Precision Approach to Panel Upgrades   

By By Dale Smith | June 1, 2011

During a supplemental type certificate (STC) program in 2010, Vector Aerospace Helicopter Services-North America avionics technician Hardeep Chohan tests the first VFR version of the Sagem Avionics/Vector Aerospace integrated cockpit display system (ICDS) for the Sikorsky S-61. The companies developed the STC for Carson Helicopters.

It doesn’t seem that long ago when avionics manufacturers gave helicopters the “Rodney Dangerfield” treatment—when it came to offering new equipment, rotorcraft got no respect.

“Traditionally avionics would be built and marketed to the fixed-wing users then some would be offered to helicopters later on,” explained Jim Scanish, sales manager for Sikorsky Aerospace Services (the aftermarket side of Sikorsky Aircraft). “But that’s changed. Almost everything that is available to fixed-wing is available now for helicopters.”

Aspen EFD-1000H primary flight display. Aspen Avionics

That shift in focus shouldn’t come as a surprise. With the helicopter market being one of the very few in aviation to show any signs of life over the past few years, avionics manufacturers are making rotorcraft a bigger part of their product development plans. And it’s not just at the upper-end helicopters. From compact Aspen EFDs for Robinson R44 piston trainers to top-end Rockwell Collins Pro Line 21 IDS for Sikorsky S-61 commercial helicopters, there’s something new for your panel no matter what you fly. In fact, from the top to the bottom there seems to be no end to what new avionics are available. Helicopter operators can choose from glass displays with synthetic vision and highway-in-the-sky, to terrain, obstacle and traffic warning systems, to satellite and live weather, to stability augmentation systems and autopilots, to flight tracking, to infrared sensors, to phones, to—well, the list gets longer every day.

So you may be wondering with all these options available, what types of upgrades are the most popular today? “The biggest things today are glass panels surrounded by safety systems like H-TAWS [helicopter terrain awareness and warning systems], traffic, MFDs—anything to enhance situational awareness,” Scanish said. “Where you used to have basic instruments and had to look at a map to get an idea where you are, now you can just look at a glass display with GPS and know exactly where you are and what is around you.” He added that along with “a greater knowledge of where you are in space, you can also know where you are in relation to other aircraft around you. No matter how you look at it, situational awareness is getting tighter and more capable all the time.”

With all the available choices, how do you figure out what’s best for you? “The first question we ask is, ‘What are you going to do with the aircraft,’” said Jim Reilly, manager of commercial markets for SAS. “Even for a corporate operator, there’s a big difference between flying in the greater New York area—with all the traffic and situational awareness needs—versus operating somewhere in the Midwest.” Operators “need to take a close look at the area they typically fly around and figure out what they’re going to be faced with,” said Brian Wilson, director of avionics for Banyan Air Services in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. “We don’t have many mountains here in south Florida, but we do have a lot of TV and cell phone towers. A new HTAWS with an obstacle database sure would come in handy—especially if you fly a lot at night.”

While EMS operators are the most obvious customers for these types of systems, “corporate and charter operators will find the added safety a huge benefit,” Wilson added. “The new stability augmentation systems are also excellent options. Whether you’re landing on an oil rig or a company helipad, having that added help with stability in all weather is just amazing to me.”

By now you might be about ready to say, “I want it all.” Then that tiny accountant in the back of your mind stands up and says, “Wait—how much is this going to cost?” Spoilsport.

“When we look at doing any major upgrade to an airplane or helicopter, we are trying to keep the installed price somewhere between 10 and say, 18 percent of the high-end of the hull value of the aircraft,” Wilson said. “And I’d say 18 percent is in the perfect world—15 percent is probably more realistic, unless the helicopter is very new.”

Wilson said another way to look at making the 18 percent ceiling a bit easier to take is to consider the current 50 percent accelerated depreciation available from the IRS on aircraft upgrades. For any operator, being able to write 50 percent off the top is a very attractive incentive. (But, before you take that to the bank, take a minute to make sure your situation would qualify.) Another tip to help control costs is to only consider avionics systems that are already STC’d for your helicopter. Unless you have the financial backing of an avionics manufacturer, the time and cost of doing an STC from scratch just isn’t worth it.

According to Reilly, another key element of budgetary analysis is having a clear idea of what your plans are for this helicopter. “Operators need to take the whole aircraft into consideration,” he said. “What are you going to do with it? How long are you going to keep it? How much value do you expect the upgrades to add to that period of time?”

