Upgrading around 6,000 US business aircraft to make them RVSM compliant is creating a surge of demand for avionics specialists. But do operators risk leaving it late?

If the USA implements reduced vertical separation minimum (RVSM) rules as scheduled on 20 January 2005, thousands of aircraft will have to be specially certificated - and pilots trained - to fly at altitudes of 29,000-41,000ft (8,850-12,500m). This is because RVSM will reduce vertical separation from 2,000ft to 1,000ft in US airspace, as it already has over Europe. Canada, in tandem with the USA, expects to extend its RVSM airspace to below the 57th parallel, while most of Latin America will come under the jurisdiction of the rules.

Because RVSM has been introduced steadily outside the USA since the mid-1990s, nearly all commercial and business jets built since 1997 have been supplied with RVSM-compliant autopilots, air-data computers and avionics. Aircraft built before that date will have to be upgraded or flown at lower, less fuel-efficient altitudes. Even business jets with service ceilings above 41,000ft will need to be RVSM certificated.

Around 10,000 turbine-powered business aircraft produced before 1997 will be affected, and an estimated 6,000 are likely candidates for RVSM upgrades, says Paul Clouse, director of RVSM operations for Annapolis, Maryland-based Arinc. Business jets and a few high-performance turboprops are significant users of airspace above 29,000ft in the USA, and, according to Federal Aviation Administration statistics, the corporate and owner-flown turbine fleet represents 10% of traffic above that altitude on any given day.

For the owners of non-compliant aircraft, numerous RVSM solutions have come to market, either under original equipment manufacturer (OEM) service bulletins (SB) or through supplemental type certificates (STC) developed by independent organisations. The latter have targeted the larger fleets of out-of-production models.

Preparing for the rush

As the deadline for US domestic RVSM draws closer, avionics upgrade organisations are preparing for swelling demand. "We have seen a definite increase in our RVSM business, with over 50% of the customers scheduling the work in conjunction with some other maintenance or modification," says Brian Watkins, director of programmes, Garrett Aviation Services. "But not enough operators are scheduling their aircraft in order to avoid a bottleneck that could happen during 2004. Those who wait until next year to schedule the work may not make the deadline."

To address demand, Garrett has introduced Fast Lane, which guarantees a 10-business-day turnaround for Cessna Citation, Dassault Falcon and Gulfstream RVSM upgrades. Fast Lane is available at all Garrett's US locations, as well as its dealer network in Austria, Denmark, France and the UK. Watkins says Garrett offers RVSM customers a turnkey programme that includes equipment installation, test flights, manuals and paperwork leading to an RVSM letter of authorisation from the FAA.

Garrett was the first non-OEM to receive a group RVSM approval, for the Gulfstream II and IISP, Watkins says. "We have also held an STC for the Gulfstream IIB since last year. Other RVSM STCs we have are for the 10 [with Collins APS-80 or AP-105 autopilots], and for Falcon 50s and 20s equipped with the Collins Pro Line 4 and Pro Line 21 avionics suites." Other Garrett RVSM STCs include the Citation I, II, S/II and V models, and for Citation Is retrofitted with Williams FJ44 engines under Garrett's Eagle II modification.

Garrett expects to have RVSM group approval for the Israel Aircraft Industries Westwind I and Astra family, under STCs due for the end of this year and April next year, respectively. The company is already installing RVSM kits for the Westwind II, under an STC owned by Lincoln, Nebraska-based Duncan Aviation.

Independent companies like West Star Aviation are gearing up for what might be a last-minute rush. "Many people felt that the FAA might hold off the implementation date a little longer, but now indications are that that won't happen," says vice-president operations Greg Laabs. "More owners are calling around to see what's available. For the last few weeks, our phone lines have been jammed with inquiries about our Learjet 35/36 RVSM solutions."

Because of the anticipated RVSM-related workload, Grand Junction, Colorado-based West Star may have to increase its capacity by 30-50%. "Based on our advanced bookings, we expect to move quickly to about five installations per month this year, with eight to 10 during 2004," adds Laabs.

Aircraft manufacturers' service arms are seeing a surge in RVSM-related bookings. says Bruce Thigpen, sales manager avionics and new business development at Gulfstream. "A lot of this is because we are keeping our customer base informed about RVSM, and other regulatory compliance tasks, such as TAWS [terrain awareness and warning system]," he adds. "Most of our customers are requesting RVSM and TAWS installations to be done at the same time."

The manufacturer is performing RVSM upgrades under its own SBs at five domestic Gulfstream Aviation Services facilities and one at London Luton Airport. The modifications are available at the five General Dynamics Aviation Services centres operated by Gulfstream's parent company. These are offering RVSM modifications on the Raytheon Hawker 800 as well as the Bombardier Challenger and Dassault Falcon families under SBs from their manufacturers.

The Learjet 20 series, which includes the 23, 24 and 25 models and their variants, is considered a prime market for RVSM. Avcon Industries president Larry Franke says over 450 aircraft are candidates for retrofit. "With over 400 Learjet 20-series aircraft operating today, we estimate the RVSM upgrade market will be about 260," says Wichita, Kansas-based LJSC sales representative Larry Price.

