By Brian Wilson
The cyclical pattern associated with avionics retrofits are usually driven by economic conditions or regulatory compliance, with the latter offering a more compelling reason to perform the upgrade. Ultimately, when operators are forced to spend money on certain systems due to compliance, other peripheral systems stand idle. Take, for example, the years in which operators were busy spending hundreds of thousands of dollars to upgrade their aircraft with RVSM and TAWS. Although both of these systems improved safety awareness and allowed more aircraft to fly closer together, the passenger experience was not enhanced in anyway. These costly upgrades exceeded most annual avionics budgets, and the residual effect lasted another few years.
This lead to an emergence in cabin entertainment upgrades the last few years after a period of neglect. Innovative technologies enabling connectivity, portable devices and applications converged with entertainment and put an emphasis on enhancing the passenger experience. Owners were – and still are – eager to spend money again on systems they can “touch” and “feel”.
Having expressed that avionics retrofits are tied to a cyclical pattern driven first by compliance and then by necessity, although cabin avionics upgrades will continue to be strong in the next few years the industry stands braced as the next wave of retrofits driven by compliance approaches. And if you are not yet ready, you need to be. Here’s why…
The most desirable flight levels of FL360- 390K (inclusive) in the North Atlantic Track System (NATS) will require your aircraft to be outfitted and approved for Future Air Navigation System (FANS) operations as early as February 2013 for the two most efficient tracks. Effective February 2015, all aircraft could be required to be FANS complient to fly in any airspace within the NATS.
Two acronyms you should become familiar with are Automatic Dependent Surveillance Contract (ADS-C) and Controller Pilot Data Link Communication (CPDLC) which are the technologies that define FANS.
FANS is actually quite common among commercial aircraft, but it is just in its infancy in the business jet community. It essentially provides an alternative to the noisy and intrusive HF systems currently outfitted on corporate aircraft that travel over the oceanic tracks. One of the goals of FANS is to reduce by half both the Lateral and Longitudinal (Trailing) separation of aircraft, much like what RVSM succeeded in doing with the Vertical separation. Another is to reduce the workload for both the crew and Air Traffic Control (ATC) when communicating. ADS-C will provide digital position reports to ATC via an approved Iridium or Inmarsat Satellite communications system. These are sent automatically, and require no pilot interaction.
Meanwhile, language misinterpretations and cross-chatter will be minimized and CPDLC will become the standard mode of communicating. (A simple way to think about CPDLC is that it’s similar to the way we text on the ground; the crew and TC will communicate via a pre-arranged set of messages transferred back and forth with the push of a button on the Flight Management System.)
FANS upgrades will require either an STC or an OEM service bulletin. For “N” registered aircraft a Letter of Authorization (LOA) will be required from the FAA. The timeframe needed in which to find an STC to cover your airframe and receive LOA approval from the FAA should not be underestimated; in fact, two flight departments recently seeking LOA approval for the same type configuration and airframe ranged from an acceptable five weeks to an anemic 32 weeks. The systems affected by a FANS upgrade will include:
• Flight Management System (FMS)
• Communications Management Unit (CMU)
• Cockpit Voice Recorder (CVR)
• Satellite Communications (SATCOM)
• Audio Panel
• Annunciation and Aural Alerting Systems
I recommend that all flight departments that fly the North Atlantic Tracks to Europe, or even those that transition through them using a random route, allocate funding for FANS in their budgets and start to plan immediately.
As an example for those who fail to comply, the estimated costs for a large airframe like a Challenger, Falcon or Gulfstream forced to fly outside the preferred tracks can cost an “additional” $30,000-50,000 a year based on just four international trips, with the additional flight time and fuel burn due to the longer distance traveled, unfavorable winds and re-routing of the aircraft. Aircraft could also face another unwanted stop for refueling due to the longer distance flown, coupled with a relentless headwind.
