With recent news of declining new-aircraft sales, it's pretty clear that we may be in it for the long haul when it comes to a full economic recovery. In the aviation world, most pilots are hanging on to their current aircraft, at least until there's a sure indication of better times. While there's plenty of interest in brand-new aircraft and lots of activity at industry shows, aircraft owners are mostly watching cautiously from the sidelines. Meanwhile, GA's current stable of some 175,000 piston-engine airplanes is plying the skies across the country, faithfully carrying their owners to destinations near and far.
Of course, new airplanes are exciting because of the prospect of brand-new gear, new capabilities, more efficiency and possibly safer flying. Technology has changed aviation quite a bit in the last couple of decades, and maybe the idea of a plain-wrap, legacy GA airplane is outdated. But is it?
In fact, with even a miserly budget and some creative thinking, you can transform your trusty machine into an updated, more comfortable and safer airplane. You can get the "bang" of a new airplane without actually having to pay the "buck." While big-budget goodies always are available if you have the funds, there's also a whole grab-bag of stuff you can do to make your airplane feel new, and you can do it without mortgaging the farm. Like those popular home-improvement television shows that prove you can "design on a dime," we'll show you how you can refurbish your airplane for just a little more than that.
No part of your body takes more abuse in flying than your derrière. Sitting in a cramped space for four or five hours, bouncing around rough air in a typical GA airplane will prove that quickly. Yet most of us don't give a second thought to our seats. Oregon Aero (www.oregonaero.com.) manufactures well-known and respected seat upgrades—in addition to an array of products to improve your aviation experience. From OEM replacements to custom seats and portable-cushion systems, Oregon Aero is known for adding comfort to everything from warbirds to jets. From an owner's perspective, new seats sell airplanes, and it's a low-cost upgrade that's immediately noticeable. From $199 for a portable-cushion combo up to a full cockpit redo, seat upgrades should be on every pilot's list. While you're at it, check out the company's headset-upgrade kits. They're as good as its seats. Both your ears and your rear end will thank you.
Lightbulbs quickly are becoming a thing of the past, at least in aircraft. Light-emitting-diode (LED) lighting takes aircraft illumination to a new level by yielding unbelievable performance for an equally unbelievable price. LEDs are ultraefficient lighting sources. They give off bright, clean light without heat, and last for thousands of hours (many are rated at 100,000 hours!). The cost to replace LEDs (if they ever need replacing—most will outlast their owners) is a fraction of that for incandescent bulbs. LEDs are now available for interior or exterior aircraft lighting. Aircraft owners can install battery-powered cockpit lighting without any major modification (or 337 form). Ranging in price from $30 for a battery-powered map light, to $250 for the popular Aveo interior lighting kit, LEDs give you a lot for a little. Be sure to check out LED strobes, beacons and landing lights. Manufacturers include Whelen (www.whelen.com), Kestrel-Air (www.kestrel-air.com) and others.
Seat Belts And Harnesses
These are upgrades that could save your life. While seat belts usually last a long time, belt webbing on older airplanes or belts that have been subjected to harsh conditions should be replaced. Today, there are many options to choose from. Pilots with older aircraft simply can install new lap belts, add a shoulder harness or an even better five-point harness. There are so many new colors to choose from, that new belts can add cosmetic flair, as well.
Even newer aircraft gain value from upgraded belts or those with airbags built into them like replacement seatbelts from AmSafe (www.amsafe.com). While Hooker harnesses (www.hookerharnes.com) are probably the most recognized STC'd harnesses, a well-known auto-racing seatbelt manufacturer, Crow Enterprizes (www.crowenterprizes.com), has been getting rave reviews in the LSA, Vans and experimental world with their very affordable and rugged five-point, U.S.-made harnesses.
Cabin Air Controls And Vents
The cabin air-flow system on a lot of legacy GA aircraft stinks. Engineers were probably too busy worrying about other things to give consideration to the lowly air vent. All of this becomes apparent on a hot day while waiting to taxi. But, several manufacturers have introduced a better mousetrap when it comes to cabin air vents. Options range from the self-installable "Vista-Vent," to the "Ventube" systems manufactured by Vantage Plane Plastics (www.planeplastics.com). Vantage also makes an innovative, solar-powered ventilator (SPV) for aircraft cabins called the "Solar Skies." It works by exhausting heat in the cabin while introducing fresh air from the aircraft's intake vents and recycling cabin air every two to three minutes. Using only solar power, it also can run a cell phone, GPS or other accessories for under $300. Sporty's (www.sportys.com) makes an airline-quality Precise-Flow air-vent system that's STC'd and comes with a 337 form. It's a precision, quality system that far outperforms the original vents.
Replacement Yoke Or Stick Grip
Too many pilots fly with a loose or partially broken yoke or stick grip. It's one of those parts that pilots rarely consider. But a broken yoke or stick grip at the wrong time could spell disaster. Another issue is that new technology has given us the ability to put more controls within fingertip reach. Simply switching out your controls can give you far more capabilities. Consider, too, that the cosmetic impact of a new yoke or grip is immediate. Pioneer Aircraft (www.aircraftcontrolgrips.com) makes some gorgeous wood control grips that would add the ultimate touch to any classic aircraft. For high-tech fans, the Ray Allen Company (www.rayallencompany.com) manufactures modern grips with the capability of adding switches that control everything from GPS units and flaps, to radios, lights and more. Infinity Aerospace (www.infinityaerospace.com) also makes some cool military-style controls that are perfect for high-performance or vintage aircraft.
