By Brian Wilson
A lot of time and resources go into the effort to purchase an aircraft. Everything from the cost of the aircraft, maximum range, annual operating costs, hangar fees and fuel consumption receives careful attention – and the list goes on.
My experience tells me that new aircraft owners like to ride around for three-to-six months to get a “feel” for their aircraft before taking advantage of the first maintenance interval and down-time to perform a few enhancement upgrades. Other flight departments do their homework up-front and perform their planned upgrades after the prepurchase inspection and subsequent transfer of title is completed.
Here lies the premonition that most pilots and owners fall into; one in which they “shoot for the stars” wanting the best, the fastest and the newest products and features available. They might have seen the product in another aircraft, read about it in a magazine article, or even attended one of the industry-related conventions. It is human nature to want the best all the time, but just diving in could leave you with less-than desirable results.
FLIGHT DECK OBSTACLES
Every week I receive phone calls from customers who want to upgrade their flight deck to one they had seen in another aircraft or based on the current hottest-selling glass panel available today. Most times their query is based on an emotional response and not one devoted to the time and detail needed when pursuing such a complicated and expensive investment. Before even a rough order of magnitude proposal can be generated, there are many factors that should be considered:
• Availability of a Supplemental Type Certificate (STC);
• Future regulatory requirements;
• Compatibility with existing avionics systems;
• Effects on Reduced Vertical Separation Minimum (RVSM);
• Autopilot system;
• Flight Management System (FMS).
Total out of pocket costs, financing and return on investment (ROI) calculations can be dramatically changed based on how the previously mentioned topics are addressed. An STC that covers a glass cockpit upgrade can easily cost the applicant over $100k, and up to $250k in some cases. The STC-holder will attach the costs to the upgrade price IAW to the business model they put together prior to submitting the STC. Normally the STC-holder is looking to break-even in the first seven to 10 aircraft based on the cost and complexity of the certification. Since no two aircraft are identical, deviations to an STC can be expected and will be another added cost.
ADS-B, FANS, RNP, LINK 2000 (just to name a few) fill the regulatory horizon, and determining if your planned upgrade covers these topics is very important. Late last year in the United States, GPS-based Lateral Precision with Vertical Guidance approaches (LPV) exceeded Instrument Landing System (ILS) approaches. Does your glass cockpit upgrade and existing FMS have the hardware and software enhancements needed to shoot a coupled LPV approach?
Sometimes there are multiple STCs available for your aircraft, but some airframes have only one STC that covers their configuration and that doesn’t mean it’s a perfect fit. Some STCs are several years old and if not amended to cover the latest technologies could leave you with an “outdated” glass cockpit. Ask the MRO if they own the STC or will they be purchasing the rights to use the documentation from the STC holder. This is a standard practice in the industry and should not alter your plans when selecting an MRO for the upgrade. With that said, make sure they have done the upgrade before and have a thorough knowledge of the data package.
EVALUATE YOUR EXISTING AVIONICS
Another area that could offer a costly surprise and affect your budget is the commonly stated avionics caveat, “Some options may require equipment upgrades from the baseline equipment list”. This is a subtle way to inform you that some of your existing avionics that you were not looking to upgrade must be upgraded to interface with your new flight deck. You will see this term on every proposal and sales bulletin you receive when inquiring about a new glass cockpit.
I have been part of many sales presentations where the price of the glass cockpit is within budget, only to have the ancillary costs of upgrading the existing avionics deflate the mood of the buyer. My advice is that if the shop you are soliciting for a proposal does not pressure you for a detailed equipment list they are doing you a disservice by giving you a price and burying this caveat somewhere in the proposal.
In defense of the manufacturers who design and package the glass cockpit upgrades; they have done a brilliant job of reducing the number of existing radios that require an upgrade over the past 5-10 years. The manufacturers have achieved this by engineering their new products to work with older interface standards and they are cognizant as to how this added cost of replacing existing avionics has affected sales of their product.
In many cases the existing autopilot system has to be changed in conjunction with the glass cockpit upgrade. The older analog systems can’t deliver the performance specifications required by their newer digital counterparts that promise to deliver an exceptionally smooth ride for the passengers and provide the crew with enhanced features and reliability. Autopilot certification costs can be substantially higher than other avionics systems and a percentage of these absorbed costs will be included in your installation price.
RVSM certification is usually not a concern because the standard pneumatic instruments are pulled out and replaced by highly accurate RVSM compliant digital computers; however, in the case of the light to mid-sized aircraft (for which numerous configurations are possible) you must confirm the STC covers your existing equipment.
Another area of concern surrounds the existing FMS systems. It is imperative that you discuss what has to be done to the FMS to achieve the full benefit and features of the new flight display system. Some upgrades require that the FMS must be replaced; however, others simply state the upgrade retains the existing FMS system and uses verbiage referring to its possible capabilities.
