Avionics Help

Bob's Avionics Blog

Avionics on a Budget

How to Replace, Repair, and Upgrade your avionics—without breaking the bank

By Bob Hart  (reprinted from Piper and Cessna Owners Magazines)


When I purchased my first airplane in 1972, a Piper Colt for $2800, and proceeded to take my first flying lesson in it, I was fulfilling a dream that started when I was eight years old—I was just twenty-one and already an aircraft owner! I love to tell people that I would have done it sooner, but I discovered girls when I was fifteen and they slowed me down. My father had the airplane “bug” too, but never had the budget to get his license. Instead, he fulfilled his need to fly by designing, building, and flying radio-controlled aircraft. As many of us do, I too, fill time on the ground with model airplanes.


If you missed it, I bought the Colt first and then took my first flying lesson. Why? I simply reasoned that the biggest chunk of cash required to get my license was the cost of renting someone else’s airplane, so why not put that money into my own aircraft instead. All said and done, you could safely say I got my private ticket on a budget. I always thought I would take the next step and get my instrument ticket, but I never did. I decided that “flying for fun” was for me.


Today, a decent mid-time Piper Colt will cost you ten times what I paid; and with the cost of fuel, etc., those of us who fly for fun are finding it harder and harder to keep that dream alive. Avionics alone can easily represent 15-20 percent of the total value of your aircraft; and, other than your annual inspection, especially with older avionics, they can also represent a good chunk of your yearly maintenance budget. With frugality in mind, here are some tips on buying, selling, and repairing your avionics that can help you keep your avionics costs to a minimum.


Installation Options

Whether you buy new or used, the cost to install avionics is about the same, so the key to buying on a budget is to find an affordable way to get them installed—legally. This can be done via a local avionics shop, a “freelance” avionics guy, or your local aircraft mechanic.


The Local Avionics Shop – Though they may present the biggest budget challenge, begin here as you’ll need a relationship with an avionics shop for your biannual inspections anyway. Obviously, if your local shop spends the majority of their time working on corporate jets, you’re probably looking in the wrong place. Instead, look for a small avionics shop that can relate: be frank, let them know your situation and budget challenges, and ask them what things you can do to minimize the bill. For example, if you’re removing a radio and replacing it with another, ask if you can handle the removal portion of the install. This may include removal and installation of the interior, which can easily add eight hours to an avionics installation, so ask if you can do that as well. Ask if you can you provide your own equipment for the job. Small avionics shops typically don’t have much of an inventory of used avionics, but ask them before you go out and search. They may have a good solution to your problem; and, provided it’s worth buying, you can often do well on price too. Remember, you’re a local customer: the shop will want to stand-behind it. We’ll talk more later about the concept of what’s “worth buying.”

Be forewarned: if you go the avionics shop route and expect to pay the minimum, be patient. You’ve probably heard the old saying: “You can’t have it good, cheap, and fast.” Well, you get to pick two out of the three. When working with a budget, you want “good” and “cheap,” so prepare to concede the notion of “fast.” Your job is likely to be a “fill-in” job for the shop and will be done when one of their big jobs is halted due to parts delivery or whatever. Such an arrangement is good for you and good for them so accept it.


The Freelance Avionics Guy - If your attempts to find an affordable avionics shop fail, try to locate an avionics guy in your area that will work on your plane at your location. This can be ideal if you find the right person, but make sure they have the correct qualifications and licenses: ask around; talk to other pilots; check the airport bulletin boards; and talk to your mechanic. Often, these guys have experience in the shop environment, but are independent by nature and prefer to work for themselves, by themselves. The cost of setting-up and operating an avionics shop is a big “nut” and they’ve figured out how to do business without the costly overhead. You should also be able to negotiate an hourly rate that is significantly less. Again, do as much as you can yourself (with the tech’s approval) and be patient—the “freelancer” is less structured by nature.


Your Local Aircraft Mechanic - The final option is your aircraft mechanic. An A&P or IA can sign off most avionics work. From my experience, they love it if you can provide them with avionics that are pre-wired. This is a plus since most pre-wired units have been tested after the harness is installed, so you now have a radio and harness that have both been tested prior to installation. If something isn’t working, you’ve already eliminated the radio and the harness and can now assume that there is an issue with the install itself. It’s unlikely that your mechanic will tackle a whole panel upgrade, but changing out a few items is possible.


With either the “freelancer” or the aircraft mechanic option, providing your own equipment is pretty much a given. However, that means you will need to know how to shop for avionics and how to get the best advice and value.


