If you're sinking $30,000 into new avionics, that old, cracked, Royalite panel has got to go. Here's a look at some options. FAA approval may be the tricky part.
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Utilitarian to the core, we aren't impressed by flashy instrument-panel work. And by this, we mean panels decked out in custom colors and patterns
that blend with a pricey leather interior and a toney exterior paint job. But we're not crazy about the 1970s-style Royalite overlays, either. These long ago outlived their appeal and few have aged
Where does that leave us? Replacing what was in vogue in 1970 with a crisp, no-nonsense, metal panel. Commercial aircraft have this feature and so do military airplanes. If form follows function,
metal panels are the ultimate in both form and function. Further, in the world of custom rework of panels, the possibilities are endless.
FAA leniency in design, modification and installation, however, is not. Instrument panel replacements dredge up FAA buzzwords like "major" and "minor" modifications versus alterations versus repairs.
What's maddening for shops is that no two FSDOs seem to look at panel structural mods in quite the same way.
But generally, if you rip out the Royalite and start with new panels and subpanels for the instruments, radio rails, switches and the major equipment certificated for the aircraft, you're into a major
modification. Virtually every FAA inspector we spoke with during our research made it clear that messing with panel structure requires regulatory approval.
PMA manufacturing approval for the product to be installed in a specified model is a good start for the installation approval, but it might not be enough. Best case is having a replacement panel
that's already PMA and STC approved. If a replacement panel doesn't carry these certifications, it's up to the installing shop to have the installation approved by the FAA. We're told that these field
approvals are being deferred to regional FAA offices, which means a longer wait time for final action.
In seeking approvals, shops will need supporting paperwork and previously approved data as a basis for a field approval, which is considered a one-time STC through an FAA Form 337. One inspector
actually pointed us to the regulatory guidelines/checklist that he follows when field-approving a modification. In our view, these guidelines were neither straightforward nor simple to understand and
required lots of interpretation on our part.
In our view, the approval process for panel replacement is mired in over-think, since panels are simply pieces of sheet metal. Sure, there are various thicknesses of metal to choose from, but most
Piper panels, for example, are 0.050-inch thickness, while higher-class Beechcraft panels are often in the 0.080-inch range.
For anyone cutting a new panel out of aluminum, it's not rocket science to duplicate the structural thickness of the original equipment. Easier yet is to attach the new panel to the existing mounting
points. Some panels are attached with shock mounts, others are not. In most cases, the finished product will be stronger and of higher quality. We highly recommend choosing a panel replacement that's
STC'd for your model aircraft, if you can find one. If an STC exists, your down time will be shortened and you won't suffer through a field-approval nightmare. Don't try to short-circuit the approval
process. We know of one aircraft that flunked a pre-purchase inspection because it had a custom panel with no supporting paperwork in the logs. Technically, it wasn't airworthy, although the work was
One reason for investing money and time in a new panel is to obtain a better instrument and avionics layout. But the more you change, the more it can cost. When moving engine gauges, for example,
consider the effort involved in relocating and lengthening fuel and oil lines to accommodate the move from one side of the panel to the other. The same goes for vacuum and static lines that plumb
flight instruments. Electrical busses, including the replacement of fuses and circuit breakers, can be another source of expense and time-consuming effort.
The other major hurdle is control-surface hardware -- chains, cables and rods that move the control surfaces -- that might have to be modified to accommodate a new panel design. Panel replacements
mean major teardown and some aircraft are more complex than others or have age-related shortcomings that will need to be addressed. The upside is that avionics work will be easier when the old panel
is off, giving technicians easy access to the guts behind the metal. We would expect a significant savings in wiring and component replacement given this accessibility. But if your shop has to mess
with modifying and splicing control cables or components, expect a large invoice in the end.
Muddying the water is the fact that some jobs can't effectively be quoted until the job and the teardown begins because, in many cases, shops just don't know what's back there until they open up the
panel. Pad your budget accordingly. Panel fabrication has leapt forward with the advent of computer and numeric control machines (CNC) and computer-aided design (CAD) technology. With a conventional
CNC machine, the cut process is controlled entirely through programming. Gone are the days of tedious hand-die work. Better yet, designs can be saved in the computer memory for future jobs and changes
can be made to easily accommodate custom designs.
Some panel-building companies specialize in certain aircraft types, which is likely to result in a smoother job. For example, Ron and John's Comanche Service in Oregon provides STC'd panels for
virtually every model Comanche. Supplied with blueprints and other instructions for gauge location, these panels are cut for an owner-specified instrument and avionics layout. The company knows
Comanches and there should be little guesswork for a given model. Owner groups are a good source for finding panel kits for any aircraft brand.
Quite a few smaller shops specialize in the fabrication of metal panels and ship the finished product for installation. They leave it up to the installer to obtain appropriate approvals. Some such
panels have PMA approval, some don't. One that does is Avion Research, which offers STC'd and PMA'd panels, as well as some not covered by such approvals. They even have glareshields with integrated
While Avion offers panel projects for a huge variety of aircraft -- from single-engine Cessnas to Piper Cheyenne turboprops -- they say that it's the ultimate responsibility of the owner/installer to
ensure compliance with all relevant FARs and to return the aircraft to service, which requires but is not limited to an approved Form 337. Avion has years of experience in building panels and claims
it has taken the uncertainty out of the process. It offers layout and upgrade consulting, including marking up customer-provided templates at no charge. Owner involvement is important and we warn
against letting your mechanic handle it all, since pilot preference plays a huge role in design.
