Remember all the dire predictions about the FAA’s upcoming ADS-B equipment mandate, the ones that warned aircraft owners of a projected logjam of necessary installation work as the January 1, 2020, deadline approached? It’s looking more and more like those prognostications were spot on.
With a year and a half left to go before the ADS-B deadline, the situation for general aviation appears grim indeed. Some 13,000 $500 rebate checks out of a total allotment of 20,000 went unclaimed when a government program aimed at spurring ADS-B installations ended last September without gaining the hoped-for traction. As of the last official count, only about 35,000 Part 23 general aviation airplanes have been equipped to fly in ADS-B airspace. That leaves well more than 100,000 airplanes still without approved ADS-B Out avionics, a circumstance that is almost certain to lock a great many airplane owners out of most controlled airspace as New Year’s revelers are raising their Champagne glasses on December 31, 2019.
Somewhere around 160,000 general aviation airplanes are listed on the FAA registry, but of course not even the most pessimistic of observers believes that many airplanes need to be fitted with ADS-B Out avionics by the deadline. An unknown number of light GA airplanes sit in the weeds with flat tires and fading paint. For those owners, the ADS-B deadline is just one of many worries. The owners of many thousands more airplanes will simply choose to fly outside of ADS-B airspace, reasoning that the cost to upgrade isn’t justifiable for older aircraft with low hull values.
Among general aviation’s turbine ranks, the picture appears bleaker still. Business jets and turboprops must fly in ADS-B airspace, and so equipage is an absolute necessity. Still, as of the last official FAA tally, only 5,817 turbine GA airplanes have been equipped for ADS-B among a fleet that numbers about 18,000. Upgrading newer business jets for ADS-B is a relatively straightforward affair, and since 2014, most all new airplanes have rolled out of the factory already equipped. Slightly older airplanes with the latest avionics suites from Honeywell Aerospace, Garmin and Rockwell Collins often require only a software update or some minor hardware replacements. The compliance cost for older bizjets, meanwhile, can easily reach well above $100,000 for the needed ADS-B transponders, WAAS GPS receivers and antennas, all of which can also require some serious installation downtime, resulting in a major loss of revenue for some operators.
Despite wishful thinking by some, the FAA has stated emphatically that the ADS-B compliance date isn’t going to change.
The decision matrix for many airplane owners seems to center on whether they will even choose to keep their airplanes beyond 2020. Many operators of older business jets and turboprops say they are looking to upgrade to newer airplanes and so will forgo the expense of ADS-B equipage in their current aircraft. That’s already leading to a dip in prices for airplanes not equipped for the ADS-B mandate versus those that are, experts say.
“We hear from a lot of owners of older business jets who tell us the values of their airplanes simply don’t justify the expense of equipping for the ADS-B mandate,” says Chris Benich, vice president of aerospace regulatory affairs for Honeywell. “Some tell us they will sell the airplane, which, of course, will be tougher to do without ADS-B. Others say they’re betting on the deadline being extended.”
Of that latter wager, Benich quips, “Maybe that’s their strategy, but we tell them it’s not a good strategy.”
Indeed, the FAA has stated emphatically time and again that the deadline for ADS-B compliance is not going to change. Considering that the agency gave the aviation industry a decade to comply, and that avionics solutions are readily available, shops can do the work and, perhaps most important, the airlines are on a path to achieve near total compliance on time, there appears to be very little chance that the mandate will be extended beyond the original January 1, 2020, start date.
If you’re one of the many thousands of airplane owners who know you still need to equip for ADS-B but you’re on the fence as you perhaps wait for less expensive alternatives to emerge, here’s a piece of advice we keep hearing from avionics shops that could end up saving you from the heartburn of missing the deadline: Call your shop now and at least schedule a date for your ADS-B upgrade, even if you’re not completely settled on which solution you’ll choose. A year and a half might seem like a long time, but the closer we get to the deadline, the busier shops will become. This game of avionics musical chairs surely will end badly for some; you want to be sure you have your seat when 2020 rolls over on the compliance calendar.
Only 5,800 turbine GA airplanes have been equipped for ADS-B among a fleet that numbers about 18,000.
There’s also still a fair amount of confusion among some airplane owners about just what ADS-B is and what’s required where. That’s not too surprising considering that the rule itself is somewhat opaque, with options for 1090 extended squitter (ES) versus 978 MHz universal access transceivers (UAT) and the need for a “valid position source” (i.e., a WAAS GPS receiver), not to mention the differences between ADS-B In and ADS-B Out, and why you must equip with Out avionics but you might want to equip with both In and Out to reap the full benefits of the NextGen technology.