Another consideration is any regulatory equipment installation mandates, like the pending NPRM for EMS and commercial operators to install H-TAWS and possibly lightweight aircraft recording systems by late 2014. There’s no firm decision yet, but having things like that in play can certainly impact any upgrade plans you might have in the near future.

“Corporate operators in particular might not want to put too big of an investment into an older machine if you know you won’t be able to sell it in a year or two and recoup your investment,” Reilly added. “Certainly there is a point on the curve where it’s better to get into a new machine versus pouring more money into an older helicopter.”

Scanish cautioned that one of the major parts of planning a cost-effective avionics/panel upgrade is to first consider the age of the helicopter itself. “I think to do a full-glass panel in an older machine, you can easily spend more in the cockpit than the whole aircraft is worth,” he said. “For a helicopter that’s maybe eight to 10 years old, I think operators are better off looking at stand-alone systems or upgrades.”

According to Scanish, “Most aircraft are already pretty well outfitted with COM/NAV, transponders, basic avionics—it’s pretty reliable stuff so we usually don’t mess with it. From there the best place to start is with some sort of moving map or MFD system. Everybody has some GPS capabilities, but many of the older models don’t offer moving map.” Upgrading to a GPS with moving map or a full MFD gives operators “great immediate benefits and also has room for growth,” he continued.

Scanish explained that once an MFD display is installed, operators can add other situational awareness enhancements like H-TAWS, traffic and weather all on one display. Of course, each can be added as a stand-alone display, but since helicopter panels are very space limited, the ability to put all the information you want in one convenient location just makes a good thing better.

While fixed-wind aircraft owner/operators routinely fly across the country or even half-way around the world to get avionics installed, because of limited range and the fact that the vast majority of helicopters are revenue-earning machines, owners are most often limited to finding an avionics shop close to home base. That can often make finding the right avionics shop or MRO to do your work the hardest part of the whole process.

First off, Wilson said he would “look for a shop with experience in working on your particular helicopter type. I want to see plenty of before-and-after photos to show what type of work they’ve done. Experience is key. Knowing the equipment is key. Do they have the experienced personnel and engineers on staff to do this kind of work?”

A shop or MRO may have hundreds of avionics upgrades to fixed-wing aircraft in their portfolio, but few, if any, helicopters. The reason may well be that most avionics shops and a good number of MROs don’t like to work on helicopters. Because of smaller spaces, weight restrictions and the like, rotorcraft are much more challenging and difficult to work on than airplanes. You don’t want to make the mistake of being a shop’s “first” installation of anything.

Another aspect of the economics of an upgrade is planning the best time to do the work. While the simple addition of a stand-alone instrument can be accomplished any time, when you start getting into a more complex panel upgrade, it may be smartest to do that in concert with a major inspection. “Helicopter owners don’t want to have their aircraft setting on the ground, so we try to combine avionics upgrades with key maintenance intervals,” Wilson explained. “That can save the operator a lot of time and money. If the helicopter is already disassembled it saves a lot of labor.”

Another major advantage of working with an experienced shop is that knowledge can help in making key equipment selections. “Working with a good, experienced helicopter MRO can help you bring about a scalable solution that meets your specific needs,” Reilly said.

“Economics can play a big part. Maybe you need to scale it down to just what’s appropriate for what you need to get accomplished now. You can start small and work your way up to your ideal panel.”

Reilly explained that a customer recently came to their facility for maintenance and while he wasn’t able to do his planned avionics upgrades now, he wanted to take advantage of the opportunity to go ahead and have wiring and other provisions installed so when he did do his upgrade all the foundation work was done.

“At some point in the future [the owner] can go back and install the equipment he wants. All the wiring is already there,” Reilly said. “We understood this particular helicopter and how to integrate all the equipment together to meet his planned needs. Then it came down to creating a wiring harness that brought it all together.”

So whether you’re ready to do your upgrade now or have to wait until the economy gets better, if your helicopter is going in for major maintenance soon, now may be the time to get the process started.

“There are a lot of great options for helicopter avionics today,” Wilson said. “Glass cockpits, radio packages, phones, GPS tracking, autopilots, H-TAWS—it’s time for owners to take a look at what’s right for them to give their flight crews the safest, most capable aircraft possible.”

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