Inexpensive Panel……..part one.


In a few late hours I am building a new panel for our Wagabond. I am reverting to as simple as I think reasonably practical. When the aircraft was finished 7 years ago in our old hangar, I let the panel reflect Dave the Bear’s taste in things, as he was the primary guy in the hangar gang working on the plane. Dave had a panel full of vacuum instruments.  Today, with the plane returning to our ownership, I am revising things to a simpler setting.

Everyone is entitled to make things any way they want. There are Corvairs flying in front of $15,000 panels. If it makes the builder happy, and didn’t financially compromise the engine build (like putting a motorcycle carb on your engine to save money for GPS) then I am all for it. Although I am an advocate of simplicity, I am not a zealot for it. Louis Kantor finished his 601XL in our hangar in 2009. It has a full Dynon panel with two large screens and most every option. It was nearly $10,000 in parts. But this aircraft also had a no compromise engine with a Dan bearing, all our Gold parts and an overhauled MA3-SPA. The panel also matched the pilot’s skill set: Louis is an 8,000 hour ATP/CFI. The weather information and instrument capability of the plane wasn’t going to lead him into a situation over his head.

I myself am a Day/VFR look-out-the window kind of pilot. My flight instructor insisted that I be able to fly the plane without any instrumentation. This was common in the age of stick and rudder instruction. On my last biannual he put his jacket over the panel at 2,500 agl above our airstrip, pulled the power off and told me to land the plane. He long ago taught me to estimate airspeed from control pressure and glide attitude. With alert practice it is not difficult to stay within +or- 3 mph without being able to see the airspeed. This comes from being rigorously taught to pay attention to the plane, not the panel.

Ask any instructor worth a damn, and he will tell you that all types of pilots spend too much time looking at the panel, but this is particularly a problem with people trained in glass cockpits. Cirrus aircraft were supposed to be the safety “aircraft of tomorrow”, yet they have a very poor safety record, and many of their accidents have been traced to pilots who were not looking outside. The accident acronym ‘CFIT’ stands for ‘controled flight into terrain.’ If you are bored you can read accident statistics and find out that even though Cirruses all have windshields, owners staring at panels have been known to fly them into the ground. I was in an industry meeting at Oshkosh this year where the head of marketing for Cirrus tried to claim his company had an outstanding safety record. He was openly laughed at. The man’s office is in Beijing, because Cirrus is wholly owned by the Government of the Peoples Republic of China, and the man was obviously paid to say things that were not true.  The FAA and the NTSB investigate accidents and keep records so issues can be identified and improvements can be made. A paid lackey of a totalitarian government isn’t working to improve anything.

My taste in simple panels is not driven by lack of understanding of sophisticated instrumentation. The Lancair IVs we built in the 1990s had an average panel cost of $125,000.Much of that equipment was certified grade stuff that was common to new aircraft like King Airs. It was neat learn about, my friends who were avionics engineers loved it, but shortly it seemed very distant from my personal attraction to flight. To me, the least that does the job is best. If I wanted to fly a long way, I would add something like a Garmin with weather, but this can be done later, no one needs that to get their aircraft flying. Something interesting is that the value of regular instruments has plummeted at flymarts because of home builders shifting to glass cockpits. A lot of the stuff I like is now much less expensive. Be aware that low-cost instruments like “Falcon” have been made in China for the last 15 years and they are junk. You are far better off buying used stuff that still has OEM Cessna stickers on it, or some other marking that ID’s it as a domestic product.

11 holes in the panel;

1) 3.125″ Turn and bank 12 v, found at flymart $25

2) 3.125″  Airspeed indicator 40-140mph, traded my neighbor for $40 set of wrenches

3) 3.125″ Altimiter, taken from 1978 Cessna, flymart $45

4) 3-3/8″” Tach Stewart Warner 82636, new summitracing $116

5) 2 1/16″ Autometer voltmeter  5791, new summit racing $45

6) 2 1/16″ Autometer mechanical oil pressure 5721, $53

7) 2 1/16″Autometer mechanical oil temp 140-280 (fits directly in gold housing) 5741, summit racing, $80

