By John Wyman, EAA 462533, Chapter 266 Montreal
When I think of soaring I first think of flying without an engine, yet these days its link to something rising has more meaning. This is especially true with airplane parts and the cost of replacing old ones with “upgrades.” These upgrades come in many forms, ranging from a simple nav light swap out to newer LED bulbs to replacing the whole panel with electronic boxes. They’re supposed to be advancements over what was there initially, but I’m of the opinion now that they are more modeled after our incessant quest to have the latest and greatest of everything and that anything that looks old, yet still does the job, is no longer of any value. Case in point could be the computer that I am punching out this article on — it’s old and wearing out like its owner but it still works fine minus a few ailments that take some getting used to.
Behind any of these upgrades is the market they are developed for — experimental or certified? Generally, a certified part is always more expensive than an experimental one. This is because of the added cost (to the manufacturer) of proving to the regulatory bodies that the new replacement part is of the same quality as the OEM (original equipment manufactured) product. It’s only logical that there is more paperwork behind anything official, but when that same paperwork accounts for most of the cost of the upgrade, it threatens to stop the part from making it to market. Without a new replacement part, the owner is challenged with finding something used, potentially from a questionable online source. Forest Gump comes to mind here, “it’s like a box of chocolates, you never know what you’re gonna get!”
Aftermarket is the answer!
I talked to some extent with an aftermarket parts supplier (whose name will remain anonymous here) who specializes in making parts for a certified airplane to get a better understanding of the costs involved. He recently purchased the STC (standard type certificate) for an add-on part to a Piper’s frame. It had been installed before on Pipers so you’d think that it would have been a plug n’ play purchase on his part when he bought the STC. Like his other STCs, it was anything but. Even with the transfer of the STC, it was still up to him to prove that the original STC still met the technical merits of its issue although very little, if anything had changed in its design. All that happened was a transfer of ownership. So costs are incremental with time and paperwork. In another modification of his, it took him at least five years to get approval for some oil lines that did away with them being replaced by an FAA airworthiness directive every 10 years. All of this, for a limited market at best. He kept at it and there were points where he wanted to give up. In the end it passed, but you have to wonder where we’d all be if it weren’t for a select group of people like this who support us?
Another company that really impressed me was REAL GASKETS. I talked at length with the owner, Chris Carter, who makes silicone gaskets for a large array of airplane engines and many other cars and motorcycles. I first installed their gaskets on Lycoming and Continental engines years ago and they are still better than the original manufacturers. Fortunately, they have kept their prices relatively in check and offer owners of older Continental engines (like O-200s and C85s) a great quick fix to annoying leaking pushrod covers for 125 USDs per cylinder — a good deal in my opinion given that a case of oil is now in excess of 100 dollars! At that price, who can afford to dump it overboard? It equally took him years of design and certification with the authorities to improve the covers. See more about their products at RealGaskets.com.
Used vs. New
Sometimes it is worthwhile to go the used parts route — especially if the part is not to complicated, ex. cosmetic. A friend recently replaced the tail fairing on his Piper with a used one bought on eBay. Even then, I was struck at the cost. The small part cost 150 USDs without shipping and there certainly weren’t any new stainless screws with that. That too has skyrocketed in price — just ask anyone who works on boats — much of the same quality screws are used on airplanes. In his particular case, the owners (a partnership of four) were keen to get the fairing replaced as soon as possible and keep the airplane flying (it had shattered to pieces when one person knocked ice off of it). So in terms of time and effort they were able to justify the “used” cost. I dare not contemplate what that same part would cost new, if available at all from Piper or another aftermarket manufacturer.
I was at SUN ‘n FUN last month and a rumor was circulating between the suppliers (when I got onto the subject of soaring costs) that a new, overhauled, 150-hp Lycoming O-320, was fetching 38,000 USDs. It’s an easily believable price tag. Take a look at the Canadian costs for the same overhaul. You’ll gasp at the prices! It makes me wonder when (or if) these will subside? They won’t if the current demand out there for four-seat aircraft remains high. Prices are climbing for everything. Inflation has been on the rise for a while (since early 2021) and anything associated with airplanes and other personal leisure craft are no exception.
