This article originally appeared in Aviation Consumer magazine, May 2007.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 gracefully. 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.
Or at least know what you're talking about before spewing orders. More