Getting A Lot For A Little

Some affordable enhancements can give new life to any aircraft


LoPresti Boom Beams

As much as we'd all like to purchase a newer, bigger or faster airplane, the reality for most of us in these economic doldrums is that we can't. Lenders have tightened the reins on aircraft financing, and prices of new aircraft seem to be on a never-ending upward trend. The good news is that we can get a lot of "bang" for just a little "buck" by making some creative---and relatively inexpensive---enhancements to the airplane we already own.

Aircraft have historically been questionable investments from a purely financial standpoint. While there were a few decades there where a general aviation airplane would go up in value every year, the situation has changed, and the market has become more volatile. As such, lots of aircraft owners are choosing to stick with the airplane they have now rather than risk jumping into a brand-new craft at many times the price and with no guarantee of future appreciation. Though the hidden truth is that we buy airplanes because we love to fly---and not because it makes financial sense---keeping the airplane we already have makes good sense, and keeps our spouses and accountants happy.

But what if we're tired of that same old airplane in the hangar we know so well? Maybe the paint is starting to show its age, or that dark-burgundy velvet interior (Cessna actually offered this) is looking a bit "mid-century" in a bad way. Perhaps the panel needs some new capabilities to keep up with technology, or maybe we just want to fly safer. It's for these reasons that owners can save a ton of cash by strategically improving their current aircraft with enhancements that won't squeeze the bank account too much. Giving an older, "well-worn" aircraft new life is entirely possible on an even miserly budget.

LoPresti Boom Beams
www.speedmods.com
With more than 40 supplemental type certificates (STCs), patents and copyrights, legendary LoPresti Speed Merchants are considered gurus of speed and safety modifications for aviation. That track record continues with their Boom Beam landing-light system. Anybody who has suffered a night landing with anemic landing lights (and that's most of us) needs to see this lighting system in action--- it's that impressive.

The Boom Beam High Intensity Discharge Xenon system increases lighting by 500% or more over most landing lights (output is about 500,000 candlepower!). Available in both 14- and 28-volt versions, the system comes in three beam widths: "taxi" (54° degree), "intermediate" (17° degree) and "landing" (9° degree), and consists of a power supply, shielded high-voltage wire harness, plug-in HID lamp, mounting hardware and the reflector assembly. Boom Beams give off a very pure, white light similar to the new Porsche automobiles. With a five-year warranty and a bulb life of 5,000 hours (drawing a miserly 1.4 amps at 28 volts), this mod is a must for night operations. Price: starts at $948.


AeroLED Strobes

AeroLED Strobes
www.aeroleds.com
AeroLED produces TSO-approved replacement lights using the latest LED (light-emitting diode) technology. The LED nav/strobe lighting systems provide lots of benefits over "legacy" wing-tip and strobe lights, including a much longer bulb life (LEDs will last over 50,000 hours) when compared to a halogen bulb (typically 100 hours) or even a xenon bulb (about 2000 hours). These wing-tip lights are efficient, only drawing about 1⁄3 the power of conventional lights, and keep their brightness even at low RPM. Their solid-state nature means they're impervious to vibration, stay cooler and weigh less than standard lights.

AeroLED offers several models of lights for different aircraft, including direct replacements for Whelen or Grimes lights, as well as landing, beacon and taillighting. All AeroLEDs have a built-in pulse mode and synchronize with each other for a "wig-wag" effect to enhance the aircraft's visibility. Price: $895 for the Pulsar NS180 nav/strobe combination.



AmSafe Seatbelt Airbag

AmSafe Seatbelt Airbag
www.amsafe.com
Although some 80% of new aircraft come equipped with AmSafe's seatbelt air bags as standard equipment, those of us with older aircraft couldn't enjoy the life-saving benefit of these units until recently. Probably one of the smartest bang-for-your-buck retrofit items, AmSafe air bags can make the difference between life and death.

