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Transforming Old Into New: Avionics Upgrades for Helicopters

By By Dale Smith | March 1, 2012
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If you’re looking for a bright spot in any sector of aviation, the best place to start is the helicopter segment. The rising price of oil along with the continued growth of EMS and SAR have helped helicopter manufacturers maintain rather healthy production numbers.

In fact, at last year’s Heli-Expo, Honeywell’s annual Turbine-powered Civilian Helicopter Purchase Outlook predicted that upwards of 4,400 new helicopters will be delivered through 2014. While we don’t know how those numbers are actually playing out, if the predictions are even ballpark close, that’s pretty darn good.

And while that’s really good news for the OEMs, it does pose a bit of a dilemma for both large and small commercial operators who need to upgrade their fleets to take advantage of emerging opportunities. You see, while the delivery numbers look great, the vast majority of those new helicopters are already spoken for. In short, if you need a new helicopter in 2013, you had better have ordered it in 2010.


So the world’s operators are being forced to fly their current helicopters longer than before. And while that may have been a problem in years past due to antiquated electronics, thanks to an expanding array of aftermarket options, with the right upgrades a decades-old helicopter can do practically anything a brand new model can do. And, as the old saying goes: At a fraction of the cost.

“When it comes to avionics upgrades, operators have a variety of good choices available to them today,” explains Elvis Moniz, vice president of operations for helicopter MRO Vector Aerospace Corporation’s operation in Langley, British Columbia. “Modernized helicopter flight decks offer a great deal of safety benefits through reduced pilot workload, enhanced situational awareness and increased mission capabilities,” he adds. Vector is one of a number of helicopter MROs offering a variety of avionics and instrument upgrades for a growing list of legacy helicopters including the Bell 205/206/407, UH1H, Eagle 212 Single, Eurocopter AS350, 355FX, Sikorsky S-76, S-61 and others.

Vector Aerospace completed this panel upgrade in a Eurocopter AS355FX cockpit.

Moniz says the upgrades could range from simple to sophisticated. “For example, new digital audio systems offer simplified integration and more reliable communications,” he points out. “And the introduction of video into the cockpit using relatively low-cost camera systems offer greater pilot awareness of the aircraft’s immediate surroundings.”

No matter what kind of airframe they’re mounted in, there’s no debating the numerous and dramatic safety and operational advantages flight crews get from a panel full of glass displays and advanced systems. But, as Moniz explains, the benefits even extend to when the aircraft is not flying.

“Today’s packages, for the most part, offer excellent reliability with reduced [component] size and weight, at a reasonable cost,” he says. “For example, in most cases, traditional analog gyros can be easily replaced with solid-state AHRS (attitude and heading reference systems), which eliminate the requirement for periodic overhauls.”

Reducing overall maintenance costs and unscheduled downtime is an often-overlooked benefit to an avionics upgrade. Operators should take into consideration “the mid-to long-term savings that new-generation equipment will offer,” Moniz believes. “In many cases, over 40 analog instruments and devices can be replaced with three solid-state, digital LCD displays. All of which have the same part number.”

Reduced spares inventory, elimination of ongoing overhaul costs of gyros [and mechanical instruments], lower AOG related costs and less system troubleshooting downtime are all factors that contribute to reducing operating costs, according to Moniz. Even if you don’t have the budget for new glass, a frequently overlooked avionics upgrade is the replacement of aging wiring. While not a simple task, swapping out decades-old wiring and connectors can pay great dividends in reducing downtime and unscheduled maintenance costs.

And while most avionics additions are discretionary, some operators are going to be faced with mandatory upgrades like those required by 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 panel upgrade plans you might have in the near future.


While all avionics packages and glass displays may look the same, there’s a huge difference in how they are installed in a helicopter compared to an airplane.

“Helicopters are subject to some of the harshest environments. And we have found that many operators fail to consider the importance of the physical installation of the new equipment and subsequently try to save money by selecting the shop with the lowest installation cost,” Moniz says. “The fact is the equipment will only perform as good as the wiring installation behind it.”

Moniz stresses that no matter what type of upgrade you are thinking of performing make sure you work with/through an experienced shop. “That is key to a quality upgrade, which will allow the new equipment to operate to its full reliability and potential,” he notes.

Of course a good installation starts with good planning. “Experienced shops have the ability to offer customers realistic, proven solutions tailored to the operator’s mission requirements and budget,” Moniz adds. “Good shops will also offer pilot/maintenance training and a comprehensive data package detailing the installation to aid the [operator] in any future maintenance or additional upgrades.”

One last thought on installations: Moniz also warns about operators “falling in love” with a particular piece of equipment and not taking the time to research to see if there’s a supplemental type certificate (STC) available for that unit on their helicopter.

