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Modifications and upgradesModifications and upgrades

Through the years, pilots appreciate advances in safety, efficiency, comfortThrough the years, pilots appreciate advances in safety, efficiency, comfort

A standby alternator is one of many modifications that pilots seek for additional safety, as shown deployed from the belly of a Piper Arrow in Frederick, Maryland. Photo by David Tulis.

Before the ink is dry on the purchase agreement, new owners of used airplanes are thinking about after-market modifications or upgrades.

Technology has helped owners to get more utility out of their airplanes and make them safer and more comfortable. And, in some cases, technology has resulted in mods that simply make life a little easier.

Shoulder harnesses were frequently cited by pilots as their most important addition. Jeff King of Hillsdale, Michigan, knows from experience: The Alpha Aviation shoulder harnesses he installed on a Piper Cherokee Six allowed him to walk away after an emergency landing in a parking lot. “The right main [gear] snagged on a shopping cart corral as I was flaring, then I pancaked hard and the airplane started sliding across the parking lot (missing the right main wheel),” he said.

“Next I hit the curb, which sheared off the nosewheel,” he said. He’s certain his face would have struck the panel had he not been wearing the shoulder harnesses.

The airplane went over a three-foot embankment, and the right tip tank burst into flames. After all of that, King suffered just two bruises. He installed the same type of harnesses on the 1965 Piper Aztec he flies currently.

“Shoulder harnesses are the most important to me, because they are the most likely to save my life,” said David Jack Kenny of Frederick, Maryland. Kenny, who is manager of safety analysis for the AOPA Air Safety Institute, pores over accident data every day. He installed three-point shoulder harnesses in the front and rear seats of his 1967 Piper Arrow.

After a Cessna 210 in which he was a partner experienced a total electrical failure in low instrument meteorological conditions, Kenny took a lesson from that incident and purchased a Basic Aircraft Products standby alternator for his Arrow. The Arrow’s regulator subsequently failed during a nighttime flight from Pennsylvania to Maryland. “I had enough electricity to put the gear down normally and run the transponder, GPS, one radio, and the nav lights,” he said.

The advent of light-emitting diode and high-intensity discharge lighting has offered safety as well as cost benefits. Scott Minick of Incline Village, Nevada, purchased Precise Flight HID lights for a Socata Trinidad. “Installation was very straightforward and only required a 337,” he said. “They make night landings seem the same as day.”

J.J. Greenway of Frederick installed an LED landing light on his American Champion Decathlon. “I was only getting about 40 hours flight time between landing light changes,” he said. “I installed the LED light and found it to be much brighter, and it has a mean-time-between-failure of about 3,600 hours.”

Setting aside safety, pilots are quick to mention mods that put money back in their pockets—or at least prevent it from being sucked out so quickly. Brian Howard of Cabot, Arkansas, said the autogas supplemental type certificate on his 1948 Beech Bonanza enables him to fly for about $25 per hour at today’s fuel prices.

Similarly, Roald Lutz of Sandia Park, New Mexico, heralded the autogas STC for his 1952 Cessna 195. “Over the years it has easily saved 33 percent on fuel costs, at times over 50 percent,” he said. “It also eliminates lead fouling of spark plugs.”

Several owners pointed to engine analyzers and fuel totalizers as key equipment that helps them to understand their engines, operate at lean of peak if they wish, and manage their fuel consumption more effectively.

For sheer utility, many pilots cited the addition of a certified GPS to a panel. “It opened up a whole world of new approach possibilities,” Mimi Reiheld of Edenton, North Carolina, said of the Garmin 530 added to the panel of her 1980 Mooney 231. “Of course, many new and wondrous, amazingly capable gizmos have come out since then, but this made the biggest difference to me, and still does.”

The ability to go direct with such precision, “to see your exact groundspeed and track, made my airplane a much more efficient traveling machine,” said Art Friedman of Santa Paula, California, of his turbocharged Cessna 210. “When GPS advanced to allow precision approach use, include moving maps, and traffic, it further extended my airplane’s capability.”

Even a more capable airplane isn’t enjoyable if your back hurts from sitting in an ancient seat. Cary Album of Fort Collins, Colorado, said his 1963 Cessna 172 has numerous mods and upgrades, including B.A.S. Inc. shoulder harnesses, an Insight engine monitor, an angle of attack indicator, a 406-MHz ELT, HID landing and taxi lights, and a Pulselite system that pulses the airplane’s landing and recognition lights. Each is highly effective. But it was a pilot’s seat refurbishment by Oregon Aero that has made the most difference in his comfort and enjoyment of flying, he said. “The overall product changes the seat from a medieval torture device to an extraordinarily comfortable ‘chair,’ good for many hours of flight without discomfort,” he said.

Preheating systems make preflights easier in cold weather. “On the coldest of winter days, the oil temperature is ‘off the peg’ immediately after startup and I am able to apply takeoff power within minutes of engine start with minimal warmup time,” said Greenway, who has a Tanis preheating system on his Decathlon.

The tech revolution recently caught up with preheating technology, and the result is cell phone- and app-driven remote switches that enable pilots to remotely control electrical devices, including preheating systems.

Speaking of tech devices, pilots love using them in the cockpit, and many stated that the use of the iPad has changed the way pilots fly more than any other modification or upgrade. Maria Langer of Malaga, Washington, said the most useful mod for her Robinson R44 was the STC bar for using RAM mounts to hold an iPhone and iPad electronic flight bag. The bar bolts onto the frame and is a great platform for any equipment that needs to be handy, but out of the way, she said in a blog post.

The AOPA Aviation Finance Co. can help you secure financing for aircraft upgrades, overhauls, or even a new engine.

Jill W. Tallman

Jill W. Tallman

AOPA Technical Editor
AOPA Technical Editor Jill W. Tallman is an instrument-rated private pilot who owns a Piper Cherokee 140.
Topics: Technology, Ownership, Aircraft Components

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