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LSA avionics upgrades: no shortage of options: the regulations for modifying the avionics in a modern Light Sport are lenient. Space, electrical capacity and budget may prove to be much tighter.

As Special Light Sport Aircraft (S-LSAs) begin to occupy more hangars and flight-school flight lines, attention is shifting to aftermarket avionics upgrades. Some owners take delivery with little more than a handheld transceiver, which will hardly cut it in the real world. For others, their checkbooks are simply tempted by a smorgasbord of gee-whiz gadgetry.

Retrofitting LSAs is uncharted territory for most avionics shops and most of these lightweights might have unfamiliar engines and, in many cases, minimal electrical systems. LSAs are small, so available space and weight restrictions need to be considered. The rules for return-to-service following an upgrade are different for modern S-LSAs than what's required of Part 23 aircraft or even a legacy aircraft LSA. What's fine for your SportStar might not be legal for that vintage Ercoupe.

Here are a handful of avionics retrofits suitable for the average S-LSA. Also, we're talking mainly VFR missions here, while occasionally toying with light IFR if the airplane even has such approval. To be clear: While these machines are considered "little airplanes" by most standards, it's futile to expect a light invoice for avionics work, even if the equipment is bargain-priced.

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GET TRAFFIC ON A BUDGET

Did you know that your Garmin 496 (or 396 or 495) can serve double-duty as a traffic display? Zaon Flight System's $1795 PCAS XRX traffic alerter has a nifty interface that can be linked to Garmin's portable without much high-tech effort. Using a power/data interface cable (available from Garmin), traffic data is sent to and then displayed on the screen of the Garmin 496 in TCAS-like symbology. The Zaon has audible alert output and selectable range from one mile up to six miles.

The device is passive, simply listening for replies from nearby transponders that have been interrogated by radar. Range, bearing and relative altitude (scalable from +/ - 2500 feet to +/- 500 feet) of the target intruder is processed for display. The XRX measures 4 x 3.6 x 2.7 inches and sits atop of the glare-shield--a prospect we're not crazy about for crashworthiness reasons. The other issue is the unit needs to remain at least a half-foot away from obstructions, including magnetic compass.

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Since the XRX has an antenna integrated within its case, no external antenna connections should be required, which cuts install effort. Zaon says the unit was designed for fabric, fiberglass, and metal airframes and for high- and low-wing aircraft, which pretty much covers the field. The Zaon XRX data interface is functional with the GPS396/495/496, as well as with select AV8OR (formerly VistaNav), Blue Mountain EFIS and Anywhere Map units.

With so many S-LSAs delivered with a Garmin portable in the panel, we think this is one of the best upgrades you can make if you fly in a high-traffic environment. Linking the Zaon to a 496 works in certified aircraft too, but the Garmin only has a single serial input port. If your 496 is already connected to your panel-mount Garmin GPS for waypoint data load, you'll need to choose between the traffic or GPS interface.

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PUMP UP THE AUDIO

Maybe your LSA has a low-end intercom. Maybe it doesn't have one at all. The presence of a modern audio panel can change things for the better and offer great-sounding tunes on the fly. Designed specifically for LSA applications, the Garmin GMA240 is a non-TSO'd and scaled-back version of the popular GMA340 audio panel. The GMA240 lacks marker beacon, ADF and DME functionality. Instead, the unit has dual-switched stereo-audio inputs for dedicated selection between an iPod and XM Radio (or any other two sources of your choice). The GMA240 also contains a four-place intercom.

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A music volume control, music on/off button as well as a music mute key gives positive control of the tunes without having to reach for the music device. There is also an input jack on the face of the GMA240 for a portable music player or cell phone. The cell interface is full duplex and can be isolated from passengers for privacy. This is far more than the grander GMA340 offers in the way of music control and is a serious challenger to PS Engineering's PM8000.

At 15 ounces and measuring 1.3-inches high, the GMA240 won't eat too far into panel space or useful load. With a list price of $895, we think the system is an excellent value for cockpit communications, but as in any aircraft audio system, the quality of the installation is proportional to sound audio performance. Chose a shop that's up to speed on modern audio system installs.

PUT IN A REAL RADIO

Talking your way through busy airspace on an Icom portable, even with a headset adapter, isn't much fun (trust us, we've been there). There are better options.

The slim-line, 760-channel SL40 comm radio is left over from the UPS-AT days and offers features that almost make it two radios in one. Measuring 6.25-inches wide x 1.3-inches high x 10.5-inches deep, and weighing two pounds, the unit is sized for saving space in the radio stack. A frequency- monitoring feature allows listening to the standby frequency at a lower volume than the active one. This is helpful for listening to the ATIS or AWOS, without leaving an active frequency. There is an eight-frequency storage bank, as well as a dedicated emergency channel available at the touch of a button. The SL-40 has stuck-mic time-out mode so it doesn't stayed keyed when you don't want it to. This saved our butt a couple years ago.

