Cockpit retrofits

 - June 2, 2008, 9:18 AM

The idea seems simple enough: give operators of aging business jets the opportunity to remove all of their old round gauges or cockpit CRT screens and replace them with modern liquid-crystal glass displays and they would likely jump at the chance for a complete front-office makeover. Yet only a small number of buyers bought and installed avionics retrofit systems early on, as most apparently decided to wait on the sidelines hoping for additional choices and lower prices.

For many of the fence-sitters out there, the waiting might finally be over.

Nearly all of the STC programs that targeted popular business jets with multimillion-dollar cockpit upgrades failed to attract buyers in numbers big enough to make the investment of time and money pay off. Avionics makers started fresh a few years ago with lower-priced systems that added LCD glass and advanced technologies such as XM satellite weather and electronic charts, yet which left alone much of the rest of the cockpit–including the radios, flight management systems and autopilot. Interest in these less costly and downtime-intensive upgrades is gradually picking up, manufacturers say.

“There hasn’t been an overwhelming tidal wave of activity,” said John Peterson, manager of aftermarket marketing for Rockwell Collins. “I would characterize it as slow, steady growth. But we’re excited about the potential of this segment, and that’s why we continue to make the investment in it.”

The market for major cockpit retrofits hasn’t been a total letdown; in fact, there have been a number of bright spots that are worth noting. A surprisingly strong response has come from King Air operators, willing buyers of cockpit retrofits who suddenly have a long list of choices, including the Rockwell Collins Pro Line 21 IDS suite, Universal Avionics EFI-890R system, Chelton Flight Systems FlightLogic EFIS, the Avidyne Alliant upgrade and, most recently, Garmin’s first foray into the cockpit upgrade aftermarket arena with a retrofit version of its G1000 avionics system.

The King Air line is a market niche almost nobody expected would even be included in the discussion about which cockpit upgrades would succeed and which would fail. Because the hull values of these airplanes are so much lower than those of the business jets that manufacturers targeted initially, the King Air’s potential was largely ignored early on. The fact that sales to King Air owners are now outpacing the growth of cockpit retrofits sold to operators of most large-cabin business jets is forcing avionics installers to rethink their approach to the market.

“There are airplanes that had retrofit solutions that seemed to make sense because they had older cockpit equipment, but maintenance issues sometimes made it more difficult to support certain airplanes and, consequently, to sell very many cockpit systems,” said Gary Harpster, an avionics sales representative for Duncan Aviation in Lincoln, Neb. He singled out the Challenger 600 as a model that initially appeared as though it would be a terrific candidate for a front-office makeover, but which largely failed to find buyers after the STC program was completed.

“When we did the initial business plan to put the Universal EFI-890R system into that aircraft, it seemed like a good solution,” he said, “but because of corrosion issues a lot of owners are having a difficult time getting the parts needed to keep those airplanes in the air.” Challenger 600 operators, he said, are beginning to migrate to the Challenger 601, and some of those buyers are upgrading their airplanes with LCD displays.

Noise restrictions and airframe life limits have put a damper on cockpit retrofits in some other models such as the Gulfstream II, noted Gary Bosemer, director of avionics marketing and development for Landmark Aviation. While most GIIs aren’t yet reaching their airframe life limits, noise restrictions are becoming a major concern for operators of older models–as is the cost of fuel and uncertainties about being able to add WAAS LPV approach capability. “But an airplane that has been a real surprise is the Falcon 20,” which doesn’t have an airframe life limit and remains a popular model with owners, he said. “They love their airplanes and want to keep flying them forever.”

Dissecting the Market

That’s not to say a 40-year-old King Air or Falcon 20 is the ideal candidate for a major cockpit retrofit. In some ways, purchasing an upgraded cockpit for a business jet is akin to buying real estate. The higher the value of the property, the more willing the buyer will be to invest the money to improve its value.

Rockwell Collins’ latest attempt to achieve success in the retrofit arena is a Pro Line 4 to Pro Line 21 upgrade for the Falcon 50EX and 2000. A four-display retrofit, including the cost of installation, goes for $850,000. Duncan Aviation, through its so-called Glass Box retrofit program, has identified a launch customer for the upgrade in the 50EX and is in the process of trying to locate one for the Falcon 2000.

Likewise, Honeywell has gone back to the drawing board, disappointed by some previous attempts to penetrate the major retrofit market. “We’re trying to come out with some new solutions for that market that really hit on what we think those buyers are looking for,” said Chad Cundiff, Honeywell vice president for crew interface products. Customers, he said, want choices that provide equipment that is easier to install yet adds value by bringing new capabilities into the cockpit.

