AOPA's Catch-A-Cardinal Sweepstakes - Project Update: Panel Perfect

November 11, 2009

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March 22
Panel Perfect

The finishing touches as our new panel goes in

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A panel doesn't just happen. Not in a refurbishment like the one we're performing on the 1977 Cessna 177B Cardinal for this year's sweepstakes.

A lot of smaller yet critical projects go with the cockpit rehab. Projects like installing new "glass," reconditioning the glareshield, cutting the new metal panels, assembling the placard list, and upgrading the control yokes. Luckily, we have a whole team of folks who were excited to knock these items off the checklist.

Crazy
The windows in light airplanes take a lot of abuse - and not just from the sun, wind, and weather (worse if you tie down outside). Misinformed owners and rental pilots can do a lot of damage over the years with inappropriate cleaning methods, scratches from headsets placed on the glareshield, and improper aircraft storage.

And you may not notice how bad your windows are until one evening you turn into the setting sun, and find yourself humming a Patsy Cline tune. Crazed windshields can turn VFR into IFR in a hurry.

The term "glass" that we use so casually is a misnomer-windows in nonpressurized aircraft are typically made from cell-cast acrylic, according to Jeff Pfister, marketing director for LP Aero Plastics, of Jeannette, Pennsylvania. Acrylic ages at a pace dependent on how the airplane is stored - if the acrylic is protected by hangaring or proper covering, it ages more slowly. That's because ultraviolet light is responsible for much of the aging process, along with abrasion by dirt - so if you use an aircraft cover, ensure all the grit is off your windows before you strap the cover snugly into place. Use a cleaner made for aircraft acrylic and clean 100-percent cotton cloth (flannel is best) to remove dirt - never any paper products!

The windows in the Cardinal, Pfister points out, came out of the factory with a green tint. LP Aero has discovered through its experience that green-tinted windows age somewhat differently than those with a gray tint - not necessarily faster, just different. Through long-term exposure to ultraviolet light, the acrylic acquires a milky cast that scatters light, a phenomenon that cannot be polished out, as can minor scratches. When the green-tint windows go bad, they tend to do so all of a sudden. We're replacing these windows with LP's sharp new gray-tint package.

LP Aero has generously donated new windows and windshields to several of AOPA's sweepstakes projects - and we've been thrilled to take them up on the opportunity for new acrylic for these airplanes. The refurbishment process we go through each year is the perfect time to replace windows, because certain economies can be realized. Perhaps the interior's already out, and the doors are off the airplane, making installation easier. And when the windshield is out, it's often less hassle for technicians to remove the glareshield and get behind the instrument panel.

For this year's Cardinal project, now that the avionics work is nearly complete, the technicians from Air Wrench have reinstalled the glareshield and eyebrow (the part you're inclined to grab for when you pull your seat forward - a no-no in your Cardinal), now covered with new black leather from Mayfield Aviation Leather.

Cutting the panel
Under the new windshield and leather-covered glareshield lies the next project - the totally new and upgraded instrument panel's structure and the panel itself.

The black metal framework underlying the instrument panel on the Cardinal remains essentially intact. The technicians from Sarasota Avionics (who are masterminding our avionics installation) carefully designed and measured for the new subpanels - on the pilot's side, they contain the master and ignition switches, and all electrical switches and lighting rheostats. The copilot-side subpanel houses the circuit breaker panel. Both subpanels are backlit for easy night operations.

The Cardinal came from the factory in 1977 with the famous (or infamous, depending on how you feel about plastic) Royalite overlays for each side of the instrument panel. To preserve the spirit of the Royalite (but not the material), we painted the new all-metal panels that frame the flight instruments and avionics to match the Cardinal's yet-to-come new interior. With these panels (one for the pilot's side, and one for the copilot's side), precise fit is crucial - and hard to achieve - but any gaps in the panel would detract from the effort put into the rest of the airplane. Traditionally, these panels are produced by individual measurement of each instrument's or avionics' case and bezel, and the penciled-down dimensions entered into a computer-aided design program or other, less-high-tech means of developing the panel layout.

A brand-new company called Jet Panels has taken a metal process used in other precision industrial applications (in which they are already experts) and developed a method for use in aircraft instrument panels - including your Cardinal. We can't tell you how they do it (because that's their trade secret), although it doesn't involve laser, plasma, or water-jet processes normally used. But this method quickly and uniformly creates a perfect metal backdrop. This way, the instruments and radios fit firmly in place (the first time - no hand-filing or burring of the holes for a proper fit), and the aesthetics are unbelievable. We're finishing out the panel with silk-screened placards in the same style as those on new Cessna piston singles for a polished look.

A word about placards
So what goes into your panel is fairly straightforward: instruments, avionics, gauges, switches, and controls. But what goes on your panel? Not only does every new gadget need a proper label (though it didn't keep a famous Far Side cartoon airline passenger from mistakenly flipping the "wings fall off" switch in one of my favorite Gary Larson pieces), but every new gadget also comes with at least one FAR-mandated placard - or so it seems. More likely than not, the reference to that placard is buried in the supplemental type certificate (STC) paperwork.

Field Project Manager Dan Gryder, of The AvNet, was clear from the beginning that he wanted a perfect panel - and that meant no "stickers" marring the panel's finish. So we painstakingly compiled a list garnered from every STC and every piece of new avionics equipment going into the airplane, plus each required placard from the airplane's type data certificate sheet (TCDS), as well as those TCDSs for the engine and prop. Cardinal Flyers Online member Tom Neale helped us verify our list with placard sheets he has created for the entire make and model run. He's also supplying the new fuel quantity placards that will grace the fuel filler ports on the wings.

Installing the yokes
Scotty Collins, owner of Precision Avionics, a new avionics facility on the field at Griffin, Georgia, has supported the airplane's makeover throughout the project. Most recently, Precision Avionics' technicians pulled all the old tubing and connectors within the pitot-static system, and replaced that tired plastic with all-new components. Plastic ages, and we're going deep on this refurbishment, so we took the opportunity to make this important aircraft system like new again.

The control yokes are getting special treatment too. Our friends at Precision Avionics took time out of their schedule to rebuild our yokes to accommodate the new autopilot and electric trim switches with a custom panel per STC specifications. The yokes get wrapped in new creamy-soft leather to match the interior leather (all from Mayfield Aviation Leather, like the glareshield) that we'll feature in a future update.

- Julie K. Boatman

E-mail the author at julie.boatman@aopa.org.

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FEATURED CONTRIBUTOR
Garmin International
Gary Burrell and Min Kao launched what is now Garmin International with a team of dedicated engineers and one really great product idea: a GPS navigator for personal use. Now Garmin, based in Olathe, Kansas, is nearly synonymous with "GPS" around the world, not only in aviation but also in recreational, marine, and automotive applications - with more products by the minute, it seems, adding to the millions of GPS receivers the company has already sold.

A Garmin avionics stack forms the heart of our Catch-A-Cardinal's panel. Check out Garmin's "In the Air" blog on its Web site, or test out the full range of Garmin innovations at the company's flagship store on Michigan Avenue in downtown Chicago. Call Garmin at 913/397-8200.