For navigation functions, including glideslope, the SL30 is a combination navcomm that's packaged in the same box as the SL40. It drives the MD200 nav head or various EFIS displays, including the Dynon 10A common to many LSAs. A digitally-encoded OBS setting and To/From radial can be displayed on the screen of the LS30 as well. Like the SL40, the SL30 offers standby frequency monitoring--for both Com and Nav.

While we're talking radios, if you are paranoid over a potential radio failure, you might consider a dedicated external communications antenna that can connect to a portable comm transceiver. The drill is to install an antenna on the airframe (a bottom-mount design could result in less interior teardown) and route a coaxial cable with panel-mounted input jack for plugging in the handheld. On a bad day, this could be the best $500 you ever spent. Antenna work on fiberglass airplanes is often more complex that most owners realize, so consult with your shop on different options.

ROLL YOUR OWN GLASS PANEL

Dynon has enjoyed huge success in the Experimental aircraft world and their products are becoming equally popular for LSA applications. Gar-min has enjoyed equal success with the GPSMAP496. Roll these products up together and add a Gizmo Dock mount for the Garmin and you have impressive amounts of panel-mounted capability. Many LSAs are coming this way, but it could also be done aftermarket.

The EFIS-D10A is a compact and full-featured flight display that fits a 3 1/8-inch instrument cutout and weighs less than two ounces. For small panels, this makes for an easy installation while eating little real estate. The screen on the D10A is four-inch diagonal LCD with 329 by 240 color pixels. The instrument has built-in ADAHRS with a full array of flight instruments with speed and altitude tapes. There's also the option of angle of attack data.

Another option allows for two hours of backup battery power, in the event of an electrical failure. Through a serial interface, the EFISD10A can receive input from several GPS portables to display GPS track data on screen (using an NMEA data label). Panel mounting the GPS496 and making the connections behind the panel is easier than you might think, using a Gizmo Dock GPS mount.

The Gizmo Dock is still off limits to certificated aircraft, but is fair game for S-LSAs. The dock mount that houses the GPSMAP496 requires a 6.25-inch opening (you'll also need 4.25-inches of vertical space on the panel). A tilt adapter is available for angling the GPS for optimal viewing. As for the CPSMAP496, there's no shortage of bells and whistles packed inside and there's adding the Zaon traffic mentioned above. You'll need the Garmin power/data interface cable for interfacing the 496 with the aircraft electrical bus, so the unit comes on when the avionics master switch is on. The data portion of the cable connects the serial output to the input of the Dynon for GPS track input.

Air Gizmos also makes dock mounts for other portable GPS units as well as a dock mount for iPod music devices. The dock mount that houses the Garmin 196 through 496 series is $99 plus the angle adapter. Street price of the GPSMAP496 is around $2450. Dynon's EFIS-D10A is $2200. In our view, this five-grand setup (plus install labor) offers huge capability for a song--if that's what you want from your LSA.

Some have suggested that the small screen on the D10A-series makes engine instruments a tough read, which for some might be true. Dynon offers engine monitoring in a similar mounting footprint through the EMS-D10. But then again, LSAs have small panels. If you must have a bigger display, the EFIS-D100 is an option, but it eats more panel space.

Dynon has autopilots in development that should work well in the LSA world and Tru Trak already offers them. So it's really a matter of how much you want to spend on capability for your "sport" aircraft.

CONCLUSION

Compared to LSAs, owners with Part 23 aircraft can only dream of such capabilities for the lower costs associated with this gear, not to mention the privilege of a liberal approval process.

Be forewarned, however, that the electrical systems and components in some LSA models are crude and connecting some of this high-tech gear can pose challenges. An LSA maintenance expert admitted that many LSAs simply don't have beefy enough alternators to support a full panel of avionics. With all the avionics and landing lights on while throttled back to lower power settings, some airplanes have a charging system deficit. He also admitted that many LSAs share ultra-light DNA and just aren't suitable for flying serious weather.

Shops have their hands full, too. We recall one avionics shop that had to special order an oddball circuit breaker--from Germany--for one LSA model during a simple transponder installation. Adding to the hassle was the chore of fixing broken wires that instantly pulled away from factory-installed connectors once the panel was opened up.

We'll stop short of labeling LSA models as glorified ultra lights, as one owner who sold his modern LSA did. We see them differently. They aren't as robust as Part-23 aircraft, but are more flexible when it comes time to customize them to meet your mission.

CHECKLIST

[+] LSA regulations keep the FAA out of the approval loop.

[+] Non-TSO'd equipment dramatically cuts cost and increases options.

[-] Some LSA designs aren't robust enough or can't accommodate power-hungry upgrades.

[-] Some upgrades may tempt LSA pilots to fly in unsafe conditions.

RELATED ARTICLE: REALITY CHECK

LSA IFR: LEGAL BUT NOT SIMPLE

Perhaps more than any other endeavor we know, aviation is full of items that are "legal, but not smart" and "smart, if not exactly legal," Smart is usually rewarded on both counts. Don't launch into low IMC without an autopilot and GPS and when your last IFR flight was six approaches six months ago. Reward: you don't die. Do launch through a high layer of cold clouds with uncertified deicing and a rock-solid plan B in case the ice surprises you. Reward: you don't die and you get to Peoria on time.

