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Avionics Upgrades Breathe New Life into Old Birds
by James Careless


The Bell 212 Twin Huey is a venerable rotorcraft, with 45 years of history under its blades.  Unfortunately, a decades-old helicopter cockpit experiences a lot of wear and tear.  Add analog 'steam gauge' displays, and the result can be a visually shabby, technologically-obsolete cockpit that can compel all but the hardiest of helicopter enthusiasts to pay more for brand new aircraft - even if the older model still has lots of life in it!

Universal Avionics Systems Corporation (UASC) in Tucson, Arizona was faced with such a Bell 212 cockpit.  With the design help of Maxcraft Avionics, one of UASC's authorized dealers, Universal Avionics swapped out the old analog avionics with new, more capable digital units, and installed new features such as navigation assistance, virtual ground displays and an Electronic Flight Bag (EFB); all of which were unheard of 20 years ago.  The totally revamped avionics suite was based around four Universal Avionics EFI-890H Flat Panel Displays / Controls and a Vision-1R Synthetic Vision System that provides increased situational awareness to the flight crew.  Add a cleaned-up console, seats, and floor-mounted equipment, and this Bell 212 was reborn as a modern helicopter - one capable of commanding respect and a decent price in today's resale market.

"We are seeing a lot of demand for avionics refits in older helicopters such as the Bell 212, Sikorsky S-76 and AgustaWestland A109," says Grady Dees, Universal's Director of Technical Sales.  "People are really interested in breathing new life into these older machines."

The Case For Avionics Upgrades

Even with the very best in avionics upgrades, an older helicopter is still not the same as a new helicopter. Advances in engine and airframe design have occurred over the years, and those advances are reflected in the superior performance of the newest helicopters.

This said, the Global Financial Crisis that started in 2007 -- and which still echoes throughout world markets today - made getting the most out of older helicopters a priority to cash-strapped owners and operators.  "Since the crisis hit, we have seen a decline in new helicopter sales, and increased customer interest in keeping what they have and making it do more," says Elvis Moniz.  He is VP of Operations with Vector Aerospace Helicopter Services, a maintenance, repair and overhaul (MRO) facility based in Langley, British Columbia. "As a result, we have done substantial avionics upgrades on Bell UH-1s and Sikorsky S61s.

Fortunately for helicopter owners, today's digital avionics make it possible for even the oldest helicopters to become more capable and safer to fly. That's because virtually everything that can be found in a new helicopter can be retrofitted into an older cockpit, including NAV systems, Terrain Awareness and Warning Systems (TAWS), night vision goggles and accompanying cabin modifications to reduce instrument light glare, and satellite-linked voice / data communications.

"At Becker Avionics, we are seeing a lot of demand for our certified DVCS6100 Digital Audio System from both rotary and fixed-wing customers," says Brett Gardner, Becker's Director of Sales & Marketing.  "This is because the digital technology in the DVCS6100 system provides cleaner, more intelligible audio and less wiring than older legacy analog intercom systems-that many older aircraft were originally equipped with."  As well, Becker's digital unit can support up to eight transceivers and eight receivers, compared to the maximum of four or five supported by most analog intercom systems. "This [extra capacity] is especially crucial for special mission customers like; airborne law enforcement, air medical services, ISR aircraft, and the military," he says.

Even if the owner of an older helicopter wants to stick with their original avionics, chances are that they may not be able to.  "This is because the parts for a lot of 1970s-1980s platforms are getting rather expensive to maintain," explains Hardy Truelsen. He is Founder and Head of the Scandinavian Avionics Group (The SA Group), which has MRO facilities in Europe, Asia, and India.  "As well, it can be difficult to integrate a single piece of modern avionics with a legacy infrastructure. Sometimes it makes sense to upgrade a number of subsystems, both to support new equipment and reduce the cost of ongoing maintenance."

Adding digital equipment can also increase payload, simply by reducing the aircraft's operational weight.  For instance, modern glass cockpits are lighter to carry than their analog legacy equivalents.  Meanwhile, "having all of your manuals in an EFB can make a real weight difference," Truelsen says.  "The original paper-based manuals were heavy, and took up space as well."

Considerations and Challenges

When considering which avionics to upgrade in an older helicopter, certain questions should be asked.  How will the new equipment affect the pilot workload; will it make the aircraft easier and less demanding to fly?  Will the new avionics integrate easily into the older aircraft's legacy sensor systems, or will new sensors - and possibly even new electrical / data cable runs - be required?  Can the aircraft support any additional power drain made by adding new electronics?  And does the performance enhancement of the new equipment justify its cost; from both an operational and resale perspective?

There are no 'one size fits all' answers to these questions.  Each older helicopter is unique, in terms of its remaining lifespan, accumulated airframe fatigue, and optimum capabilities after every conceivable upgrade has been done.  Answering these questions accurately requires a thorough inspection of the helicopter's physical, mechanical and electrical systems; an assessment of possible upgrades with their costs and benefits factored in over the aircraft's remaining lifespan, and the estimated playback of such upgrades, versus buying a new helicopter.

"As well, you have to be careful about the avionics you choose," says Elvis
Moniz."  It is wise to go with brand names that have solid reputations, and a history of being easily certified.  Choosing 'boutique avionics' that have lots of bells-and-whistles may seem cool, but they aren't when you have trouble integrating them, and then getting them approved by regulatory authorities."

Striking a Balance

If there's a conclusion to be drawn here, it is that upgrading older helicopters with new avionics is a good idea, as long as the upgrades make good business and performance sense.  Being able to extend the lifespan of an already paid-off rotorcraft can really help a cash-strapped company, especially if the new additions make it do more.

The Carson Sikorsky S-61T is a good example of such a balance.  In concert with Sikorsky, Carson Helicopters has revived this veteran airframe by installing full glass cockpits, composite main and tail rotor blades, and many other upgrades. At the same time, the basic airframe and function of the S-61 has been maintained, albeit now delivering 1,200 of additional lift capability and improved airspeed. The resulting revived-and-upgraded S-61T is so capable that the U.S. State Department is buying up to 110 S-61Ts under contract, with many having been delivered.

"There is a lot of highly-capable life left in many older helicopters," concludes Elvis Moniz."  Finding the right avionics upgrades can help you access that capability, and enhance the value of your older aircraft at resale."

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