Radio Flyer, Part 2 — The search for the right avionics package continues

This is the second in a three-part series describing the problem with the writer’s currrent avionics package, the solution and his experience flying with the new avionics choices he made. – Editor.

Last month I started describing my thought process on how best to upgrade the avionics in my Cardinal RG. There were plenty of options: install an entire system, just one box such as an IFR GPS, or a combination of boxes. Tough decisions to be made.

As luck would have it, I gave a safety presentation at an international helicopter convention last February, in California. As a result, I was able to spend one full hour with each of the three major players in the general aviation IFR GPS/full systems arenas. I had the undivided attention of each of the representatives, operated their fully functioning demo units, and finally was able to evaluate each system and decide which direction was best for me.

One major conclusion, after those conventions, was that it was worth it to me to do a whole new panel with a full system. Why? Four main reasons: (1) Some of the issues that I was having with my current avionics, mentioned last month; (2) Although I’d experience more up front cost by doing a complete system versus a piecemeal approach, it would eliminate repeated returns to the avionics shop for more upgrades; (3) My prior experience with some of the new gear, plus my show demos, proved to me that the added functionality and capabilities of this new gear were worth the money; and (4), the new GPS equipment is at its 100 percent best when it’s working in concert with the rest of its integrated system components.

Latest conventional wisdom placed the Garmin 530/430 series along with their transponder and audio panel as the “en vogue” way to go. Garmin raised the bar with their all-in-one GPS/VOR/COM units. Most places I looked, Garmin was the box of choice for airframe manufacturers’ standard equipment. And usually there are two of them in the panels. I have flown them and they are indeed, impressive. Cessna has gone the Bendix/King route with some pretty impressive panels on their single-engine airplanes, with the KMD 550 MFD being the centerpiece of the system. In fact, the primary market for the King stuff, like their KLN 94 GPS, seems to be in panels where there are already the later KX series of nav/coms. If I’d already had a full King panel of later gear, I might have gone that “add GPS only” for commonality. But to cut to the chase, the UPSAT “Full IFR Stack” was the hands-down winner for me. Let’s discuss why.

My first parameter was my list price cap for the selected system of $25,000. All three manufacturers could provide a completely new IFR avionics system with a list price within that budget, but here’s where some of the significant differences surfaced. With the UPSAT full IFR stack package, I could get the GX-60 IFR GPS/COM and dedicated indicator and associated annunciator panel, SL30 Nav/Com and dedicated VOR/ILS indicator, SL15 stereo audio panel with marker beacon and ICS, SL70 digital transponder, and the MX-20 MFD. I could have saved about $1,500 if I had gone with just one indicator that was switched through the annunciator, but it was very important to me to have a dedicated indicator for both the VOR/ILS and the GPS. After some serious thought and 21st century thinking, I also came to the conclusion that having only one VOR/LOC/ILS receiver and indicator was acceptable.

In my opinion, the MX-20 offered far more of what I wanted to see in an MFD, and was key in my decision for selecting their full stack. The resolution is full VGA, not quarter-VGA as in the other units, and it showed. The display is clean and the colors easy to read. And UPSAT was the only one of the three to offer basic terrain awareness and warning as part of their standard system database, for the same budget. Garmin didn’t have it at any price, and it would be a $12,000 add-on if I wanted it from Bendix/King. Besides terrain, the database includes all obstructions of 250 feet AGL or higher; they show up on the terrain map as little towers and, along with the terrain map, are color coded as to the level of threat they represent. The database that comes with the standard MX-20 does include the total terrain awareness and warning system described, along with IFR charts, VFR charts, all other airport, geographical, navaid, and airway data one would expect. In fact, if all you did was buy the $7,300 MX-20 and connect it to your current GPS and encoder, you’d have the majority of its situational awareness capabilities ready for use.

The MX-20’s open architecture allows for continuous upgrades and options. One popular option is the display of Stormscope data from the WX-500 receiver designed for MFDs. However, since I already have a WX-900 Stormscope, I didn’t need that option. Other options include uplinked weather and traffic data from FIS-B and ADS-B systems. By working with AirCell and using an onboard data receiver, weather information from Nexrad radar maps as well as text weather, and depiction charts, and even email can be uplinked right to the MX-20. In-flight telephone capability is also there from AirCell, with a “Telephone” selection already existing on the SL-15 audiopanel. The MX-20 will have no problem keeping up with the times.

Another factor in my decision was panel space. The Cardinal offers a limited amount of vertical panel space. To get all the functions from Bendix/King that I would get from UPSAT, I would have to isolate a box to the right side of my panel. I wanted everything new in the middle. Score another hit for the UPSAT system, with its slim line radios. The Garmin stack would have fit, but again, no terrain awareness and their map display didn’t have all the features and functions of the MX-20. Final deal clinchers included a 26 month warranty, the total lack of any requirement for avionics cooling, and significantly lower power drain required on my electrical system.

