Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Avionics Upgrade - Part 1

There has been a big shift over the past few years of people buying new airplanes instead of used. Not too long ago if you wanted a plane it had to be used unless you wanted a jet or Million dollar Bonanza. We can think the Cirrus guys for this one. They created the Technically Advanced Airplane for General Aviation and nearly single-handily turned the industry around. Up until the SR20 was introduced advanced avionics in a light plane was only a dream. Sure we had LORAN and GPS with small moving maps, but the aircraft systems were not integrated until Cirrus did it. This shift, however, has caused buyers and pilots to expect, and be dependent on, advanced avionics. We want the technology and simply can't get it in most used airplanes.

My wife and I were Cirrus owners for awhile and loved the airplane. We were spoiled flying around with a glass panel and huge multi-function display; however, when we did the math the return on our investment was dismal at best. Cirrus has a high hull value, has more accidents than the typical high-performance plane, etc., which pushes insurance costs through the roof. The acquisition cost is also well north of $500K and maintenance is very high as well. Cirrus did many things right, but is it really worth the cost? What are you actually buying and why?

When I asked myself these questions it turned out that what we really wanted was the avionics and speed. Generally speaking most of our trips are me, my wife and a few bags. Having surplus cabin room and payload is nice, but why carry the extra space when you don't need it? Fuel burn on the big-bore engine is also a big consideration. Burning 20+ GPH to get a cruse speed of maybe 160 KTAS isn't environmentally friendly or efficient. The overhaul cost of a big bore is also very expensive.

Do we really need live with all of these negatives just for nice avionics and a fast plane? The simple answer is no. There are many solid used planes on the market and avionic upgrades are available to anyone. Buy right and put the money into the panel. No question there are some deals to be found on the used market. You may pay a bit more over what you would get if you sell the plane, but you're probably not going to get what you paid for a new plane out of a new plane either.

The more we analyzed our mission the more we realized that the Cirrus was not the best plane for us. A used fast airplane is a better. We love the Bonanza line, but parts & maintenance is very costly and they have also have a high operating cost. We landed (pun intended) on the Mooney because of its speed, efficiency, low maintenance costs and capabilities. However, finding a Mooney that is Technically Advanced is not an easy task unless you buy a new one. If I were buying a new one, however, in my opinion the Mooney is a much better bang for the buck than a Cirrus. They fly higher, faster, are technically advanced and maintenance and insurance is a fraction of what you would Pay for a Cirrus. I will write more on this subject later. For now, on to avionics...

Ok, we bought the big surprise there, but what Mooney? I wanted to buy a plane that was as close to factory original as I could find. Avionic shops often cut corners when installing equipment, so my buying decision wasn't based on whats in the panel. My decision was based on buying a sound airplane that will carry us safely to wherever we decide to go. I wanted a clean slate to start from. We're restoring the best Mooney ever after all.

36G is as close to factory original as any Mooney I could find. She had 627 hours of total time on the airframe and engine, which is basically new. The only avionics work that was completed on her was adding a WX900 stormscope and an Apollo NMS 2001 Loran/GPS receiver. I would have preferred to find something that never had avionics installed or altered, but that's a tall order when looking at 18 year old airplanes. I had to comprise a bit, but this was a plane I couldn't pass up.

As you can see, N5236G has a respectable panel with top-self 1980's avionics, but she's not even close to technically advanced. 36G does have a flight director and HSI, which is basically the analog version of a PFD and an exceptional KFC-150 autopilot. Retrofitting the bird with a PFD wouldn't make since and the Autopilot is good as well. Everything else is fair game. The decision is clear to upgrade...what should I do...?