Plane & Pilot
Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Upgrade Your Plane! Part II

A new panel

Virtual Copilot Wanted
Anyone who has ever had to figure out a routing change while flying single-pilot IFR without an autopilot has probably shaved some years off his or her life. Taking your eyes off the ball while trying to locate intersections and frequencies on an L chart, read approach plates and configure the radios, reprogram a flight plan in a GPS, etc., usually means that when you look up again, you’re headed somewhere you hadn’t planned on going. In this case, even the most basic autopilot becomes a virtual copilot to keep you on the magenta line and prevent your pencil from falling to the ceiling. Adding an autopilot to interface with the PFD and GPS provides a significant level of enhanced safety.

While adding a two-axis autopilot was preferred, the need to conserve cash for the upcoming firewall-forward upgrade (Part III) led us to start with a single-axis autopilot that could be upgraded later. After a bit of research, we selected the S-Tec System Twenty single-axis autopilot from Cobham (

As you’ll recall from basic flight training, there are three axes of flight that pass through the aircraft’s center of gravity: vertical (pitch), horizontal (yaw) and longitudinal (roll). While there are autopilots that control one, two and three axes, System Twenty controls the roll axis and thus holds a desired heading (from GPS, VOR and localizer inputs).

System Twenty, which is designed to integrate with Aspen’s EFD1000, is an excellent rate-based autopilot known for its precision and reliability. It benefits from being easily upgradable to a System Thirty two-axis autopilot that can capture and hold both heading and altitude. Therein lies the beauty of S-Tec’s “building block” philosophy—start with a great foundation and add functionality when it suits you. Incorporating System Twenty into the panel as a starting point means that a well-trimmed aircraft will help maintain altitude while the single-axis autopilot will keep you on the straight and narrow, so you can momentarily divert your focus in IMC long enough to accomplish other necessary tasks with confidence.

Panel Integration

Having the latest retrofitable modern avionics installed in the aircraft’s panel is just the ticket to reinvigorate your enthusiasm for flying. But getting a suite of components manufactured by different companies to work as a single, cohesive advanced avionics package is more than an installation project—it’s an integration project. Selecting the right avionics shop to complete the work is just as important as selecting the right avionics.

Do your homework and find a reputable shop that’s a retailer, installer and warranty/repair facility for all of the avionics you choose. We selected Wipaire ( in St. Paul, Minn., for its reputation for craftsmanship and customer support, and because it sells, installs and supports all of the components we selected. Wipaire did a top-notch job on the panel aesthetics, took great care not to scratch the freshly painted aircraft and also installed precut screen protectors from Aerotect ( for the Aspen and Garmin displays.


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