Waypoints: Top of the stack

May 1, 2010

Most pilots stroll around the ramp peering in airplane windows to admire multifunction displays, GPSs, or the latest all-glass cockpit, but Mark Scheuer’s eyes go right to the top of the stack. His mission: Find out whose audio panel is in there. Most of the time, he is relieved to see one of his panels commanding the ship’s audio setup.

Over the past 20 years, many of us have become spoiled by the wondrous capabilities we have to manage audio and intercom in our airplanes. For those of us who learned to fly in the 1970s and early 1980s or before, intercoms were a rarity in light airplanes and the audio panel was just a few toggle switches to change from one nav/com to another. All of that has changed in the 25 years since engineers Eric Persson and Scheuer founded PS Engineering, Inc. The two are the P and S in the company’s name. Persson left the company not long after it was formed, but Scheuer, a pilot, realized that there was a business to be made bringing revolutionary audio engineering to airplanes. He continued running the business out of his basement even after he left his salaried position at Hewlett-Packard, a company he admired and where he learned a great deal about entrepreneurship.

Today, the innovative company supplies more than half of all the aircraft audio control systems. It has provided audio gear to Raytheon, Eclipse, Mooney, Cessna, Piper, Bell, Maule, Socata, and Lancair. And it has partnered with other avionics companies—such as Honeywell, Avidyne, L-3, and UPS AT—to manage their audio inputs and entertainment. His products have even been to space aboard SpaceShipOne and they will also fly aboard the next generation of commercial spacecraft. His products are in the National Air and Space Museum in Bob Hoover’s Shrike Commander. Other famed aerobatic pilots such as Patty Wagstaff and Sean Tucker also fly with PS Engineering gear.

Today’s average PS Engineering audio panel (they make six different models of audio panels and five lines of intercoms, representing some 20 families of products) is bristling with twenty-first century digital technology and capabilities; however, the first product was a basic portable intercom system, which the company still offers. PS Engineering sells its products through 600 dealers worldwide, with Scheuer visiting many of them in the company’s Piper Archer III.

“Our goal is always to obsolete ourselves, because if we don’t someone else will,” Scheuer said recently when I stopped by headquarters outside Knoxville, Tennessee, to congratulate him on PS Engineering’s twenty-fifth anniversary. He is proud of the company’s low-overhead approach. “Note the gravel parking lot,” he says, smiling, as we pull up to the pair of concrete block buildings where every product is designed and manufactured.

Although the small company has garnered dominant market share in the audio control business in GA, many of the ideas for innovation have come from customers. “We’re always at the shows, listening to our customers,” Scheuer explains. Scheuer has patented numerous audio innovations, including IntelliVox, which is a sophisticated automatic squelch circuit that means the pilot can forget about having to adjust the squelch. Other innovations include SoftMute, which automatically mutes background music when a radio call comes in and slowly ramps it back up afterward. Thanks to PS Engineering, you can easily swap from one com radio to another with the touch of a yoke-mounted button—another patented feature. Surprisingly, the concept of combining the intercom and the audio panel didn’t really exist until PS Engineering began packaging it that way in 1995. The move reduced by one the number of boxes in the airplane and allowed all of the aircraft’s audio to be managed in one place, which brought forward yet more opportunities, including a Split mode, whereby the pilot and co-pilot could talk and listen on separate radios—a feature previously exclusive to turbine cockpits.

PS Engineering’s innovation in audio management continued—including the introduction of digital signal processing to record radio transmissions for playback in the cockpit—but Scheuer also kept the passengers in mind. He introduced ways to feed music through his gear to pilots and passengers, from input jacks to built-in CD and later DVD players—with optional displays to watch movies, Sirius Satellite Radio receivers, and now built-in MP3 players, cellphone connections, and as of last month, wireless Bluetooth connection of portable music devices and cellphones to the panel. Some of the audio panels are pin compatible with Bendix/King and Garmin units for those who want to easily swap for the full-featured PS Engineering systems. Scheuer also offers products for the Experimental builder, including the PMA5000EX, which lists for less than $1,000. Depending on product, warranties stretch as far as three years. After the warranty expires, repairs can be completed for a fixed price, varying based on model.

Most pilots fly along merrily, expecting their intercoms and audio panels will continue to work without fail. Meanwhile, Scheuer and his 14 employees work tirelessly to make sure that happens, all the while working on the next big thing in aviation audio and entertainment systems.

Editor in Chief Tom Haines flies his Beechcraft A36 Bonanza for business and pleasure. E-mail the author at thomas.haines@aopa.org; follow on Twitter: tomhaines29.

Thomas B. Haines

Thomas B Haines | Editor in Chief, AOPA

AOPA Editor in Chief Tom Haines joined AOPA in 1988. He owns and flies a Beechcraft A36 Bonanza. Since soloing at 16 and earning a private pilot certificate at 17, he has flown more than 100 models of general aviation airplanes.