Panel Dreams

There’s never been a better time to upgrade your panel. We look at the brightest and the best across a wide range of functions… and costs

Whether you’re browsing around on the internet, or checking out the latest equipment on a manufacturer’s stand while visiting a show, the lure of the latest avionics for your instrument panel can be strong. 

When it comes to significant panel work on some certified aircraft, a dream panel update could very easily end up costing more money than the aircraft is worth. The price of that tempting screen alone is never the whole story, as there’ll be plenty of additional kit needed – and plenty of labour to turn plans into an installed reality – not to mention the inevitable mission creep (while I’m at it, I might as well…). 

An appropriate avionics upgrade will add value to an aircraft and make it easier to sell, but you’ll have to measure the result of a truly extravagant spend in satisfaction, rather than sterling or dollars. The good news is that most finance companies are happy to lend money for your must-have avionics upgrade.

It’s worth a reminder that your shopping options will vary depending on the type of aircraft you operate, and the country where it is registered. 

There’s been massive progress in manufacturers developing AML STCs for the installation of modern avionics into certified aircraft, and for FAA-registered types, the choice is by far the largest, with Garmin and Dynon big screen systems going head-to-head. If you have a UK CAA-certified aircraft, then you’ll need equipment which has gained the corresponding CAA or EASA approvals, and unfortunately, this is where you start to see your choices shrink, as not all manufacturers have pursued European approvals.

If you operate a UK Permit aircraft, the choices are much wider, and LAA Engineering has a technical leaflet to help with making choices when it comes to panel-mounted electronics, from big screen primary units to smaller backup units.

Support for legacy systems in the Cirrus SR20/SR22 make this twin screen Garmin G500 TXIs upgrade possible, complemented by twin GTN650Xi, and a GI 275 standby horizon

Big screen entertainment

Garmin G3X Touch/G500TXi: From $2,995/$11,995 – It’s hard to ignore the relentless progress that Garmin has made in the battle of the big screens. At GA level, the systems that will get your attention are the G3X Touch and the G500TXI. Garmin is a favourite with pilots for its feature-filled units which are well thought out, well made and intuitive to operate.

The G3X touch is available in two sizes, 10.6in and 7in, both landscape displays. There’s also a  7in portrait display. All have, as the name suggests, touchscreen controls. If you fancy an airliner-style display, you can have up to four displays working off the same back-end systems.

The G3X Touch displays can be used either as a Primary Flight Display or Multi-Function Display if you have two, or as a combined PFD/MFD with just one. There’s a stack of options which can be integrated: engine info, ADS-B traffic and weather, transponder, wireless flight-plan transfer, synthetic vision and worldwide VFR charts.

It’s easy to forget that before this avionics revolution the only way you could get glass screen greatness complete with ‘bells and whistles’ was to buy a new aircraft. Now pretty much everything can be retrofitted.

Dynon Avionics Skyview HDX: From $3,190 – is available in 7in and 10in landscape displays, with touchscreen and physical controls along a ledge at the bottom. It uses similar components and modules as previous Dynon systems, so existing users can upgrade fairly simply, or they can work alongside each other.

The displays on the Skyview HDX are superb with bright, strong colours, and packed with information. That takes some getting used to, but once you get familiar with the Dynon user-interface, everything is logically located.

New Avidyne Vantage offers dual 12in screen upgrade path for older Entegra-equipped Cirrus SR20 and SR22 aircraft

Although there are some STCs for fitting Dynon avionics in certain certificated aircraft on the US FAA-register, there’s nothing outside the homebuilt world that applies in the UK at the moment.

Avidyne Vantage: From $12,500 – Primarily targeted at owners of older model Cirrus aircraft, which featured the Entegra EFIS system, Avidyne’s recently launched Vantage is a dual 12-inch diagonal PFD/MFD upgrade that will replace the Entegra system which was factory fitted to thousands of earlier Cirrus aircraft.

Navigate, communicate

Garmin GTN650 and GTN750Xi: From $12,695 / $18,245  For years Garmin dominated the nav/com market with the ubiquitous GNS430 and GNS530 units. With well over 100,000 sold they’re pretty common even in the rental fleet. As good as they are, the interface is not completely intuitive, so if you aren’t a regular user it’s worth spending some time with the manuals (or on YouTube) to get the hang of the buttonology. If your avionics refit is being done on a tight budget, it’s worth considering the used market for one of these units.

Garmin replaced the GNS series with GTNs where the mainstays were the GTN650 and GTN750. They are not slide-in replacements for the GNS430 and GNS530, so if one of those was previously in the stack there’s going to be some panel re-working for which you will need to budgeting.

The GTNs are great touchscreen navigators, but even they were replaced last year with upgraded versions which carry the Xi suffix. The upgrade added more computing capacity making it possible to add software-driven features such as the recently announced Smart Glide which uses the power of these units to automate tasks to reduce pilot workload during an engine failure.

Activated by either a dedicated button or by holding down the Direct-to button for two seconds, Smart Glide provides assistance to the pilot by recommending a suitable airport estimated to be within glide range, as well as providing critical information to the pilot and optimising select avionics settings, helping save the pilot precious time and workload.