The next step was selecting an avionics shop to do the work. Unlike my selection process for the equipment itself, the selection of the avionics facility took no time at all. The shop would be Air Associates, located at the Asheboro Airport, Asheboro, NC. Prior dealings with this shop and its owner, Jerry Jeffers, made this choice a “no-brainer.” Jerry has been in the avionics business for 42 years, since he started in the Air Force. He has been at Asheboro for 15 years, has owned and operated Air Associates since 1992, and his reputation is strong for quality of work and customer service. Even though my decision was made in May, I had to wait until early July before he had a schedule opening to do the work. It would be worth it. If you want something done right, hire a reputable, busy person.

My next decision concerned the layout of my new stack. One wouldn’t think this would require much thought, if it all fits in the center, but how it would be arranged, along with what I wanted to do with a couple of my existing radios, was in question. Most UPSAT stacks start with the audio panel on top, followed by the MFD, then GPS, then Nav/Com, and then the transponder, but I decided on a different set-up. At the top would be the MFD. The primary reason is that the Cardinal has a big glareshield that would partially block my view of the audio panel and marker beacon lights. However, the top of the MFD has nothing that would be a problem if blocked; just framework and the on/off switch. I would still be able to see the entire screen. (UPSAT had a full-size printout of the stack on its website, which I cut out and used for layout design.)

Below the MFD would be the audio panel. I would have put it at the bottom, but it might take the marker lights out of my direct line of sight. Next down would be the nav/com rather than the GPS. The main reason is that I would have a nav indicator dedicated to each radio. I wanted the one with the ILS on top, so I wanted the corresponding radio, the SL 30 Nav/Com, directly above the GPS. The bottom of the stack would be the home for the transponder. This layout “just” fit in the center, directly above my existing autopilot control head. The annunciator panel would fit nicely in the space above the altimeter.

Nailing down a firm quote, and deciding on a final layout arrangement, demanded a trip with the plane to the radio shop. This way, Jerry could look everything over, we could discuss the job in detail, and he could offer any suggestions based on his vast experience. I also took that time to describe the “extras” I wanted him to perform. These included moving my Garmin GPS III from my control wheel to a platform on the extreme right side of the panel. It’s a great GPS and an excellent back-up, especially if I lose all electrical power. I also wanted my Northstar M1 Loran moved to the right side under the Garmin. “Why not keep the DME and dump the Loran?” he asked. My reasoning was this: the M1 is an excellent Loran, yet you can’t get much for them on the market. It’s a completely different system, which is excellent back-up if the GPS blanks out. Loran will be supported until at least 2008, with talk of making it the accepted back-up for GPS. Plus the IFR GPS can legally stand in for the DME. Besides, the SL-30 Nav/Com will display DME information (obtained from the GPS through serial port) for the VOR it’s receiving. Finally, DME resale was still better than Loran. Not only did Jerry finally agree, but also he found a home for my DME. (I also found a buyer for everything else I removed from my plane, which all totaled, returned more than 15 percent of my new investment.)

After a seemingly-endless waiting time for July to come, I was finally delivering my plane to Asheboro. Toward the end of the week, I paid a visit and my panel was completely torn apart. All the old stuff was out and Jerry was building up a new panel support for the racks. What he couldn’t see, until he removed the old stuff, was that the panel had been modified so much in its life that there was nothing left to mount the new racks to. So he built up a completely new framework to mount the gear.

During the installation process, Jerry kept me informed as to how it was going and called me from time to time to offer suggestions and/or get my opinions on things that popped up. Also, during that time, I buried myself into the operating manuals as well as the extra training video and CD I ordered from UPSAT. And on the ninth working day from dropping off my plane, I was looking at my completed panel for the first time, in preparation for its first test flight. I was very pleased with what I saw. He had also done some small detail work, which really made a big difference to the look of the panel. As a final touch, I ordered leather control-wheel covers from Warren Gregoire (that’s pronounced Greg-Wah, dahling!) located in Clayton, CA. Nothing like the look and feel of leather to revive ratty, 27 year old control wheels.

The first test flight went really well. Jerry had a complete routine we had to go through to get the IFR certification. We shot multiple GPS approaches, checking for proper aircraft positioning and sequencing of the GPS and associated annunciator, and proper indications from the nav head. It worked perfectly. We also shot an ILS to test the SL30. Another home-run. All the while, the MX-20 was knocking me over with its graphics and picture-perfect presentation of where I was in relation to what I wanted to do and where I wanted to go. But I really knew my decision was validated, on that very first flight, when we were returning to Asheboro. It was a typical summer afternoon with visibility restricted to four miles in haze. As I was descending for the airport and having trouble seeing, I received a terrain warning flag from the MX-20, which meant that within two minutes’ flying time, I would reach terrain or an obstacle that was at or above my altitude. I hit the terrain button and it clearly showed me where the conflict was, in a display fashion that resembles color weather radar. Wonderful.

There were some adjustments that Jerry needed to make, and he still had some autopilot work to do, but he promised that I could come back the next day to fly the plane home. And I did. It took me 1.5 hours to fly the 30 miles from Asheboro to Rowan County. Go figure! Now comes the tough but fun part: going through the steep learning curve on a new system and procedures. I was a novice at GPS approaches, and I decided to come up with my own training program for all the new gear and learning GPS approaches in detail. That program, and how all this gear works together, is what we’ll discuss next month.

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