Both the FAA and EASA are promoting the “Best Equipped, Best Serviced” philosophy, meaning that your aircraft will fly at lower altitudes, fly longer routes and be re-routed behind aircraft that are FANS compliant. While on the topic of EASA, Link 2000+ is another mandate set for February 2015, and it will apply to aircraft flying into any European airspace. Link 2000+ is conceptually similar to CPDLC but will use a different protocol that could add costs to your upgrade.
Link 2000+ requires a line-of-sight VHF Data Link (VDL) Mode 2 transceiver and antenna, and works with the new higher speed Aeronautical Telecommunications Network (ATN). Think of this as similar to your cell phone which goes from having 3G service to 4G.
The important thing to remember is that if you upgrade your CMU for FANS, make sure the unit is provisioned or has a software path for Link 2000+, otherwise you will be adding another CMU to your upgrade. Aircraft operators approved for FANS by January 1, 2014 will benefit from a clause stated under Eurocontrol’s Link 2000+ program that allows them exemption from the mandate.
GLASS PANEL RETROFITS
I enjoy a lot of interaction with customers, many of whom are pilots or maintenance personnel. One of the most common responses I get when discussing possible upgrades for their aircraft is that they are not sure if they are going to keep the aircraft or purchase a newer one with a state-of-the-art cockpit. Usually after weeks, sometimes months of going back-and-forth on the right route forward, they request of quote to retrofit the existing aircraft.
Glass panel upgrades must be performed by an FAA approved STC, and can include replacing the Auto Pilot, the FMS and some (or all) of the legacy radios. Make sure you connect with an avionics shop that has the experience, knowledge and expertise to perform these complex upgrades.
For some airframes numerous choices and price points exist for glass panel upgrades, but you don’t want to rush into a decision and then later find out the technology you had installed is limited and will not meet future changes or mandates.
Cockpit upgrades in the 1990s consisted of replacing the electro-mechanical instruments with heavy, power consuming Cathode Ray Tubes (CRT) displays. These units were limited in their ability to accept and process data, and had a high failure rate of their High Voltage Power Supplies (HVPS). Global production sites for CRTs peaked in the mid-nineties to 68 sites, but as of this writing less than 10 still exist. Those remaining sites have asked vendors like Rockwell Collins and Honeywell for Life Time Buy (LTB) forecasts. Vendors have started attaching end-of-production and support documents when a unit is repaired or exchanged.
Operators, meantime, are spending more and more money to maintain these older systems, and are essentially being pressed into decisions on whether to upgrade to a more modern aircraft or perform a retrofit to Liquid Crystal Display (LCD) technology. The benefits of LCD technology include larger, sharper displays that absorb less power as well as offer improved reliability.
Standard configuration includes four 8×10-inch screens consisting of two Primary Flight Displays (PFD) and two Multi-
Function Displays (MFD) which deliver greater situation awareness and reduce pilot workload. Other benefits include:
• Synthetic Vision System (SVS)
• Electronic Charts
• Graphical Weather Overlays
• Enhanced Navigation Maps
• Enhanced Vision Systems (EVS)
Most STCs include standard or optional Integrated Engine Indication Systems. Legacy engine instrumentation repair and
exchange costs continue to increase each year and directly affect your dispatch reliability. Although an upgrade to an older panel will cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, it’s still a lot cheaper than purchasing a new aircraft and helps preserve resale value. The open-architecture design and on-going enhancement plan ensure operators that their cockpit will meet upcoming technology advancements and regulatory demands.
FLIGHT MANAGEMENT SYSTEMS
The key link in the chain between FANS, CPDLC and Glass Panel Retrofits is the FMS. This is the horsepower within the engine; the microprocessor within the mainframe. The FMS functions much like a computer and consists of a keypad, software, memory cards and a processor. You wouldn’t use a desktop or laptop computer that’s older than five-years for your business, and likewise you shouldn’t be flying your aircraft with an outdated version either.