Left: Stacking from the top down… Garmin GTN 750 Xi, GTN 650 Xi, and Garmin GFC 600 Autopilot | Right: Avidyne IFD540 at the top, IFD440 below

Add in a compatible Garmin autopilot, and Smart Glide can automatically engage the autopilot and pitch for the aircraft’s best glide speed while navigating the aircraft within the vicinity of the selected airport so the pilot can execute an approach and landing. We suspect that the new Xi units will spawn all sorts of additional features as new software versions roll out.

Garmin also offer simpler gps/com units such as the GPS175, GNC355 and GNX375.

Avidyne IFD440/IFD540: From $11,599 / $15,999 – Alternatives to the Garmin GTN 650/750, using less panel space, are Avidyne’s IFD540/IFD440 navcomm units. Designed to fit in the same space and trays as the venerable Garmin GNS 430/530 GPS, the IFD series is billed as a ‘slide-out, slide-in’ upgrade, which will not only bring extra capability, but should do so at a significantly lower install cost (assuming you had either a GNS430 or GNS530).

However, be warned that in many cases the details drive a bit more work than that, mostly to enable some of the advanced features of the IFD that never existed on the Garmin. Depending on the details of the previous installation, sometimes a new GPS aerial and coaxial must be fitted. Even considering this, the work required should be much less than completely re-working the panel.

The IFD 540/440 include built-in Wi-Fi and Bluetooth, allowing the IFD to fully and easily communicate with tablet devices. Two-way flight-plan transfer from participating apps, as well as the unique Avidyne IFD tablet app, allows the tablet to become an input and control point for the panel-mounted navigator. The units also offer synthetic vision capability when given an attitude input.

If you just want the GPS navigation capabilities without the nav/comm bits, then Avidyne also offer the IFD 545, 510 and 410 units. If you want to add an FMS bringing 3D Synthetic vision then by spending a bit more you can fit an IFD550.

Garmin G5 twin stack set-up for attitude and DI

Simpler refits

Garmin G5 From $2,595 (certified) – If your budget or panel space is limited then the G5 provides an awful lot for the money and can be installed in a standard 3.125in space in the panel. The G5 has a 3.5in LCD screen and can be used as a primary flight indicator or as
a standby.

The G5 is EASA approved for use as a directional indicator or a horizontal situation indicator in type certificated aircraft. Permit aircraft could already use this function.

The G5 can be paired with a navcomm unit or GPS to display magnetic heading, give VOR or GPS guidance, and provide distance and ground speed. It is independent of the vacuum system, and is installed on the basis of a Supplemental Type Certificate (STC), applicable to more than 600 aircraft types. Equally, with a GPS input the G5 can also be used with the certified GFC500, or the experimental GMC507 autopilot.

Installing two G5s means you can ditch your aircraft’s old vacuum system, saving weight and increasing reliability in the process.

uAvionix AV20 and AV30: From $895 / $1,950 (certified) – The 3 1/8in uAvionix AV-30-C Electronic Flight Instrument System (EFIS), has been getting the attention of plenty of UK-pilots. This is primarily thanks to uAvionix having a Supplemental Type Certificate (STC) from the UK CAA for the AV-30-C that allows it to be installed on the FAA Approved Model List (AML). The AV-30-C is installed as a primary instrument, and can be configured as either an Attitude Indicator (AI) or a Directional Gyro (DG) indicator.

uAvionix AV20 (left) and AV30 are available in certified and experimental versions

When installed as a non-required instrument (i.e., not replacing the existing approved AI or DG), the functional mode of the AV-30-C can be toggled between AI and DG, serving as a backup instrument. Multiple display presentations, including compass rose, GPS HSI, and GPS Arc views can be selected by the pilot. The AV-30-C also includes a probeless Angle of Attack system.

The AV-30-C is designated for installation as a primary attitude indicator or directional gyro in piston single and twin aircraft weighing less than 6,000lb.

Both the AV30 and 20 can be connected to uAvionix’s TailbeaconX transponder, which is a light, simple to install Mode S transponder, though its UK approval is still pending.

An add-on Wi-Fi bridge device for the AV-30 panel display enables it to connect to some traffic devices and display live airborne traffic.

Garmin GI 275: From $3.995 – Launched in early 2020, Garmin’s GI 275 ‘round’ electronic flight instrument has EASA approval. The GI 275 is available in a number of different variants, including attitude indicator, attitude-direction indicator (ADI), course deviation indicator (CDI), horizontal situation indicator (HSI), multi-function display (MFD), and engine indication system (EIS).

In addition, the GI 275 can also be installed as a standby attitude indicator when paired with large format electronic flight displays. Designed to fit in a standard aircraft panel and replace common 3.125in diameter flight instruments, the GI 275 means you can go high tech with the minimum of panel disruption.

GI 275 can also be integrated to directly control the basic settings of the GTX 345 or GTX 345R transponders, and drive the GFC 500 autopilot while serving as a standby attitude indicator interfaced with an original G500 series flight display.

