Avionics upgrade future-proofs Air Iceland Dash 8s
“Pilots” at Air Iceland hold true to the nautical origins of the term, even with the best new avionics upgrade money can buy. As Flight FXI 16 approaches the northern Icelandic fishing village of Isafjordur in the pre-dawn hours of Dec. 17 (the Sun rises around noon at this time of year), Capt. George Hanson looks down to the water below to determine the state of turbulence on the inbound leg. We are dropping through 3,500 ft. on a GPS approach that culminates in a horseshoe-shaped counterclockwise descent framed by mountains.
Hanson sees a “line” in the water, a demarcation beyond which experience has taught him will very likely bring moderate to severe turbulence.
Sitting in the jump seat of theQ200, TF-JMK, on the 45-min. revenue passenger flight up from Reyjavik, I am able to witness this holistic “clash” of cultures—mixing traditional pilotage techniques with the newest communication, navigation and surveillance equipment available, courtesy of a recent upgrade by Toronto's Field Aviation. Air Iceland has two Q200s with the new cockpit, TF-JMK entered service last March and TF-JMG in June.
Field is the only provider of the STC cockpit upgrade for the three out-of-production Dash 8 models, of which about 560 out of the 672 produced are still active. The company has been performing Dash 8 retrofit work for more than 20 years and has modified more than 30 of the twin turboprops for special-mission use.
“That's where the turbulence is—you can read it on the water,” says Hanson of the border between smooth and choppy surface in the Isafjarardjup fjord as we near the initial approach fix into Isafjordur.
The ground-based localizer approach Air Iceland used before equipping with GPS-threaded arrivals through that turbulence and into an area known for rain showers. With satellite-based navigation, however, the approach fixes can be placed more optimally, “closer to the airport and out of the showers,” says Hanson.
On today's arrival, it turns out, the best avionics available are ultimately not needed, as the stratus clouds and snow showers part just enough for the first officer and pilot-flying, Hjalti “Yalty” Baldursson, to see the coastline and break off from the GPS-based global navigation satellite system (GNSS) instrument approach for a visual arrival.
The cockpit upgrade is meant in large part to give pilots the same or better situational awareness than visual flight, while gaining Air Iceland entry into the next-generation air transportation system that is slowly but surely coming to this country of 320,000 on the southern edge of the Arctic Circle.
Field has not yet coined a catchy marketing phrase for the refresh on Dash 8 Q100/200/300s, though it completed the upgrade on three aircraft and has two new conversions on tap, one in flight test and one not yet started.
Included in the TF-JMK's cockpit are two Universal Avionics flight management systems (FMS) with wide-area augmentation system (WAAS) capability, five 8.9-in. Universal Avionics EFI-890R back-lit LCD displays featuring optional Vision 1 synthetic vision system (SVS), an Ametek engine interface unit to take the engine gauges into the digital age, and anadvanced standby unit that is an independent backup source of attitude information, air data and VHF navigation.
The upgrade replaces more than 40 serial number components, boosting reliability and cutting the number of spare parts on the shelves.
Reliability is paramount as Air Iceland, a regional carrier and sister to the international Icelandair, uses its two upgraded Q200s both domestically and for five longer-range routes (400-800 nm) to Greenland, an increasingly popular tourist destination in the warmer months. The carrier's six Fokker 50 twin turboprops, with legacy avionics, are largely used for passenger and cargo routes within Iceland.
Equipped with extended-range fuel tanks, the Q200s are an ideal platform for Greenland operations, given their capability to land on “very short runways down to 700 meters (2,300 ft.),” says Jonas Jonasson, Air Iceland chief pilot. “The Fokker 50 is not capable of that.” Jonasson says the carrier has 63 pilots on staff, with the Q200s logging about 2,500 hr. per year.
In terms of navigation, the cockpit upgrade gives Air Iceland the tools it will need to take advantage of the growing number of GPS-based required navigation performance (RNP) procedures and precision approaches coming to Iceland and Greenland, where today approaches are largely handled by non-directional beacons (NDB), a ground-based radio signal type of approach being phased out for accuracy and cost reasons elsewhere in the world. Precision approaches generally allow an aircraft to descend closer to the ground before either seeing the runway environment or aborting.
“To be able to fly GNSS approaches down to RNP 0.3 [0.3-nm accuracy], . . . we needed to upgrade our flight management systems to have WAAS capability,” he says. “Field approached us with this idea of the EFI-890R. The aircraft we bought had old electromechanical instrument systems. Maintenance costs of the old instruments were definitely higher and there were problems getting spare parts. After we sat down and did some math, we found out that this [Field upgrade] would be our future aircraft.”
Jonasson says initial training for pilots includes two days of ground instruction, 2 hr. of hands-on training in the cockpit and 6 hr. of flight training (the carrier does not have a simulator). Refresher training is provided yearly.
Iceland continues to put more GNSS procedures in place to augment or replace traditional ground-based infrastructure, says Jonasson. Only two airports in the country have full instrument landing systems (ILS); most have only NDB aids.
In Greenland, he says there is one localizer approach and the remainder are NDBs, though the country is beginning to implement GNSS approaches.
The Q200s replaced two Q100s with legacy avionics after a hard landing and runway excursion of one of the Q100s in Nuuk, Greenland, in the spring of 2010.