If you think engines have gotten pricey, don’t forget what they drive! A basic fixed-pitch propeller overhaul in Canada costs north of $2000 and if you are looking for an overhauled constant-speed prop, plan to pay $7500 plus the cost of a governor if it too needs to be rebuilt. I am only talking two-bladed here. Tack on another third for three blades. We recently overhauled ours for $8500 (on the two-bladed McCauley Comanche prop and governor) in 2019, so plan to pay more than that today. And as long as there is a requirement to do that every 10 years, whether it flies or not, it’s something you have to save for when the calendar date approaches. Bank on prices increasing, because the cost of materials and labor is going up.
This is one area where prices have really spiraled out of control. It seems that people are now searching for as much information that they can jam into a screen as possible. I think it’s a sign of the times, as much expressed in airplane cockpits as it is in automotive center consoles. Part of this is likely attributable to the overall need to update our panels with more reliable instrumentation and that if you’re going to replace one gauge, you might as well incorporate a couple instruments into one, like an engine monitor. For some of us, this isn’t really all that necessary if the majority of your instruments are working just fine. The problem is that there aren’t too many aftermarket companies producing individual instruments that can replace the manufactured ones without replacing a whole set of them to keep the panel uniformly presentable. You then find yourself wallowing between the booths at a show like SUN ‘n FUN contemplating the idea of giving your panel a complete upgrade. It sounds good, but it’s expensive. Changing everything isn’t economically practical because if you did, you’d have to remortgage the house. Case in point was one such display, that, if you chose to redo the entire panel, with a new frame layout (if that was possible in your certified airplane?) then the total cost of your six pack EFIS, audio panel, moving map, radios and GPS/ADS-B receiver would come to 76,915 USDs! What is that percentage of the total cost of the airplane? One half? Three quarters? Equal? Where is the sense in that?
A Question of Tastes
Personally, I don’t get a huge kick out of staring at CRTs (cathode ray tubes) or its contemporary LCDs (liquid crystal displays), but that’s certainly where the modern instrument panel has gone. I find, for the GA pilot, there is too much information on them and that it focuses your scan on a small area. This keeps too many eyes in the cockpit. They do save a lot of weight versus many smaller gauges and they limit the need for too much interior lighting with individual post lights, however, the bigger the box, the more numerous the inputs to fill up those screens. That’s a complicated installation. I do see them as beneficial in a fighter-like cockpit of a single or tandem seater where the panel space is limited. Taking apart a large panel in a four-seater or a higher performance aircraft seems like a lot of work just to fix a few instruments that are giving you problems, especially if your radios don’t need replacing. Unfortunately, not many solutions are on the horizon for replacing instrument clusters or individual instruments, likely due to the limited numbers that fail or the convenience of just repairing them. Some companies like Electronics International or Aerosonic (and others) have made an effort of filling these niche markets where their replacement instruments can actually replace gauges in their original cutouts or, they are small enough to install without drastically modifying the whole panel. I speak here only from a VFR point of view, as if your ship is more IFR-oriented, then you may want to consider the benefits of a harmonized panel for today’s RNAV (point to point) air navigation system. I am at that point with the Comanche — do I just fix the stuff that needs fixin’ or do I wait until I can “afford” to update all of it?
A Final Word…
Like most DIY projects, if you’re planning on building an airplane or fixing one, always budget higher and try to trim on the costs by doing as much as you can yourself and only turn to new parts when absolutely required because the old ones have become troublesome, or they are just plainly obsolete (radios are a prime example). Sometimes you can find a great deal on the used market, or you can make do with what you already have, if you can fix it?
John Wyman, EAA 462533, Chapter 266 Montreal, is a passionate aviator. When he isn’t in the saddle at the airline, he can be found out at the airfield doing any number of things. He likes to fly gliders, practice aerobatics, work on airpl