Products, Public Service, Services

The Undeniable Joy of Glass Cockpit Upgrades

By By James Careless | April 1, 2010

Talk to people who have upgraded their rotorcraft from analog ‘steam gauges’ to all-digital ‘glass cockpits’, and their enthusiasm brings the J-word to mind time and again. The improvements in performance, ease of use, and maintenance are stunning; as the following stories clearly attest.

Glass Cockpit Just Part of Transformed Bell 212

Located in Sudbury, Canada, Day Aviation flies a wide range of missions. “We do everything from power line work and moving poles to mining, forestry and firefighting,” says Chief Pilot John Van Zon. They fly above a rugged, barren landscape—one that doubled as the Moon for ground-training the Apollo astronauts!


To help with the work, Day Aviation acquired a 1980’s Bell 212 medium helicopter. But this 212 is as similar to a stock model as a 1970s DeLorean is to the souped-up DeLorean time machine from the ‘Back to the Future’ movies. Instead of its original twin engines, this Bell 212 has one; a highly reliable Honeywell Lycoming T5317BCV. And instead of analog ‘steam gauges’, its cabin is fitted with a Sagem glass cockpit installed by Vector Aerospace. The three LCD displays are mounted in ‘portrait’ mode, integrating the full range of the 212’s operations onto easy-to-see monitors.

“There’s no problem of parallax with digital controls, unlike analog; you get the same reading no matter where you are in the cockpit,” says Van Zon. “I also like the fact that the digital gauges change color whenever the system is approaching a threshold, turning yellow for caution and red for limits. This ensures that you are alerted to what’s happening, even when you are looking out the window.” Meanwhile, switching to the Sagem platform has improved fuel monitoring. “In the old system, you could only get a sense of how much fuel you had using an analog gauge,” he says. “With the digital system, we can monitor it by the pound, and track our burn rate visually over time as we fly.”

For Day Aviation, using an updated Bell 212 has proven to be a sound business investment. “We can do more with this 212 than we could with a stock model, and it is easier to fly and maintain,” Van Zon says. “Granted, we had to put some lead weights in the nose to counteract the mass we lost when we removed the analog gauges and AC inverters. But I’d rather deal with a lead weight than a steam gauge at overhaul!”

Updated Bell 407s Anchor Fairfax County Police Division

“A tremendous improvement!” That’s how Chief Pilot Paul Schaaf describes the glass cockpit upgrade of the Fairfax County, Va. Police Helicopter Division’s two Bell 407s. Flown originally in analog mode, the 407s have since been upgraded with Cobham Avionics’ electronic flight instrument system (EFIS) glass cockpits. The upgrades were performed by Paradigm Aerospace, the first in November 2006 and the second upgrade three months later.

“The Cobham EFIS is by far the best glass cockpit retrofit out there; both back when we did it and today,” says Schaaf. “The way Cobham integrates and displays information from other avionics allowed us to use the smallest sized instrument panel, thus preserving precious cockpit visibility. As well, we really like the fact that all of the avionics are incorporated into a single box. You don’t have to add and maintain separate GPS systems to drive it.”

With its use of 3D synthetic vision, highway-in-the-sky route mapping software and helicopter terrain awareness and warning systems (HTAWS), Cobham’s EFIS makes flying much easier for Fairfax County’s pilots. “With everything integrated on the Cobham PFD and MFD, you don’t have to look around to get the information you need,” says Schaaf. “It’s all heads-up—something that reduces the mental workload on the pilot in stressful situations. I also appreciate the simplicity of EFIS. On a VFR flight, it is possible completely activate avionics with a single button push, and the software automatically reads the barometric pressure and dials it in. You hardly have to push other buttons after that, just fly.” Cobham’s EFIS also integrates with SL-30 nav/com, Garmin GDL-90 automatic dependent surveillance-broadcast (ADS-B) datalink for traffic and weather, BF Goodrich Skywatch traffic, Shadin fuel flow, Freeflight Systems radar altimeter and WX-500 Stormscope.

In combination with night vision goggles (NVGs) and regular training, Schaaf says his division’s EFIS-equipped helicopters have virtually eliminated the risk of controlled flight into terrain (CFIT) crashes that have been dogging other AMS operators. All told, “this upgrade has improved our flying performance, increased the safety of our operations and reduced our maintenance and in-flight problems,” he concludes. “Upgrading to the Cobham glass cockpit has made a real difference.”