At last fall’s NBAA Convention, Honeywell introduced the DU-875 and DU-885 LCD upgrade packages as alternatives to a full Primus Epic CDS/R retrofit. These flat panels allow operators of Primus 1000- and 2000-equipped airplanes to replace the original CRT screens with like-size LCD displays without having to tear apart the entire cockpit. Adding flat glass displays and new control heads to the cockpit opens up possibilities for showing electronic charts and maps, XM weather and, someday, many of the same iPFD capabilities that are available in the latest versions of the Primus Epic avionics system. “That to us is an exciting kind of product that we think is really going to take off in this market,” Cundiff said.

The target market for this upgrade includes any airplane that came from the factory with Primus 1000 or 2000 CRT displays–in other words, a long list including several Cessna Citations, Learjets and Falcons. New Global Expresses, in fact, are still delivered with Primus 2000XP CRT screens, and that’s prompting a lot of interest from operators who understandably harbor frustrations about flying Bombardier’s top model yet not having the same capabilities in the cockpit as their hangar neighbors’ PlaneView- equipped Gulfstreams and EASy-equipped Falcons. “I had someone come up to me in the booth at NBAA last year and say, ‘Just tell me when it’s available; I’ve got the checkbook ready,’” Cundiff said. “That’s the kind of reaction you want to hear.”

Current Global Express operators aren’t the only ones yearning for a modern glass avionics suite on the flight deck of the big Canadian-built business jets. Midcoast Aviation, based at Spirit of St. Louis Airport, performs completions of new Global Express XRS and Global 5000s on behalf of Bombardier. The company said a handful of buyers have asked whether the Honeywell LCDs can be fitted in their brand-new airplanes when they’re having their interiors installed and paint applied. The answer, unfortunately, is no, said Blake Hogge, director of avionics sales for Midcoast. In fact, LCD displays won’t be offered in new Global Expresses until 2011, when the Collins Pro Line Fusion avionics system is scheduled for certification in that model.

Midcoast Aviation is one of the few major avionics installers in the U.S. that has eschewed the cockpit retrofit market, preferring instead to focus on paint and interior refurbishment, completions and maintenance. Part of the reason centers on the fact that Midcoast has had to shift much of its attention and available resources to the Bombardier completion work. (Midcoast’s Global output has grown so fast that the company recently had to erect a temporary hangar on its ramp just to house all of the green airplanes that are arriving.) But Midcoast president Kurt Sutterer said that’s not the only reason for sidestepping the avionics retrofit business. “The amount of engineering work it takes to gain an STC for one of these programs,” he said, is so astronomically high that it’s just “not worth the return on our investment. I commend Duncan for what they’ve done with their Glass Box project, but the same level of commitment to cockpit retrofits doesn’t make sense for us.”

Market Bright Spots

The Primus Epic CDS/R upgrade for the Falcon 900 has been one of the more successful programs under the Glass Box project. Volo Aviation’s airplane was the first to receive the new cockpit last summer. Since then, Duncan has signed up nine more Falcon 900 customers. Five of those projects are completed and one is under way now, said Duncan’s Harpster.

Volo’s Falcon was recently back in the shop receiving its file graphic server, which adds XM satellite weather and electronic chart capabilities to the displays. “It really is just beautiful in that cockpit to see the XM weather and file graphics,” Harpster said. “We’ve got customers who have been waiting patiently for the certification to be completed, and now that it’s done we’ll have them in for those installations as soon as possible.”

Installation and certification of the Honeywell advanced file graphics server (AFGS) upgrade was performed in Volo’s Falcon 900B. This airplane is one of 14 Primus Epic CDS/R installations that Duncan recently completed or plans to complete this year, Harpster said. Duncan has also installed the system in the Hawker 800A, Hawker 1000 and Gulfstream III, and plans to complete the CDS/R installation with the AFGS upgrade in a Challenger 601-3A later this year.

Two of the Epic CDS/R Falcon 900s Duncan is working on are also receiving enhanced-vision system (EVS) cameras from Max-Viz of Portland, Ore. The EVS images are displayed on a specially modified 6.4-inch Rosen monitor installed on the copilot’s side of the cockpit. Total price for the EVS-1000 package comes to about $125,000 installed, Harpster said.

EVS shown on a head-down display doesn’t provide the operational credits that are available to HUD-based EVS users (an extra 100 feet lower on an ILS approach), but for operators who fly into mountainous airports or to remote parts of the world, the safety enhancement the Max-Viz system provides is clear, Harpster noted. The system is also tied into the existing Airshow moving-map system, enabling the pilots to answer questions more easily from passengers about the route of flight.

