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Online Extra

LBA Cockpit Technology: Cockpit Upgrades for Six-Pack Airplanes

“Glass cockpits” – computer-based, integrated instrument/navigation systems – have been installed in business jets for more than a quarter century now. They first came into wide use in light piston aircraft when Cirrus replaced the mechanical “six-pack” with the Avidyne Entegra suite in its SR20 in 2003. Cessna, Piper, Hawker Beechcraft and most other airframers followed suit, and Garmin’s G1000 became the ubiquitous system for original equipment manufacturers (OEMs).

It took awhile for the avionics industry to get its glass to the retrofit market, but in the last five years or so, affordable systems have become available from Aspen Avionics, Garmin and others. These solid-state systems are not only loaded with features, but they’re lighter and far more reliable than the mechanical gauges and electronics they replace. The floodgates have opened, and the options for light business airplane (LBA) owners who want to upgrade are expanding every year.

That’s the good news. The hard part is choosing how – or how much – to upgrade an airplane’s avionics. Today’s equipment and software are taking giant steps every new model year. The amount of information available and programmability is staggering. In fact, the most serious downside of today’s avionics is that some pilots are overwhelmed trying to sort out the blizzard of information on their screens. The problem has fostered concern within the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) over the safe application of so- called “advanced technology aircraft” (ATAs).

Still, that’s no reason to feel compelled to keep mechanical gyros and terrestrial-based navaids. But it does call for an evolved, reasoned approach to shopping for upgrades, and ensuring that pilots receive the proper initial and recurrent training to operate the equipment. The shopping strategy should start with an accurate assessment of need. Here’s a rundown of some assets that today’s aircraft owners can have in their cockpits:

  • Satellite Weather: Real-time textual weather updates and graphical depictions of radar, icing, winds aloft, cloud cover, freezing levels and much more are available via satellite feed.
  • Traffic: When connected by satellite feed, ATC radar info can be uploaded to the cockpit – expect even more once automatic dependent surveillance – broadcast (ADS-B) comes fully on line.
  • Terrain: Comprehensive terrain/obstacle databases, coupled with GPS positioning, provide awareness and warning of possible controlled flight into terrain.
  • Synthetic Vision: Terrain/obstacle databases, along with runways, navaids, terrain/obstacle data and even weather and traffic information, can be visually depicted on the primary flight display for more intuitive flight under low-visibility conditions.
  • Digital autopilot/envelope protection: The precision of GPS guidance, combined with microprocessor-based accelerometers, enable digital autopilot systems to control an airplane with far greater precision than previous autopilots driven by mechanical gyros and/or pitot-static systems. Since they are software-based, digital autopilots can also incorporate “straight and level buttons” that can recover the airplane from unusual attitudes. Envelope protection programs provide warnings – and can even override a pilot’s inputs – in the case of an impending stall or overspeed. Digital autopilots also include increasingly advanced flight-planning consoles, similar in function to flight management systems found in jets.

Many of these features are available with integrated retrofit systems such as the Garmin G500/600, the Honeywell Bendix-King Apex Edge series and the Avidyne Entegra retrofit series. But at least some of the capability can be had without ripping apart the panel and starting over. It’s worth considering what is available in non-TSO portable equipment or iPad-based software that can enhance situational awareness, albeit in an “unofficial” capacity.


Assuming the basic TSO-approved IFR avionics are securely mounted in the panel, there is a lot that can be added to supplement your enroute information toolkit without replacing what you already have. Even if you plan a panel upgrade, it can be useful to sample some of the technology ahead of time using portables to accurately assess its value to your flying mission.

The Apple iPad is, arguably, the most flexible and versatile tool to come along since the advent of GPS. Think of it as the software-processor and display component of a growing array of data resources. They include databases for charts and approach plates (with real time GPS geo-referencing for those who can use it legally), weather (the latest iPad-based system offers subscription-free ADS-B weather via a Bluetooth-paired receiver on the glareshield), traffic, terrain, even attitude-depicting synthetic vision when coupled with an appropriate outside air data attitude and attitude heading reference system (ADAHRS) unit wirelessly linked via Bluetooth.

How to Use It Safely

The issue of training – initial and recurrent – is vital for pilots to remain safe using the complex, computer-based avionics that provide so much information and situational awareness. To date, the Federal Aviation Administration has left it to pilots to qualify for safe use of advanced technology aircraft and their systems. A recent National Transportation Safety Board study concluded that, to date, the new avionics have not yielded the expected safety benefits. The study’s abstract summary warns:

“Advanced avionics and electronic displays can increase the safety potential of general aviation aircraft operations by providing pilots with more operational and safety-related information and functionality, but more effort is needed to ensure that pilots are prepared to realize that potential.”

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