Avionics Obsolescence Is Real

Not long ago I was talking to a pilot friend who said his Garmin GNS 430 couldn’t be repaired because spare parts were no longer available. I was stunned. To me the 430 is still a miracle box, the first complete flight management system (FMS) for personal airplanes. Could this be true?

I checked with the Garmin guys, and yes, some of the earliest GNS 430s can no longer be repaired. The problem is that parts of the original power supplies that were limited to only 28 volts are no longer available. Garmin can still upgrade an old GNS 430 to WAAS status because that involves exchanging a number of parts but can’t fix some of the oldest units in their original form.

The oldest 430s are coming up on their 15th birthday. In consumer electronics that is an eternity. Just look at the number on your iPhone to see how long very successful consumer electronics last before they are superseded.

But in aviation we count in decades, not months or years. The general aviation piston fleet is more than 40 years old on average. The last big airplane production run was between the years 1976 and 1980 so 35 year old airplanes are not only common, they are the norm.

Beech redesigned the instrument panel in the Baron and Bonanza installing dual controls and two-inch engine instruments in 1984. Many of us still call that the “new Bonanza panel.” New as  30 years ago. Of course, when you think original, or early, in a Bonanza you need to go back to 1947.

It’s really pretty easy to find replacement parts to keep our elderly airplanes flying. Spare parts are less available for airplanes that have been out of production for decades, and parts prices are going up a lot for all airplanes, but none of us would think of junking an airplane simply because its 40 years old, and certainly not 15 years old. But we sure wouldn’t plan to drive a 40 year old car every day. Or even expect it start most mornings given the run of way below average temperatures most of the country has had.

The odd thing is that it’s possible to keep many of the avionics built 35 and 40 years ago flying when it won’t be possible to maintain today’s avionics for nearly as long. The autopilot flight director system in my airplane, a Bendix/King KFC 200, dates back to the 1970s when the airplane was built. It still works great, gets fixed every few years, but parts are still available. The King KX 170 navcoms that were originally installed in my airplane are almost certainly flying on in some other airplane after they were replaced by a GNS 430 and 530.Why can older avionics go on when much newer designs become obsolete?

The answer is that electronic components have become integrated and designed for specific functions. In the “old” days when you needed a resistor to make your radio function you soldered it into the circuit. Same for a capacitor, or transistor or whatever. If that component fails today, you solder in another one. These so-called discrete components are still readily available and not expensive.

But over the past 25 years or so electronic components have been integrated into a single device that contains dozens or even hundreds of what were once functions of individual components. These “integrated” chips are reliable and compact, but are not off the shelf components. They are typically designed for use in a specific piece of equipment. They require specialized manufacturing that is only realistically possible in volumes.

Avionics displays are an even bigger issue in obsolescence. Flat screen display technology is so diverse and is advancing so rapidly that by the time an avionics box can be designed, certified and enter the market its display is nearly obsolete in consumer electronics terms.

What the major avionics companies must do is make lifetime buys of unique components and glass displays they use in new avionics because the components will soon be obsolete. In other words, they need to predict how many components will be needed to manufacture new boxes, and then order enough more to become replacement parts, for the entire useful life of the equipment. It’s a big expense and it’s really impossible to know what the “lifetime” of any avionics will be.

None of us would try to nurse along a 20 year old computer, or even a 5 year old phone, but I am used to avionics working well, and being repairable, until I’m tired of them and something much better comes along. Those days are passing by quickly.

I had one of the very first GNS 430s installed in my airplane and still love what it can do, though it is now updated to the WAAS version. The Garmin GTN series with touch screen have superseded the 430/530 in the Garmin lineup, and they are even more capable systems so there is a great solution at hand when the 430/530 can no longer keep flying.

Since the beginning the prudent airplane owner has budgeted for future engine overhaul. With the still accelerating advances in electronics and the short life cycle that brings it looks like we will need to plan and budget for avionics renewal like we do for engine overhaul. Avionics don’t wear out like an engine, but they are now becoming obsolete quicker than ever before.