Simply stated, this means your FMS either has had a recent upgrade or will need an upgrade to achieve value added features like coupled Vertical Navigation (VNAV) and LPV. Normally these upgrades cost over $100k and require their own certification path.
Choosing the right aircraft to meet your company’s business plan is very important, but it’s equally compelling to purchase one with the right avionics platform that can be easily upgraded. Currently the worldwide trend is the acquisition of existing aircraft over the purchase of new ones, unequivocally due to the attractive low prices available today. In fact worldwide purchases of pre-owned aircraft have hit a record high while deliveries of new aircraft are at their lowest levels in almost ten years.
It’s exciting to see that a record number of first-time buyers have entered the market and are predominately purchasing pre-owned aircraft that are less than fifteen years old. Both of these events have reduced the inventory of available preowned aircraft and also affected asking prices. For the first time in years, year-todate asking prices have shown an increase over last year.
It is this writer’s opinion that the following events have created the perfect storm of opportunity for buyers and owners of pre-owned aircraft to get a “great deal” to enhance the value of their prized commodity:
• Very attractive purchase prices;
• Purchase prices are stabilizing (get in at the right time);
• Discounted package incentives from the Vendors;
• Aircraft Blue Book value increases;
• Immediate return on investment (ROI);
• Improved situation awareness and reliability.
Going back to my earlier statement referring to emotional responses associated with “shooting for the stars”, consider the following action: Take the time to consult with both an aircraft broker and an experienced avionics professional that can guide you to the purchase of a pre-owned aircraft that can be modified to provide you with a state-of-the-art cockpit for millions less than purchasing a new airplane.
Research has shown that aircraft updated with a modern cockpit stand well above their brethren in the resale market and capture nearly 70% of their investment. Consider, too, the current value of a Falcon 2000 at $6-8m compared to a Falcon 2000LX at $21-22m. The annual interest alone for the purchase of the Falcon 2000LX is over $1m, equaling (or exceeding) the one time price of a cockpit upgrade to your existing aircraft.
By definition, I refer to the Citations, King Airs, Learjets and others that fall under the more cost-conscious category. When we think cockpits we tend to always associate upgrades with glass cockpits, but this type of Part 25 aircraft consistently flirts within the “grey” area for which Part 23 certified equipment has become increasing popular.
There are indeed plenty of certified glass cockpit upgrades available for these aircraft, but I am talking more about the replacement of the existing radios and control heads. The primary factor here is cost, and one can easily understand that if you can get something for less money and you get more functionality, then why not?
For starters, consider interface concerns and incompatibility issues: When a manufacturer decides to design and create a product to a targeted market, they typically only certify the equipment in one category – Part 23 or Part 25, due to the cost and time needed to get the certification approved. The software and hardware design engineers will then focus on interface configurations standard for the type of aircraft certified in this category. Most of these aircraft are outfitted with analog systems including the autopilot, whereas newer technology is mostly digital.
To help alleviate interface issues, remote digital-to-analog converter boxes are installed. Some provide standard conversions where others require unique software modifications which might have to be written numerous times to solve the problem. Standard control heads have many ancillary functions that now require additional switches and enunciators to be installed on the instrument panel.
Perhaps the most overlooked result is that an operator spends money to upgrade their cockpit only to possibly “reduce” the hull value of the aircraft. At some time they will look to sell their aircraft which now has a unique configuration (one that would alter or at least complicate any future owner’s attempt to install a certified glass cockpit owing to compatibility issues). The likely net result would be a reduced number of prospective buyers – especially if they have a working knowledge of the avionics systems.
REMOVE THE CLUTTER
Finally, your upgrade creates an opportunity to remove the clutter that currently exists today in the cockpit. I refer to the removal of the many carry-on devices that provide rudimentary functionality better allocated to an integrated system. Define the features these devices currently provide the crew and ensure they will be included as part of your next panel upgrade.
Electronic Flight Bags are convenient but they are bulky, require power, loose cabling and are usually just lying around the cockpit. The best place for this information is on the panel, allowing the pilot to keep both hands free to fly the aircraft. Books filled with Jeppesen charts take up a lot of room and add weight (not to mention time needed to manually update the revisions). Today’s modern cockpits feature automated data transfers allowing a secure connection either by a Wi-Fi network or a cellular signal to update FMS databases, electronic charts, enhanced maps, graphical weather and maintenance reports.
All this information is superimposed on one large Liquid Crystal Display allowing the crew un-paralleled situational awareness and reduced workload.
Loose cabling, hardware, suction cup antennas and Velcro have no place in the cockpit. If your portable device has a standard wall adapter for power, then that’s exactly where it should be located; in your home or office! The cockpit area should be organized, neat and clean, resembling a military barracks ready for inspection.
The mission of every pilot is ultimately to facilitate their passengers’ safe arrival at their destination. Having the right resources allows these professionals to get the job done right!