The finishing work -- paint and placards -- is the critical final detail in panel replacement. The FAA wants to know specific details on this, too. When a shop lobbies for field approval, they'll
likely need to provide details on the materials used to cover the bare metal. Simply listing a can of tan Krylon purchased at Home Depot won't cut it. The FAA wants flammability reports, for one
A popular request among owners is high-end electrostatic powder coating, instead of a basic painting process. A FAA inspector told us that powder coating is frowned upon because there is "something
about the coating process that can weaken the metal." Whether this is true or not isn't the question. The problem is how does the shop prove the finish is acceptable? Without technical reports and
analysis, this might be difficult, which again argues for the STC/PMA route.
Placards on the instrument panel are absolutely required per the aircraft type certificate and they'll need to be applied to the new panel -- either through engraving, adhesive labeling, silk
screening or some other process.
As far as lighting goes, the options are considerable. Instruments with integral lighting (expensive), post lamps, instrument lighting rings that mount to the bezel of the instrument, glareshield
lighting and overhead spots are all means for lighting a panel. Post lights still remain a popular way to light instruments for a new metal panel, although they're not necessarily the best.
Worth mentioning is that existing lighting circuits, dimming potentiometers and power supplies that have been in the aircraft for years might not be in good shape. Don't skimp on lighting. It can make
or break a new panel design and a simple test can qualify one that needs work: Is the dimming linear? That is, for full travel of the dimming control from brightest to dimmest, does the lighting
respond evenly to the dimmer? If it doesn't, now's the time to fix it.
There's no doubt that a custom, metal, instrument-panel makeover can bring an otherwise old aircraft to ultra-modern standards. We couldn't put an average price on any project, because they're so
variable. A basic panel might cost only a few hundred dollars to build, but it's the finishing work and installation that runs the tab up. The simplest makeover can cost a couple of thousand dollars
from beginning to end, just for the panel work, not the avionics or wiring.
A complex makeover with custom paint work and lighting circuitry can get into many thousands of dollars. To many owners, this expense is worth it, but others are often shocked at the cost and it's a
If you aren't prepared to dump the money and suffer the downtime of an extended FAA cat-and-mouse game, consider new panel overlays that we describe in the "The Overlay Option" at right. In our
opinion, anything is better than that cheesy, cracked, 1960s-vintage plastic that looked bad even in your grandfather's old Buick.
More aircraft repair and prevention articles are available in AVweb's Maintenance Index. And for monthly articles and reviews of aviation products and services,
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Instrument currency is more than simply controlling the aircraft in the clouds. Currency also means making the right decisions when weather goes sour.
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On Oct. 7, 2005, the pilot of an A36 Bonanza deviated significantly from the ILS Runway 27 approach procedure he was flying into the Pike County
Airport (PBX) at Pikeville, Ky. The pilot lost control of the aircraft and crashed just south of Pikeville, killing all three people on board.
The flight began many hours earlier when the pilot contacted the Louisville, Ky., Automated Flight Service Station (AFSS) just after noon (EDT), explaining his intention to fly to Pikeville from
Paducah (PAH). Paducah is located in Western Kentucky along the Illinois River. Pikeville is 286 nautical miles to the east not far from the Virginia and West Virginia state lines.
The Bonanza pilot asked the AFSS specialist about "weather echoes" in the eastern portion of Kentucky. The specialist explained the returns as light rain over the central portion of the route and at
the destination, part of a slow-moving cold front over Eastern Kentucky. The area forecast called for a broken ceiling at 700 feet, an overcast layer at 1,500 feet, four miles visibility in light rain
and mist and a north wind at five knots.
Two previous automated weather reports from Pikeville showed a broken ceiling at 300 feet with three miles visibility and later 300-foot scattered with 10 miles visibility and calm winds.
The pilot filed an instrument flight plan, but did not file an alternate. He departed Paducah with his two passengers at 1345, and the hour-and-one-half flight to the Pikeville area was uneventful.
At 1517 (EDT) the pilot checked in with Indianapolis Center at 7000 feet. Five minutes later, the controller cleared the aircraft to descend and maintain 5000 feet at the pilot's discretion. The pilot
responded that he had the weather and that he wanted to fly the ILS approach to Runway 27.
The weather at Pikeville at 1513 was recorded as 1700 broken and 10 miles visibility with winds 360 at three knots. At 1525, a Special was issued that indicated 1700 scattered, 2300 scattered and 10
miles visibility. This is most likely the last report the pilot received from the automatic weather system.
The controller vectored the pilot for the approach at 4500 feet and cleared the Bonanza for the ILS 27 at 1546. The pilot was told to switch to Pikeville's advisory frequency, with instructions to
cancel on the airborne frequency if possible or with Flight Service once on the ground.
