Editor's Note

Upgrading Legacy Cockpits – Experts Weigh In

By by Woodrow Bellamy III | October 1, 2015
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The retrofit market is at the beginning of a very high activity period, as 2015 turns into 2016. If you’re an avionics maker or an installment or repair shop that focuses on upgrading legacy aircraft, your services will be in high demand for the next 5 to 6 years. Nearly 60 percent of readers surveyed in our Avionics Magazine 2015 Cockpit Avionics Upgrades poll indicated that they have a need to upgrade their cockpit avionics. Out of those respondents, the two leading reasons why operators want to upgrade their cockpit are to improve overall aircraft performance and equip for upcoming airspace mandates, at 29 percent each. Glenn McDonald, manager of aviation consulting at ICF International, says his company remains confident in its estimate that the avionics upgrade market for commercial airliner aircraft alone will reach $1 billion by 2023, and that’s not even counting all the Part 25 business jets, Part 23 general aviation aircraft, helicopters and military airplanes that will need upgrades over the next 7 to 8 years. “We certainly see the Automatic Dependent Surveillance Broadcast (ADS-B) Out mandate driving demand for retrofits through the early 2020s,” says McDonald. “We’re estimating that most major airlines can do a narrow body or wide body ADS-B Out retrofit somewhere in the neighborhood of $50,000 to 75,000, and that’s driving activity, especially in the United States and Europe.”

Business and General Aviation

The Gulfstream GV PlaneDeck cockpit retrofit replaces the original Cathode Ray Tube Primary Flight Displays (PFDs) with Liquid Crystal Displays (LCDs). Photo: Gulfstream.

Garmin, which primarily provides retrofit packages for the general aviation segment is seeing demand from its customers that is reflective of the results of the survey as well.

“I think we can summarize the retrofit demand we’ve seen in 2014 and 2015 into three categories: that would be [Wide Area Augmentation System] WAAS [Localizer Performance with Vertical Guidance] LPV Navigation, that continues to be an extremely popular upgrade for retrofit into existing aircraft because of the benefits provided to the user. We also see a very strong market in [Electronic Flight Information System] EFIS upgrade retrofit applications, and I think what we’re seeing growing right now, especially as we move into 2016, is ADS-B upgrades for retrofit applications.”

While it feels like there’s nothing left to say about ADS-B, other than the upcoming 2020 mandates in the United States and Europe and existing scattered mandates in Australia and other regions, it’s going to continue to drive the cockpit upgrade market for the next few years. This is because operators across all segments have a number of factors to consider. How long are you going to keep operating that aircraft? What is the existing equipage on your aircraft? What airspace do you plan on continuing to fly in? If you are a business aviation operator of one of Gulfstream’s 2,400 in-service aircraft, the Original Equipment Manufacturer (OEM) of your aircraft has already considered and answered all of these questions for you.

Out of the current in-service fleet, more than 900 legacy out of production G200s, GIVs and GVs are still being operated. “On the in-production aircraft, the G650, 280, 450, 550, basically the transponders get a software upgrade on the airplane and they’re good to go for DO-260B. For the G4 and the G5, there is an upgrade that has to happen to the FMS, to FMS 6.1, which incorporates a WAAS GPS, which is required for the positioning aspect of ADS-B Out. Then there’s a software update that happens on the Rockwell Collins transponders,” said Jeff Gayon, director of product support technical sales and development for Gulfstream.

“The G280, or the G200 and G150 are using a Garmin solution on that aircraft. So, which is, the transponders, which also have an integrated WAAS GPS that is part of that for the DO-260B requirements.”

German-based digital avionics maker Becker Avionics is experiencing the majority of its demand right now for ADS-B for its helicopter community, which it feels can especially take advantage of mobile ADS-B ground-based fleet tracking technology.

“Regarding rotorcraft, around half of our business is in the helicopter market right now. That’s how we became more oriented toward the fleet-tracking technology, because a lot of the helicopter market that does see real benefit in ADS-B are the fleet operations, like the helicopters that serve oil rigs, police helicopter fleets, the search and rescue fleets. We serve all those markets pretty significantly,” says Forrest Colliver, vice president of business development at Becker Avionics.

“In both the Single European Sky and NextGen programs, the flight navigation procedures are being optimized to the point where the air traffic authorities have a need to uplink by datalink different routes and procedures to the aircraft. That means that operators across all segments will need onboard avionics capable of processing those from the communication entry into the navigation and flight management avionics, and that’s going to create a demand for some unique cockpit upgrades that we have the capability to support,” says Colliver.

Airliner Upgrades

A closeup of the airspeed and altitude indicator on the GV Planedeck cockpit retrofit. Photo: Gulfstream.

Honeywell and Rockwell Collins were the top two most used cockpit avionics products according to respondents to the Avionics cockpit upgrades poll, with Honeywell just barely edging out their rival with 62.8 percent of respondents, compared to 62.2 percent for Rockwell Collins. One leading reason for that is that operators of the thousands of classic and next generation 737s operating across the globe primarily use integrated avionics suites from either Honeywell or Rockwell Collins.

