Top 3 Avionics Modifications For Increasing Piston Aircraft Value

By Jason Zilberbrand

June 6, 2022 Appraisals

We’ve discussed before why aircraft are generally not good assets. For the most part, aircraft are depreciating assets, and you can do much better from an investment perspective. When it comes to upgrading your aircraft, my advice is always the same: avoid the temptation to refurbish an aircraft for resale purposes. Nine times out of 10, you will do better selling the aircraft "as is" and allow the next owner to upgrade the equipment based on mission, and tastes. That is not to say that upgrading your aircraft will not increase its value, but rather the upgrades will not yield a dollar-for-dollar return based on your investment.

The good news is if you do decide to upgrade your avionics, some will make it easier to sell your aircraft. So you could look at the investment as opening up the buying demographic for your plane. Therefore you should treat all upgrades with a grain of salt, carefully researching the market to confirm buyers not only desire your upgrades but are also willing to pay for them.

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What Are The Top 3 Avionics Modifications You Can Make To Increase Your Piston Aircraft Value?

Remember that upgrades are limited depending on the model, the number still in operation, and the avionics type. Avionics manufacturers will support those aircraft with larger service populations first. So do not assume there is an STC for every radio, nav/com, GPS, or autopilot. It is also important to research who can install the equipment, and in this case, being first is not your best bet. You'll want to find a shop with tons of experience, reducing your bill and limiting the troubleshooting expenses. It is also critical not to get too carried away, as I have seen many panel installations with so many redundant screens that your head would spin. Lastly, Murphys Law plays a vital role in aviation, so do your homework and double-check pricing as the global supply chain issues and high inflation increase expenses quickly.

Here’s a roundup of the top 3 modifications you can consider, paired with an estimated cost for each one.

1. Glass Panel Modifications

Many people choose to upgrade their aircraft through avionics in a world where technology is king. The most popular brands are Garmin and Avidyne. Sure, they’re pricey; but they're worth it for the advanced technology they offer.

In addition to offering cutting-edge technology and features, newer glass panel modifications offer improved visibility inside the cockpit. Modern panels use liquid crystal display (LCD) screens with light-emitting diodes (LED) underneath, and this technology is already used in devices like your smartphone and smartTV. Older panels may have also used LCDs or cathode ray tubes (CRT), but they aren’t as reliable as newer ones and are much more challenging to repair.

Update your Primary Flight Display (PFD) and experience the difference between using an Electronic Flight Instrument System versus information limited to heading and altitude data. This type of aviation technology includes much more complex data because it simultaneously pieces together data from multiple instruments. You get a clearer view of what’s going on with your aircraft from take-off to landing.

Consider pairing your main display with an advanced Multi-Function Display (MFD). An MFD allows you to view more than one information screen by switching between them quickly. It’s configurable, easy to use, and is usually seamlessly compatible with a PFD.

Are you interested in an avionics upgrade? The bottom line is while you do have a few custom options, you’re looking at a price tag between $10,000 to upwards of $30,000. Take a look at the following choices with pricing from both Garmin and Avidyne.

Garmin Avionics

  • G1000 NXi: $28,995

  • G600 TXi: $9,905

  • G500 TXi: $7,195

  • G3X Touch: $8,600

Avidyne Avionics

  • IFD550: $21,999

  • IFD545: $21,999

  • IFD540: $17,333

  • IFD510: $17,333

  • IFD440: $14,995

  • IFD410: $13,989

Innovative avionics have positive benefits. So does having an accurate, experienced appraisal on any aircraft you may consider. Find out more about aviation appraisal services from VREF.

2. Steam Gauges

Any pilot or aviation professional you meet will probably feel about traditional versus modern steam gauge systems. You now have more affordable options to replace six-pack steam gauges with modern digital instruments compared to years past. On the one hand, you have the classic, tried, and tested six-pack steam gauges. These aircraft are used mostly for training. However, it’s recommended to stick to one type of gauge if you plan on flying other aircraft with the same type of technology.

Replacing old steam gauges might take away from an aircraft’s vintage look, but it offers a few benefits. As mentioned before, training with steam gauges is critical. However, learning how to fly a piston aircraft with a digital monitor is ideal. This way, you have experience and the know-how to fly with either. Both offer the same information. However, it’s a valuable skill to learn how to read each one.

If you plan on making this switch, looking for advanced avionics like Garmin or Avidyne avionics will be your best bet for single-piston aircraft.

3. Autopilot Options

The most expensive upgrade to an airframe is the retrofit of a new autopilot. While many new autopilots will precisely fly the airplane from wheels up to the landing, their costs could exceed the value of the airframe. Still, we can't think of many upgrades that enhance safety, airframe value, and utility. When it comes to autopilot upgrades, you have many more options for manufacturers; however, keep in mind you may not be able to use certain autopilots in conjunction with upgraded PFD/MFDs as they may not work with each other. Generally speaking, you will need to reach the available units based on their STCs and then determine which unit will work with your planned panel. S-TEC, Garmin, Chelton, and Honeywell will be the best choices.

If you’re in the market for a new autopilot, there have never been so many choices at the $10,000 price point. The digital Genesys S-TEC 3100 has a growing STC list. It is a good value because it works with existing S-TEC autopilot servos, saving a sizable installation time. It’s also an easy replacement for the S-TEC 55-series autopilot with minimal rewiring. Another decent option is the Trio Pro Pilot autopilot, which also has a growing STC list and some intelligent features as standard. Garmin’s GFC500 started life as an autopilot for experimental aircraft but now has a sizable STC list for certified aircraft. It’s big on features, small, and works with the Garmin flight displays. The TruTrak Vizion has a straightforward installation and a lower price point. Ask your shop what approved models for your aircraft and price them all.

4. Modifications & The FAA

Before you make any modification, remember that the vendor has to go ahead and produce paperwork to the FAA for approval beforehand. They cannot simply make any modifications you wish without authorization.

The FAA began allowing the approval of non-TSO’d autopilots in Part 23 airplanes in 2019. This includes older variations of popular aircraft like Cessna’s Skylane or Piper’s Archer. Now that avionic upgrades became available for single-pilot aircraft, many owners made the change, which rapidly increased their demand.

Manufacturers benefitted from this change as they no longer need to go through a TSO certification for newly made piston avionic products. They can simply create new technology following the American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM) general aviation-based standards. Because this process is less expensive, manufacturers are able to cut costs, making it more affordable for piston aircraft owners. More experimental avionics still need manufacturing approval (PMA) and supplemental type certification (STC).

Don’t Be Blinded By The Bells & Whistles Of Upgraded Aircraft

Whether you’re purchasing a car, home, aircraft, or other significant purchase, upgrades are impressive. But it’s still important to remain practical during your decision-making process. All of the upgraded avionics and interior luxuries in the world can’t replace certain aspects of its value like missing logbooks, engine overhaul, potential damage or corrosion, and much more.

A fresh paint job and updated avionics can easily distract you from an aircraft’s true value, so getting an appraisal is key to ensuring you make the right purchase. When it comes to buying aircraft, it’s not always about the extras. Instead, your purchase should include what you want, need, and expect from an aircraft you can control comfortably.

If you’re in the market for a piston aircraft, get an appraisal from VREF – a trusted partner of the AOPA. Find out the facts before you, and get Get started today.