A Reason to Buy a New Airplane

Until recently, buying a used airplane was a better value choice than buying a new one. That has changed. Mac tells you why.


As I have noted many times, the advances that have taken place in piston airplane development over the past 25 years have been portable. New avionics, better interiors, more powerful engines, improved propellers and even air conditioning can usually be installed in an existing airplane, as well as a newly manufactured one. This evolutionary process increased the value of existing airplanes by making it possible to make them nearly as good as new, but that era is now over. The glass cockpit, particularly Garmin's G1000 system, is an advancement so profound, and so integrated into the airplane, that it can deliver its full potential only when installed in an airplane as it is manufactured.

The reason the G1000 needs to be built into a new airplane is that it is so comprehensive. This system handles every avionics function, including advanced capabilities such as traffic and terrain warning and weather datalink, but also displays information about all critical non-avionics systems such as engine, fuel and electrical systems. An airplane is literally built around the G1000 and its capabilities, something that will be very difficult to do in the field with existing airframes.

We have already seen the same phenomenon in turbine airplanes where Honeywell's Primus Epic system, and Collins' Pro Line 21 suite, has assumed total cockpit management roles. Both avionics makers offer retrofit versions of their glass cockpit systems, but you just can't integrate all the functions into an existing airplane to anywhere near the same level as in a newly manufactured one.

This process of new avionics making existing airplanes obsolete, or at least significantly behind in technology, has been happening in jets for several years. I think the first example of an airplane that made a complete integrated avionics package a fundamental part of the airplane design was the Gulfstream IV, introduced in 1986. The Honeywell glass cockpit in the GIV is so advanced compared to anything that came before that no existing Gulfstream could ever be brought up to its standard. Gulfstream has done the same thing again with the PlaneView cockpit in the G550 that was recently certified.

But who could have expected this level of avionics capability and integration to reach the piston price level? Not me. At least not this soon. But Avidyne pioneered the glass cockpit in piston airplanes with Cirrus in the SR22 last spring, and Garmin has finished the job with its totally integrated G1000 entering service early this year.

Two major developments allowed the glass cockpit to become a piston reality sooner than I expected. The first was development of low-cost but very reliable and accurate attitude heading reference systems (AHRS). The glass part of the project-the displays-have been available at the right price for a number of years, but the holdup was an AHRS at the right price to replace the spinning rotor gyros. I knew that a number of companies were using sensor technology developed primarily for the automotive industry for traction and handling control systems to try to make a low-cost AHRS. Progress was very slow at first, and I became skeptical of success. But then several companies devised ways to use other information, such as airspeed, altitude and vertical speed, to enhance the low-cost sensors' performance. GPS and the earth's magnetic field are also supplying data to help the AHRS determine attitude.

The second crucial development was a change in attitude at the FAA a few years ago. In the past the FAA was applying the same advanced avionics standards to piston airplanes as it had been to jets because that was the only standard that existed. But then, in a moment of uncharacteristically clear thinking, the FAA realized that no other part of a piston airplane meets the same function and reliability standards as jets, so why should avionics be singled out? The FAA determined instead that new technology for pistons need only be better than what it replaces, not meet the one in a billion reliability standard applied to critical aspects of a transport airplane certification.

With that new attitude at the FAA, it quickly became apparent that a low-cost AHRS didn't have to be up to the gold standard of jets because it only had to be better than spinning gyros powered by a vacuum pump. That's not a tall order, and the new systems are easily several times better in terms of reliability and precision than the air-driven mechanical instruments they replace.

Part of this new FAA attitude also applied to the power source for the avionics and the critical AHRS system. In the past the FAA required totally parallel and independent electrical systems, including dual alternators and batteries, the same standard applied to jets for primary flight instruments. But to meet the standard of being better than what it replaces in a piston airplane, AHRS requires no such thing. Two alternators can do the job without a totally parallel electrical system, or dual batteries, or a final backup alkaline battery pack have all been approved. All you need is enough electrical power to keep the avionics working for an hour or so after a charging failure to get on the ground.

Diamond Aircraft's new diesel powered TwinStar will enter service with a full glass cockpit. The DiamondStar cockpit shown on page seven will be available with the Garmin G1000 system shown or the Avidyne Entegra, both expected to be available early this year.

The final element in the emergence of the comprehensive glass cockpit for piston airplanes was Garmin's enormous success with its flight management GPS 530/430 systems. With such widespread acceptance of the 530/430 to handle all navigation and communication chores, it became possible for Garmin to integrate all avionics functions into a single G1000 system in the same way computers network with each other. One company supplying all avionics functions removes the complications of communications between elements of the system, saves size and weight, and perhaps most important, is the most cost effective.

Installing the complete G1000 system, with its total integration of avionics and aircraft systems, simply won't be practical or cost effective for existing airplanes. Even if your airplane is only a year or two old, the only way to get the best is to buy a new airplane, and that is as close to a revolution as we have seen in piston airplanes in many years.

But I do expect a less comprehensive and less fully integrated electronic primary flight display (PFD) to be developed for installation in existing airplanes. Avidyne is in a perfect position to certify its Entegra PFD as a mechanical gyro flight instrument replacement in existing airplanes and operate with the navs, comms and GPS equipment already there in the radio stack. Earning FAA approval will take time because there is such a variety of other avionics and autopilots to work with, but I expect Avidyne to succeed in the aftermarket, and perhaps after Garmin catches up with the demand for G1000 in new airplanes, it may also create a retrofit version. But, in the near future, only new airplane buyers are going to be able to get their hands on the cutting edge in avionics.