For The Love Of God, Update Your Avionics!

Written by: James Brewer, Your Guy on the Inside

James “Jamie” Brewer, SEA Avionics Tech

Avionics can easily be overlooked when budgeting for an airplane.  It’s happened to everyone I know, and I’m sure if you have a plane it has happened to you.  You start thinking about replacing your radio after getting that repair bill, but then you notice a low oil pressure indication on your next weekend outing.  Shortly after that, the money you had to use for a replacement radio is going into your engine.  And although I have an affinity for all things electronic in an aircraft, engines tend to be a higher priority.

>>>> Why should you bump up the priority of updating your avionics beyond the ADS-B mandate?  The same reason anything gets bumped up in priority – cost.

The avionics of the mid 80’s to late 90’s were phenomenal.  Then again, that can be said for every era of avionics with their respective pushes of technologies to further limits.  But the convergence of small scale integration circuits such as logic gates and basic processors, predecessors to the revolutionary 8088 microprocessor that really kicked off home computing in the 80’s, made for some of the most inventive and flexible circuits ever.  Autopilots that processed analog signals to provide accurate acceleration curves to the servos are works of art.  It’s literally using analog devices to perform calculus.  And they have worked.  For decades.

But the world marches on.  Now the functions of entire circuit cards are contained on one small section of a chip that does thousands of other functions.  The amount of data available to a pilot or flight crew is akin to having an AWACS at your disposal.  And for a fraction of the (inflation adjusted) cost of the older units.  But with that aging beauty of analog / digital hybrid electronics comes a lack of availability of parts.  There’s not a big market for standalone components any more.  Some of the same transistors used in those giant home stereo systems are also used in avionics components from that era.  The stereo systems are gone, but the avionics are still functioning.  With a lack of demand, manufactures have moved on to bigger and better things (or rather smaller and better).  Look around your own environment outside of the cockpit.  What’s the oldest electronic device you have that you use regularly?  I’m going to go out on a limb and say it’s less than 20 years old.  Here is an autopilot that was last checked by the factory in 1978, the 24th week (June 12th through June 18th) of 1978 to be exact. I couldn’t tell you when it was manufactured; the date codes were so old the ink had degraded to the point of illegibility.

Fortunately, this unit was able to be repaired. But more and more, parts are no longer available for these aging works of art.

Gas discharge displays that were used for every radio ever known are as rare as winning at black jack when you hit on a 20.  The units that have early microprocessors are the same way.  And even if the part is available, it’s often more expensive than a new radio, and has been sitting on a shelf atrophying since Michael Jordan was the king of basketball.  Ultimately, the cost has gone up, and the reliability has gone down on the individual components inside radios.  As a technician I like to think I can fix anything, but the sad truth is without good parts, there’s nothing I can do.  Even when parts are available, the cost has gone up so much that paying the repair cost over the remaining life of the unit vs. the cost of a new replacement unit, means that a repair may be more costly than replacing the unit.

There is a convergence in the near future.  The old radios still have value, but that is diminishing quickly.  The new avionics are coming down in price, especially for the added features.  And I expect that trend to continue with a far shallower curve than normal consumer electronics. I can’t say when exactly that convergence will be perfect for updating an airplanes avionics systems, but it is within the next 5 years given current trends.  Of course that is also dependent on individual and/or company budgets.  Parallel to those trends is installation costs.  Currently, they are quite high relative to normal conditions, but shortly after the ADS-B crunch, there may be some opportunities for discounted installation costs.

There’s a multitude of other factors involved with deciding to change out avionics systems, but value of old equipment, price of new equipment, and cost of installation are the primary influences on the market that I see from my point of view, sheltered in a nice and cozy avionics shop.  But in the end, please for the love of God, update your avionics soon, and quit expecting a unit that was manufactured when Donna Summer was topping the charts to work as if it were a brand new fully integrated avionics package.

As an aside:  I still have my first computer, a Tandy CoCo2 manufactured in 1983 and it still works.  But I know the day is coming where I can’t keep it going anymore either, nor do I rely on it for anything important, such as safety of flight.  And no, I did not write this on that computer.