There were no more radio transmissions received from the aircraft.
The Pikeville approach is about as simple an ILS procedure as they come, with no procedure turn on the approach and radar being a requirement. The airport elevation is 1473 feet msl. Runway 27 is 5350
feet long. The inbound course is 273 degrees and the straight-in decision height is 1664 feet (msl), 200 feet above the surface.
Something was obviously wrong when, at 1550, radar indicated the Bonanza was still at 2300 feet but only one mile from the Runway 27 threshold. Shortly after that, radar indicated the aircraft turned
off the localizer to the south, where contact was lost as the Bonanza descended below 1,800 feet.
The weather recorded at 1544 called the winds light, with visibility of four miles beneath scattered clouds at 300 feet and a broken ceiling at 2100 feet. At 1556, shortly after the aircraft crashed,
Pikeville reported 3/4 of a mile visibility, and an overcast ceiling at 200 feet.
Several witnesses at the airport heard the aircraft, although no one saw the Bonanza. A Cessna Citation pilot that landed at PBX at 1530 said the ceiling was just above minimums but oscillating during
He told investigators that he heard the Bonanza coming down the approach near the DH. He said it sounded like the aircraft was going south of the airport at approach speed, approach power settings,
and either level or at a slight descent until he could no longer hear it.
The Bonanza pilot held a Private pilot certificate with airplane single-engine land and instrument ratings. The last entry in his logbook was dated July 24, 2005, four months before the accident. The
pilot claimed 527 hours of flight experience and 323 hours of actual instrument time, a claim that was suspect early on.
A two-page excerpt from the pilot's logbook included in the accident report shows that the pilot had logged almost all his flight time as instrument time, so it is unclear how much actual instrument
experience he truly possessed.
Investigators reviewed records from the maintenance shop that completed the last annual inspection on the aircraft and found that it was signed off on Feb. 22, 2005. NTSB investigators determined from
the wreckage that the landing gear was extended at the time of the accident and the flaps were retracted.
The NTSB's probable cause of the accident was the pilot's failure to adhere to the published instrument
approach, with the low ceiling being called a factor.
A number of interesting questions come to mind following the review of this accident although the answers are not quite as clear. For example, the last weather report the pilot probably received
indicated that the PBX weather was still VFR with good visibility. Yet, he asked for the ILS approach. Why?
There might be several reasons. Perhaps the pilot planned the approach for currency, or he wanted to show one or both of his passengers how the approach equipment worked. In spite of the good weather
report, he likely saw low clouds in the area and realized he might have to fly through them to get to the airport.
If the Bonanza pilot was current and proficient -- and we don't know that he was -- why did he drift to the left of the localizer and wind up striking the ground a mile south of the airport? He
obviously was not following the glideslope or he would never have been 700 feet above the DH one mile from the airport.
Perhaps the pilot kept descending because he thought the weather was going to eventually improve. This is a common gotcha in IFR flying and probably a factor in many accidents. But he still should
have realized a full deflection of the localizer and glideslope needles meant it was time for a missed approach. Could the pilot have been so intent on searching for the airport that he paid no
attention to his instruments? That's probably a common mistake, too. Going visual too soon out of an approach in real IMC requires discipline to resist.
Certainly the pilot had no idea he was losing control of the aircraft until it was too late. In fact, the aircraft did not descend below 1800 feet until it was in the vicinity of the accident
location, and that was a mile south of the airport. Weak ILS approach or basic instrument skills could explain this entire chain of events.
The Bonanza pilot had good reason to expect better weather than what existed at Pikeville. The forecast indicated that the lowest expected ceiling was 700 feet and the lowest visibility should have
been 4 miles. But that is the nature of forecasts. They are not exact by any means and instrument pilots should understand that. You can mitigate unpleasant surprises from blown forecasts by
frequently updating current weather while en route, but only if your destination has real-time weather reporting.
All instrument pilots need to develop a solid set of personal limitations and stick to them. New IFR pilots with questionable currency have no business in this kind of weather. A cross-check of the
weather reported elsewhere would also have helped.
One airport, in Wise, Va., 34 miles south of Pikeville reported a 300 foot overcast and 1-3/4- miles visibility half an hour before the accident, while Jackson, Ky., about 35 miles west of PBX,
reported a ceiling of 100 feet overcast and 3 miles visibility.
Not filing an alternate airport may have indicated the pilot's confidence level that the weather would be fine. However, an alternate was still required.
The list of what this pilot did wrong is long and proves yet again that one, or sometimes two, bad decisions do not necessarily court disaster. But as the list grows, the chances of survival grow
proportionally smaller. The better -- and sooner -- you're able to recognize that, the safer you'll be.
More accident analyses are available in AVweb's Probable Cause Index. And for monthly articles about IFR flying including accident reports like this
one, subscribe to AVweb's sister publication, IFR Refresher.
In Florida, you never know quite where the storm will go, but you can still make sensible evacuation decisions. Oh, and if you think you're subsidizing the sunny Florida lifestyle with your insurance
rates, you need to read Paul Bertorelli's latest blog on this topic at the AVweb Insider.