Retrofit Primus Epic suite coming for Avantis

 - September 13, 2006, 11:38 AM

Bringing an updated cockpit to the Piaggio Avanti makes sense. The distinctive turboprop twin first graced the skies some 20 years ago but, while it has been revered by its hitherto small cadre of owners and pilots ever since, it has never been more popular than it is today. The trouble was, until about two years ago nobody was willing to fund an STC flight-test program.

Honeywell announced plans to bring the aftermarket version of its Primus Epic cockpit to the airplane in 2004, and since then all reluctance has faded. Manufacturer Piaggio soon followed suit by introducing the Avanti II, basically the same airplane but with fully integrated Rockwell Collins Pro Line 21 avionics up front. Collins entered the aftermarket fray soon after that, announcing a retrofit cockpit option of its own for original Avantis. Suddenly, fans of the sleek Italian turboprop had a surfeit of upgrade choices, each appealing in its own right.

Now that approval for the Primus Epic CDS/R retrofit cockpit for the Avanti has been obtained, Honeywell and Marinvent– the small Canadian flight-research firm that bought the first system, performed the flight testing and holds the STC–are upping the ante by concentrating on bringing a broader complement of Primus Epic features to the airplane, from electronic charts and datalink weather to advanced features including enhanced- and perhaps even synthetic-vision capabilities, officials say.

Marinvent founder and president John Maris says he’s fairly certain that when the dust settles he’ll be flying the most capable Avanti on the planet. It’ll be an airplane, he claims, that will outshine even new Avanti IIs rolling out of the factory with Pro Line 21 gear.

Maris’s company wrote and later licensed the software for Jeppesen’s now ubiquitous JeppView electronic charts. And it was Maris who invented a design for a new type of “non-linear” flight display that some experts say could revolutionize the way pilots fly in the future.

Recently, Maris and his small team of human factors researchers and engineers have turned their attention to the emerging field of advanced vision for the cockpit, with particular focus on synthetic vision systems (SVS). Maris even plans to build an advanced flight research center outside Montreal to test his ideas if he can find the right partners to make the business model work.

Bringing Primus Epic to the Avanti
Anybody who stopped by the Honeywell exhibit at the 2004 NBAA Convention, where the Avanti cockpit program was announced, would have realized that Marinvent rated perhaps a notch or two above the average flight-department customer. For the cockpit upgrade program’s launch, Honeywell hung a banner in its show-floor booth and handed out brochures that prominently featured Marinvent’s Avanti.

At the time, Maris said he was interested in installing whatever Primus Epic capabilities Honeywell could dish out, explaining that his company planned to do all the flight testing and STC work alongside installation partner TG Aviation in Ottawa.

“I started out as a Honeywell customer, nothing different,” Maris recalled of his early discussions with officials for the Phoenix avionics manufacturer. “But as
the program evolved and they got to see what we could do and how we ran the program we became viewed slightly differently, I think, and by the end of it we’re more than just a customer.”

How much more, however, is an open question, Maris admits. He has been holding preliminary discussions with Honeywell executives about Marinvent’s range of services, but nothing has progressed past the talking stage.

Those same executives, however, certainly seem pleased with the results of Marinvent’s and TG Aviation’s efforts. The Primus Epic CDS/R cockpit in the Avanti is far more than a simple screen swap. The installation includes a new FMZ-2000 flight-management system and advanced CD-820 version of its control head for video graphics capability; Primus 880 turbulence-detecting weather radar; TCAS, EGPWS, triple-redundant RVSM systems and cursor controller, all interfaced to three 8- by 10-inch active-matrix LCD flight displays.

Honeywell is offering the upgrade with as few as two screens and as many as four and as little or as much integration and capability as the buyer’s wallet can handle. Installed price for the upgrade spans from about $500,000 to well over $1 million. Honeywell vice president for aftermarket programs John Bolton said buyers can expect a lot of capability for the price.

Maris said he didn’t necessarily have his mind made up to install Primus Epic in the Avanti when he first started thinking about performing a cockpit upgrade about two years ago. But Honeywell turned out to be most responsive to his ideas and in the end that clinched the deal, he said.

The original Avanti was certified with a five-tube Collins EFIS, while the remaining cockpit indicators are standard analog type. The cockpit is single-pilot friendly, with most switches focused around the left-seat occupant, but it’s not as well suited to two-pilot operations or for training a new captain in the right seat. This is an important consideration for commercial Avanti operators, especially fractional operators, Maris said. Primus Epic solves the shortcoming by giving both pilots access
to the full range of capabilities from controllers in the center of the cockpit.

In the original standard Avanti, for example, the copilot cannot display information from the FMS on his displays or couple the autopilot. “When you’re talking about the fractionals, a big question is, ‘How do you train an Avanti captain?’” Maris said. “Well, in the original airplane, the Avanti pilot who’s training to become captain is sitting in the right seat basically just operating VORs. And now you’re going to stick him in the left seat, and suddenly he’s got to do coupled FMS approaches. It’s not the best situation.”

Future Vision
One other Avanti has received the cockpit upgrade. TG Aviation performed that installation. Marinvent owns the data package and STC and has agreements with Honeywell and TG Aviation. Besides about 50 hours of flight testing, the STC process involved changing the location of several components (some as little as an inch) to ensure the cockpit layout was as ergonomically friendly as possible, Maris said.

Marinvent’s initial STC for the upgrade retained the original gyros and includes a follow-on provision for upgrade to full digital ADAHRS (air-data attitude and heading reference system). This was done to give subsequent buyers a path to choose a small or big jump. The company is currently working on certification for an inertial navigation system, which like the iron-gyro-to-ADAHRS upgrade will include special provisions within the STC.

Marinvent’s Avanti also features an engineering station in the cabin that includes data recorders, live video feeds to external and cockpit cameras and separate AHRS and WAAS GPS receiver. During a demo flight east of Montreal, Maris put the Avanti and Primus Epic CDS/R through their paces, climbing to 35,000 feet to show what differentiates this installation from a mere screen upgrade.

In addition to the full integration of the FMS with the displays on both sides of the cockpit, the FMZ-2000 also provides full performance figures for the model, a convenience not offered in the original Avanti. Any screen can take over for another in the event of a failure, and one display can continue running even if both generators fail. Display of weather radar, EGPWS and TCAS are all managed using drop-down menus and a cursor control knob.

What’s next for Marinvent’s Avanti and its slick new avionics system? The cockpit is pre-wired for enhanced and synthetic vision, Maris said, adding that he plans to install an EVS camera in the tailfin and add synthetic vision to the flight displays for
an upcoming test program. In addition, he said the upcoming certification of the airplane’s inertial nav system will be followed shortly by the approval process for e-charts and datalink weather.