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23 Responses to Avionics Obsolescence Is Real

  1. Jim Butler says:

    I purchased one of the first Avidyne moving map displays. I also purchased the lifetime support subscription, at a cost of $1500 per year. It only took about 6 years before Avidyne told me my unit was obsolete and would no longer be supported for either software or hardware. When queried about my investment in the lifetime support subscription, they didn’t have an explanation. Apparently it wasn’t my lifetime, it was the lifetime of the unit.

    Now I get a notice every 28 days that the data cards for my Bendix King IFR certified GPS are no longer available and I must return each one as quickly as possible because they are in short supply.

    I am very happy I’m still flying on “steam gages” and won’t lose my entire instrument panel due to computer obsolescence. There are certain to be some unhappy airplane owners in just a few short years.

    Jim

  2. Dave Speer says:

    Greetings and great article, Mac. I recently conducted a Cessna 421c aircraft search for an old friend and was amazed at how few King and/or Bendix/King products are still in use today. It appears that Garmin has now obsoleted most all of the once very capable avionics that I grew up with. Oh well, I guess everything becomes obsolete at some point in time, although I’m reluctant to tell my son Chad that his recently acquired older Garmin 430 is now obsolete…much like his old man! :-)

  3. Mike Massey says:

    The airplane electronics industry is saddled with burdens in the form of Government regulations that guarantee slow, expensive innovation and a court system that is more concerned with making lawyers rich than making aviation safer and more affordable. Private industry would quickly solve both problems with tort liability limits for avionics and a government that promotes technology innovation rather than killing it.
    As you have stated before, the “experimental airplane” avionics options are evidence of what could be. Perhaps all avionics should be considered experimental from a regulatory and tort law standpoint. That would improve safety, cost and innovation more than anything else. It would not make lawyers rich, but would be good for airplane owners. Pilots with low cost upgrade choices would promote IFR safety far better than lawyers and government bureaucrats ever could.
    As for the previous post about Avidyne, I watched them mislead my Father-in-law when he bought a new Cirrus 10 years ago. They said it was fully software upgradable and that turned out to be a ( for lack of a better word ) lie. All the lawyers and government regulations in America did not prevent that from happening.

    • Steve Sokol says:

      Hard to believe but… I’ve had conversations with a number of FAA officials and the possibility of experimental avionics in certified light aircraft isn’t just a pipe dream. Believe it or not, they fully understand that the current rules actually run counter to their primary mandate – aviation safety. They are currently working on a combination of regulatory changes and industry standards that should allow most of us flying light aircraft to install non-TSO (aka “experimental”) avionics. Don’t hold your breath – this will move at the speed of government – but within this decade we should see changes that will help.

      • Mike Massey says:

        I hope this happens. It would be a benefit to all who fly. It will not be perfect, but I think it will serve overall safety 500% better than what we have now. When you can have cheap synthetic vision in the panel at a fraction of today’s cost, that one advantage would have a huge impact on IFR safety. Not to mention the value in dollars saved for all of us.

  4. Howard Kave says:

    While I am not comfortable disputing a statement of fact or history made by Mac about anything aviation, I was taken aback by the statement that the Garmin GNS 430 was the “first complete flight management system (FMS) for personal airplanes”.
    I thought that this distinction beonged to what is now known as the Garmin GNS 480, the first WAAS navigator available to the light plane market, a few years before Garmin added WAAS capability to its 430/530 line.
    The 480 was then branded as the CNX 480, and was owned by UPS Technologies until the line was purchased by Garmin, apparently to permit it to offer customers a product with the benefits of WAAS while it’s engineers were trying to decide how to add WAAS to the more popular 430′s. It was said to have been designed by an FMS engineer and had a steeper learning curve than the 430 series but offered not only WAAS, but airways built into its flight planning function, aural alerts for localizer interception and a 500 foot aural altitude alert on instrument approaches, all features that unavailable elsewhere in the marketplace.
    However, after the WAAS upgrade of the 430 line was complete, Garmin pretty much abandoned the 480 line which was a shame. It is still supported for most parts so far as I know, however there are no more upgrades to software in the pipeline except, maybe for one, and that is the ADS-B function. I am told, although it is “unofficial” that WAAS owners like me have pursuaded Garmin to offer one, last software upgrade to the 480 that will permit it to function, along with a modifed 330 ES GTX transponder, to provide ADS-B out functionality to its owners for what would be a very modest cost, probably under $2,000. I sure hope that this rumor turns out to be fact. We will know by this time next year.

