Avionics was the third step in the three-year upgrade plan to create the Friendship Flyer, which had been originally conceived with more than enough margin to meet the ADS-B deadline. An unplanned engine repair consumed both funds and schedule, but with a year still remaining before the mandate came into force, I was able to exploit the FAA rebate and schedule a shop during the optimal winter down-time. In this case the work would be done by TRM Aviation, located at Ross County Airport (KRZT). Of all the black holes that can be opened in aviation, perhaps none are so potentially and notoriously bottomless as aircraft avionics and electrical systems. I spent a lot of time with the technician, talking through exactly what we wanted to do and thinking about how we might handle various contingencies we could envision. By addressing details from antenna placement to circuit breaker usage to cooling airflow, I gained confidence that he would make the right decisions to avoid chasing ghosts and keep us out of rabbit holes. And so, one winter day, we stepped into the abyss.
I selected the Avidyne 550 because critical reviews tended to rate its user interface as more intuitive than the widely installed Garmin systems. Another important consideration was the Avidyne unit incorporated an independent, solid state, attitude indicator, which would provide welcome redundancy to the one vacuum powered instrument available, even though that unit was equipped with a back-up electric vacuum pump. The primacy of all the other bells and whistles offered in any particular system is always a snapshot of any given moment, and at the time, I thought Avidyne had the edge. No matter the choice, it was going to be a major step up in situational awareness and navigational capability. Augmenting this centerpiece would be an Avidyne 240 audio panel, that possessed sufficient configuration options as to make it possible for a pilot to inadvertently create his own loss of communications incident through inept operation. Finally, there was the Avidyne 340 transponder providing the ADS-B in/out that prompted the refit in the first place. These cutting-edge black boxes would have to be integrated into a panel that was retaining a legacy KX-155 COM/NAV backup radio, a conventional VOR with glideslope and localizer, and an ADF, simply because it still worked. Even more tricky would be the connection to the existing S-Tec 50 autopilot, which, even if successfully integrated, would probably lack the responsiveness to perform coupled approaches to modern expectations. But a new autopilot, and other desirable goodies like an angle of attack indicator, and digital engine analyzer, were not in the cards for this upgrade for the simple reason that a line had to be drawn somewhere if there was to be any hope of establishing a bottom to this financial chasm.
Perhaps it was good planning, or technical skill, or only plain luck, but the installation went smoothly, and everything powered up on the first attempt without a flicker of the display or phantom squeal on the intercom. Even the initialization flight profile coordinated with ATC came off without a hitch and suddenly N116HR was a registered cog in the vast aerospace network. A month later, the first gremlin appeared, in the form of an erratic flicker of the primary display. To their credit, Avidyne didn’t ask a single question, but overnighted an entire replacement unit that, with five minutes effort, slid into the panel and came alive perfectly. Now, after years of clinging to some piloting high ground by virtue of my continued proficiency with dead reckoning ,VOR navigation and vigilant see-and-avoid discipline, I find myself continuously on guard against becoming a magenta line follower and TCAS complacent. There is no question that the new technology is a marvel, but it is also true that it comes with a tether to a data subscription that requires perpetual feeding. Yet another uncontrollable expense on the tally of flight costs.