“What may seem to be a good system in a magazine or described by a salesman can become an upgrade effort riddled with additional integration costs and delays,” he explains. “Unless the upgrade is already approved, operators can get caught in significant certification delays if they select an integrator with limited certification experience on the specific equipment and aircraft platform.”

Bottom line—don’t let any shop go to school on your project.

Ascent Helicopters recently updated its Bell 205A++ with a Sagem glass panel.


Type familiarity was a big reason CSC AUTEC chose to fly its legacy Sikorsky S-61N’s from its base in the Bahamas all the way to Vector Aerospace’s facility in Vancouver, British Columbia. “We were under a tight deadline and knew the depth of [Vector’s] experience with the S-61,” explains CSC AUTEC’s director of maintenance, Jeff Mitchell. “The first ship required some new [non-avionics] STCs to be done. That was big.”

Mitchell says that while the helicopter’s avionics upgrades included four new Rockwell Collins multi-function displays, AHRS, Mode S transponders, upgraded radar altimeters, and a pair of Garmin GN530s—which all contributed to creating fleet commonality and greater operational safety—the biggest benefit came from completely changing out the 40-plus year old wiring and connectors.

“We were always chasing wiring problems. No more. They [Vector] stripped it down to the bare hull. Every wire, connector and terminal board came out and was replaced with new push-type connectors, circuit breakers and wiring,” he notes. “We did our first upgrade in 2006 and have not had to change a Rockwell Collins AHRS unit yet.”

He also explained that while CSC AUTEC is not a high-hour operator, the operator does fly in one of the harshest and most corrosive environments imaginable. On top of that, thunderstorms in the Bahamas can get pretty nasty.

“We experienced a direct lightning strike a while back. It was severe enough that it blew our external load off of the aircraft,” he says. “It cost $1.7 million to replace the rotors and rebuild the entire power train, but none of the new avionics or systems were impacted. We didn’t even blow out a light bulb.”

Mitchell says that along with choosing Vector because of their experience with the older Sikorsky model, they also selected avionics that were proven to be able to stand up to both the rigors of helicopter operations and harsh environmental conditions.

CSC AUTEC’s primary mission is in support of the Atlantic Undersea Test and Evaluation Center, or AUTEC. The company’s helicopters are used to retrieving targets and testing torpedoes used for training by the U.S. Navy, which means dispatchability is critical.

Mitchell says that looking back, there is only one thing he would have done differently with the S-61 upgrade program; “I would have done it a lot sooner! It has exceeded our expectations in performance and reliability,” he adds. “The upgrades dramatically improved our fleet reliability and greatly reduced our overall maintenance hours and costs.”

Ascent Bell 205A

Trent Lemke, president of Ascent Helicopters, says that when the company started a total refurb project on its Bell 205A++ they set out to “pretty well deck it out with all the latest and greatest mods we could get.”

One of those mods included a new Bell 212 nose assembly, which involved a 212-style instrument panel. “At the time we didn’t have any instruments to speak of so it wasn’t like we were scrapping anything,” Lemke says. “So we decided to go all-out and install the Sagem glass [integrated cockpit display system, or ICDS]. We had our in-house engineers redesign the wiring harnesses. We got rid of all the inverters and the like. It worked out really well.”

Along with being a VFR helicopter charter service, Lemke explains that the company does a lot of specialty work including heli-skiing, firefighting, medevac, power line construction and mining exploration. “We spend a lot of the bush with both of our mediums [the company also operates a Bell 212 and a 206L], so they’re decked-out pretty well,” he says.

“What’s really nice about the Sagem is that it has direct video input. We work with FLIR and video cameras a bit and we can have those images come directly to the pilot’s display. The pilot being able to see what’s on the hoist is a big benefit,” Lemke adds. “Another thing I really like is being able to switch either of the displays to show the engine instruments.”

Those displays are “really helpful when we’re doing heli-skiing. You have to really concentrate on your outside reference points—all you see are three flags in a complete whiteout,” he notes. “With this system I can switch the engine instruments to be on whichever display is in front of me. It’s just a quick glance down to see them. With the standard (mechanical) installation, you can’t do that.”

Other than the usual glitches, the only negative Lemke experienced during the refurb was the system’s certification. “We were the first Bell medium to get glass, so we had some delays for certification issues. It was a bit frustrating. But other than that we are very happy with how it all worked out,” he says. Lemke adds that he’s sure the upgraded panel has helped his overall business. “People look at it and they don’t see a run-of-the-mill helicopter. They see a very modern aircraft. We definitely have operators who recognize the effort we’ve put into it and are loyal to us because it shows we are trying to improve our product,” he says. “They can see that effort with the glass cockpit.”

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