Shopping for Avionics

Shopping is not the same as buying; and the first thing to remember is who the expert is. You need to develop a relationship with a good avionics consultant. Notice I said consultant not salesperson. The salesperson seems more focused on making the sale, while the consultant is more focused on helping you solve your problem, simple as that. With a little time on the phone or through emails, you’ll start to see the difference. Don’t shop for a box, shop for a solution! We are getting ahead of ourselves a bit. Start by doing a little research yourself. The avionics forums are good for this, but spend some time reading before you jump in. There is both good and bad advice everywhere and the forums are no exception. You’ll start to see where the best answers/solutions are coming from and you’ll start to filter out the good from the not-so good. You can learn a lot by looking for posts from pilots with similar problems. When a product is mentioned as a possible solution, check it out by asking around and looking online. Speaking of the Internet, as an avionics consultant, I preferred to start an email dialog with a customer, especially if they were considering a major investment in avionics. Though a simple transponder replacement doesn’t necessarily require that level of communication, I would usually send them an email confirming the discussion along with a brochure or sometimes an owner’s manual. Ease of use between two products was often a part of such discussion. With a little bit of knowledge, you’re ready to start the shopping process.


Don’t shop for a box, shop for a solution.

I’d often get calls from pilots simply asking, “How much for a KX-155?” Such brief discussions that were focused only on price completely bypassed my years of knowledge and experience. Without knowing their “problem,” I couldn’t suggest an alternative solution that may have been less costly or give the customer more for his money. The possibility of buying the wrong thing and/or wasting money on a more expensive solution is real, so let’s look more closely at this scenario.


Let’s say the customer above has two old KX-170B Nav-Coms in his aircraft and they’re both “tired.” He’s flying for fun or uses the aircraft for light IFR every so often. His research points him to the King KX-155. The KX-155 is a good radio, but they’re getting old. KX-155s are not a bargain these days and they’re not without some issues. Fact is, used KX-155s have gone up in price, especially in the coveted fourteen-volt variety. Look at the estimated cost to replace both KX-170Bs with used King KX-155s:


(1)   KX-155 G/S with KI-209 CDI (Serviceable with 8130-3)           $3700

      (1)   KX-155 (no G/S) with KI-208 CDI (Same)                                    $2800

       16 hours @ $75/hr (includes removal of old stuff)                          $1200

                                                                        Est. installed cost:                     $7700


TKM in Arizona has been making avionics test equipment for more than 40 years and started making Michel slide-in replacement radios twenty years ago. Simply stated, they saw the need to replace older avionics from King, Narco, and ARC (original Cessna factory radios) from the 60s and 70s with a modern, affordable radio that would slide-in and use the original rack, harness, and nav indicator. The radios have good transmit power, digital flip-flop displays, 760 channels, and memory storage. I’ve sold many of these radios, both new and used, and can recommend them with confidence. Here’s the same installation using TKM Michel radios as a solution:


(2) TKM Michel MX-170C Nav-Coms, Servicable                                      $3500

2 hours @ $75/hr (includes replacement, test, and logbook entries)   $150  

TKM Solution                   $3650


Here, the radios are factory new with two-year warranties. (We’re assuming that your existing nav indicators are serviceable.) To save even more, you can find TKMs on the used market for about $1200. Note, if you have the original ARC radios (either 14- or 28-volt) in your old Cessna, the same solution applies. It’s a good chance that the guy shopping the KX-155 above didn’t know about this option. Don’t do this! Take the time to explain your problem and listen for a solution.


Okay, so you’re on the phone exploring a solution to your avionics problem. If you’re not ready to buy today, tell the person up front. The consultant will hang in there; and, in the process, will attempt to earn your business. At the same time, you’ll learn a lot about them and the company they represent. Take good notes. If he or she is a good consultant, they’ll do the same, so that if you call back two weeks later, you can pick up the discussion where it was left off. What you’re after is “a friend in the avionics business.” Once you find one, stick with him or her—loyalty is often rewarded. Know that shopping for the lowest price is seldom the answer and recognize that sound advice has real value. Look for a fair price and make sure that the seller knows that quality, appearance, and warranty are important to you. Good avionics companies know this.


Buying Used?
5 Fundamental Features of a Smart Buy when shopping the Secondary Market

When shopping for a piece of used avionics, your purchase must ultimately meet the following criteria:

  1. It has a fresh certification, preferably an FAA 8130-3 that is no more that 90 days old. A shop “yellow tag” is also okay. If it’s a first time purchase from this company, feel free to ask for an email copy of the tag before you buy.
  1. It’s a “reasonably” good-looking unit. Ask if the seller does cosmetic work on their radios as part of the re-cert process. Ask for a picture or assurances (in writing) that you can return it if it doesn’t meet your standards. But, be realistic—a good, forty-year-old radio isn’t always going to look like new.
  1. It has the correct rack and connectors. If the radio is used, you’ll likely get used connectors. They should be serviceable. Crimp style connectors can’t be reused. Expect solder connectors and make sure your installer can work with them. The seller will often include new connectors with the sale for a few dollars more. If something different is going into your panel, a mounting rack and connectors are a must. Make sure they’re included.
  1. You get a 90-Day Warranty. This is standard in the avionics industry and starts from the date of shipment. Hopefully, all will be okay, but you really learn a lot about a company when something goes wrong. Make sure you’re covered.

