Veteran aviator Doug Decker approaches most flying matters with an engineer’s critical eye for detail. Things need to be exact. The numbers have to tally. Logic holds ascendency over emotion.
But describing his aircraft, N998PL, a brilliant yellow 1996 A36 Bonanza, Decker sounds a lot like a pilot speaking straight from the heart.
“I don’t think there is an airplane in the United States today that has the form, fit and functions that this airplane has,” Decker began. “It is a very unusual airplane with tip tanks, oxygen, deicing, a turbo-charged Continental IO-550 with 300 horsepower, plus a quality interior. Outside it has a clean, beautiful paint job. And, above all, the panel is as good as I could ever want.”
You might think that Decker, who flies from KGGE in Georgetown, S.C., is marketing his plane for sale. He is not.
Rather, his pride is showing after a lengthy planning and avionics install process to make 998PL a technologically advanced flying machine that fits his long-distance travel needs.
Along the way he invested about $50,000 in modernizing a plane that already had an abundance of bells and whistles.
“It is a lot,” Decker said, “but I got a lot in return. And my costs were reduced as a result of receiving a promotional rebate from Garmin. I got the ADS-B $500 FAA rebate and in South Carolina they recently eliminated the 7% sales tax on repair and maintenance items. Altogether I actually saved several thousand dollars on the installation.”
Decker, who holds an ATP rating, was honored last year with the Wright Brothers Master Pilot Award, signifying at least 50 years of exemplary flying. His logbooks show more than 4,000 hours of pilot in command time.
“My Bonanza was a great airplane when I bought it in 2015,” Decker said. “And the plane came with a good personal story. I have been involved with Bonanzas for 40 years but this is the first that I have owned alone. I wanted to own an A36 outright. I contacted brokers. Then my wife said to me, ‘my former husband, Jim Allen, owns an A36 in Wisconsin.’ ”
“So I called Jim,” Decker continued. “I asked if he knew anyone in the Wisconsin area interested in selling an A36.”
He said, “You know I’m not using my A36 very much.”
“Jim Allen is a techie kind of guy,” Decker said. “The airplane was extremely well maintained. He is the kind of guy you want to buy an airplane from. We agreed on the price and he and I flew the plane from Wisconsin to Columbia, S.C., to Aircraft Maintenance Services there. They gave it a clean bill of health. He got on a plane and I flew it back here to Georgetown. That was in 2015.”
Decker said his aircraft already had a good panel, but “with my engineering background I wanted a more efficient setup, a technologically advanced aircraft that would give me every safety advantage in flying. It had an autopilot on it and a King electronic flight instrument system. But the display didn’t work. And when I started checking out the needed repairs, other avionics places said be careful. The cost of repair, they said, would be exorbitant. It was in the multiple thousands that King Honeywell wanted to fix the electronic flight information system with a 90-day warranty. I could put another device in it for a couple of thousand dollars more than the $11,000 quoted and have a two-year guarantee.”
He chose the Garmin G500.
“There were other things on the market that would be less expensive,” he said. “I looked at what I got with the Garmin G500 Primary Flight display. Everything is solid state with no moving parts. Also, the transponder was going to have to be upgraded to ADS-B. I decided that going in and out was the thing to do. I put the new Nav/Com in to replace the King KX 155. The Garmin GTN 750 GPS/Nav/COM system comes with a transponder package so you don’t have an external box. The 750 also has audio capabilities and I decided to have an external audio panel rather than having it buried in a display. I kept the transponder on the main display.”
Choosing an avionics shop was next.
“I went to different shops and got an idea of what they would do,” Decker said. “When I went to Aircraft Maintenance Services (AMS) at KCUB, Jim Hamilton Downtown Airport in Columbia, S.C., I gave them a piece of paper with my wishes and they helped me put together the plug and play solution. The single manufacturer, single responsibility, single warranty seemed to me the most cost effective method.”
At AMS he found a talented and willing team for the panel rework in Joshua Snipes and his associate Joseph Benevides.
“What I like about them is that they will tell you I don’t know,” he said. “Instead of trying to BS their way through something, they will try and find out.”
“For me, as a Wright Brothers Award recipient, safety was important,” Decker continued. “I felt that this solution improved the safety of the plane. The airplane will hold its value. And the panel makeover reduced the weight of the plane about 200 pounds. The panel repair was scheduled to take four weeks, but it stretched to seven.”
In the left seat Decker has an iPad running ForeFlight on the yoke. Beyond that the G500 display fills the center of the left-side panel. The GTN750 Nav/Com screen occupies the middle of the panel and the built-in iPad on the co-pilot side essentially completes the panel.
“Everything is up in front of me,” he said. “The display condenses the information that was scattered around the panel in one place. In addition, I have a Garmin 430W below the GTN750.”
“We used an item called the GAD 43E to provide a digital autopilot that interfaces to the Garmin G500,” Decker said. “It provides all the functions of a traditional instrument system with no moving parts. That is safety number one. For me safety number two is having a more reliable radio.”
“The other thing that comes up through the new panel is the addition of traffic advisories,” he said. “We are now seeing through the ADS-B in and out process an enormous amount of traffic.”
“In the plane, we now have three things going for us if we lose everything,” he continued. “We have two iPads that have horizontal situation AHRS that communicate via Wi-Fi to a Stratus 2 receiver all with backup power, full functioning WAAS GPS and synthetic vision. The plane also has a backup alternator. And I have a handheld radio that works through the Lightspeed headsets. This gives me an added level of confidence.”
“On a cross country if I’m flying 2,500 RPM and my manifold pressure is about 25 inches, I usually get about 205 knots true airspeed at 16,000 or 17,000 feet,” he continued. “So you are honking. The consumption at that setting is about 17 gallons per hour. I can have more economical settings. And I do have to monitor engine temperatures with a new JPI EDM 730 engine management system.”
“I think I have more capabilities than I’d say 50% of the jets that are flying around today, maybe more than that,” he said. “We in general aviation have the advantage that we can put new stuff in. This is proven tested stuff.”
Decker began flying after graduating with a degree in electrical engineering.
“I went to work for a firm in Salt Lake City in 1961,” he said. “I always had an interest in airplanes. And I was the cub salesman with the firm. My territory was 42,000 square miles. I said if I had an airplane I could cover my territory. I got my private pilot’s license and instrument rating and commercial pilot rating for business. Soon our consulting engineers started going with me. They steered work to me. I flew there for about 11 years.”
In Salt Lake Decker served for four years on the Utah Aeronautics Board and was instrumental in the project to open the former Wendover Air Force Base to general aviation.
“They trained the Hiroshima and Nagasaki B-29 pilots there,” he said. “The base was there but no one could use it. I organized a campaign with the help of my local congressman.”
The end result of Decker’s work was the opening of the base to general aviation aircraft.
“Afterwards, they named the landing field there Decker Field,” he noted.
Decker has been a South Carolina resident for about a decade.
“After a long post-retirement sailing trip to South America and also across the Mediterranean and the Adriatic to Turkey, we came back here after eight years,” Decker said. “Judy’s mom lived in Georgetown.”
He continued to sail until recently when he sold his 37-foot sailboat and focused more on flying. He is also a longtime ham radio operator.
Decker currently serves as chairman of the Georgetown County Airport Planning Committee.