New Door Seals
Replacement door seals may not sound sexy, but anyone who has flown with new door seals knows the difference they make in noise and pilot fatigue. A large part of the "tiredness" we feel after a long flight is due to the noise battering our brains, nerves and senses. Door seals also make a big difference on leaky aircraft, helping to stave off corrosion and other damage. The "go-to" company here is Aircraft Door Seals, LLC (www.aircraftdoorseals.com). Their revolutionary seals are made of a special mil-spec rubber compound that conforms to the shape of the door, molds itself to the rivets and seams, and makes an airtight and waterproof seal. Instead of mounting to the door, as in conventional applications, these attach to the fuselage around the door openings (they also now offer door-mounted seals). Today, some 20,000 aircraft door seals later, the company offers a growing line of products, including upgraded glare shields and special polishes and cleaners.
Restore Plexiglass Windows
Anybody who has priced replacing a full set of windows on an average GA airplane will tell you they almost fainted when reading the quote. But hazed windows are a true safety hazard, as anybody with the sun in their eyes through a scratched windshield will tell you. Fixing this is something you can do yourself, and has proven effective if done correctly. "Plexiglass" is just a trade name for acrylic plastic. Polycarbonates are a different breed (used in bulletproof applications), the most popular being "Lexan." GA aircraft normally have acrylic windows. With enough care and elbow grease, nearly all the Plexiglass-restoration products will work, though the most pilot-friendly are from 3M (http://solutions.3m.com) and MicroMesh (www.micro-surface.com). The 3M version is the Finesse-It Plastic Repair System. Both will provide outstanding results, and both are used in the best aviation museums to restore complete clarity to badly hazed windows. You can source these systems for around $100 at aircraft supply stores.
New Plastic Parts
One company that's a virtual Disneyland for pilots who are refurbishing on a budget is Vantage Plane Plastics in Alva, Okla., (www.planeplastics.com). Their catalog has so many OEM replacement parts, custom fittings, cosmetic refinishing supplies and customizing parts, that you could almost build an entire airframe just from their catalog. This is the place to start for anybody with plastic woes relating to their aircraft. Vantage makes just about everything imaginable to restore or upgrade your aircraft to pristine condition. They're a known source for paint and prep products, carpet, replacement plastic and hardware. One of their latest offerings is their Hush Kit, which replaces key components in an aircraft's interior to yield an ultraquiet airframe. Excellent prices and great service make this a first stop in your refurb project.
Micro AeroDynamics Vortex Generators
Micro Vortex Generators (www.microaero.com.) are tiny aluminum blades placed in a spanwise line just behind the leading edge of the wing and horizontal tail surfaces. They control airflow over the upper surface of the wing by creating vortices that energize the boundary layer. This yields improved performance and control authority at low airspeeds and high angles of attack. Vortex generators will typically give you lower liftoff and stall speeds, improved controllability and flight characteristics, safer flying and quick installation. They come ready to paint, and adhere to your airplane with a special adhesive. Priced between $700 and $1,500 for most singles, it's a do-it-yourself application and comes with all the tools and instructions you need.
Aviation Design (www.aviationdesign.com) creates what they call "total comfort package" seats to replace your worn OEM versions. They employ a special viscous foam they call "ComforFoam," which was originally developed for the space program, and whose chief benefit is that it doesn't restrict the body's circulation like conventional foam does. Aviation Design ergonomic seats utilize separate sections with varying densities of foam to offer a total body-support system. They also offer complete interior kits, armrests and side panels for just about any GA aircraft. One of my favorite refurbish ideas is their French-stitched yoke covers (with window covers to match). To top it off, their seats and interiors have earned a boatload of awards.
Rosen Sun Visors
Rosen's Monorail (www.rosenvisor.com) and NSA visor designs allow pilots to position them across the windshield or side windows, where direct sunlight creates a problem. Because they're larger and have precision mechanisms, they can be moved to just the right spot, and will stay there. Rosen's STC visor systems are available for just about any aircraft, with features like optical-quality materials, blocking of harmful UVA and UVB rays, and ultraflexible positioning via their patented mounting arm. Rosen's machining standards produce mechanical assemblies that are smooth and precise. They're now factory-original equipment on new Cessna singles.
Power Flow Exhaust System
Pilots are always trying to squeeze a few knots more out of their machines. Since 1997, Power Flow Systems (www.powerflowsystems.com) has been manufacturing distinctive-looking exhaust systems for GA aircraft. Installing a Power Flow exhaust is similar to installing a bigger engine but at a fraction of the cost. By helping your engine "breathe" better, you get improved fuel economy, more power and less noise. Power Flow introduced a short-stack exhaust option in 2005 that's more streamlined but offers the same performance. Power Flow Systems has STCs for most popular aircraft including Cessnas, Pipers and Mooneys, among others.
There are many options for pilots who want to upgrade their aircraft without going into debt. By combining several "budget" upgrades, owners can completely transform their airplanes, whether to raise the resale value or to get the benefits of a new airplane without the extravagant cost. In these lean economic times, many of us have to stretch our imaginations to keep flying. A simple, low-cost refurbishment of a few critical components could make you feel like you have a new airplane in the hangar. There's something to be said about our old, reliable airplanes, and a simple face-lift could be just what the doctor ordered.