Selling Avionics

Unfortunately, the adage, “One man’s trash is another man’s treasure,” isn’t always true when it comes to avionics. Once support and reliability are gone, the industry will identify a unit as “over the hill.” Nevertheless, ask the seller if they’re interested in trading for the avionics you have coming out. You’ll likely get wholesale trade-in value, but that may meet your needs. You’ll also get a sense for knowing whether selling your old radios is worthwhile or not. If it is, look for cost-free ways to advertise your stuff. There are websites and forums where you can do this. Spend a few dollars to get the avionics checked and freshly tagged before you try to sell as this will add a lot of credibility to your offer. Think like a buyer when you’re selling. There’s a lot of avionics activity on EBAY. I’m not a fan of buying there, but it’s a good place to sell, for a fee. Barnstormers.com looks like a great option for selling avionics. Customers don’t expect a warranty from you on a personal sale like this, but they do expect it to be working fine when it arrives. This speaks to my final advice on selling avionics—don’t skimp on the shipping! True story: a few years back, I sold a customer a KX-155 Nav-Com. As I mentioned, there are 29 versions of the KX-155; and he was not specific enough about his needs. KX-155s are most often seen in pairs and with an audio panel. The audio panel does the job of switching between them and provides the amplification to drive the aircraft’s speaker and headphones. Based on what I knew, I sold him the most common version and shipped the unit to CA. The customer later called and said he needed an audio amplifier in the KX-155 because it was stand-alone. In response, I offered to put an audio board in it at no charge if he sent it back. He handed the radio to his wife who proceeded to ship it to me in a shoebox. The unit was stuffed into the box with no protection and shipped postal. As you can imagine, when it arrived the faceplate and all the knobs were pushed in and broken, the backend the same. My shop estimated the repair costs at over $1000. I offered to repair it at my cost.


If the customer had been specific about his needs, the return shipment would have been unnecessary. Had he packed it right, the shop bill would’ve been avoided. He asked me to file a claim with the Post Office, but they just laughed—insurance does not protect you from an inadequate packing job. The unit should’ve been bubble wrapped with four-fingers of clearance around the unit filled with of those Styrofoam “thingies.” When done, the box will look too big, but it’s actually just right. If you don’t have a way to do this correctly, use a pack & ship store and use UPS or Fedex. Don’t ship postal. Enough said.


Repairing Avionics

“Time is Money!” This is never truer than when you have a piece of avionics on the bench. If you have a local avionics shop relationship—and you should—that’s usually the place to start when it comes to repairs. On the other hand, if the bench-tech is not familiar with your unit or lacks up-to-date manuals and used parts (old units often require used parts), you may be wasting your time and money. Make a few calls and find a shop that has experience with your radio. Unfortunately, with the older stuff, this is getting harder to do. This is where that aforementioned “friend in the avionics business” may help.


If all the guys who know how to work on your radio have retired, you may be thinking that it’s time to retire the radio too? Unfortunately, your budget may not allow this, so find someone who can repair your radio, efficiently. In addition to knowledge and parts, they also need good feedback from you. Shops receive a fair amount of repairs that are vaguely reported as “broken,” “dead,” or “not working.” The fact is you’re likely to have at least some idea as to what’s going on; and with a little observation you can probably be fairly specific with the bench-tech. Your repair is priced by the hour. Avoid the extra time on the repair bill by communicating the problem with the repair facility, in writing. Put a note on the unit when you drop it off or send it in. Why pay the extra hour or so while the bench-tech guesses what’s wrong? Here are some examples: ATC reports garbled modulation or weak signal; Nav side won’t pick up the signal or ILS until I’m too close; Radio receives and transmits, but the display is blank, etc. In short, if you can point the shop in the right direction, you’ll likely save on your repair bills.

I’ll say it again, if you’re shipping in your repair, package it correctly. There’s no room in a tight avionics budget for shipping damage!


Today, when I think about how excited I was as a young boy at the prospect of being a pilot and aircraft owner, I’m actually saddened. The dream of flying and owning an aircraft is now beyond the reach of many and those who can still find room in the budget to own and fly their own aircraft are the lucky ones. It’s not only a rare skill and privilege, but it’s a very rewarding experience. With good advice and a little homework, you can keep your avionics costs to a minimum and maybe, just maybe, spend a few more hours a month in the sky.


