4 Great and Affordable Cockpit Upgrades

We scour the market to find the best values for your money.

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Aviation upgrades.File Photo

The word “cheap” sometimes carries negative connotations. It can be taken to suggest inferior quality or a poor value. But pilots who are hit with shelling out upward of $5 or even $6 a gallon for avgas, plus hundreds of dollars a month in hangar or tie-down fees and thousands more on annual inspections, insurance and maintenance will be the first to admit they’re nothing if not bargain shoppers. You might even proudly label yourself a cheapskate — in spite of your $160 aviator sunglasses and $1,400 noise-canceling headset. But hey, you got a deal on your pilot watch, so it’s all good.

Well, as we’re about to show, you don’t always have to spend a lot to get a lot. We’ve searched the market to find the best values in aviation, uncovering a host of cockpit upgrades that will make your flying experience more enjoyable — and in many ways safer — without draining your bank account.

That said, cheap is a relative term, isn’t it? It should be fairly obvious that we’re talking about aviation’s concept of low prices and not the image most people conjure when they walk into the neighborhood dollar store. By the same token, we didn’t build our list of must-consider cockpit add-ons based on price alone. The overall equation is built around total value — what you get for your hard-earned money. Thanks to a down market and fierce competition among the companies that make the products on our list, it turns out you can get quite a lot these days.

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Garmin’s G500 retrofit avionics system ranks as one of the best values in aviation, offering a host of advanced capabilities for under $20,000.Garmin

Budget Glass Cockpits

Remember when a basic two-display EFIS upgrade cost $75,000? The early adopters of glass cockpit technology got great capability but paid dearly for it. Today you can buy an integrated glass cockpit with synthetic-vision primary flight display, solid-state attitude and heading reference system, air-data computer, built-in terrain alerting, color moving map and a lot more for well under $20,000.

What is the bargain glass cockpit upgrade that has us drooling? Without a doubt, it’s Garmin’s G500 system. It’s available with all of the features listed above, plus optional XM weather and radio interface, Jeppesen charts, and even control and display of Garmin’s GWX 68 airborne weather radar, if you happen to have one, all for the low starting price of $17,895. The system can do 90 percent of what a full-up G1000 installation can, but in a compact package that’s perfect for replacing the instrument six pack in your light single or twin.

That doesn’t mean we aren’t equally enamored with Garmin’s G600 cockpit. But let’s face it, the G600 costs more, and we’re bargain-hunting here. Garmin created the G500 for Part 23 Class 1 and 2 singles and twins with MTOWs under 6,000 pounds. The G600 is intended for heavier Class 3 airplanes with MTOWs above 6,000 pounds up to the Part 23 limit of 12,500 pounds. The displays, measuring 6.5 inches diagonally, are exactly the same in either system. Approved model list STCs cover installations in hundreds of airplanes, from the G500 in an early model Cessna 150 all the way up to the G600 in a King Air turboprop.

As for capabilities, the G500 system provides many of the features of the G600 suite but for around $10,000 less. But you won’t get everything. Garmin’s exceptional Synthetic Vision Technology is standard in the G600 but optional in the G500 (although the price we quoted above for the G500 includes SVT, since we consider it a must have). Another standard G600 feature that’s optional in the G500 is a digital AHRS output to the autopilot for heading, yaw and baro. Both systems are approved for installation in Class 1 and 2 airplanes, meaning the G600 is a good fit for nearly all Part 23 airplanes, while the G500 is limited to those up to the size of, say, a Beech Baron.

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Aspen Avionics has made a name for itself by offering great products at low prices. The Aspen Avionics Evolution 1000 flight display sells for around $6,000.Aspen Avionics

The other bargain champ on our list is Aspen Avionics’ Evolution 1000 primary flight display. Ingeniously designed to fit in the space occupied by two conventional round instruments, the EFD1000 is hands down the cheapest high-­performance glass cockpit in the certified market. It’s also a very nice unit, with a colorful and bright display that makes smart use of display real estate. Best of all, the Aspen PFD plays well with others, interfacing with nearly any GPS receiver or nav radio you might have. The price of the EFD1000 primary flight display starts at $5,995, and you can add an EFD500 multifunction display to slide in right next to it for an extra $4,390.

