AOPA Get Your Glass Sweepstakes Update -- Getting the most out of your panel refurb

March 25, 2013

Sweeps Update

Project Update: July 10, 2008

Getting the most out of your panel refurb

By Ian J. Twombly

One reason we structure the yearly sweepstakes as a refurbishment project, as opposed to giving away a new airplane, is to hopefully inform and inspire members who may be undergoing some of the same challenges. The thought is that most owners of aging aircraft will upgrade or repair some component at some point in their journey. Along those lines, we’re going to talk about crafting and installing the perfect instrument panel this week.

Saying that an instrument panel is perfect is obviously subjective. While one pilot may feel that a glass display is the perfect safety device and a must-have, another may opt to install an autopilot instead. Thus, defining the perfect panel is a personal exercise that one must go through at the beginning of the panel upgrade process.

The good news? Almost anything is possible these days. According to Penn Avionics owner Peter Stelzenmuller, new equipment interfaces well with each other. But some older units, such as autopilots, may not play with the rest of the panel, he said. The bigger issue is that you “have to watch for the approval basis. Paperwork is a bigger issue than the equipment itself.” Even then, approvals are sometimes possible from a designated engineering representative. If you can dream it, chances are it can happen.

Once you’ve chosen the equipment, it’s time to pick the shop. We’ve had a lot of experience with this over so many projects. And although we have the benefit of going anywhere in the country, we face the same challenges any owner would. Editor At Large Tom Horne, who supervised the Win-A-Twin Piper Comanche and the Win a Six in ’06 Piper Cherokee 6 said the key is, “That the shop have the experience, expertise, and track record to do the job. Word of mouth is best.” Horne’s point is that while price, timeliness, and other factors may be important, it all comes down to reputation and proven results.

Senior Editor Al Marsh, who has spent many hours with sweepstakes projects over the years, agreed. “Do they have a national reputation?” he asked. Marsh also stressed that a key question to ask the shop is what kind of experience they have working with the type of equipment you are looking to have installed.

Once you’ve chosen the shop, it’s time to get to work. The considerations vary depending on whether you are getting an entire panel refurbishment, or just having a radio or other piece of equipment installed. According to Stelzenmuller, every avionics shop in the country is trying to walk a fine line between the needs of the customer and the challenges of working on old airframes. And although he said he has seen the horror stories, such as the airplane that had Radio Shack doorbell wiring for the intercom, much of what comes through his shop is in pretty good shape. But he cautioned that even though you may only be having one piece of equipment installed, be aware that older airframes may have some additional issues to contend with. “Some of it becomes apparent on the initial inspection,” he said.

Stelzenmuller said that the variables to consider come down to antennas, wiring, and, to some extent, circuit breakers. These three items are the most likely to have to be replaced in a job. Take for example an owner who is installing a Garmin GNS430W GPS/nav/com. While all the wiring for that unit will be brand new, it’s not in the scope of the job to replace all the wiring, or even the antenna, as many owners may suspect. Although, said Stelzenmuller, if the antenna paint, an anti-static barrier, is gone, chances are a particular unit won’t work as well as it could. In this case, the shop may advise the owner to replace an antenna or two.

Circuit breakers are an issue that’s coming up more and more, Stelzenmuller said. Owners have even come to the shop smelling smoke, only to find out it was an old breaker. Again, although it’s not a matter of course to change the breakers in a normal job, Stelzenmuller said that the time to do this is when the installer is already working on the panel.

Hopefully we’ve given you some things to consider if you’re thinking of going through a panel upgrade. Send an e-mail to the address below and give your thoughts on what makes a great panel, and what else an owner may think about when doing an upgrade.

Next week: The makings of a good panel upgrade

E-mail the author at ian.twombly@aopa.org