Suggestion: Keep an eye out for a little boy or girl poking their nose through the fence at your local airport; and, on one of those “extra” flights you earned by shopping, selling, and repairing your avionics, introduce them to the joy of flying and give them the dream! That would be a great way to spend those few extra hours in the sky, don’t you think?


Happy and Safe Flying!




                                                PRICE ... VS. ADVICE?


                                                                    by Bob Hart

                                                 Avionics Consultant




            In the seventeen years I have been an avionics consultant, first in 1997 for Eastern Avionics,  now APG Eastern  and  now with AvionixHelp, I’ve seen many types of customers.   I want to talk about two types of shoppers that stand out and the benefits of the later.


            The “Price” Shopper: This customer is only interested in price.  He (or she) has (or has not?) done their homework and I must assume that they already know that the item in question is the right solution to meet their needs?   The conversation is usually brief, based only on price and availability and is usually “one-sided”.    If I meet that criterion ... they often buy!   Note that I have had more that a few call me back in a few weeks only to find out that they actually bought the wrong “solution”.


            Unfortunately ... this customer has failed to take advantage of the knowledge and experience that a good avionics consultant can offer. Simply stated, an experienced consultant has the knowledge and ability to help them do the right thing ... to find the right solution!  Perhaps, they are simply afraid of being “sold” and therefore shy away from a serious discussion?  A good avionics “consultant” is interested is solving the cutomers problem and not in simply “closing” the sale.  You can usually tell the difference!


            The Advice (and Price!) Shopper:   This customer takes an entirely different approach to buying avionics.  They tell me their “situation” and what they are trying to accomplish and give me the chance to advise them on their purchase.  This is a two-sided interface that is often “enlightening” to the buyer and once they have absorbed the new “information” ... they frequently call back the next day and make an educated purchase.  Over the years, I have developed many of these relationships; customers who won’t make an avionics “decision” without my feedback.  Note that these customers are not oblivious to price, they simply have learned that the right solution is often the most “frugal”!


            Which “shopper” are you?  Do you attempt to solve your avionics “problem”

with limited resources or … do you take full advantage of the advice that is available

from a good Avionics Consultant?


            Remember … there are plenty of discount avionics price catalogs out there.

What you really need is a knowledgeable “friend” in the avionics business!


            Think about it?


                                                            OR ...
                                              "ACTIVE" TRAFFIC

                                         There's a lot of talk about ADS-B but ...
                     consider these arguments for adding Active Traffic NOW!
                                                      by Bob Hart                                                                                                 

The 2020 mandate for ADS-B is about 8 years away, during which time there will be varying degrees of mixed equipage, but essentially everyone will still be required to carry a transponder.  The fact is there are significant limitations with ADS-B that make having an active-surveillance system critical to flight safety both now and in the future.

      Here are some of the considerations that make "Active" Traffic the right choice for anyone serious about Traffic Avoidance and Safety (and who isn't?):
1)      Portable ADS-B units receive limited or no Traffic info. Some portable systems were designed to see other nearby aircraft that are sending an ADS-B Out signal, but currently there are simply not very many aircraft equipped for ADS-B Out.  Since these portables do not send an ADS-B Out signal, the only way they can receive TIS-B traffic broadcasts from the ground is if they happen to be flying near an ADS-B Out equipped aircraft and they can eavesdrop on their signal.  TAS interrogates and displays all nearby Transponder-equipped aircraft. 
2)      Limited Ground Station Coverage through 2014
While the East and West coasts have ADS-B-based ground stations in place, full US coverage is not expected until late 2014. Even with dual-band ADS-B products that may be coming out later this year, if you fly in areas without ADS-B ground infrastructure, you will not be able to see all the traffic.  TAS does not rely on ground stations.
3)      Limitations due to signal Line of Sight  - At lower altitudes and especially in the pattern at many smaller G.A. airports, you may be below radar coverage and below ADS-B coverage, and thus not be able to receive ADS-R and TIS-B traffic.  TAS works at any altitude.
4)      ADS-B is dependent of GPS - An on-board GPS failure could cause you to lose your ADS-B and thus you would be without traffic awareness.  During periods of poor satellite geometry or solar storms, ADS-B accuracy may be degraded or lost.  TAS works independent of GPS.
5)      978MHz solutions do not work outside US. - It's important to keep in mind that if you fly to Canada or Bermuda or other regions of the world, the only ADS-B available is via 1090MHz and there are no mandates to equip for most aircraft flying below the flight levels.  TAS works anywhere in the world.
There is great promise for ADS-B, but it has some limitations as a traffic detection safety system, especially during this critical mixed-equipage period.
     The importance of having an active-surveillance Traffic Advisory System cannot be overstated.   The key to safety with any traffic system is its ability to see and display all nearby aircraft. 
                                This info courtesy of the nice folks at Avidyne Corporation