AmSafe has introduced an updated and lighter seatbelt air bag than their earlier offering. AmSafe Seatbelt Airbags look like standard seatbelts and operate the same way. A specially designed air bag is stored in either the lap or torso-belt portion of the restraint. When sensors detect an impact, the air bag deploys up and away from the passenger, providing protection to the head, neck and torso. Bottom line: They make impacts survivable. Price: approximately $1,500 per seat.


Aviation Design Interiors

Aviation Design Interiors
www.aviationdesign.com
Nothing makes an aircraft feel like new more than a different interior. Aviation Design makes complete aircraft interiors that can be mailed to a customer or installed at their facility. They also specialize in individual components, such as armrests, headrests, seats and doors, that will customize your aircraft. Such add-ons as their Beechcraft armrests and cabin doors really dress up an otherwise mundane cabin.

Aviation Design utilizes patented Comforfoam in their seats and quality materials throughout. For owners who don't need a custom interior, Aviation Design's mail-order, pre-built components are just beautiful and a vast improvement over what came from the factory. Price: varies based on several factors.


Avidyne IFD540 Touch Screen GPS/Nav/Com

Avidyne IFD540 Touch Screen GPS/Nav/Com
www.avidyne.com
If your panel space is at a premium, but you want top-notch components for both communicating and navigating, look no further than Avidyne's innovative combo unit. The IFD540 combines the same Flight Management System as found in Avidyne's Entegra Release 9 glass panel, with a multichannel digital VHF radio. All of it comes in a single, easy-to-install, panel-mounted unit.

The IFD540 is designed as a plug-and-play replacement for the Garmin GNS530 & 530W navigators, using the same tray and antennas to allow installation without wiring changes. It features a larger display than the Garmin units, 400% more pixels, and a much easier to use hybrid touch screen interface. Price: $16,995.

BRS Airframe Parachutes
www.brsparachutes.com


BRS Airframe Parachutes

While most people know that BRS makes the parachute for the Cirrus airplanes, they don't know that this same parachute system is available for retrofit in other aircraft, including LSA and certified models. In fact, BRS makes airframe 'chute systems for aircraft that range from 600 pounds up to 3,100 pounds, with installations for more than 300 aircraft. Each system is made of three components: the container, canopy and deployment rocket. When the deployment handle is pulled, the rocket accelerates to 150 feet per second, extracting the parachute and harness and pulling the lines taut. The canopy then inflates and decelerates the aircraft. The system has already saved hundreds of lives. Price: $3,000-$12,000 depending on aircraft.



Emerging Lifesaving Technologies ELT406GPS

Emerging Lifesaving Technologies ELT406GPS
www.elt406.net
The emergency-locator world has changed. On February 1, 2009, the Cospas-Sarsat satellite search-and-rescue (SAR) system stopped processing signals from conventional 121.5 MHz ELTs. It now only processes signals from 406 MHz ELTs. Also, studies have shown that between 30% and 70% of traditional ELTs fail in a real emergency. Emerging Lifesaving Technologies produces the first ELT with an internal GPS approved for general aviation use. In flight, the GPS unit in the ELT continuously updates your position with the satellite system every 15 seconds. In the event of activation, a five-watt signal will "burst" every 50 seconds to pinpoint your aircraft's position for SAR teams within about 100 meters.

The ELT406GPS mounts like most standard ELTs and can usually use existing hardware and cutouts from your outdated unit. Maintenance is also easy with an owner-replaceable five-year battery pack. The unit comes with a combination 406MHz broadcast and a GPS passive antenna, allowing for easy one-place installation. Price: $1,199.


Great Lakes Aero Products Windshields

Great Lakes Aero Products Windshields
www.glapinc.com
New windshields and windows on an airplane make an enormous difference and are low-cost items that can increase the resale value of your airplane, easily paying for themselves in the process. One of the biggest and best aircraft-windshield manufacturers is Great Lakes Aero, with a mind-numbing selection of windshields. Got a T-50 Bamboo Bomber? No problem---Great Lakes has a windshield in stock. Maybe a Fouga CM-170? Yep, they have it. Many are offered in colors like clear, green and grey, and are incredibly affordable. The company also offers free care, cutting and sanding information. See what a difference a new windshield or window makes, and fly safer. Price: varies with airplane.


