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IFR Capable vs. IFR Comfortable

Installing an avionics stack is rarely a repeatable exercise.  So when you want to do an upgrade, or are considering one, think about your worst possible IFR scenario and then build for that.  Sound crazy?  

It is. And expensive.  But that one night, where you needed all the help you could get, you’ll face the inevitable adage that good reliable SA and information is priceless when you are stuck up in the air and you want to be on the ground as soon as possible (and in one piece).

Why not get live weather updates at your destination?  Why not have multiple screens tell you where you’ve been, where you are and where you are going.  In this era, if you are flying with steam gauges and are alone, although a noble challenge, you are potentially wandering into needless masochism given what is currently available at market.

If you are looking at a high performance single engine retractable or a piston twin, some assumptions usually hold:

  • The Panel Isn’t Original … Yet Still Old: It is likely a 1970s or 1980s aircraft, part of the last big GA push before manufacturing paused in the mid / late 80s - consequently most panels rarely have original stuff, but the upgraded King radios and even original Garmin from the late 90s isn’t modernor super reliable today.  These are all aircraft we know well: The Cessna 182s, 206s, 210s, the Bonanzas, Barons, Cessna 300 and 400 series aircraft and more. 

  • The Autopilot Question: One exception to the above is the ancient autopilot.  Amazingly Century III, IV and similar dinosaurs still populate GA listings.  While they still work, buyer beware - when they break (and they will) they are *tough* (impossible) to repair mainly since the repair stations that service said autopilots can’t support them anymore. Look for something designed and built after 2005.  

  • Get Rid of the Vacuum System: While this may be heresy to the die-hards who want to teach / learn in the old school style, this is not what’s best for you. Let’s face it: when you are configuring a panel, it’s all about you.  Tear out the DG and AH and look for good solid state options from Garmin, Dynon, Aspen, Avidyne, etc. When you see that a prior owner has completely eliminated the need for a vacuum system, please send them a thank you card; they’ve made the aircraft modern, safer, and also likely bitten off most of the depreciation ( saving you money at acquisition time).

Glass vs. Steam

A classic question here is “Who feels comfortable flying what?”  A generation grew up with “the magenta line” telling them where to go.  And an older generation can use a pencil, timer, and a map to give you a position report.  

The fact is that if you are new to the game and you are planning any IFR flying, then a good autopilot and current solid state / and glass IFR panel upgrades are a must.  While it may be legal to do it in the old stuff, it is important to remember athis is where you learn the key concept: “Just because it is legal doesn’t mean it is safe.” (And safety is a relative term since what was “safe” in 1975 isn’t so much today given what’s available and the relative improvement in the safety stats.)

When considering modern IFR operations, let’s consider three big wins:

  1. The more information, the better.  (But learn how to parse it and notan not over-fixateover fixate.)
  2. The less mental gymnastics you need to do to see where you are the better.  The less you need to do for anything (fuel remaining to the minute?) is also good.
  3. Cross checking against a second AHRS input is valuable.  Having your iPad take input from a Stratus and having the iPad mounted in a fixed position gives you a complete backupback up system should everything really go sideways.

Put another way - steam gauge panels will soon be oddities and museum pieces, there is no other good ending for a design that served well in its time, but today is noticeably handicapping a pilot who could have a vastly more efficient scan.

The Take Aways for The Buyer

When you are making an offer on an aircraft to purchase, build a continuum of where the avionics lie from current state to optimal state.  Then make a note of what you’ll need to do to make it safe.  Here are a few rules that might be considered best practices if you are going to flying IFR regularly for business, charter or some other regular need:

#1 Trustworthy Autopilot: Make sure you have a trustworthy autopilot.  You not only test it at acquisition time, but you make a quick determination that it can be serviced.  It was also not installed in the aircraft during the Reagan, Bush 1 or Clinton administrations.

#2 Coupled Approaches:  During the pre-buy you should be able to do a test flight and fly multiple coupled approaches with minimal fuss.  If you can’t or the autopilot lacks this functionality, then consider a big discount since you’ll be paying for this.  In today’s rapid- fire IFR world, having ‘George’ do the work (whileand you observeing) is how the pros do it.  You should do it that way too except when you are practicing hand flying deliberately.

#3 Glass Talks: All too frequently in a Frankenstein-ed panel you’ll see a beautiful MFD- type upgrade, but it will be on an island by itself.  Be sure that your panel (be it all glass or a glass / steam hybrid) can communicate with each element seamlessly.  Examples of things to look for are:

  • Where does NAV display on a CDI besides the glass itself?  Can you select / deselect that easily?  (What “mode” you are in - i.e. heading vs. nav vs. approach is a surprising amount of accidents / situational awareness events).

  • When you are conducting approaches, how does your fancy glass handle a VLOC vs. a GPS approach? Is there human involvement to discern, or is the unit smart enough to know what type of approach?

In the end your panel should be able to have you engage the autopilot after take off and then bring you down to minimums on your approach.  If you can’t do this comfortably, seamlessly, and intuitively – , or watch someone do it during the test flight –, then look deeper and start thinking about some potential discounts to bringmake the price in- line with the market of current aircraft and the panel in-line with the trappings of comfortable, contemporary safety.