Extreme Makeover

The fine art of rationalizing a new instrument panel

June 1, 2004

"Oshkosh!" Mere mention of the place chills the spines of aviators the world over. It had been two years since I last attended EAA AirVenture, so when "I'm going — will you be there?" e-mails began pouring in from friends, I was eager to join them.

There was a problem, however. My wife and I had been enduring increasing radio problems in our otherwise trusty Cessna 182, the Flying Carpet. "The volume controls on our com radios are intermittent," I'd observed to Jean on a recent California flight, "and the loran buttons must be pushed repeatedly to work." She in turn noted the flickering DME display, worn-out clock, and temperamental push-to-talk switch. Some intermittency seemed to result not from the radios themselves, but from flaws in the spaghetti of wires connecting them out of sight behind the panel. Despite the absence of warning flags, I worried whether navigation needles were being properly driven by their source radios. I found myself hoping that we wouldn't need an instrument approach. We had a dilemma, Jean and I agreed that day after landing. Either I needed to gulp hard and upgrade the radios, or give up instrument flying.

Now the Oshkosh invitations raised the ugly issue again — without reliable radios I questioned the feasibility of flying there safely. "Money is tight," said Jean upon hearing the dreaded airline word, "but why have the airplane if we can't use it the way we want?" I took that as authorization for preliminary study.

My first thought was to simply replace one aging radio with a new IFR-approved GPS/com. That would give us one predictably reliable nav/com, plus add the capability to fly point-to-point IFR and shoot GPS approaches. It seemed a reasonable upgrade for a 25-year-old airplane of modest value.

But that didn't address the wiring harness. Replacing even one radio seemed pointless if the underlying connections couldn't be trusted. Yet properly rewiring the panel meant removing everything and starting over. Did we really want to reinstall troublesome old radios after making such an investment? I telephoned trusted friends for advice.

"You're wasting your money unless you put in a new-generation multifunction display," said Jim Hackman of Cessna Pilot Centers.

"You mean with the big color screens? Those are expensive."

"Could be," he said, "but every up-and-coming technology interfaces with them. If you ever want to add traffic avoidance or datalink weather or any number of other exciting capabilities, you'll need a multifunction display."

"You've changed your tune, Jim. Didn't you once tell me that pilots don't need those fancy displays? 'We've already got a big moving map outside the window,' you said."

"Yeah, I said that," replied Jim. "But we're talking more than moving maps here. We're talking anticollision and weather avoidance — important safety stuff. Besides, multifunction displays now come in most new airplanes. What will your radio investment be worth without one?"

That advice raised new quandaries. Given our limited budget, such an installation suggested bigger dollars than Jean and I had ever considered investing in our Flying Carpet. All the same, I started researching systems and soliciting avionics shop quotes and references. The numbers were daunting, yet it was clear that replacing our hodgepodge of old radios with an integrated system would yield new-airplane capability at a fraction of the price. "It's like starting out to replace a leaky kitchen sink," observed my editor, Elizabeth Tennyson, "and ending up remodeling the kitchen."

That casual comment cast our project into an entirely new light. While maintenance is a matter of carefully metering cash, remodeling is comprehensive and justifies borrowing money to do the job right. Just as renovation is an investment in the comfort and value of a home, so would it be in our airplane.

Experts suggest that new avionics should reap 50 to 60 percent of their installed value when resale time comes, plus the airplane will sell faster. In perusing used Skylanes on the Internet, I wondered if even that might be conservative. Most older panels looked as if fabricated in a thrift shop. What aspiring owner doesn't ogle the latest high-tech cockpits before looking for a used airplane? Surely there's value in owning one of the few used aircraft on the market with a truly modern panel.

Then came a clincher to force the decision. Among bidders to install our new system was Tim Wilhite of Flight Trails Helicopters, at Falcon Field in Mesa, Arizona. "We can start this on Monday," he said, "and wrap it up in two to three weeks." My lighthearted investigation suddenly turned serious. With Oshkosh four weeks away, I took my proposal home to Jean.

"I thought we were just replacing one radio," she said angrily when I spread the colorful brochures before her. "How would we pay for this?" I dropped the subject until she raised it later of her own accord, then shared what I'd learned in the context of remodeling. Rewiring the entire panel for one new radio made little economic sense. Since we didn't anticipate upgrading to a newer aircraft anytime soon, I advocated making a capital investment to increase the capability of our current airplane and lower maintenance costs.

Our antiquated nav/coms, loran, radio magnetic indicator, intercom, and troublesome ADF all would be replaced by just a multifunction display, a GPS navigator, a new audio panel, and an integrated number-two nav/com with ILS. That would allow us to navigate point-to-point on instruments and shoot approaches to airports not currently available to us.

Along with mapping our aircraft position on a high-contrast screen, the new system would contain in its database airport and navigational data for all of North America. Depiction of hazardous terrain would make night and instrument flying safer, while available future upgrades would allow simultaneous display of datalink weather, lightning strikes, instrument approach charts, and even other airplane traffic. Best of all, the new system would be far more reliable than our old installation, while reducing weight and heat.