IFR GPS Navigators

Of course, if you are going to shell out the cash for a new glass cockpit, you might want to consider upgrading your GPS and navcoms at the same time. This is an easy decision, in our opinion. To make your aviation dollar go further, you will want to buy a bundled unit that combines a WAAS IFR GPS receiver (required for the upcoming ADS-B mandate, which we’ll talk about) with top-notch navcom radios and a brilliant color LCD moving-map touchscreen display. Obviously, we are talking about Brand A versus Brand G, pitting Avidyne’s new IFD440 navigator against Garmin’s market-dominating GTN 650.

Garmin invented the all-in-one GPS navigator with the wildly popular GNS 430 more than a decade ago. The replacement for that revolutionary product is the impressive GTN 650. The new product is pretty much exactly the same size as the GNS 430, yet it incorporates a larger, ultrahigh-resolution, capacitive touch-sensitive display and gobs more computer processing power. The touch display makes it so much more user-friendly than its predecessor, as the 430’s endless knob twisting is replaced with friendly graphical icons and alphanumerical keys for quick data entry. The map view is similar to what we’ve become accustomed to in the G1000, with terrain, traffic and weather pages that look great. With a price of $10,295 and packed with capabilities, this navigator is really hard to beat.

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Both the Avidyne IFD540 and the smaller IFD440 are based on the Entegra R9 cockpit. The price of the 440 starts at less than $10,000.Avidyne

That hasn’t stopped Avidyne from trying. The Massachusetts avionics manufacturer finally decided to go toe to toe with Garmin with the introduction of the IFD440 and the larger IFD540 (which competes with Garmin’s GTN 750 navigator). The only problem is the IFD440 hasn’t hit the market yet, so we’re not sure how good it will be. The pluses are the prices and the capabilities Avidyne has announced. The retail price is $14,995, but we’ve seen ­Avidyne promotions advertising the IFD440 for as low as $9,200. As far as what it can do, the IFD440 is based on the user interface from the Entegra R9 integrated cockpit. We’ve flown the R9 several times now and love it. Adding a touchscreen to the mix should make the experience even better. We won’t know for certain until the IFD440 goes on sale later this year, but from what we’ve seen, it’s looking like a promising option.

As we’ve seen, you can add some great capabilities to your airplane to transform its cockpit into something nearly as good as brand-new airplanes rolling out of the factory today. You’ll have to spend a few dollars to buy the products you want — and a few dollars more to have them installed — but if you love your current airplane and are seeking ways to bring it gracefully into the 21st century, our list of upgrades will keep you happily flying for many years to come.

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GoPro's mount-anywhere cameras are a favorite among pilots. The latest GoPro Hero 3: Black Edition camera features a new ultrasharp lens.GoPro

Cockpit Video Cameras

If you have been on YouTube lately, you know that in-cockpit video has become all the rage, as everyone from the nervous student pilot gingerly launching on his first solo flight to world-famous aerobatic champions seek to capture their air-bound exploits on camera. The best HD cameras we've tried are GoPro's Hero 3: Black Edition and JVC's Addixion "action camera."

Both products bring a lot to the table, but the JVC camera wins out on price, retailing for $199, versus $399 for the GoPro. Both cameras are Wi-Fi enabled, allowing you to download videos directly to your computer. They also both shoot in 1080p HD resolution and have a screen resolution of 1920 x 1080. We have seen comparison videos of both cameras shooting identical scenes, and quite honestly it is pretty hard to tell which is which. Both are great. GoPro may be the sexier brand name at the moment, but based on price and performance, JVC is worth checking out as well.

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