The carrier planned to replace the Q100 with another it found in Greece, but the deal fell through, says Bjartur Torfason, director of technical operations for Air Iceland. So it went with two former Mesa Airlines Q200s in storage in Tucson, Ariz., that were “worn” but had relatively low usage—30,000 cycles out of a factory life limit of 80,000 cycles. Field changed out three of the Pratt & Whitney Canada PW123D engines and repaired the fourth.
Along with Field Aviation's cockpit renewal, Air Iceland opted for several other supplemental type certificates (STC). Field incorporated a fuel tank STC to boost capacity to 1,506 gal. from 835, using the area between the wing root to the engine pylon on each side, and an STC to increase maximum takeoff weight to 37,300 lb. from 36,300. A Bombardier STC added ground spoilers to the Q200 to aid short-field landings.
On the interior, Torfason says the carrier had Field refurbish the seats, re-laminate the sidewalls and bins, paint the cockpit interior and replace the cockpit floor.
Along with increased navigation performance, the cost benefits of removing 1970s-era avionics cannot be overlooked. Universal Avionics says it costs $8,000 to repair and $16,000-20,000 to replace-built cathode ray tube (CRT) displays in the electronic flight instrument system (EFIS) in legacy Q100/200/300s, which have two CRTs per side.
Torfason says reliability of the upgrade has been “great,” with early failures limited to a fuel-tank sensor and two cockpit displays that Universal replaced under warranty. “The aircraft has been OK since then,” he says.
Valdimar Einarsson, avionics engineer for Air Iceland, says the carrier is discussing “doing something similar” to the Field upgrade for the Fokker F50s. “They have Honeywell andEFIS CRTs that are wearing out and getting old. If Air Iceland is going to use the aircraft for 10 more years, we have to do something about it.”
Buying additional Q100/200/300 models would be ideal, but price is problematic. “When one or two come to the market, no one can out-price the U.S. government,” says Einarsson, explaining that the U.S. is purchasing the aircraft for special-missions platforms. “It won't change,” he says. “This is a cheap special-mission aircraft.”
The company began the Dash 8 cockpit refresh project in 2007 with internal funding. “We saw a requirement, particularly for special-mission aircraft,” says Adrian DiPietro, Field Aviation's sales director for business development. The company held a “vendor's conference” with all major avionics providers, ultimately selecting Universal Avionics and going to work on a prototype.
Key to the program's success was devising the Ametek interface to the engine instruments and tapping into the Honeywell avionics standard communications bus structure behind the legacy SPZ-8000 integrated avionics suite, says DiPietro. The backbone of the integrated avionics, the bus ties together the autopilot, data computers, attitude and heading reference system (AHRS), EFIS, primary flight displays, ground maintenance functions and advisory status messages to the flight crew.
Field and Universal cracked the code. “That allowed us to focus on changing out components that it made sense to change out, while leaving in the autopilot, air data computer, AHRS, and other equipment,” says DiPietro. “Having to change all that would have made the price too high.” After 18 months of development work, ground tests started in 2009 and two flight-test campaigns, racking up more than 100 hr. total, were completed in 2010, achieving TSO for the EFI-890R in October 2010.
A launch customer arrived in early 2011 in the form of the Icelandic Coast Guard, and Field earnedand (EASA) supplemental type certificates in April 2011. The first Air Iceland Q200 arrived in September 2011.
The company is working with theto validate the upgrade, which could give Field entry into a potentially lucrative Q100/200/300 upgrade market in the U.S. Cost for the cockpit refresh can be as low as $600,000 for a fleet order or, with typical options, around $1 million uninstalled, in the case of Air Iceland's equipage. DiPietro says he expects to obtain the FAA STC in the first half of this year.
Per Air Iceland standard operating procedures, Universal Avionics' Vision 1 synthetic vision system (SVS) is turned off during our arrival. Though snow and low visibility can be factors in reaching the airport, it is typically the wind that causes aborts, says Hanson. Due to the nearness of the mountains, winds as little as 10 kt. can scuttle an inbound flight, while 40-kt. winds are acceptable with certain alignments. Wind is light today, and visibility is adequate.
The SVS would have provided situational awareness for the initiated, but Baldursson had adequate visibility to keep his path tight to the mountain to our right to give him enough room to make the corkscrew left turn to line us up with the 4,600-ft. Runway 08.
“Because the system is new, we are just trying to take things very slowly,” says Jonasson of the SVS, noting that the carrier has not yet crafted procedures for the technology. “We have some hiccups with it because we have old pilots and young pilots in the group. It can create a misunderstanding of how to use it.”
The technology is on his agenda, however, as the avionics industry works toward a fusion of the SVS, a 3D picture generated from a static terrain and obstacle database, and enhanced flight vision, a live, typically infrared or radar-based mapping along the flight path. A fused system will allow for lower landing minima at airports, such as Isafjordur, with challenging terrain.
Thirty minutes after arriving, we are lined up for takeoff to the east. Hanson, flying the leg back to Reykjavik, again pointed out the same watermark in the channel. This time, however, the departure procedure plunges us into the inevitable turbulence he did not need instruments to see.
Watch video by Senior Avionics & Safety Editor John Croft of TF-JMK's upgraded cockpit in action in the digital edition of AW&ST on leading tablets and smartphones or at AviationWeek.com/videos