Whether Jean cared about the specific technology I don't know, but she has always treasured the ability to see the world by Flying Carpet. Such capability was threatened if we didn't take action, and on that point we agreed. "Clearly, you've done your homework," said Jean unexpectedly. "If you think it's the right thing to do, let's go for it."

With Oshkosh nipping at my heels, I made my deal that afternoon with Tim at Flight Trails, then contacted the AirVenture folks and volunteered to do presentations and a book signing. Over the weekend I emptied the airplane's nooks and crannies, and shot pictures of the familiar panel that had sustained so many flying adventures. Delivering our Flying Carpet to the radio shop that Monday morning ached like wheeling a loved one into surgery.

Soon afterward I stopped by to visit the patient. "Check this out," said Tim, gesturing at a hefty tub of wire removed from the bowels of our airplane. "See all the extra wire from 20 years of patchwork repairs and upgrades? Not only will your new wiring be more reliable, but it'll weigh a lot less." Gaining useful load would be the first benefit of Flying Carpet liposuction.

"And here's something that makes any good radio technician cringe," added Tim after allowing the previous good news to sink in. He noted wire bundles feeding the existing horizontal situation indicator (HSI), which we were to keep — some led to the flux sensor at one wing tip while others traveled under the disassembled cabin floor to gyros in the tail. "The wiring is substandard, and note all the splices. What good are new avionics with an unreliable HSI?" This explained problems that had led us to upgrade in the first place, so I gulped and approved fabrication of a new HSI harness.

Tim then noted similar flaws in our Stormscope wiring, which had apparently been installed used out of another aircraft. "Must we redo that, too?" I asked, sweating dollar signs.

"No. The unit's very old, and despite the lousy craftsmanship has been working fine. Instead save your money toward a newer model that works with your multifunction display."

"What's the warranty on these radios?" I asked, seeking a happier subject. "Oh, you'll like that," Tim replied. Proudly he detailed the specifics. "Of course the warranty excludes problems outside our control, like, say...water leaking on the radios." I slapped my forehead.

"What's wrong?"

"Why didn't I think of this earlier, Tim? That windshield has leaked since the day we bought the airplane. My mechanics tell me that the only permanent solution is to drill out 100-plus rivets and reseal the lower windshield retainer with new felt. Will there be any slack time when the plane could be towed to my maintenance shop? I'd rather reseal the windshield now than wait until later when it might keep me from making Oshkosh."

"Go ahead and schedule it," said Tim. "We're fabricating your new wiring harnesses on the bench and won't need the plane for a few days. Besides, I like the idea of drilling out all those rivets before we install the new radios." I made arrangements with Herb Ross, maintenance coordinator at Falcon Executive Aviation. "We'll reattach the retainer with threaded fasteners," he explained, "so if the windshield ever needs replacing we can do it more easily."

"What a relief," I said to Jean that evening. "The only things I disliked about the Flying Carpet were the leaky windshield and the unreliable radios. When it's all over she'll seem like brand-new."

"Sounds great," said Jean, sparing me uncomfortable questions about the additional costs. But the stakes ratcheted higher when I visited Herb's shop the following afternoon. "Whoever installed this windshield trimmed it improperly," he said, pointing to where the retainer had been removed. "See the gap? The windshield is half an inch short of the flange it's supposed to rest on. No wonder it leaked."

"What are the options?" I asked.

Herb knew my budget was tight, and getting tighter. "We can temporarily reseal it," he said, "but frankly, it would be wisest to replace the windshield now and get it over with."

"Order a new one," I said, consoling myself that proper fit and thicker acrylic would reduce cabin noise along with eliminating leaks. "The replacement should be here in a week," said Herb before I left. With three weeks remaining before Oshkosh, the schedule was tightening, but still manageable.

Tim's radio work proceeded more or less smoothly, and by the following Friday the new windshield had arrived. "We'll install it over the weekend," offered Herb, "without interrupting the radio work." But when I stopped by on Saturday to check progress, the windshield frame was glaringly empty. "Bad news," said Herb. "Our supplier sent the wrong windshield. The correct one should arrive later this week." It did, but that Saturday Herb's mechanics were booked with more pressing work. Now only one week remained until Oshkosh, and with avionics in final testing windshield installation would have to wait. An additional day would be required for the sealant to set up before I could test-fly the airplane.

Panic now set in as my Sunday departure deadline loomed — even if everything else went well, time was running out to rectify any difficulties found on the test flight, whenever that might occur. Anomalies were to be expected on such a complex project.

On Tuesday afternoon the radio installation was complete. The next morning the new windshield went in, and on Thursday the plane returned to the radio shop. "We'll swing the compasses tomorrow morning," said Tim, "when it's not so hot outside."

"Could we swing 'em this afternoon?" I pleaded. "Then I could test-fly the plane tonight and leave time tomorrow for last-minute adjustments."

"OK," he replied. "So long as no glitches arise." But when the time came, a required technician was leaving work early to close on a house. "I can stay until closing time," offered the tech upon reading dejection in my face, "but not a minute longer." En route to the compass rose I powered up my new radios for the first time — it's hard to tell who was more thrilled, me or the proud installers.