8) 2.1/16″Autometer full sweep Pyrometer (EGT) 5743 with 5429 sender, summit racing, about $175

9) 2.25″ hole for radio (later)

10) 2.25″ MAP gauge, Westach, flymart $25

11) 2.25 ” CHT from radial era aircraft flymart $15, needs 2 ohm sender

 Note: #1, 8,9 and 10 are not required. If you total up the rest of the stuff, it is under $400. With the other stuff, its only $619. I still need a CHT sender, some switches and wire and crimps, so lets call it $750.  Adding the radio later is $600, but that is down the road, and a hand-held could do the same job if I wasn’t bothered by external cords and wires.

I have previously written extensively about how reliable mechanical gauges are, That this tach can not harm the ignition, That having elaborate CHT/EGT to detect problems caused by a cheap carb is not as smart as having less info about an aircraft carb that works perfectly.

I understand that the world loves electronics even if cave men don’t. In 2006 I let two very sharp Embry-Riddle CFI/aerobatic pilots fly about 10 hours in our 601XL. They were very observant and handled the plane with skill. At the end of the second flight, one of them asked me why the oil temp still read even though he had shut the master switch off. I explained that it was because this was a mechanical gauge, and it worked without electricity, it just read pressure in a capillary tube, just the way putting a mercury thermometer in your mouth worked. He looked at me like I was some kind of monster. “Put mercury in your mouth? what are you talking about?” He was 20 years old and this wasn’t in his life experience. He barely understood why some clocks have hands. I explained that I wasn’t a monster, I am a cave man. He ended by saying “Hospitals put mercury in people’s mouths? that’s right up there with Leaches!  Dude, how old are you anyway?”

I understand that I am not likely to convince people who are in love with technology that this is the way to go, I am just trying to point out to new people that there are many people who intentionally aim for the other end of the spectrum for very valid reasons.

Every magazine and every airshow are filled with advertisements for all kinds of electronics, its good business for them, and they are working to get you to buy it even if it doesn’t make sense to you or fit your plan. Electronics are expensive and they have a good markup, and the manufacturers have enough money in  the system to make every Tom, Dick and Harry a dealer who gets 15% for closing the sale, so without realizing it, you have been enveloped in voices advocating the stuff because they get paid to do so. It isn’t because they carefully evaluated your personal needs and made a good decision for you. Thats your job.

Mechanical  gauges don’t have this kind of industry power. There isn’t a single company at any airshow advocating them, they are not buying expensive dinners for magazine editors nor providing golf carts and free rental cars. They don’t have glossy brochures and they have never picked up the tab for a “business conference” at Bean Snappers strip club just north of Oshkosh. The only thing in their sad marketing program is some cave man in Florida likes them…..and oh yeah, that small point….they are totally reliable.-ww

5 Replies to “Inexpensive Panel……..part one.”

  1. Agree with everything you said. Every time a “modern” plane came into our shop with oil pressure issues the first thing we did was hook a mechanical oil pressure gauge into the system to verify the electronic gauge (mechanical too) accuracy. Funny how a number of the test instruments in my shop are old automotive mechanical devices used to verify the operational integrity of supposedly more reliable and accurate stuff shuved down the throat of the guy who “buys only the best.”

  2. I’ve always ran mechanical aka:manual gauges and never lost an engine. Like you say they just work.

  3. I’ve been rebuilding a 1965 Cherokee180 for several years now (almost done) and you wouldn’t believe the number of guys who were just beside themselves because I had most of my old instruments rebuilt rather than shell out tons of cash for the latest tech gadgets. I wasn’t as articulate as you when I explained why I did what I did but your article spoke volumes.

  4. I have to say I love your simplistic and realistic views on building an aircraft. I’ve read your pages for years and want to build a simplistic CH 750 with your engine of course. I want to build it from the ground up with all of the modifications you suggest. I want a fun reliable plane that I personally know every nut and bolt on the entire aircraft including the engine.

    Keep up the great work because you are helping to change Homebuilt planes in a positive way. You make them safer and more reliable if people follow your hands on research.

    I want to fly with my and kids and not have to worry about the engine.

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