ADS-B and Other Avionics Upgrades

When the plane was acquired in late 2016, the avionics stack was already good, but needed some modernization to integrate the new ADS-B transponder requirements and update the Emergency Locator Transmitter from 121.5mhz to the new 406mhz standard. The FAA is requiring aircraft flying into most ruled airspace to have an ADS-B by January 1, 2020.

For those not as familiar with aviation, the avionics stack is commonly refers to the electronics components pilots use to geo-reference a plane’s location, communicate, and follow an electronic flight plan.

Like many aircraft owners upgrading the transponder to ADS-B capability, the upgrade triggered a number of other improvements that increase safety and situational awareness.

The legacy stack included a standard Garmin 430, King KX155 nav/com, KT76A transponder, KMA24 audio panel, Telex intercom, and an older ACK grey code altitude encoder.

Keeping the Garmin 430

I like the Garmin 430 for GPS navigation and coms, and decided to send the unit back to Garmin for overhaul to like new condition and add WAAS capability to convert the unit to a 430W. Also included in the overhaul was a performance upgrade to terrain and obstacle avoidance capability. The 430W acts as the position source for the new GTX-345 transponder and ACK-04 406 ELT.

Garmin GTX-345

There are several great choices for a new transponder, and many pilots have near theological beliefs for which brand or model is best. Commonly many pilots consider the Garmin GTX345 or the Lynx 9000 as the “gold standards” for ADS-B transponder. Other common solutions like Stratus ESG, Sky Beacon, Garmin GDL-82 meet the minimum requirements; but are either transmitting at minimum power of 18-30 watts, and/or cannot project traffic and weather on other certified avionics devices.

Criteria for a new transponder for N46PG was full power 240 watt transmission, visualization of ADS-B In’s FIS-B weather & TIS-B traffic on the Garmin 430W, and an internal AHRS to drive synthetic vision in ForeFlight on a yoke mounted iPad.

The Lynx 9000 was also a strong contender, but at the time the unit was nearly $1000 more than the GTX-345 and did not have an internal AHRS to drive ForeFlight’s synthetic vision. Lynx prices have come down are are now on pare with 345.

Update: since writing this article, Gamin has released the new GNX-375 transponder with GPS. A great option if a plane needs WAAS GPS and an ADS-B transponder. Having played with one, excellent unit.

Top tip if installing a Garmin Transponder: install an OAT sensor. The 345 has an OAT sensor input and the transponder will display density altitude instead of just pressure altitude. Continuous real time density alt calculation has proven valuable. It’s nice at altitude to know density altitude when determining when to use oxygen or if above limits for when oxygen is required. A few times flying at 10,000-11,000 ft seeing density alt at 13,000 or better.

OAT cost was $110 and 30 mins labor. Cheap for the extra capability.

GARMIN GAE 12 Altitude Encoder

The legacy ACK altitude encoder was performing perfectly, and was not part of the upgrade plan. This was until the avionics shop said the total installed cost of buying a new high resolution GAE 12 was the same price as rewiring the legacy ACK encoder. An obvious easy decision. The GAE 12 is very simple to install and also isolates the Static line from the transponder, allowing transponder removal without disturbing the static system.

PS Engineering 450A

The audio panel was sorely in need of upgrade as well. Going with the PS Engineering 450A was a no regrets decision. The customer support from PS Engineering is second to none. Once a pilot has experienced a modern bluetooth stereo intercom and radio reception, they will dearly wish they upgraded sooner. The communication clarity is unmatched when compared to a legacy unit like the KMA-24 with a Telex intercom.

The small screen and context related buttons are a delight and vastly ease operations. Other audio panels without this small display have cryptic multi-button presses to access non-label features. A practical impossibility without reading the manual every time those features are needed. The deep extra capability is easy to access since the menu structure is intuitive.

The USB-C power port is fully capable of charging an iPad in use. Fantastic having a certified power source for portable devices if needed.

PSE’s audio streaming capability is first rate. Both an iPhone and iPad can be simultaneously connected via bluetooth. The 450A plays well the Garmin equipment and Foreflight on the iPad. All enabled audio annunciations are clear and pleasant in tone and presentation. Cell phone integration is first rate. Incoming caller ID appears on the 450A’s display and two of the soft buttons become labeled as Answer and Ignore. Phone communications through the headset is clear as a bell on both sides of the call.

PS Engineering 450A

Thumbs-up to PSE!
By the way, PS Engineering’s customer support is fantastic. They are very responsive to customers. A Saturday evening with the plane and on the ramp after buying fuel, I was having a bluetooth issue pairing my iPhone with the 450A. On a lark I called PSE. expecting to get voicemail or some self-support phone tree system. Nope. The company’s executive Mark picked up and spent less than 5 minutes walking me through making it work. Turned out the plane was at the Av shop the day before and the bluetooth slots were mostly filled with their set settings for test devices.

Get that kind of support from anyone else Saturday evening sitting on a small airport ramp.

FlightStream 210

All equipment was factory new, with the exception of the FlightStream 210, which was purchased slightly used for half price. One of the best upgrades was the addition of the FS210. The FS210 provides a significant capability to take flight plans in ForeFlight and with one touch, upload the plan to the Garmin GNS-430W. Likewise flight plan changes made directly on the 430W are reflected back on ForeFlight running on the yoke mounted iPad. This provides a great deal of flexibility to set the flight plan, make changes as necessary enroute, and select desired approach procedure initiated in either ForeFlight or the 430W.

The PS210 is mounted just behind the baggage bulkhead door. The installation cost was negligible as the Av shop was pulling wires for the ACK-04 ELT anyway and another wire bundle didn’t take much extra time.

This near real-time flight plan coordination between Foreflight and the GNS-430W improved pilot attention to flying as an EFB tool like Foreflight, Garmin Pilot, etc. is much easier to effect changes and load to the panel. Likewise it’s fast to pick an approach on the 430W and kick back to the iPad EFB.

The FS210 added years of enhanced capability to the 430W.

How’s it all working? What did it cost?

In a word… Terrific! The avionics stack is now modernized and performs even better than expected. The big upside surprises were the clarity of the PSE-450A, enhanced capability of a like new 430W, and the flight plan flexibility of the FS210. I have no regrets with decisions made. Everything was installed for $17,400. The GNS-430W upgrade was $3,200 by itself. The legacy equipment netted $2,900 on eBay.

Net-net cost $14,500. Very reasonable for an upgrade of this magnitude. Some additional savings were realized by removing and reinstalling the interior myself.

From upgrades and removal of legacy gear, the plane’s useful load increased by 12 pounds.

After 2 attempts, the plane passed its ADS-B certification flight to receive the FAA $500 ADS-B rebate for certified installation.

Thanks to Adam Mitchell & team from Aerial Avionics at KRHV for the expert advise and installation.