Meanwhile, This Week in ADS-B News …


Comedian Jon Stewart has humorously—and rightly—compared the press to squirrels chasing nuts. No sooner has one news story dropped than another falls and off reporters scamper to scoop it up. We do the same in the aviation press, but our nuts are ADS-B products. Look, there’s another one! Let’s get it!

But we’re more discerning than the unwashed masses of the daily press; we’re experts in our field and we collect nuts with an agenda in hand. We’re looking for that magic price point of the $3000 complete ADS-B solution because we imagine that will be the price that breaks everything loose, unleashing a torrent of demand for the wonders of three-letter acronyms few of us understand much less can explain. Three grand just sounds good, but it could just as easily be $4000. It probably is not $5000. It better not be $2000.

A month ago, when L-3 broke ground with its complete line of ADS-B products, we thought they had the 3K solution in hand, but not quite. Installation costs and additional required hardware made L-3’s entry-level system between $5000 and $6000installed. Some monied owners who could afford more than that won’t be dissuaded by that price, but what about the owner of a $20,000 Cherokee or 150? Or an old Skyhawk?

That gets us to the next acorn rolled our way from FreeFlight Systems, which announced this week what it calls RANGR Lite. For $1995, it’s a UAT Out-only solution; no free weather or traffic with In. We’re assured that this time, the price is complete with antennas and control head. It has the required self-contained WAAS GPS. Shops tell us it ought to install for $2000, so around $4000 all-in. Getting warmer. An owner could get lucky and put it together for a little under $4000.

But if you want the carrot that goes with the ADS-B stick, you’ll need the In/WiFi version and that’s $3695, putting the job back up into the mid-5s. We don’t have a sense of how many owners would spend $4000 to rip up their panels and interiors just to meet the mandate without benefitting from the traffic and weather. We’re about to launch a survey to find out, but my guess is despite the lowish price, many owners are going to continue to stall.

So, back to the waiting game. And we know there’s more product percolating in the pipeline. At least once a week, I confer with my colleague, avionics expert and Aviation Consumer editor Larry Anglisano, about ADS-B. After the obligatory contemplation of wrist slitting as we ponder having to write on this topic yet again, we move along to an actual exchange of useful information. In one of these calls, we decided that what we needed was a big chart listing all the ADS-B options with prices and specs. As a thought exercise, how many mandate-compliant systems do you think are out there? The number may surprise: 35. Plus another dozen portables for ADS-B In only. Within a year, this will likely be 50 total. No surprise we’re confused, never mind the people trying to purchase this gear. It is true that some of those products are two-fers, since FreeFlight builds boxes for both BendixKing and Aspen and Trig has an ES transponder product for BendixKing. But that’s still a lot of choices to sort through.

Yet, still many of us wait and my theory is that we’re not waiting for more choice but for perceived value—that fuzzy little voice that says, yeah, for that amount of money, I’m willing to write the check. But for this much, no way. To be sure, many buyers have reached that point because ADS-B sales are slowly ramping up. But none of the shops we know are exactly buried in mandate installs and some of them tell us they were really expecting to be busier by now.

In the grand historical sweep of avionics development—not quite a century’s worth—what’s happening in ADS-B is a watershed of sorts. I can’t recall ever seeing this much competition for any class of product; not navcomms, not portable GPS, not transponders. Nothing even comes close. There are several reasons for this. One is that compared to an EFIS or even a navcomm, developing an ADS-B product isn’t as capital intensive nor, evidently, as difficult to guide through the regulatory hoops. Second, there are two competing technologies so manufacturers have two paths to follow. But last and the real biggie: there’s nothing quite like a government purchase mandate to build a can’t-miss market.And that’s why I think you see so many players. None of us know if the market is going to evolve into a frenzy of demand. It hasn’t yet.

Still, there’s no doubt that competitive forces are at work. FreeFlight’s announcement of its RANGR Lite, which it pledges to build in a volume of at least 10,000 units, is in direct response to L-3’s plans to build similar volumes. Those seem like numbers that should drive some economy of scale and probably are. FreeFlight’s approvals are expected later this year. We’ll follow up to see how buyers are responding. Any day now, they might just get serious.

Reading List

History may be written by the victors, but that doesn’t mean the vanquished don’t have a compelling story to tell. I’ve just finished one in The First and the Last, Adolph Galland’s memoir of his experience as a Luftwaffe fighter pilot during World War II. Amazon sends me these obscure works because it has figured out my reading habits.

Even casual students of World War II will recognize Galland as one of Germany’s leading aces, with 104 aerial victories. (He was also shot out of the sky four times.) Galland rose rapidly through the ranks, becoming, at 31, one of the youngest German generals. He commanded the Luftwaffe’s fighter arm.

Much of what Galland covers I’ve read before, but in compiling his book, he did what many historians do: He compared his own recollections to the contemporaneous record of his enemies, specifically the U.S. 8th Air Force and the RAF. This reveals some interesting observations. One is that the Allies had such poor intelligence during the war that they were tragically slow to recognize where strategic bombing was effective and where it was not. Galland writes that attacks against heavy industrial infrastructure, despite horrendous cost in men and material, were largely ineffective. German aircraft production, stalled for a time in 1943, recovered and as late as spring of 1945, it was producing about 4400 aircraft a month, three times its output early in the war.

Most of those aircraft were scrapped or destroyed on the ground because the Germans lacked trained pilots and, critically, fuel. Galland writes that the biggest blunder the Allies may have made is not realizing earlier how effective their attacks against Germany’s synthetic fuel industry had been. Had they left the ball bearing factories alone and concentrated bombing resources on the refineries, the war might have ended sooner.

Blunders were just as numerous and egregious on the German side. Perhaps the most profound, says Galland, is Hitler’s insistence that the Me 262, the world’s first operational jet combat aircraft, be deployed as a bomber rather than a fighter. Had the Me 262 had been pushed as a fighter, he reasoned, it would have been available in quantity as early as 1943, rather than in mid-1944, when it tentatively appeared. Other histories have claimed this is a myth and the real reason for the delay was the Jumo engines’ lack of durability. Galland, who lived it, seems to have a different view. If the Me 262 had gotten into combat in 1943 in quantity, the air war would have taken a far different turn, even if the outcome was never in doubt.

All speculation, of course. But an interesting read, nonetheless. The title, by the way, refers to Galland’s view that he was the first German jet fighter pilot and the last. He proved correct on the first count, but mistaken on the second.