For those flying other legacy Boeing aircraft types, there’s the option for directly working with the airframe manufacturer itself to equip for upcoming mandates.“Boeing does have an upgrade path for legacy Boeing airframes looking to comply with the 2020 ADS-B Out DO-260B mandate in the US and Europe,” said Bob Dankers, director of avionics modification at Boeing. “The models eligible for retrofit upgrades include the MD-80, MD-90, MD-11, 717, 737 Classic, 737 Next Generation, 747-400, 747-8, 757, 767, 777 and 787. The typical components required for ADS-B Out DO-260B operation include the Mode S transponder, global position satellite system, and display systems software for crew alerting on specific models.”

For both operators and the aircraft leasing firms that they use, executives say they are upgrading their legacy aircraft, but at the same time choosing upgraded versions of avionics packages on new aircraft orders, which can also be categorized as cockpit upgrades since they’re not the standard package offered on the airframe. This is also true for operators of the Airbus version of the 737, the A320.

During the 2015 Paris Air Show, Kuwait-based aircraft leasing firm ALAFCO selected a suite of Rockwell Collins avionics, including MultiScan ThreatTrack weather radar and Multi Mode Receiver (MMR), for 85 Airbus A320 new engine order (neo) aircraft. “The main deciding factor for selecting Rockwell Collins was the company’s after sales service to our customers. We also see that the Rockwell Collins MultiScan ThreatTrack radar is the most advanced automatic radar in the air transport market today,” says Imtiaz Khot, vice president of leasing at ALAFCO.

Denmark-based cargo carrier Star Air is preparing to begin upgrading the cockpits of its fleet of Boeing 767-200s with a Rockwell Collins-Boeing collaborative flight deck package that was certified in 2014, which features Engine-Indication and Crew-Alerting System (EICAS) data capability on 15.1 inch Liquid Crystal Display (LCD) screens, the same displays featured on the 787. “We decided to go with this retrofit package because it offers weight reduction, and the removal of all [Cathode Ray Tubes] CRTs, symbol generators, discrete indicators/annunciators and air data instruments from the aircraft. It also offers higher system reliability due to greatly improved [Line Replaceable Unit Mean Time Between Failure] LRU MTBFs,” says Star Air CEO Soren Graversen.

Other European operators, such as Scandinavian Airlines (SAS) are more concerned with complying with upcoming Single European Sky-mandated technology. “For the current fleet, SAS has invested in hardware and software to fulfill the EC mandate for [Traffic Collision Avoidance System] TCAS 7.1 and Link2000+ / FANS B+. The upgrades concern mostly wiring changes, software updates and a few components changed, located in the [Electronics Equipment] EE bay. For the immediate incoming fleet, we have also invested in new weather radar,” says Rolf Bakken, head of flight operations at SAS.

According to Bakken, the airline is also currently in the process of evaluating its options for upgrading its legacy aircraft with ADS-B Out DO-260B compliant avionics as well. “SAS is not in compliance as for now, however, we are working intensively on possible technical solutions, and synchronization with parts availability and aircraft downtime to implement the required mandate. The mandate will require changes to cockpit avionics as part of the requirement asks for visual indication of ADS-B failure in the cockpit. For our Airbus fleet, we already know both the [Flight Warning Computer] FWC or the [System Data Acquisition Concentrator] SDAC will require upgrades for generating new [Electronic Centralized Aircraft Monitor] ECAM messages,” says Bakken.

Woodrow Bellamy

Woodrow Bellamy IIIis the associate editor for Avionics Magazine.


Upgrading Military Cockpits

On July 31, 2015, U.S. Gen. Joe Dunford, the incoming chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, finally announced that the fifth generation F-35 Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) has achieved Initial Operational Capability (IOC), eight years and 13,000 flight hours after the first flight test variant, BF-1, rolled off the production line. The F-35A conventional takeoff and landing model is projected to go operational for the U.S. Air Force (USAF) in the fall of 2016. While this certainly ushers in a new era at least for the U.S. and its allies in terms of fighter jet technology, USAF officials are still feeling the squeeze of sequestration, a major reduction in defense spending that began in 2013, which is forcing them to focus more on modernizing components all over legacy aircraft, including cockpit avionics.

“We’ve gone down, and it’s the near term. But the fact of the matter is that our Combat Air Force has shrunk drastically from what it was in 1990. The number of fighter squadrons we had in the 1990s were in the 160-plus range. The number of fighter squadrons we have today is in the 50s,” said USAF Air Combat Commander Gen. Herbert Carlisle. “So, there’s a big capacity issue. So, we have gotten significantly smaller and budget is a driver. One of the things we have to do in that environment is shift resources to aircraft that will have the most successes, be the most dangerous, in contested environments with advanced adversary systems.”

The ongoing KC-135 Stratotanker fleet Block 45 cockpit avionics modification exemplifies what Carlisle is referring to, and also reflects some of the trends occurring right now in commercial and business aviation. The KC-135 has been operating for more than 50 years, providing aerial refueling capability globally for Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps and allied aircraft. Currently, the Legacy Tanker Division at Tinker Air Force Base is managing a $910 million program to convert the aircraft flight deck from analog to digital with a new engine instrument display, radio altimeter, flight director and autopilot.

The Gulfstream GV PlaneDeck cockpit retrofit replaces the original Cathode Ray Tube Primary Flight Displays (PFDs) with Liquid Crystal Displays (LCDs). Photo: Gulfstream.A closeup of the airspeed and altitude indicator on the GV Planedeck cockpit retrofit. Photo: Gulfstream.

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