  5. Josh says:

    We just went through the 430 obsolescence issue with our rental plane at the local airport. As I recall, there was an antenna change and other miscellaneous work that took the total to about $4000 to repair our 430 & convert it to WAAS.
    As these units become obsolete, I’d think there will be a huge market for slide-in replacements.

  6. John Patson says:

    If you know where to look though, there are small firms which will etch integrated circuits on to blank chips and bake them till they are done. It costs in the low $100 range (instead of the 10¢ for a transistor) but it works.
    It is a niche market and used often by power stations where the early computers work fine except for the one chip which needs to be repaired / replaced, and where replacing the computers leads to steam pipes bursting all over the place.
    Trouble is the Garmins of this world are not interested as they would rather sell you a new product.
    And heaven help anyone who does such a repair without Garmin’s copyright license, which they will sell for the price of a new product…..

  7. Bruce Ziegler says:

    If the new avionics were slide in replacements for old units of similar capabiliy (Garmin 430 vs 650) it would be much easier to take. When you have to have your radio stack torn out and all new cabling done bringing the total invoice to double the cost of the hardware it becomes a real issue for someone that flies for personal transportation and pleasure.

  8. Jeff Boatright says:

    This is where Experimentals shine (actually, one of many arenas where they shine).

    How to avoid obsolescence? Use steam gauges where they still get the job done. For Avionics? Use solutions that are as hardware-generalized as possible. By this I mean, use hardware that is used by the wider population and whose capabilities are driven by software, which is comparatively cheap and easy to upgrade. The obvious example here is using a tablet for GPS navigation and as an electronic flight bag.

    Don’t fly or own an Experimental Aircraft (as in, the E and A of EAA)? What are you waiting for? Come on over to the dark side! We have cookies! ;)

  9. Noel Wade says:

    Its funny, I look at this problem in almost the exact OPPOSITE way that Mac does: This “need” for aircraft parts to be available for decades is a symptom of how twisted and backwards GA is, in terms of rules & regs & costs! A large number of GA aircraft are used by private individuals for personal or small-business use. They are “consumer devices”. So let’s compare them to other big-ticket items that are used by individuals and small businesses… Very few people try to keep a 30-40 year-old car running. Almost no one tries to keep a 30-40 year old TV running. 30-40 year old appliances? OK, so let’s step up in scale: Know of any 30-40 year-old locomotive engines still being used (and if so, do they have original parts or have they been upgraded over time)? So we should ask ourselves: Why _must_ aircraft suppliers keep parts unchanged for decades? What is really driving this “need”?

    If aircraft and avionics were readily available at consumer-level prices and installation or alteration was not such a huge deal (rules/regs/paperwork), I believe this issue would (mostly) go away. The Experimental market (as others have suggested) is a good model to look at as an example… Imagine the buying-power and economies of scale if you expand that experimental avionics market to cover most of GA! Device manufacturers could see their potential customer base grow by orders of magnitude. Even just doubling or tripling their market size would allow them to take advantage of new economies of scale. Furthermore, a larger installed user-base gives the manufacturer additional opportunities to support their products for longer. They can have a secondary income stream from maintenance/repair & upgrade work, and buying their components in larger batches gives the more leverage over suppliers (to keep special parts being made over a longer span). This is much better than their current approach, where they rush to develop the “next-big-thing” for their tiny market – in order to get a fresh infusion of income from a small list of potential customers (often cannibalizing their existing market, with the way things currently work).