L3 Trilogy Electronics Standby Instrument

L3 Trilogy Electronics Standby Instrument
www.as.l-3com.com
Our reliance on glass panels is unprecedented and growing fast. Glass panel systems provide situational awareness that can't be matched by steam gauges. But what happens when the glass systems go dark? That's where the Trilogy ESI comes in. It provides dependable backup for attitude, altitude, airspeed and heading information by combining them all into a single display powered by an internal Li-Ion battery. The battery will keep the 3.7-inch display functioning for a minimum of one hour. Cessna recently selected the L3 unit for their Citation M2 jet. In addition to its immediate usefulness, we love that it's a standby instrument that already looks like the glass panel it backs up, making the transition to it seamless. While not inexpensive, the Trilogy ESI is a whole "six-pack" that will keep you alive in the event of a total system failure. Price: $14,995.


Micro Aero Vortex Generators

Micro AeroDynamics Vortex Generators
www.microaero.com
If you've never flown an aircraft equipped with vortex generators, you're in for a surprise with these from Micro AeroDynamics. Vortex Generators are small aluminum vertical blades installed span-wise along the upper surface of a wing just behind the leading edge. They create tiny vortices (corkscrew-like airflow) over the top of the wing, which helps the air to "stick" to the wing at high angles of attack. This permits flights at low airspeeds and high angles of attack without stalling and with more control authority.

Installed with nothing more than special adhesive and a long ruler (everything needed for installation is included in the kit), Micro VGs are available for a long list of aircraft. Micro Aero is announcing their new STC approval for installation VGs on the Diamond DA-42 twin. Price: kits start at $695 and increase, depending on aircraft.



Sporty's Aircraft Cleaning System

Sporty's Aircraft Cleaning System
www.sportys.com
Okay, so this one isn't a retrofit, but it's a great deal on everything needed to bring your aircraft back to life and keep it looking new. Sporty's kit is divided into three sections: interior, exterior and windshield. These include a bottle of Cabin Master for complete inside care, interior wipes, avionics screen cleaners and "Ozium" to keep things smelling fresh. It also has one gallon of Carbon-X for debugging and degreasing, Fleet Wash, one gallon of Poly-Glide polish, spray bottle, and a bunch more to get everything looking good. The kit can even be personalized with your name. Price: $179.


Voiceflight VFS101 Speech Recognition

Voiceflight VFS101 Speech Recognition
www.voiceflight.com
From the "cool enhancements" category comes this ingenious unit. The VFS101 is an FAA STC'd speech-recognition system that allows pilots to enter waypoints and airways into their Garmin 430W/530W GPS units, some 10 times faster than using tedious knobs or touch screens. Pilots use their voice with standard ICAO phonetic alphabet (alpha, bravo, etc.) to "talk to" their GPS. A set of verbal flight plan-editing commands allows the pilot to input re-routes in seconds without having to look down and work the GPS knobs and screens.

The VFS101's speech-recognition algorithms are incredibly fast and accurate, and can be installed in hundreds of aircraft without FSDO field approval. Voiceflight just released their companion iPad app that allows pilots to transfer flight plans from their iPad to the VFS101 through a special cable. Price: $1,995.

It's interesting that flying clubs and partnerships often overlook the importance of investing a little bit of cash to improve an already good airplane. With even a modest budget, a group-owned airplane can be transformed into an even better asset. And those pilots who enjoy putting in some elbow grease and turning wrenches can take advantage of the current used aircraft market and pick up a nicely used aircraft at bargain basement rates. By adding some affordable retrofits, a good cleaning and some creative additions, a new plane will emerge. The next time you're lamenting the fact that you can't afford that quarter-million dollar beauty, consider what you can enhance on a budget. A little can go a long way.

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