Your aircraft type and configuration will determine how sophisticated and costly this upgrade will be, but there are measurable results that will help recoup your Return on Investment (ROI). Key benefits of the retrofit for the crew and passengers include, but are not limited to the following:
• Localizer Performance with Vertical guidance (LPV)
• Wide Area Augmentation System (WAAS)
• Coupled Vertical Navigation (VNAV)
• Required Navigation Performance compliance (RNP)
• Improved safety and situational awareness
• Preferred routing and fuel savings
Updating your FMS to a WAAS enabled unit allows your aircraft to fly LPV approaches, taking advantage of the precise GPS accuracy of WAAS and allowing you to fly a coupled Lateral and Vertical approach with ILS–like guidance down to near CAT-1 minimums.
Passenger comfort and fuel savings are a direct results of a constant glide path that allows the crew to “idle back” and descent rather than the standard leveling off, accelerating and again leveling off approaches. The lower minimums will also allow you to get into an airport that otherwise might require you to seek an alternative due to poor visibility and low cloud cover. In situations where your destination airport is closed due to weather, the crew has the option to use a potentially nearer RNAV-GPS airport with approved LPV approaches rather than seek a more distant airport with an ILS.
Many MROs that have specialized avionics services have a WAAS/LPV ROI calculator that allows you to enter your early flight information and calculate when the investment will pay for itself. A recent test on a Challenger 604 flying approximately 450 hours per year with two-three hour legs resulted in calculated savings of over $25,000 yearly on fuel and engine reserves.
By selecting the proper upgrade for your MS you will provide a growth-path vital to future requirements such as FANS, CPDLC, ADS-C, and further along the road NextGen and SESAR implementations.
Make sure you consult with an experienced avionics shop familiar with your aircraft type and configuration and offering strong ties with the OEMs. In some cases you will have to change the existing FMS with a newer one, while in others a software upgrade will be required. All platforms will need new WAAS certified GPS antennas, and those systems
that have remote GPS receivers will need to replace them with WAAS compliant units.
The certification path is either going to be via a STC or OEM service bulletin. The crew will require training on the new systems and procedures, and don’t forget the time needed to receive your Letter of Authorization from your local authorities.
NOW IS THE TIME TO UPGRADE: HERE’S WHY…
Backed by supplier incentives, accelerated tax depreciation legislation, STC availability and reduced downtime this is a perfect time for operators to perform some of these upgrades and immediately enjoy reduced operating costs.
Some aggressive sales incentives include up to $20,000 for each new FMS and up to $100,000 when packaged with a Glass cockpit retrofit. Other incentives include package deals loaded with costs savings and waivers of costs for certain peripheral upgrades. Based on where you are domiciled, tax laws also offer up to 50% accelerated depreciation for the total cost of the upgrade in the same year you perform the retrofit in lieu of the standard five-year depreciation schedule.
Over the last few years Vendors have allocated funds and resources to assist with the STC certification, and currently there are an unprecedented number of STCs available to the industry. Vendors have the financial strength to leverage the cost of the STC with the packaged equipment which results in a savings to the operator.
We all know that downtime is critical when performing any upgrade, and efforts in design, planning and packaging of equipment has paid off nicely. One example is the exchange solutions for many LPV upgrades that reduced the downtime from a few weeks to a few days. Further, utilization of existing systems and partial usage of existing wiring coupled with pre-fabricated harnesses and instrument panels have reduced glass cockpit retrofits from a few months to a few weeks.
Finally, industry research groups are confirming that hull values have stabilized, and the percentage of used aircraft on the resale market are close to historic levels. All of which leads this writer to believe that now is the perfect time to budget the resources and perform some of the upgrades that meet your primary mission for the aircraft, increase the value of your asset, improve your dispatch reliability and enhance the safety of your crew and passengers. But don’t lose sight of those future regulations when you budget those resources.
Brian Wilson oversees all activities related to Banyan Air Services’ avionics department – including sales promotions, aircraft avionics installations, bench and line troubleshooting, engineering and used avionics component sales. His avionics career started 30 years ago, when he joined the U.S. Navy as an Avionics Technician. Wilson has also worked at Midcoast Aviation, Raytheon, Bombardier/Learjet and most recently at Jet Aviation in West Palm Beach where he headed the Avionics, Engineering and Interior departments. He also serves on the Rockwell Collins Dealer Board. He can be reached at 954-232-3606 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.