Commercial, Military, Products, Services

Retro Cockpits

By Douglas Nelms | April 1, 2006
Send Feedback

More sophisticated integrated systems are becoming available that will increase safety and improve operating economics. The question is what is needed and how to afford it.

There was a time not too long ago when the concept of designing a helicopter was to develop the airframe, bolt on an engine, put in some seats, then stick in just enough black boxes and round gauges to let the pilot crank it up, fly from point A to point B, then land and shut it down. The avionics package was fairly simple, and if the pilot had more than one of any particular instrument or radio...well, that was pretty neat.

Today, it's no longer an avionics package. It's a system. It's grown from steam gauges initially into an electronic flight instrumentation system (EFIS), and now into an integrated flight data system (IFDS) that consists of nav/comm radios, engine-monitoring systems, text-messaging devices, GPS, flir and pretty much anything a pilot needs or wants to have, all presented on small TV screens. It's a wonderful thing.


It's also an expensive thing. In the 1960s, when the turbine helicopter was first being introduced, roughly 5 percent of the cost was for the avionics. Today, with introduction of the glass cockpit, approximately 60 percent of the aircraft cost is in the avionics, according to Rhett Flater, executive director of the American Helicopter Society International.

However, advances in technology and integration, falling prices and a thing called automatic dependent surveillance-broadcast (ADS-B) are spurring the retrofit of integrated systems into the cockpit.

While most new helicopters come off the line today with basic instrument packages that the customer can upgrade as desired, some original equipment manufacturers are moving toward fully integrated glass cockpits as standard equipment for new helicopters.

Bell CEO Mike Redenbaugh, for instance, eventually wants to have all the company's helicopters equipped with glass cockpits. Bell signed with Chelton Flight Systems last September to put its EFIS into all new Bell 407s starting in the first quarter of next year. Current owners and operators of 407s, 206s and 210s can retrofit their aircraft with the Chelton system through a Bell installation or Chelton dealer.

New Sikorsky S-76s and S-92s come with a full Rockwell Collins EFIS. Bell/Agusta Aerospace Co.'s BA609, when eventually delivered, is to have Rockwell Collins' ProLine 21 systems originally developed for corporate jets. The S-76D Sikorsky is developing will have Thales' TopDeck avionics suite. Originally developed for Airbus' super wide-body A380, TopDeck is in service on AgustaWestland's A109 and Thales has proposed it for the AW139, AW149 and CH-47 Chinook, according to Phil Naybour, the company's vice president and general manager for helicopter avionics.

For the retrofit market, feelings are mixed. On the one hand, integrated systems are becoming available that not only improve safety, but increase the efficiency of the operations. On the other hand, retrofitting is expensive.

Heritage Aviation in Grand Prairie, Texas finds that interest in glass cockpit retrofits depends a lot on the size of the helicopter. "The price of putting in an EFIS can be around $200,000," Heritage Vice President Everett Horst said. "That's hard for someone who paid $1 million for his helicopter. The cost of retrofitting can be huge." The manufacturer needs a very large customer base to recoup the development costs, he added.

For small helicopters, Horst noted, retrofitting for glass cockpits tend to be small jobs, such as putting SAGEM Avionics ICDS-8 active-matrix, flat-panel, multi-function displays in aircraft like the Eurocopter EC120 or Bell 206. It's the bigger, twin-engine helicopters that are getting the bigger, more sophisticated (and much more expensive) integrated systems.

Carson Helicopters, for instance, has tapped SAGEM to put its full integrated glass cockpit into Carson's S-61s. This includes five SAGEM ICDS-10 active-matrix, liquid-crystal displays consisting of 10.4-in. screens--two primary flight and three multi-function displays showing information from dual F201 three-axis attitude/heading reference systems. Carson's S-61s will also get the same PA 155 automatic flight control system SAGEM put in Eurocopter's new AS332. It was originally approved through a supplemental type certificate (STC) for installation on the S-64s Erickson sold to the Italian forestry service.

