Photo by History in HD on Unsplash

It was 1903 when Wilbur and Orville made the first powered flight in an aircraft. Orville got the honors, and his “panel” consisted of a tachometer for engine rpm, an anemometer to read wind speed (or airspeed), and a stopwatch so he could measure the length of the flight. That was the first aircraft panel.

It would be another 50 years before general aviation really took off. WWII brought a lot of attention to aviation, and the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944, otherwise known as the GI Bill, provided financial support to veterans who were inclined to learn how to fly.

Aircraft manufacturers like Piper and Cessna saw this and created aircraft for the market. When Piper added a nose wheel to the Pacer, creating the TriPacer, and Cessna introduced the 150, learning to fly became significantly easier, and GA grew.

Aircraft communications and navigation equipment were basic back then, and aircraft panels were simple. There was little in the way of equipment to install in an early GA panel, but the ’60s and ’70s saw an explosion of aircraft electronics manufacturers enter the market. King, Narco, Collins, Genave, and others introduced products designed to make flying safer, and aircraft manufacturers needed to find a place in their panels for all these new avionics.

Early attempts left a lot to be desired. The concept of the “center stack” had to wait while manufacturers found less-than-desirable locations for communications and navigation equipment. The concept of the standard “six-pack” had not hit home yet, and AIs, DGs, etc., were found in odd configurations, often in conflict with IFR flying.

WWI SE-5a Panel. Photo courtesy of The Vintage Aviator LTD (thevintageaviator.co.nz)

Aircraft Panels WWI thru WWII

The dogfights in WWI were flown in VFR conditions, and aircraft like the British SE-5A (1917, photo top right) were equipped accordingly. The compass served as your primary direction device, with only basic engine instruments (and a machine gun or two).
Even back then, aircraft manufacturers put a little artistry into their panels! Somewhere between WWI and WWII, Elmer Sperry came along and invented the first gyro instrument, known today as the turn and bank indicator. Sperry had actually invented a gyro-driven autopilot as early as 1910. Many WWII pilots depended on the T&B to keep their aircraft upright.

The Boeing PT-13D Stearman played a significant role in pilot training in the early days of the war. The turn and bank provided the pilot with a primitive way to “keep ’em level” back then.

Stearman (Boeing) PT-13D. (U.S. Air Force photo by Ken LaRock)

Post War Panels

Most of us consider the Piper Cub as the first real GA aircraft for the masses. The Cub is still considered a prize to own. I have a friend who owns two. He also has two Boeing Stearmans.

The original Cub stepped back a bit and gave you oil temp and pressure, rpm, altitude and airspeed (up to 140 mph!), and a compass. The turn and bank was gone, but the ball remained so you could keep the nose ahead while fighting all that adverse yaw from those big “dirty” wings.

Piper Tri-Pacer panel (photo by Jack Fleetwood)

Early attempts at an affordable GA aircraft were designed for VFR in mind, and simple was the norm. Most provided a turn and bank, and some had those big 4-inch attitude indicators. Engine information was expanded a bit, but communication and navigation equipment appeared to be an afterthought, with the far left and right often the only place for avionics. It was not until the late ’60s that aircraft manufacturers started to figure it out. That meant making a practical place to put the avionics and configuring the primary flight instruments (the six-pack) in front of the pilot.

Even then, manufacturers did not always get it right. Frankly, it is hard to find a pilot today that remains excited about the plastic overlay concept that was incorporated by both Cessna and Piper.

The 1990s

Sometime around the mid-’90s, both Piper and Cessna ditched the plastic overlays and started providing their new aircraft with metal panels, sans the plastic. It became obvious that it was not only a better look, but it also increased the area for avionics and instruments without the restrictions of the overlays. Panels were better organized and less cluttered, both a significant improvement in an IFR platform. In short, aircraft manufacturers finally got it right, aircraft owners noticed, and the market for avionics and panel upgrades grew.

2014 Piper Malibu Panel

Aftermarket Panels

When I was on the front line of avionics sales (1997-2013), I would occasionally get a request from an aircraft owner to include a new panel design in the quote. We did not have a CNC machine, but we had a talented technician who hand-cut some genuinely nice panels. I recall quoting in the $2,500 range to remove everything, then create a design that the owner approved, and we would then paint and label.

Our tech preferred paint vs. powder coat on the basis that a touch-up was easier to match. The finished product was nice and the newly arranged panel more functional.

Today, there are other aspects that are driving the “new panel” concept, and that is EFIS and large-format engine management systems. You can certainly add electronic flight instruments like the G5, Dynon D10A, GI-275, and uAvionix AV-30 without the need to create a panel, and the manufacturers designed it that way. But you cannot add a Garmin G3X or Dynon HDX into an existing panel and you cannot install a primary engine management unit and remove a bunch of analog instruments without the need to create a new panel. This is what is really driving the aftermarket panel business today.

I still think you can do a modern panel in a 172/182 in the $2,500 range, but the bigger the aircraft, the bigger the panel and the bigger the bill! I had a client recently with an older Piper Malibu propjet who was adding Big Glass and looking at about $6k to redo his panel, so if this concept makes sense, shop around. Some shops are better equipped and more efficient at creating new panels.

Conclusion

If you have a pre- to late-’60s aircraft with an original panel and are considering a significant avionics upgrade, and you plan to keep the aircraft for a while, consider including a new panel design in your project. If you’re adding Big Glass or a primary engine management system like the JPI EDM-930 or the Electronics International MVP-50, you are absolutely a candidate for a new panel.

Keep this in mind when getting avionics quotes. You are no longer focused on just getting a solid, reliable avionics installation, you’re looking for an artist: A shop that can turn an old factory panel into a work of art and, frankly, some of the new aftermarket panels are just that — works of art!

Until next time … Safe and Happy Flying!