Middle-Aged Bell OH-58A+ Kiowa Reborn with Glass

The Dale County Sheriff’s Office in Ozark flies three helicopters and two fixed-wing aircraft out of Fort Rucker, Ala. All of them are military surplus. “We provide air support to 10 counties in southeast Alabama. We go anywhere that mutual aid is needed,” says Chief Pilot Tim McDonald, who is also chief deputy of the Dale County Sheriff’s Office.

Granted, the helicopters being flown by the DCSO have received upgrades over the years. Still, the DCSO’s primary helicopter—Air One—is a 1972-vintage Bell OH-58A+ Kiowa. By human standards, it is middle-aged!

Like any middle-aged entity, Air One has suffered some glitches as it ages; notably in the area of analog instruments. When the attitude indicator started to fail, the DCSO turned to Aspen Avionics of Albuquerque, N.M. for a glass cockpit upgrade.

“Our missions rely on our avionics,” McDonald comments. “We need avionics that we can count on 100 percent of the time. Unfortunately, our aging analog avionics have seen their day, and it makes no sense to replace them with similar devices when lighter weight, more reliable digital avionics exist.” The Vietnam-era steam gauges were replaced by the Aspen Evolution flight display (EFD) system; the first time an Aspen EFD1000H Pro PFD and EFD1000H MFD have been retrofitted into an OH-58. The EFD system is designed to work with one, two or three Aspen EFD screens, based on the customer’s budget and needs.

McDonald appreciates the system’s ability to display XM Weather in real-time. “We cover such a wide area, we need to be able to see our weather and pick our way around it,” he says. “The Aspen also shows us the location of other aircraft in our area, and tracks wind speed and velocity at altitude. This information is critical for making approaches; especially at night.”

“The Aspen EFD glass cockpit has brought Air One into the 21st century,” Tim McDonald concludes. “We now have the level of avionics support and reliability we need to fly safely and effectively.”

Carson’s Glass Cockpit Brings S-61 to Cutting Edge

Frank Carson, owner of Carson Helicopters, is a big believer in his Sikorsky S-61s (the civilian version of the famed Sea King). This is why he has been developing numerous upgrades to this workhorse; one of which is equipping a single S-61 with a state-of-the-art Sagem glass cockpit.

“The original S-61 was developed 50 years ago, with its cockpit being fitted with steam gauges,” Carson tells Rotor & Wing. “By replacing this equipment with a modern glass cockpit, we have significantly improved safety and pilot situational awareness.”

The centerpiece of the S-61 glass cockpit are five Sagem Avionics’ ICDS-10 active matrix liquid crystal displays. Mounted in portrait configuration (the ICDS-10’s 10.4-inch display length being on the vertical axis, not horizontal), these displays can switch between a number of inputs for maximum redundancy. Normally, two of the ICDS-10s show the S-61’s primary flight displays—one for each pilot position—while the other three show multifunction displays (MFDs). “If one of the displays fails, the pilot can access the information by switching inputs on any of the other four displays,” says Carson. The S-61 also has a ICDS-6 display that replicates the original master caution panel.

The upgrades don’t stop there: Working with Vector Aerospace Helicopter Services-North America (Vector), which developed the supplemental type certificate (STC) and performed the integration of the S-61 glass cockpit upgrade, Carson Helicopters installed two Garmin GNS-530W GPS/Nav/Comm units in this aircraft.

“The 530 is one of the best buys on the market,” says Frank Carson. “Putting in two gives us real redundancy.” Carson Helicopters’ upgraded S-61 also has Garmin GWX 68 weather radar and GDL 69 satellite weather systems; a Sagem PA 155 automatic flight control system (AFCS); an AHC-3000 dual attitude heading reference system; ALT-4000 radar altimeter; DME-42 distance measurement; a TDR-94D Mode S transponder; two Thommen air data computers; Technosonics TDFM-136D VHF, NAT N301 ICS and Rockwell Collins Pro Line II radios; Avidyne TAS 680 traffic advisory system, Universal cockpit voice recorder and Artex 406-MHz emergency locator beacon.

The glass cockpit is just one of the upgrades Carson Helicopters has made to this S-61. Others include installing composite main and tail rotor blades to add more lift, range and increase payload capacity. “Vector rewired the S-61 to reduce weight, and replaced the older sensors with modern units,” Carson says. “Most of these older sensors just aren’t available today. It made sense to ensure that the sensors it is tied into are modern too.”