Universal Avionics has also found success in the retrofits market. The company entered the cockpit upgrade arena in a big way starting in 2002 with the STC of a five-display upgrade for the Falcon 50 performed by IFR Avionics in Van Nuys, Calif. Since then, the Tucson, Ariz. avionics maker has brought its EFI-890R display package to more than a dozen business jet and turboprop models, recently through Stevens Aviation’s Learjet 30-series upgrade program called Lear4Ever and a GII/III STC by IFR Avionics.

Universal’s Vision 1 synthetic-vision system–the first to be certified in a Part 25 airplane–is the only of its kind offered for retrofit in business jets, and that’s a big part of the allure of the EFI-890R system for those who have bought it. The technology allows the pilot to see a computer-generated rendering of the terrain ahead of the airplane on the PFD while the EFI-890R’s nav display provides a view of the aircraft, flight plan and terrain from a position situated behind, above and to the right of the aircraft (called the wingman position).

“This project is especially gratifying when you can take a great airframe like the GIII, update the avionics with the latest technology and hand the customer an aircraft ready to meet FAA requirements for many years to come,” said Jim Lauer, IFR Avionics president.

Besides SVS cues, the EFI-890R system can also display JeppView charts, datalink weather graphics and TAWS alerts.

Added Value

Installing a new cockpit in a business jet seems to be paying off when it comes time to sell the airplane. While pre-owned market specialists are still wrestling with questions about precisely how much value a given cockpit upgrade adds, the numbers reported so far have been promising, with airplanes that have received cockpit retrofits trading for substantially more than comparable aircraft that still have their original avionics.

Sellers can’t realistically expect to recoup the full cost of a major avionics upgrade, but best guesses say a given retrofit should retain about 75 percent of its value in the first five years. On the high end of the scale, a full upgrade to Pro Line 21 in a Falcon 50, including a new autopilot, weather radar, radios, TCAS and Collins’ integrated flight information system (IFIS) onboard file server, will run about $2.3 million on average, according to installers.

A less involved display upgrade built around the Pro Line 21 IDS glass in a Hawker 800 that retains the original autopilot will run between $700,000 and $850,000. A similar installation of the Primus Epic CDS/R system, this time in a Falcon 900, will cost about $835,000, installers report. Universal’s EFI-890R cockpit, meanwhile, comes in a bit lower, setting buyers back about $580,000 for a four-display installation in a Challenger 600, plus another $45,000 for SVS on the pilot’s PFD and $80,000 for synthetic-vision capability on both of the PFDs.

The trend in the cockpit retrofit market is toward lower prices that are intended to entice buyers who might be intrigued by the possibilities a major retrofit can offer but who worry about excessive downtime, potential snags with the installation and bottom-line price after all options are added and the hundreds of man hours of installation work are performed.

Innovative Solutions & Support, based in Exton, Pa., has made a name for itself by offering avionics at prices that are lower than its competitors. That’s undoubtedly a big part of the reason Eclipse Aviation decided to bring the IS&S displays to its compact Eclipse 500 after its fallout with Avidyne last year. While it’s true that IS&S had to put other projects on hold to allow it to complete the Eclipse 500 type certification program, the remaining Eclipse development work this year is “only a small part of the company’s engineering load,” according to Ray Wilson, IS&S’s CEO.

First off, IS&S will need to rethink its retrofit offering for the Pilatus PC-12, Wilson noted, after Honeywell gained approval for the Apex glass cockpit in the model a few months ago. “We’re trying to reshape the Pilatus offering because, to be quite honest, the units we’ve sold have gone mostly onto aircraft just arriving in the country as a first fit, and not as true retrofits,” Wilson said. Now that new PC-12s are rolling out of the factory with the Apex system, IS&S plans to add functionality to its offering for that airplane to make the cockpit  more attractive to operators of in-service PC-12s, he said.

In addition to marketing its Cockpit/IP retrofit avionics system in the PC-12, IS&S has inked an agreement with Cessna to offer the LCD upgrades in older Citations as well. The installations will be available at any of the 34 Cessna Service Centers (factory and authorized) worldwide. About 2,500 Citations are candidates for the retrofit, Wilson said, adding that flight testing is scheduled to begin next month, with the initial STC expected to be in hand by October.