But the cost of some systems is coming down. Heli-Dyne Systems director of engineering, Fida Waishek, said fully integrated systems had been costing $500,000 or more, but "Chelton has brought down the cost of the system tremendously. Now to retrofit an upgrade, you're looking at $150,000-250,000. You're paying for the entire cockpit avionics because it's all integrated. You're not buying list after list of equipment to give you the same information."

He said integrated systems are becoming competitive in both cost and weight with mechanical displays standard from the factory. He cited work Heli-Dyne is doing for the Westchester County, N.Y. police. They started with all-mechanical instrument panels for their 407, with an electronic horizontal situation indicator and a mechanical attitude display indicator, relying on the Garmin 430 and 530 multi-function displays to give them the additional information. "But once they were introduced to the new integrated cockpit, they immediately changed their specifications," he said. "We did the same thing for Duke University with the 206."

While cost is a major factor in deciding whether or not to retrofit cockpits with new glass cockpit technology, the need to improve safety and the international initiative to reduce helicopter accidents by 80 percent over the next 10 years are becoming key factors.

The U.S. FAA is considering mandating installation of terrain avoidance systems on helicopters, especially those used in EMS operations. International oil and gas companies are pushing their offshore helicopter contractors to install that equipment as well as traffic alert and collision avoidance and health and usage monitoring systems.

Honeywell is well-positioned to benefit from such pushes with its Enhanced Ground Proximity Warning System (EGPWS), which is now standard on new S-76s, according to Greg Francois, a product portfolio manager for Honeywell's aerospace, surveillance and communications products. EGPWS is part of Honeywell's Primus Epic avionics suite, which is aimed primarily at the fixed-wing aircraft but is on the AgustaWestland AW139 (nee AB139). Honeywell holds STCs for stand-alone EGPWS installations on MD Helicopters' MD900 and 902, the S-76B and C, the Bell 430 and 412 and Eurocopter's AS350 and EC155.

Honeywell was a pioneer in using automated systems to help prevent controlled-flight-into-terrain accidents, a leading killer in aviation, and has won international kudos for its work. But some helicopters are not convinced that Honeywell has adapted a system developed for fixed-wing applications to the idiosyncrasies of rotary-wing operations.

The company has invested in developing the high-resolution terrain and obstacle databases required for helicopter applications. "You need a high-resolution database, higher than you would need for a fixed-wing aircraft, because helicopters by their operational nature are going to get a lot closer to terrain and buildings and obstacles than anything else," Francois said. "The big item has been to get all that obstacle information and all the buildings and towers into the database. Honeywell has been working toward improving the resolution of the database and looking for more regions to get more higher-resolution data, as well as the man-made obstacle information from the regions."

Here again, cost is an issue. "Honeywell now has a complete package to offer, although it is up to the operator, depending on how he values safety and what his operating budget is," he said. The company's gotten great feedback from helicopter operators who are using EGPWS. Pilots flying offshore missions "particularly like the EGPWS when they are getting close to the coastline. The coastline coming in with the terrain display is helpful to them.

"It's just not a large fleet yet," Francois said. "We probably have maybe less than 500 helicopters that have EGPWS installed today. So it's not a huge installed base."

Another issue that could have a major impact on the retrofit market, for all sized helicopters, is automatic dependent surveillance-broadcast. The FAA is now seriously looking at ADS-B as the next-generation air traffic control solution, replacing aging surveillance radars that are coming up for replacement. FAA's Joint Resources Council is expected to decide this June on its findings for the next ATC system.

ADS-B provides both ground controllers and other aircraft with an aircraft's GPS-derived position, altitude, heading, speed, and intent while providing the pilots with the positions of other traffic and weather, notices to airmen and other critical flight data. The system has been in use for years in Alaska as part of the FAA's Capstone program, with some 350 small commercial aircraft there equipped with ADS-B transceivers.