    Lastly, I think you’ll see some of these issues go away as current (truly-modern, not 1980′s-modern) avionics start to filter into the GA fleet. Again, we’ve seen a preview of this with the Experimental market. Modern processors and electronics are far more powerful, which allows more-generic processors to be used in devices and to shift more of the specialized work into software. While software development has its own set of challenges, its far easier to upgrade and maintain software over time than it is to maintain a stock of specialty hardware components. As we’ve seen with things like EFBs, well-designed software can be used across multiple hardware generations without much of a hitch (witness people using ForeFlight and WingX Pro across different generations of iPad – each of which has different processors and RAM chips).

    –Noel
    P.S. For the record: I do _not_ think the Experimental market is a panacea. You cannot treat all of GA the same way. But still, the current situation is just not very tenable…

  10. Michael Rosing says:

    If Garmin cannot repair a 15-year-old GPS, what will happen to the market value of a G-1000 Skyhawk when it approaches its 15th birthday?

    • Mac says:

      Hi Michael,
      Avionics and their status will alter the value of all airplanes exactly the same way engine time, paint, interior, total time and other factors always have. Just as there is an upgrade available for the oldest 430s, there will be an upgrade, if needed, for G1000 when the time comes.
      Bests,
      Mac Mc

  11. melvin Freedman says:

    Hey folks, my garman 92 went out 4yrs ago. I cried, what a great tool. These tools don’t have the shelf life you might think. But then again the 3rd class med has out lived many, This old pilot is hopeing to out live that, What do think?

  12. Greg W says:

    Granted I fly VFR, that said I use vary little “new equipment. I use a comm. radio for electronics that’s it. Now my trips are shorter, under 600 sm. usually but I often see the same airplanes at my destinations with lots of electronics (that I don’t have) on board for the trip I just made. If you need the boxes then get them but as Mac said plan on replacement cost sooner than later. In my case my compass, paper chart and manual E6B work just fine and the batteries never fail. To others that fly like me, when over unfamiliar and terrain with few roads for timing, an automotive GPS will give ground speed easily,like Mac I go over lake Michigan and it gets windy out there.

  13. Gary says:

    Much of the high expense for avionics is clearly due to certification and that old chestnut liability. This is why GA is dead, and more pilots in the GA singles crowd at least are turning towards experimental. Look into having a simple transponder issue fixed on a G1000 and it will cost you north of $1000 bucks just for a quick look. As well Garmin do realize that there is the experimental crowd out there,which is why they are competing with the likes of Dynon which BTW despite what a lot of the ‘certified’ crowd thinks are very highly capable avionics period. Why would a fully capable COM radio cost nearly half as much as its certified counterpart? Particularly when such radios’ are used all over in all classes of airspace. This so-called certification process belongs in the 1940′s and ’50′s. It now only exists in the disguise of safety. Certification as we currently know it is a hindrance, and a huge cost to the aviation community. Hopefully the American GA bill will start to rectify this affair.

  14. Al Gibbs says:

    If aviation manufacturers adopted a standard physical slide-in rack system, and standard communication protocols using a fixed connector pinout plan, every device would be field-upgradeable and the money saved on re-wiring avionics could be applied toward the actual avionics. I had hoped this would be part of the ADSB pathway, but apparently the major companies don’t see it this way–they lack vision and fear competition.

    I can’t tell you how many same-voltage cell phone chargers I have purchased over the years.

