There’s No Price on Safety

A family faces decisions during a panel upgrade of a 1982 Piper PA-32R-301T Saratoga.

Panel upgrade of a 1982 Piper PA-32R-301T Saratoga. [Courtesy: Gardner Lowe Aviation Services]

The days are getting warmer, the sun is out later, and the birds are beginning to sing. Airplanes are starting to emerge from their long winter nap. Some owners use this time to catch up on maintenance, punch out those overdue squawk lists, or upgrade equipment. 

Last October, we met Stephen Mercer, who had recently acquired a 1982 Piper PA-32R-301T Saratoga, which he was upgrading with safety features. I am proud to report that our Saratoga came through with flying colors. You see, the fine folks at Gardner Lowe Aviation Services in Peachtree City, Georgia, took extra special care of this airplane and presented Mercer with the finished product in time to fly off to some Saint Patrick’s Day shenanigans. 

Not to worry, the Saratoga pull-off parts went to a good home. As you recall, we joined Corey Sampson on his quest to economically remake his Cessna 172, and what is one man’s core is another’s used serviceable material (USM). 

Items removed from the Saratoga included:

  • Garmin GMA 340 audio panel
  • Garmin GNS 530W GPS
  • Garmin GNS 430 GPS
  • Garmin GTX 330 transponder 
  • JPI 700 engine monitor 
  • Garmin GI 106A VOR/ILS/GPS indicator

Sampson functionally tested and installed these units. The parts are now up and flying in his Cessna 172. 

Dual Garmin G3X with a Side of ADI GI275

Mercer is on a mission. His father-in-law is learning to fly. Their family also needs a recreational aircraft with a lift and range suitable for their needs. Why not accomplish both with one airplane? The family settled on an early 1980s Saratoga and plotted the next course of action.

A new panel was the first order of business. Mercer said the team could have saved money with Aspen Avionics but received recommendations for Garmin. After a careful review of the different platforms, it chose two each of the 10-inch Garmin G3x G3X Touch for certificated aircraft. Although a little pricier than others, it fits the Mercer family mantra: “You cannot put a price on safety.” Additionally, they also added a standby Garmin GI 275 attitude indicator (AI/ADI) as a backup.

[Courtesy: Gardner Lowe Aviation Services]

I recently met with Mercer at Gardner Lowe to ask some questions about the selection process when speccing out this job:

FLYING Magazine (FM): Why do this upgrade now?

Stephen Mercer (SM): The family decided it was necessary to upgrade the avionics panel for safety purposes.

FM: I agree with the safety-first mantra. How did this maintenance action make your Saratoga safer?

SM: You are familiar with the redundancy as it applies to aviation?

FM: Yes, redundancy is a system designed with duplicate components. Therefore, if one fails, you have another as a backup.

SM: Correct. With (my father-in-law) still learning, I did not want to cross the cockpit to utilize the panel. The dual instruments ensure that I can concentrate on the task at hand. I also like to keep my eyes on the  traffic pattern, not staring down at an iPad. Also, keeping the autopilot on all the time reduces the stall threat.

A "before" photo of the panel of the Saratoga before the upgrade. [Courtesy: Gardner Lowe Aviation Services]

As part of the maintenance process, Mercer's team removed analog gauges and the vacuum pump. When I asked him if there was anything else he was excited about, he said, "Yes, enhanced engine monitoring."

Annual Inspection Time

As anyone will tell you, aircraft maintenance takes time. If you think about it, any project can be full of surprises, even for the best of us. When I go to my local Ace Hardware to get hinges for my wife’s kitchen cabinet project, I buy extra. You never know. When she asks how long it’s going to take, I am evasive about the time. I learned that lesson a long time ago.

Mercer knew this going in. While his Saratoga was down for the avionics panel upgrade, he decided to have the annual inspection accomplished as well. Lane Mitchell of Mitchell Aviation Services was only happy to oblige. Based there at Gardner Lowe Aviation, Mitchell handles most of the airframe- and powerplant-related actions for aircraft in the hangar.

Seizing the opportunity to conduct the annual while the team installed the new avionics panel saved Mercer time and resources down the road. Because Gardner Lowe partners with Mitchell Aviation, the coordination is built in. Too often, owner-operators will try to parcel out the work to the lowest bidder. This can cause confusion, delays, and ultimately costs more.

Trust is a huge component of aircraft maintenance. There are no shortcuts, but there are ways to save. Trying to buy parts off the internet and have your A&P install them is not one. If something goes wrong, who is going to stand good for it? Certainly not eBay.

Richard is a US Navy Veteran, A&P Mechanic, and Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University alumni. His experience ranges from general and corporate aviation to helicopters, business jets, and commercial airliners. Former owner of a 145 repair station, he currently has an aerospace product management role and is a member of the T-C-Alliance. Follow him on X (Twitter) at @RScarCo.

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