Avionics On A Budget PDF Print E-mail
Written by Bob Hart   
Thursday, 19 September 2013 09:27

When I purchased my first airplane in 1971, 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 biggestbudget challenge, begin hereas you’ll need a relationship withan avionics shop for your biannualinspections anyway. Obviously, ifyour local shop spends the majorityof their time working on corporatejets, you’re probably looking inthe wrong place. Instead, look for asmall avionics shop that can relate:be frank, let them know your situationand budget challenges, and askthem 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. Thismay include removal and installation of the interior, whichcan easily add eight hours to an avionics installation, so askif you can do that as well. Ask if you can you provide yourown equipment for the job. Small avionics shops typicallydon’t have much of an inventory ofused avionics, but ask them before yougo out and search. They may have agood solution to your problem; and,provided it’s worth buying, you canoften do well on price too. Remember,you’re a local customer: the shopwill want to stand-behind it. We’ll talkmore later about the concept of what’s“worth buying.” But, be forewarned: ifyou go the avionics shop route and expectto pay the minimum, be patient.You’ve probably heard the old saying:“You can’t have it good, cheap, andfast.” Well, you get to pick two out ofthe 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 whenone of their big jobs is halted due toparts delivery or whatever. Such an arrangementis good for you and goodfor 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 aircraftmechanic. An A&P or IA can signoff most avionics work. From myexperience, they love it if you canprovide them with avionics that arepre-wired. This is a plus since mostpre-wired units have been testedafter the harness is installed, so younow have a radio and harness thathave both been tested prior to installation.If something isn’t working,you’ve already eliminated theradio and the harness and can nowassume that there is an issue withthe install itself. It’s unlikely that your mechanic will tackle a wholepanel upgrade, but changing out afew 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: $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: $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 toexplain your problem and listenfor 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.

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 greatoption for selling avionics. Customersdon’t expect a warranty from you ona personal sale like this, but they doexpect it to be working fine when it arrives.This speaks to my final advice onselling avionics—don’t skimp on theshipping! True story: a few years back,I sold a customer a KX-155 Nav-Com.As I mentioned, there are 29 versionsof the KX-155; and he was not specificenough about his needs. KX-155s aremost often seen in pairs and with anaudio panel. The audio panel doesthe job of switching between them andprovides the amplification to drive theaircraft’s speaker and headphones.Based on what I knew, I sold him themost common version and shippedthe unit to CA. The customer latercalled and said he needed an audioamplifier in the KX-155 because it wasstand-alone. In response, I offered toput an audio board in it at no chargeif he sent it back. He handed the radioto his wife who proceeded to ship it tome in a shoebox. The unit was stuffedinto the box with no protection andshipped postal. As you can imagine,when it arrived the faceplate and allthe knobs were pushed in and broken,the backend the same. My shop estimatedthe repair costs at over $1000. Ioffered 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? 

Last Updated ( Thursday, 19 September 2013 09:29 )