Garmin’s GI 275 is a round electronic flight instrument that’s available in a number of different variants, including attitude indicator, attitude-direction indicator (ADI), course deviation indicator (CDI), horizontal situation indicator (HSI), multi-function display (MFD), and engine indication system (EIS)

Aspen Evolution E5: From $4.995 –Introduced in 2018, Aspen Avionics’s Evolution E5 Dual Electronic Flight Instrument (EFI) has an FAA STC (Supplemental Type Certificate) for installation in VFR aircraft without a need for connection to another GPS system. The E5 can serve as the foundation in an Aspen-equipped panel as the display can be upgraded all the way to the top of the range IFR certified Aspen Pro Plus MAX PFD complete with Syn-Vis and Angle of Attack (AoA). It simply needs additional interfaces and software, but preserves the installation work already completed.

Aspen units can be doubled up, or even tripled, for added redundancy, additional features and to use more of the screen for individual functions. They are available for helicopters as well as many fixed-wing GA aircraft, and can be integrated with several autopilots, including the Avidyne DFC90.

Other kit to consider

Awkward spaces How do you go head-to-head with a giant like Garmin? In Trig’s case it’s by making radios and transponders with plenty of features that fit into both standard and awkward panels – and are beautifully designed for ease of use. So the TT31 transponder and TY96 are both slimline products that fit a standard panel, but if that’s not possible then there’s the compact TT21 transponder and TY91 transceiver, both with high-power versions if needed.

Engine Monitors There are a couple of paths to follow and each has options. First, you must decide if you are going primary replacement or supplemental route. Primary replacement means you remove many or all the old, legacy gauges, as they will be replaced by the engine monitor. On the other hand, taking the supplemental route, while the engine monitor can indeed monitor many of the same functions as a primary unit, the traditional engine instruments are retained and according to the rules are the primary indication to be referred to.

Most of the primary systems come in a large screen size so this is usually best done as part of a major panel rework, or a smaller size usually designed to fit in a 3.125in instrument hole, more suited for an update without a complete panel redo.

The Electronics International CGR30P is a primary replacement engine monitor that fits in a 3.125in instrument hole. Typically this spot was formerly occupied by the tachometer, one of the many instruments the CGR30P can replace. The EI CGR-30P is the little brother of the large-screen MVP-50, so they share similar feature sets.

These monitors use a remote box, mounted separately from the display instrument, to interface with all of the various sensor inputs. In some cases, this remote box makes installation simpler, since there are only a few wires that need to be brought to the panel, but in others the work involved in mounting the remote box is more than saved by the simplified wiring. 

In the supplemental engine monitor space, the JPI EDM-830 earns high marks in our book, mounting in the 3.125in instrument hole but still offering a big LCD screen.

Working and playing together…

Beware, avionics components do not necessarily work or play well together, and if you are planning something that integrates, say nav/com with autopilot, plus traffic, and with engine information, you’ll need to make sure that each individual component is able to communicate the required data in a language that can be understood for everything to work properly. This is the sort of information that is hard to come by without feeling that you’re drowning in a sea of acronyms. Working with an installer at a reputable avionics shop will help make fundamental choices early enough in the process to save you money and angst later!

Autopilots – better than ever…

The good news is that modern digital autopilots are more capable than ever. Once fully understood, they’re capable of flying the aeroplane with more accuracy and consistency than you or I will ever manage, and they free up that most valuable of things, mental capacity. 

The bad news is that installing a fully integrated autopilot means wiring it into your other avionics as well as all sorts of mechanical control systems too. 

From a feature and accuracy vs cost point of view they’ve never been better value, but by the time they are fitted the bill still has the potential to make your eyes water! That said, if your ‘thing’ is IFR or decent distance touring, a good autopilot will leverage your investment in the aeroplane and its shiny new avionics better than anything else. 

There are of course decisions to be taken, some will be dictated by regulatory availability – does your autopilot of choice have an STC for your aeroplane? Some by capability – do you just want your autopilot to be able to hold wings level or follow a heading bug, or do you want something that’s completely capable of vertical navigation and fully coupled instrument approaches?

The main competitors in the market for retro-fitted autopilots are Genesys (as S-TEC), Garmin and Avidyne. Without a doubt the S-TEC line has more approvals for its autopilots than any other manufacturer, but many are older rate-based systems with safe but legacy levels of performance.

Avidyne’s DFC90 is an attitude-based digital autopilot that works well with already fitted S-TEC servos, so it can be a cost-effective way of upgrading an existing system in certain models without having to start from scratch, while Garmin’s GFC500 and GFC600 are bringing fantastic capability to an increasingly large number of airframes at a cost of acquisition (if not installing) that’s affordable (in aviation terms).

One feature of the newer digital autopilots is envelope protection. With the Garmins this runs in the background when the autopilot is off, so if you overbank, fly too fast or too slow, the autopilot will intervene, nudging things back where they belong. Worry not, it’s easy to disengage, and can be switched off completely for certain kinds of training.


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