All told, Carson Helicopters is revitalizing the S-61 from the ground up. To date, the company holds 20 STCs for its S-61 upgrades, and is looking to extend them to its other such aircraft and then—by licence—to S-61s owned by other companies.

“The S-61 is a great helicopter, and the glass cockpit upgrade is exactly what it needed to bring it up to date,” says Frank Carson. “With the improvements we are making, I hope to see S-61s flying demanding missions for many years to come.”

Ascent’s Bell 205 Resurrection

Ascent Helicopters and Aerospace of Qualicum Beach, Canada is a helicopter charter company that counts Bell medium helicopters among its fleet. The company believes in providing clients with advanced products and service—which is why it completely upgraded a 1960s-vintage Bell 205A-1.

“We bought her as a wreck, and took two years rebuilding her from the ground up,” says Ascent Helicopters and Aerospace president Trent Lemke. In the process, Ascent completely rewired the 205A-1, installed a modern Dash 17 engine and a Bell 212 rotor system, and even added a Bell 212 nose to the aircraft. “The 212 nose gives us more room for the avionics bay,” Lemke says. “It works just beautifully with the Sagem glass cockpit.”

The glass cockpit was installed by Vector Aerospace. “They put in three 10-inch Sagem displays,” says Lemke. “We get absolutely everything on the screens: flight info, engines, nav, TCAS, TAWS—the works.” Ascent decided to go all-glass for a few reasons. First, the original avionics had all been removed when they acquired the 205A-1. “Since we were starting from scratch, it made sense to install the latest TCAS and TAWS equipment when we could,” he says.

The second reason Ascent installed a glass cockpit was to expand the 205A-1’s scope of possible missions. “There is a lot of specialty work that goes on in BC, like forestry and mining,” Lemke says. “We wanted to update the 205A-1 to make it capable of doing many jobs, such as hoist work. That is why this airframe can mount a FLIR external camera and port the video into the cockpit display. The same channel can be used for a hoist camera.”

The final reason Ascent went all-glass was related to its overall enthusiasm for the project. “We got a bit carried away in resurrecting this 205,” he admits. “We wanted to do as much on it as possible, and installing the latest glass cockpit was central to this effort.”

Specialized Helicopters’ Robinson R22 Glass Cockpit

Specialized Helicopters of Watsonville, Calif. is a Robinson dealer, maintenance center and training facility. When it comes to helping pilots gain IFR flying certification, Specialized Helicopters used to rely on a larger R44 for training. “The Robinson 10-holer analog IFR panel has a weight balance problem when installed in the R22, which is why Frank Robinson stopped making them and we had to use the R44,” says Chris Gularte, the company’s president and chief tour pilot. “But it costs our students $500 an hour to rent the R44, versus $280 an hour to rent an R22 dual. That’s why we decided to install a glass cockpit in one of our R22s.”

Working with ASAP Avionics of Campbell River, Canada, Specialized Helicopters acquired and installed a two 8.4-inch LCD Sagem Avionics screens, plus many separate components, to create the glass cockpit in its R22. Like the Sagem glass cockpit used in the Robinson R44 Grand, the R22- GT (Glass Trainer) integrates all of the aircraft’s nav and monitoring functions onto this platform; adding full IFR functionality.

“The world is moving towards glass cockpits, and we have to move with it,” Gularte says. “So it only makes sense to teach pilots using glass cockpits.” It supports moving map and other modern navigation aids, and is easy to modify using software upgrades. According to Gularte, the next software update will add the ability to track engine and rotor parameters, allowing maintenance departments the ability to know exactly what the engine and rotor RPM was in the event of an overspeed. “Imagine if every helicopter had this feature?” he says. “The days of guessing would be over and the money saved would be tremendous, not to mention buyers’ remorse on used aircraft sales.”

Granted, the cost of this $50,000 glass cockpit has to come from somewhere. In the case of Specialized Helicopters, the company charges $310 an hour to rent the R22-GT. But this is still less than $500/hour for its IFR-equipped R44; a fact that can save students literally thousands of dollars in training.

“We can do more for our students with the R22-GT, at a lower cost than using the R44,” Chris Gularte concludes. “That’s a deal that works out well for everyone.”

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