S-LSAs open up a whole new arena here and the smart vs. legal debate is already raging. Let's take an honest look at both.

LSA IFR Can Be Legal

The regulations requiring what an LSA must have to fly under certain conditions--day, night, VFR, IFR--are governed by FAR and ASTM standards. ASTM standards are agreed upon by committee and then blessed by the FAA. Right now, ASTM standards exist for day and night VFR flight of LSAs. That means that manufacturers wishing to permit day VFR or night VFR in their aircraft must meet the minimum requirements of FAR 91.205 (required equipment) and they must meet the requirements of the ASTM.

There is no ASTM for IFR yet. It's in the works, but sticky points like whether lightning protection will be required or if the engine manufacturer must approve the engine for IFR have held it up. Other items that may or may not make the final ASTM cut are stability standards, a basic electrical standard (but this will probably be the same as the night ASTM), and a standard for non-TSO'd parts if they are used to comply with 91.205.

So can you file IFR and fly your LSA in the clouds right now? Yes, so long as you meet the equipment requirements of 91.205 and the manufacturer doesn't prohibit it (and you're at least a private pilot with an instrument rating). Note the double negative there (or, perhaps, contra-positive): doesn't prohibit. If the manufacturer says nothing about taking the aircraft in the clouds and it has the required equipment, then it's legal. It's up to you if it's smart. Even after the ASTM is finalized, it's likely that much of the responsibility will fall back on the manufacturer to say yes or no. If they say nothing, compliance with FARs and ASTM, and the IFR decision, rests with the pilot.

LSA IFR Can Be Smart

While we're not itching to fly an LSA to ILS minimums in turbulence, writing off all LSAs for IFR is too easy an answer. Those Dynon 10As or Grand Rapids EFIS displays have logged thousands of cumulative hours in the clouds in experimental aircraft. The likelihood of failure is far less than vaccum-powered Al systems. The accident record says your odds of living another day are probably better gambling an EFISnot failing versus using near-dormant partial-panel skills. And some LSAs have two EFISs and a battery-powered handheld GPS in the panel. That's arguably more backup than a G1000 Cessna 172.

But they are not TSO'd and indications are they aren't as robust as that G1000. The LSAs also have light wing loading, so turbulence is an issue. They won't carry ice well if you stray where you shouldn't. Most won't have a backup attitude indicator of any kind unless you add it and many don't have real electrical redundancy for that all-electric panel. Autopilots are a rarity.

So smart is really a matter of honestly conducting risk-benefit when looking at looming clouds. It's no different than any IFR flying: What are your options? What are your outs? What are the consequences of a critical system failing? For some, the pucker-factor will dictate VFR-only. Others will take on en route IFR with high ceilings. A few will fly with only the freight dogs for company.

For many LSAs, we'd comfortably fly along on either of the first two missions. As for the third one, we'd exercise our right to be smart.

--Jeff Van West managing editor and the editor of IFR magazine

RELATED ARTICLE: S-LSA MODS: A NEW REGULATORY STANDARD

Shops are delighted to learn that modifying an LSA requires little, if any, FAA interaction. In fact, when we asked an FAA inspector a few regulator-related LSA questions, it was clear that LSA upgrade legalities were far from his jurisdiction.

He was quick to point out, however, the poor track record for wrecked LSAs and that pilots were "bending LSAs in record numbers." This struck us as odd, since there really isn't an established safety record for this class. Moreover, this offered bad vibes and our immediate sense was the risk of an eventual increase in FAA involvement for LSA upgrades, maintenance and owner operation.

In short, the upgrade standard works like this: Any modification to a LSA not covered in the maintenance manual must be approved through a letter issued by the LSA manufacturer, or someone designated by the manufacturer. Many U.S. distributors of foreign built LSAs have this authority to a greater or lesser degree. Much like a flight manual supplement and Form 337 approvals, serial-number specific approval documentation from the manufacturer becomes part of the aircraft records after modification. Some approvals might blanket the entire fleet of LSA model (but each installation still needs its own copy of that letter), while some are aircraft specific. If the LSA manufacturer goes belly up, authority then falls to the FAA or its designee.

Given how much the success of this process rides on the people doing the installation and requesting this letter, we strongly recommend using an experienced shop who will think through the installation and its ramifications for your aircraft.

The take away here is that the rules are set, but still being tweaked (particularly for IFR operations). The hope is for reasonable rule making as the LSA market matures. But there begs a question: Are these small airplanes as simple as they were intended given the capabilities offered by modern avionics? Do the avionics offer more capability than the airframe and the pilot? You can bet that as more LSA's venture into the weather, and serious augers hit the reports, the rules will change with a little help from the FAA.

Larry Anglisano is Aviation Consumer's avionics editor.
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Title Annotation:LIGHT-SPORT SPOTLIGHT
Author:Anglisano, Larry
Publication:The Aviation Consumer
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Oct 1, 2008
Words:2919
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