Spirit Aeronautics, the Columbus, Ohio-based maintenance, avionics, certification, and engineering specialist, is celebrating its 20th anniversary. From its beginning as a small avionics shop, Spirit has grown into serving a specialized market for custom avionics and modifications for business aviation, the U.S. military, and federal government agencies.
“We’ve been really fortunate,” Spirit founder and CEO Rick Ochs told AIN. More than 20 years ago, after working at Capital Aircraft Electronics, a small piston-aircraft avionics shop, Ochs left and started his own one-man avionics company. He then bought the Capital avionics business and renamed it Spirit Aeronautics. Ochs built on the facility’s existing avionics dealerships and added many more, but the key to the new company’s growth lay in serving the business aircraft market. “With small aircraft, it’s always an emotional decision,” he explained. “It’s so much more business-friendly to work in the business jet environment.”
After five years in business, Spirit tapped into a new opportunity, a contract to install Avidyne avionics in Navy Beechcraft T-34s that were flown for icing research behind an ice-producing Chinook helicopter. “That showed me there was a path [for business with the government],” he said. With the success of the T-34 program, Ochs added to Spirit’s government work, with avionics installations in the Golden Knights parachute team’s Twin Otter and work for NASA, NOAA, the FBI, Glenn Research Center, and others.
In some cases, the same airplanes came back for updated avionics, for example, E-9s (Bombardier Dash 8s) from Tyndall Air Force Base, in which Spirit technicians installed flight data and cockpit voice recorders and Honeywell multifunction radar displays 10 years ago. “They called us back and said the radios are failing, can you help us?” Spirit came up with specifications for new avionics and helped with details for the specification of work, then submitted a bid. Spirit won based on providing the best value for the government, not as the lowest bidder, Ochs said. “We love that stuff.”
Another interesting contract Spirit received is to install modern Garmin avionics in Douglas A4 Skyhawks flown in aggressor roles for fighter pilot training. Spirit did a similar modification to Northrop F5s for the Navy, replacing the existing head-up display with a Garmin GTN 650 GPS navigator with weather and traffic displays mounted front and center at the top of the panel near where the HUD used to be. “[The F5 pilots] were so happy,” Ochs explained, because the fighter has no autopilot and pilots previously had to look down at a side console for avionics settings, which could lead to loss of control.
In the business jet market, one of Spirit’s most recent upgrades was adding a Bongiovi speakerless audio system on a Falcon 7X. The audio system incorporates vibrating transducers fitted to the back of interior panels that generate sounds waves, turning the entire cabin into a speaker and creating an immersive, high-fidelity audio experience. The technology was developed by Bongiovi Acoustic Labs, founded by record producer Tony Bongiovi, who began developing onboard hi-fi audio in the 1980s, seeking an improved listening experience as a Twin Comanche owner and pilot. “It’s like a normal natural sound environment,” Ochs said.
After 20 years in the avionics business, Ochs sees new challenges as more aircraft and air traffic control systems upgrade to new technologies such as the FAA’s Data Comm airborne texting-style messaging system. While the technology is maturing quickly, there currently is no way to install avionics that can use Data Comm without spending half a million dollars, he said. “We’re paying for it [as taxpayers], but hardly using it.”
One of the big issues with Data Comm is that it requires that the aircraft be equipped with a cockpit voice recorder that can store messages. “That’s $60,000 to $80,000 just to have storage,” Ochs said. But the air traffic control system already stores radio communications and messaging. “There is no logic for us to have to upgrade the airplane to store messages when ATC has it. Why store messages on the airplane? It’s just maddening.”
Ochs is also concerned about configuration management, in view of all the modern avionics now installed in aircraft. When one avionics box gets a software update, it may affect software running on other boxes. Sometimes these issues haven’t been worked out by the avionics manufacturer nor addressed in supplemental type certificates.
Ochs and the team of 25 at Spirit Aeronautics deal with these issues every day. “The tempo we operate at and the demand from customers is pretty significant,” he said. “I’ve always enjoyed what I did with avionics; you do what you love to do. I wanted a place where I could look forward to walk in the door every day. It’s the technology that got me in, but it’s the people who kept me in. It’s a wonderful industry.”