Needless to say, avionics manufacturers are watching ADS-B closely to determine what the requirements will be. Honeywell said ADS-B is not part of its Primus Epic suite, and having Primus Epic does not make it easier for a pilot to integrate ADS-B. However, it is planning on integrating ADS-B into that system in the future.

Boise, Idaho-based Chelton was a pioneer in developing an EFIS that would meet the Capstone program's requirements, including the integration of a Class B helicopter terrain awareness warning system. Its system, FlightLogic, also has terrain displays overlaid with "3D highway in the sky" symbology, dual embedded flight management system, integrated GPS-Wide-Area Augmentation System (WAAS), digital flight recorder, solid-state air data computer and a strap-down attitude heading reference system. Its primary flight display shows a forward view of what is being seen out the front of the helicopter, with 3D modeling of the terrain.

The "highway in the sky" depicts a "tunnel" of boxes through which the pilot flies to stay on course and avoid terrain and obstacles. According to Chelton, pilots can create custom GPS approaches for noise-abatement purposes or to create a precise search and rescue grid. Chelton uses Jeppesen databases for approach and departure procedures along with airport information.

The next generation of FlightLogic software, expected out in the third quarter, is to have ADS-B traffic capabilities along with XM and WSI weather information, according to Chelton. Total cost of the system, installed, is $120,000-150,000.

Edwards and Associates does the retrofitting at its Bristol, Tenn. facility. Edwards was instrumental in getting an STC for the EFIS system for the Bell 210 in February. That system is configured for single- or two-pilot VFR operations. MD picked the Chelton system for its MD902 candidate in the U.S. Army's Light Utility Helicopter competition.

While fully loaded EFIS systems are nice to have, less expensive multi-function display systems are available.

Garmin International produces a series of panel-mounted multi-function systems that display communication and navigational information. These are based on Garmin's G1000 integrated flight deck designed for fixed-wing aircraft and provide flight instrumentation, location, navigation, communication and identification data.

The systems available for helicopters include the GNS 530 and GNS 430, which provide enhanced situational awareness to the pilots by showing them their position relative to cities, highways, railroads, rivers, lakes and coastlines, as well providing terminal areas and approach information. The systems are WAAS upgradable and provide IFR, GPS, VOR, localizer and glideslope with a full-color moving map as a single integrated unit. The GPS-based system uses a Jeppesen database.

Heritage and SAGEM Avionics have already STC'd a two-axis autopilot and primary flight display for the Bell 206, using SAGEM's AP 85 autopilot to provide the automatic flight control system. The AP 85 provides stabilization augmentation and is coupled for altitude, airspeed and heading hold. It also is GPS-based for pre-set courses. The primary flight display provides both flight and navigational data.

SAGEM worked with Spokane, Wash.-based Eagle Helicopters, Inc. to STC its ICDS-8 integrated cockpit displays for Eurocopter's AS350B2, using two 8.4-in. active-matrix, liquid-crystal displays for the primary flight and engine management system displays. Eagle Helicopters has also teamed with SAGEM to certify that company's cockpit display system components for retrofit on virtually all models of Eurocopter AS350 and 355. Along with a primary flight display and engine management system, the SAGEM ICDS-8 multi-function display also has a moving-map display and optional compatibility with night-vision imaging systems.

Eagle Helicopters Vice President Joe Rough said they have STC'd SAGEM's primary flight displays and flight management systems for Eurocopter's AS350 series up to the B3. Basic cost of the hardware plus installation runs around $95,000, a price that his customers consider worth the cost, he said. SAGEM is also working with Air Methods to put its systems on the 407.

R&W's Web Exclusive

For a selection of company's offering retrofittable "glass cockpit" systems and components for your helicopter, check out the accompanying story "Making It Legal" in the April 2006 section of Rotor & Wing's Web site,

Receive the latest rotorcraft news right to your inbox