially, love the hands-free features of the GMA 350. Pilot and co-pilot can also select independent frequencies on which to broadcast, while audio sources for different seating positions can be controlled independently, allowing your passengers to listen to music while you talk on the radio.

>>> JPI EDM-730/830 Digital Engine Monitor
LIST PRICE (EDM 730-6C): $2,888

Have you ever wished you could upgrade to digital engine gauges without tearing up your panel or breaking the bank? J.P. Instruments’ engine data management systems allow aircraft owners to do just that, by sliding the EDM unit into a standard 3.1-inch panel hole as a quick and easy way of consolidating an array of engine-related data on a single display.

The EDM-730/830 is a full-color evolution of JPI's earlier 700/800-series engine monitors, with an LCD display that can be rotated 90 degrees for installation in landscape or portrait orientation, even in the tightest of panels. The unit provides digital readout of an array of engine parameters, from EGT and CHT values to rpm and manifold pressure, and more. New features of the color models include default settings allowing use of lean-of-peak or rich-of-peak modes at start-up, and manual cycling through all parameters. The major benefit of the digital gauge, says JPI, is more precise leaning resulting in better fuel economy, reduced maintenance costs and longer engine life.

The EDM unit constantly redline-checks all engine parameters, providing readouts at the top of the display depicting rpm and manifold pressure both graphically and digitally. The EGT and CHT bar graph presentations can be fine-tuned by pressing the Leanfind button on the unit’s face. A white bar graph shows CHT values while a blue bar graph shows EGT. Warnings for any parameters outside the normal range will flash red. The unit can also display oil temperature, oil pressure, battery voltage, OAT, the difference between the hottest and coolest cylinders and other data, such as optional fuel-flow information.

>>> Emerging Lifesaving Technologies ELT406GPS
LIST PRICE: $1,595

You may as well admit it: Your old 121.5 MHz emergency locator transmitter is junk. The international search-and-rescue organization, COSPAS-SARSAT, doesn’t even monitor this frequency anymore. You know you should upgrade to a 406 MHz ELT unit that broadcasts distress signals to overhead satellites, and eventually we’ll all probably be forced to by regulation. But what if your ELT could also automatically broadcast your exact location to rescuers using GPS? That would make your chances of being found quickly even better, wouldn’t it?

Emerging Lifesaving Technologies has developed just such a product. Its ELT406GPS unit is an emergency locator transmitter with an internal GPS receiver that is claimed to be the first of its type approved for general aviation use. Along with the ability to broadcast over the new standard 406 MHz emergency signal, the COSPAS-SARSAT satellites will also read your current GPS position. In flight, the GPS unit automatically updates your present position every 15 seconds. Upon activation, a 5-watt signal bursts every 50 seconds, broadcasting your location to within a few yards of your position and transmitting a distress signal immediately.

The ELT406GPS mounts like most standard ELTs. The transmitter and the panel-mounted remote switch/indicator can usually make use of existing hardware and cutouts from your old ELT, the manufacturer says. And because the GPS receiver is built in, there’s no need to interface the unit to an external GPS receiver. Maintenance is also easy with an owner/operator-replaceable five-year battery. The ELT406GPS also comes with an integrated 406 MHz broadcast and GPS passive antenna combined in a single blade configuration for ease of installation.

>>> Avidyne DFC90 Digital Autopilot
LIST PRICE: $9,995

Besides being a heck of a nice autopilot and a vast improvement over the S-Tec 55 series, Avidyne's DFC90 digital automatic flight control system also incorporates various cutting-edge technologies — like envelope protection and a "straight & level" button — that make this product an instant winner. The DFC90 autopilot works by interfacing with Avidyne's EXP5000 or Aspen Avionics' EFD1000 Pro PFD as the attitude source. Because it's an attitude-based unit, pilots who are used to rate-based S-Tec autopilots will instantly notice greatly improved stability, smoother level-offs and more precise tracking on ILS approaches, even in gusty conditions.

Another plus is that the DFC90 incorporates many of the standard vertical and lateral modes of operation of turbine-class autopilot systems, including flight director (FD), altitude hold (ALT), airspeed hold (IAS), vertical speed hold (VS), heading (HDG) and navigation (NAV, APPR, GS, GPSS). The system’s enhanced flight director capability is vastly improved and greatly enhances the ability to hand-fly approaches. Another nice feature is the synchronized heading bug that lets you command the autopilot to, say, make a right-hand 270-degree turn if you spin the heading knob right 270 degrees.

The envelope-protection features built in to the DFC90 prevent stalls by acting in the background to nudge the nose forward if airspeed decays when not in the landing configuration. The technology will also prevent autopilot-induced overspeeds. The dedicated straight & level button, meanwhile, recovers the aircraft from unusual attitudes by overriding all autopilot modes and leveling the aircraft in both pitch and roll. The unit is designed as a plug-and-play replacement for the S-Tec 55X autopilot, with as little as three hours needed for the basic installation. Wiring the unit for flap position (used for certain envelope protection modes) requires an additional three to four hours of downtime, according to Avidyne.

The price noted earlier is for the Cirrus SR20/22, Cessna 182, Beechcraft Bonanza and Piper PA-32. It does not include installation or the cost of the required PFD upgrade and assumes a trade-in value for an existing autopilot.

>>> FreeFlight Systems Rangr ADS-B Transceiver
LIST PRICE: $4,995

By now, we’ve all heard that we’ll need to upgrade to automatic dependent surveillance – broadcast capability by 2020. You’ve probably also heard that ADS-B can provide you with free traffic and weather data if you buy and install the right equipment. ADS-B weather is continuously broadcast, and you can pick it up with a 978 MHz ADS-B receiver. To get a valid traffic report you need to be a “client” of the ADS-B system, which means you have to have an approved ADS-B Out system on board. The traffic report can be received on the same receiver as the weather datalink, or you can receive it at the transponder frequency of 1090 MHz if you have an ADS-B-approved transponder with an appropriate receiver built in.

FreeFlight Systems' Rangr 978 MHz transceiver can give you the full complement of ADS-B capabilities, including the ability to display the free weather data on an iPad. The FAA's final ADS-B rule dictates an ADS-B compliant system must have a high-integrity position source and a radio that sends specific information from that position source to ATC. The easiest way to achieve this requirement is to pair a TSO-C145/C146 WAAS GPS (like a Garmin GNS 430W) with an ADS-B-approved transmitter like the FreeFlight Rangr. In addition, 978 MHz compliance requires a small control head for entering squawk codes.

Another benefit of the FreeFlight unit is that it allows aircraft fleet owners or flight schools to track their airplanes in real time and record and store track information. The ADS-B unit itself is lightweight and installs easily. As the FAA adds ADS-B ground stations throughout the nation, the value of having this technology aboard your aircraft in advance of the mandate will only rise. And the great news is that, once you’ve installed the technology, there will be nothing more you need to do to comply with the mandate. That could be a big plus as we approach the compliance deadline and tens of thousands of GA airplane owners wake up to the fact that they need to get their airplane in the shop in a hurry.


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