Newton, Kansas-based Avcon plans to complete flight testing of its RVSM upgrade, using five aircraft - a Learjet 25, two 25Ds, a 25B and a 24XR - in October, with a group STC projected for November. Tulsa, Oklahoma-based BizJet International is a risk-sharing partner on the project and is authorised to perform the upgrade. Kits will also be installed at West Star Aviation and Avcon.

LJSC plans to complete a group RVSM STC for the Learjet 20 series by late January. The company's solution is designed to eliminate what Price says are "issues inherent with the autopilot system's Mach trim switches" that often result in pilots having to disengage the autopilot and fly the aircraft manually. Exton, Pennsylvania-based Innovative Solutions and Support will supply the equipment and LJSC will provide the RVSM upgrade as a kit to dealers.

Targeting Learjets

Owners of 35 and 36 series Learjets are being targeted by West Star, which received a group STC in August for these aircraft. "Of the 600 Learjet 35s and 36s delivered to the corporate market, about 400 are considered candidates for our RVSM solution," says Greg Laabs. "The other 200, which are flying with the Jet FC-530 autopilot, are being upgraded for RVSM under a Bombardier service bulletin." West Star's solution applies to Learjet 35 and 36 models with the Century III Soft Flite wing and Jet FC-200 autopilot.

West Star may not stop with the Learjet 35/36. Laabs says the company is studying an RVSM upgrade for those Cessna Conquest 441 turboprops re-engined by West Star with Honeywell TPE331-10 turboprops. A decision is likely by year-end. "The Conquest 441, with those engines, is among the few turboprop types that has a certified service ceiling [35,000ft] within RVSM flight levels," he says. "We see a [RVSM] market potential of 250, out of the 330 Conquest 441s operating worldwide."

Cessna is active in retrofits for all its Citations from the model 500 to the model 650, which account for 1,900 of the 4,000 aircraft in service. The manufacturer will retrofit all except Bendix/King KFC-325 autopilot-equipped models, says Marcelo Casenove, supervisor of RVSM services. Cessna has created an RVSM service group that offers a turnkey package as an option. The package includes installation, test flights and paperwork leading to RVSM operational approval, and is available for an additional $4-4,500.

"Of the nearly 400 aircraft we have upgraded [for RVSM] over the last 12 months, 300 have been upgraded under the total package," adds Casenove. "About 80-90% of our RVSM customers are asking for other work to be performed at the same time. People are being very cost conscious and trying to have as many things done on their aircraft per visit as their budgets allow."

Columbia Avionics has received certification for an RVSM upgrade for the Citation I, II, S/II and V, and expects to complete RVSM certification for the Citation III by year-end, says general manager Lance Fox. Since receiving its first RVSM STC in June, the company has performed 12 installations at its facilities in Columbia, Missouri, and Uvalde, Texas, and at designated dealers. This includes two early Citation Is retrofitted with the KFC-325 autopilot, which is compatible with the IS&S altimeter used in the RVSM upgrade.

Columbia plans to offer Chelton Flight Systems' electronic flight displays as an option. "This will be the first RVSM package to incorporate altitude information shown on a primary flight display," says Fox. The company expects to receive an amendment to its RVSM group STC to add this feature by early November.

Citation upgrades

Also pursuing the Citation market is Minneapolis, Minnesota-based Shadin, which expects group STC approval in October for all members of the Citation family from serial number 275 onwards. Shadin has teamed with Arinc and Aero Mech of Seattle. Kits will be available for installation by any qualified shop, and are designed to be an "easy to install, lower-cost RVSM solution", because no extensive aircraft modifications are required. In August, Shadin joined with Aero Mech and Stevens Aviation of Greenville, South Carolina, to certificate an RVSM solution for the Raytheon Beechjet 400 and Mitsubishi Diamond 1A.

Operators are more likely to turn to independent organisations for out-of-production aircraft. Dave Pleskac, avionics sales representative for Duncan Aviation, says the company has installed RVSM equipment under its own STCs for the Lockheed JetStar II, Challenger 600, Astra 1125, Astra SP and Westwind I; as well as Collins Pro Line 21-equipped Falcon 50s. Duncan is gearing up for what will probably be a last-minute crunch. "We fully anticipate using a majority of our shop capacity not only for RVSM, but to satisfy the TAWS requirement which has a hard [final implementation] date of March 2005. We have already increased shop capacity and manpower," says Pleskac.

There may still be problems for operators who wait too long. "There are some aircraft for which no group RVSM solutions exist because of the unique configuration of their avionics system. They will have to be certified under a custom-made solution," adds Pleskac. "This can be time-consuming and expensive, and could add $15,000-20,000 - just in equipment costs. Then you add the cost of about 6h of flight tests, which could add another $45,000-50,000."

Despite costs, demand for individual solutions could be strong. John Sotak, Dassault Falcon Jet vice-president engineering, reports "a pronounced increase" in requests for one-time RVSM solutions, particularly for those Falcon 10, 20 and 50 models that do not conform to the group STCs in place. "About 25% of the RVSM upgrades we are doing today are non-group," he adds.

"The cost normally depends on the amount of design engineering work that needs to be done," says Sotak. "Depending on the equipment needed, it could range from as little as $10,000-20,000, or even as much as $200,000. The decision to spend that kind of money will ultimately depend on how the owner's define their requirements, and whether they want to keep their aircraft long term."

Source: Flight International