    • Mac says:

      Hi Al,
      The system you wish for existed for decades. It was created by the airlines. The airlines wanted to have options in mixing and matching avionics and spares so they formed ARINC. The ARINC committees dictated the exact physical size of each box, exactly what each connector pin would do, and the avionics manufacturers went along. The airlines could buy a box from Collins and spare from Bendix and it all worked.
      But when progress in electronics accelerated the ARINC system was a huge brake. By the time the committees could agree on what a new system would do, and exactly how it would integrate with others, it was obsolete. And for true performance improvements avionics needed to integrate with once discrete functions being blended into a single system.
      ARINC standards are largely gone, felled by their own weight and slowness. It was a great system during the 1960s and 70s, and even 80s, but we wouldn’t have made it to the capability we have now if the entire industry was sitting in a meeting trying to decide what to do.
      Mac Mc

      • Mike Massey says:

        Mac’s comment is correct. I am a 30 year veteran in the electronics industry. I watched competitors argue for 10 years over the HDMI standard for delivering HDTV from the cable or satellite box to your high definition tv. Competing companies are forced to give up proprietary information and sometimes abandon good systems when industry standards are imposed. Innovation is sometimes messy and disruptive to existing devices, but if it wasn’t, it wouldn’t be innovation. Painful sometimes, but far better than the slow expensive alternatives.

  15. Phil says:

    Oh brother. Here you go again! Talking about stuff that doesn’t affect EAA members whatsoever! My Pietenpol doesn’t have an electrical system (or a radio, of course) and neither does my buddy’s J-2, so why should we care diddly about avionics? You need to go back to writing for the one percent millionaires who can actually afford those fancy radios. The great majority of EAA flyers never fly cross country, and on the rare times when we do, it’s only IFR (I Follow Roads) anyway. A compass is all the “avionics” we need, thank you very much.

    • Gary says:

      Love it,

      To those guys living in 1910 without the avionics good on you.. At least you managed to find a 2013 computer to type in your response though! This past summer we completed installing a electrical system into a J2/3 aircraft. First it was a small challenge to locate and route wiring for the starter and self exciting alternator, ultra modern lightweight types on a,, by J2 standards high-tech C85. This also included a modern Sandia transponder, and MicroAir radio. Yes and no gosport tubes required with the intercom, and even noise canceling headsets, oh yes, a Spot, and a GPS too. This allows this aircraft to be safe, flyable with very few restrictions with respect to airspaces. Oh we even used a super light weight Lithium battery. I suggested a trap door below it, just in case we have to “eject to warp core”…..

  16. Cary Alburn says:

    With all due respects, Phil, this “stuff” does affect EAA members. Spend a week at OSH each year, and look at all of the certificated aircraft that fly in and out. The “E” of EAA has long since been replaced, for practical purposes, by a “G” for General. I do not know the numbers, but I wouldn’t be at all surprised if there are more “G” members than “E” members.

    For us “little guys” who happen not to want (or lack the time or skills) to build an airplane or to buy one that someone else has built, a certificated airplane fills the bill. Mine is 51 years old. Granted, if the certification issue was less onerous, a lot of the things I’ve done to it would have cost me less, because my IA and I wouldn’t have had to jump through as many hoops, and I could have had less expensive avionics and other parts installed. But for me to trade it off now for an “experimental” airplane wouldn’t make the slightest sense.

    I do object, however, to planned obsolescence and the outrageous expense of many items that go into any airplane, whether certificated or experimental. OK, Dynon stuff costs less than Garmin stuff and maybe it is as good. But you don’t really think Dynon stuff will last materially longer than Garmin stuff, do you? And you don’t really think Dynon will support its stuff ad infinitum, do you? The same rules apply–it will be supported as long as it’s economically sensible for Dynon to do so.

    A year and a half ago, I had a new (not used) 430W installed in my airplane, because it cost $2000 less than Garmin’s touch screen GTN equivalent. Although they’ve stopped building them, Garmin promises to support the 430W into the foreseeable future. I hope they keep their promise. Mine works perfectly, but I have no illusions that it will always work that well. Perhaps with any luck, it will still work fine when it comes time for me to hang up my own certificate!

    Cary

  17. Harold Bickford says:

    Lots of interesting commentary here which all seems to translate to new meaning for the EAA acronym: Expensive Aircraft Association. Cost containment is a concern for some folks while others seem quite able to spend at high levels.

    Since I’m building a Pietenpol folks can pretty well figure where I’m at on the cost curve.

    Harold

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