Here’s a quick primer in case you don’t remember your UAT from your ES: First, ADS-B Out is a new technology for ATC traffic surveillance, while ADS-B In is the “nice to have but not required” technology that shows you the location of other traffic and provides you with subscription-free FIS-B weather information (see sidebar). ADS-B is a satellite-based replacement for old-fashioned surveillance radar that provides greater accuracy and therefore will allow ATC to pack more airplanes into a given block of airspace for greater systemwide efficiency. It is one of the key elements of the NextGen air traffic control system we’ve all heard and read so much about.
If you know you’ll never fly in Class A airspace (FL 180 and above) or internationally, you can stick with a simpler UAT-based ADS-B Out box, which broadcasts over 978 MHz. If you don’t have a WAAS GPS receiver to provide position information, the unit will have to include it, which most systems sold today thankfully offer as standard or as a low-cost option. There’s a long list of ADS-B Out choices for piston GA airplanes, ranging in price from around $1,500 up to about $6,000, plus installation costs. For airplanes that fly in Class A airspace or internationally, those owners will need a Mode C or S transponder with extended squitter capability broadcast over the 1090 MHz datalink. Typically, these units are more expensive, and sometimes a whole lot more expensive, again, if you need to upgrade multiple boxes and add new antennas.
Many but not all of the more affordable ADS-B Out systems for GA also include optional ADS-B In capabilities, allowing you to display traffic and weather on a variety of panel-mount and tablet displays. If you’re looking for a full ADS-B solution with a dedicated in-cockpit display, you can have that too. The cost will be somewhat higher, but considering how often you’ll be referencing the ADS-B-supplied data, it can be a sound investment.
Once your avionics shop has installed your new ADS-B Out gear you’ll also need to fly a test flight to ensure ATC can correctly identify your airplane. Be careful here. Of 39,163 GA airplanes equipped with ADS-B avionics as of April 1, only 35,536 of them were considered “good installs” by the FAA. Be sure to do your homework before selecting an ADS-B equipment solution, and talk through the upgrade with your installer to avoid any nasty surprises.
Where will ADS-B be Required?
The FAA rule says that by 2020, aircraft in the United States must carry compliant ADS-B Out equipment to fly in Class A, B (and Mode C veil) and C, plus Class E airspace above 10,000 feet but not below 2,500 feet (i.e., in the mountains out West). So, in general you’ll need ADS-B Out most of the places you need a Mode C transponder today, and if you aren’t buying a new ADS-B transponder, you’ll need to keep your old Mode C transponder because radar will continue to be the backup for ADS-B. That leaves lots of places where ADS-B Out avionics won’t be required — including many Class D airports with control towers — but if you do any sort of long-distance transportation flying you’d better plan on upgrading.
What Equipment will I Need?
This is where most of the confusion about the ADS-B mandate arises, but really it’s not that complicated. If you never fly in the flight levels or internationally, you can get by with a universal-access transceiver broadcasting over the 978 MHz link, which is the same feed that transmits subscription-free weather and traffic data to properly equipped airplanes. If you fly at FL 180 or above, or outside the United States, you’ll need a 1090 MHz extended squitter unit. Both options are rule-compliant ADS-B Out solutions. You’ll also need a WAAS GPS receiver. If you also want to receive subscription-free weather and traffic information, you’ll need ADS-B In capability, which is built into many rule-compliant units or could be gained from an ADS-B portable device, such as the Stratus 2S from Sporty’s and Appareo or XGPS170D from Dual.
Here’s a look at some popular ADS-B equipment options and why they might be the right choice for your airplane:
New Free Weather Products Coming to the ADS-B Feed
Good news: The FAA is introducing a host of new weather products to the subscription-free ADS-B broadcast feed to provide pilots with even more information they can use to make better en route decisions.
Starting this month, the FAA will begin broadcasting lightning strikes, turbulence, icing forecasts, modeled cloud tops, graphical airmets and center weather advisories over the FIS-B link. The added weather information will complement the original 13 “base line” weather products in the FIS-B feed that include Nexrad radar imagery, winds aloft, terminal forecasts and more.
The FAA says turbulence reports will be updated every 15 minutes, while the “modeled” cloud top data (sorry, no actual cloud top reports will be included) will be disseminated in 1,500-foot intervals from 1,500 feet msl to 15,000 feet and in 3,000-foot intervals to 24,000 feet. Lightning-strike data will be updated every five minutes and broadcast over the FIS-B link every five minutes. Icing data, meanwhile, includes real-time predictability for where atmospheric conditions may be conducive to icing, and includes a forecast for potentially affected areas over the next 12 hours. The icing data is updated every 15 minutes.
While the new ADS-B information goes live in June, pilots will only gain access to the additional weather products after their ADS-B avionics software or tablet apps have been updated to receive the feed information.