Fortunately, the compasses were swung uneventfully. After collecting required paperwork from Tim, I enlisted a flight instructor friend to train me on the avionics and in the process help test them. By the time we landed that night at 9:30, both the equipment and I had been thoroughly wrung out. Although thrilled with the installation, I now carried a list of squawks — surely it would be impossible to rectify them in the one remaining workday before my departure.

When I arrived at Tim's door Friday morning, he too was discouraged, having so thoroughly tested the equipment. But to my delight, he phoned back after lunch. "Come on out for another test flight, Greg." Fingers crossed, I rushed to the airport — any further problems meant waiting until Monday and upsetting my travel plans.

"Well?" asked Tim apprehensively when I returned to his office at closing time.

"Everything works great, Tim!" I could have hugged the guy but rewarded him instead with a hefty check and a pat on the back. Then I went home to pack. On Saturday I filed chart revisions, planned my trip, and prepared talks. Over the next week, I'd log 23 trouble-free hours behind that gleaming new panel, during which I'd revel in receiving every radio transmission uninterrupted and file "IFR direct" for the first time ever.

Before departure came one final tribulation, however. For I arrived at the airport on Sunday morning only to discover a flat tire — I had to rouse a mechanic at weekend rates to fix it. Even that couldn't dim the joy of takeoff, when it finally came, or the inspiring glow of new avionics guiding me toward Oshkosh. For Jean and me, a world of new adventures now lay ahead in our Flying Carpet, thanks to an extreme makeover.


Greg Brown was the 2000 National Flight Instructor of the Year. His books include Flying Carpet: The Soul of an Airplane; The Savvy Flight Instructor; The Turbine Pilot's Flight Manual; and Job Hunting for Pilots. Brown's "Flying Carpet" column appears in AOPA Flight Training magazine. Visit his Web site ( www.gregbrownflyingcarpet.com).


A 'New' Airplane for the Price of a Used Car

Avionics planning is a complex process unique to every pilot's aircraft and missions. "To estimate installed price," says Tim Wilhite of Flight Trails Helicopters, "start with the manufacturer's list price for each desired unit; just keep in mind that additional antennas, cabling, and interface devices will probably be required. The biggest cost variable is what's in your panel now. Is it compatible with new equipment? How much can you reuse? Everything boils down to the age, health, and operability of your existing radios and wiring. For older airplanes, you must budget to update wiring, connectors, and antennas. Otherwise, your new radios might not work any better than the old ones."

Assuming your current panel is compatible, healthy, and has room, Wilhite estimates the installed cost of a single new IFR GPS at $7,000 to $11,000. To upgrade an old panel to all-new basic IFR, expect $15,000 to $22,000. Fancier installations featuring color moving maps with interfaced traffic and weather avoidance often exceed $30,000; a new autopilot could push that figure to more than $40,000. Again the moderating factor is how much existing equipment can be incorporated into the new system.

Avionics projects can be complicated, so allocate 10 to 20 percent beyond the quoted installation price to cover unexpected problems. (Rewiring our slaved HSI added $1,800 to the bill, and then there was the windshield. Wilhite's shop could hardly have anticipated such problems in advance.)

Where budget is a factor, do some work now and allow for future upgrades. For example, Wilhite quoted us an option to prewire our multifunction display (MFD) for future installation. "When you're ready to install one," he said, "we'll just shift your radio stack and add a tray." We put in the MFD but deferred lightning detector, ChartView, traffic reporting, and datalink weather for future consideration. As for trading or selling your old equipment, don't expect much — used radios have limited value. (ADFs and lorans are commonly known as boat anchors.)

When the time comes to sell your airplane, expect a 50- to 60-percent return on your avionics investment, plus at a competitive price your airplane will sell more quickly. Clearly, such upgrades make the most economic sense for those who plan to keep their aircraft for a while. New avionics will make your airplane more saleable, more reliable, and more fun; just don't count on financial return alone to justify the decision. For best return on investment, match your installation with the performance and value of your aircraft.

Most problems that Wilhite encounters are the result of shoddy work by low-quality installers. So pick a reputable installer, budget to do the job right, and above all, check references. When scheduling installation, allow for time overruns. If you do have an important deadline, advise the shop up front and make backup travel plans. Finally, budget for training to master your new equipment. First-time IFR GPS users, in particular, will require significant instruction to become proficient.

So is it worth doing? We feel like we got a new airplane for the price of a used car. OK, our airplane isn't entirely new, and I didn't say what kind of car. But certainly we achieved modern avionics capability for a fraction of the cost of a new airplane. Most important, the Flying Carpet is back at home in the IFR system, and for the first time in years we have full confidence in our panel. So although it's been a financial stretch, now that it's complete the upgrade seems like a heck of a deal. And did I mention the best part? Flying with this stuff is fun. — GB


Tim Wilhite, assistant manager of Flight Trails Helicopters Inc., may be reached at 480/396-8242 or by e-mail ( flighttrails1@msn.com).