A Crowded Field

Besides Rockwell Collins, Honeywell, Universal and IS&S, five other avionics suppliers– Chelton Flight Systems, Avidyne, Garmin, French firm Sagem Avionics and Nextant (see sidebar)–are offering avionics retrofit systems for business jets and turboprops. After shifting much of its attention to the rotorcraft aftermarket in recent years, Chelton Flight Systems now appears to be getting back on track in the fixed-wing retrofit arena. Part of Cobham’s Avionics and Surveillance Division, the company is being merged with autopilot maker S-Tec to create a so-called “avionics center of excellence” in Mineral Wells, Texas. The move is part of Cobham’s plan to develop a fully integrated cockpit as a follow-on to Chelton’s popular FlightLogic EFIS, which has been STC’d in hundreds of airplanes and helicopters, including the Cessna Citation 501, Pilatus PC-12 and King Air 100, 200 and 300. S-Tec, which Cobham acquired at the beginning of this year, employs 180 people and operates out of a 10-acre engineering and production campus on Mineral Wells Airport. There was no word on when the new Cobham cockpit would be certified, but expect the fixed-wing retrofit market to be a prime target for the system when it finally emerges.

General Dynamics Aviation Services recently started offering retrofit installations of glass from Sagem in the Gulfstream II and III. The companies say they will also market similar retrofits in the Challenger 600 and 601-1A, Falcon 20 and 50, and Hawker 700 and 800. The integrated cockpit display systems from Sagem are based on 10.4-inch LCD screens that include engine power indicators, electronic horizontal situational indicator and VOR/GPS/ILS coupled with the navigation displays. The system also provides a range of fault detection alerts and integration between the displays and airframe configuration data.

Avidyne and Southern Star Avionics, meanwhile, have begun collaborating on a certification program to bring the Envision retrofit cockpit to the King Air E90. The companies are pursuing an STC that will add A through E series King Airs to the approved model list. Southern Star acquired a King Air E90 to serve as a development platform aircraft, installing an EXP5000 PFD and EX5000 MFD interfaced with an S-Tec 65X autopilot. The firms recently certified the Envision retrofit package with an S-Tec 55X autopilot in 400-series Cessnas, as well as an EXP5000 PFD retrofit for Cirrus models.

Avidyne was one of the first avionics makers to recognize the King Air series as an ideal candidate for a cockpit retrofit. The company’s Alliant avionics package for the King Air 200 and 90 series serves as a replacement for many of the airplanes’ original analog gauges, bringing integrated glass displays, digital automatic flight controls, modern air-data computers and additional capabilities to the twin-turboprop’s flight deck. The quoted list price for Alliant hardware is around $170,000, plus $60,000 to $80,000 for the installation, which requires downtime of around two months.

Following Avidyne’s lead, Garmin is now offering its G1000 avionics system as a retrofit in the King Air 90, and says it plans to bring the upgrade to the King Air 200 and B200 soon. The G1000 suite integrates all primary flight information, navigation data, communications, terrain awareness, traffic, weather and engine instruments on a large 15-inch multifunction display and two 10.4-inch primary flight displays. Also included with the installation is the Garmin GFC 700 three-axis autopilot, which is capable of flying coupled WAAS approaches and vertical navigation profiles. G1000 standard features include WAAS GPS receivers, class-B TAWS, dual AHRS, XM weather, SafeTaxi and FliteCharts. Available as an option in the system starting next year will be Garmin’s synthetic-vision technology (SVT) upgrade. Garmin has established a select list of authorized G1000 retrofit dealers to sell and install the G1000 system in the King Air C90 series.

Elliott Aviation in April completed its first installation of the G1000 system in a King Air C90 at its Quad Cities International Airport facility in Moline, Ill., whose owner almost opted for a retrofit cockpit from a competitor before settling on the Garmin suite.

“I had heard about the quality of Elliott Aviation’s paint facility, and when I learned that they were also performing the G1000 installation I decided it was time to upgrade the aircraft inside and out,” said Al Cherry, director of flight operations for Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma, the owner of the 1993 King Air C90. “I considered installing a competing product, but decided that the G1000 was a fully integrated retrofit at an acceptable price, offering a better long-term return on investment for our aircraft.”

Bringing the Avidyne and Garmin glass cockpits to business jets and turboprops could eventually have a profound effect on the market for major retrofits, some installers say. That’s because the capabilities of these newer systems is on par with those of the high-end packages from Honeywell and Rockwell Collins, but their installed prices are far lower, around $350,000 in the case of the G1000 system in the King Air.

“It’s the first time that something like this has come along at such an attractive price,” said Mark Wilken, director of avionics sales for Elliott. “There are very few options with the G1000 system, beyond choosing an active or passive traffic alert system. You get the XM weather, you get the XM radio for the passengers, you get a new weather radar, you get air-data computers, you get AHRS, you get displays, you get engine indication, you get your autopilot, you get dual WAAS/LPV GPS receivers. Everything is there. And you take out every bit of avionics wiring in the airplane and you put a new, smaller avionics harness in it with much lighter weight, and you have literally everything you need. I would say that’s revolutionary for the price.”