The cost of an FAA-mandated tracking system may be too much for the wallets of Delmarva's casual fliers

Pilots flying small aircraft in Delaware could find themselves limited in where they can go if they don’t meet a federal deadline to install new equipment.

But even though the price of the electronics is coming down, the expense still might be overly burdensome to many recreational pilots.

Aviators across the nation have until Jan. 1, 2020, to install the Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast system if they want to fly anywhere near major air hubs. In Delaware, this includes the Wilmington area and Dover Air Force Base.

“ADS-B is an environmentally friendly technology that enhances safety and efficiency, and directly benefits pilots, controllers, airports, airlines, and the public,” Federal Aviation Administration spokeswoman Arlene Salac said. It forms the basis of the Next Generation Air Transportation System, or NextGen, a program to modernize air travel in the United States. Authorized by Congress in January 2004, it involves numerous government agencies. Overall, NextGen is expected to take at least 25 years to implement fully.

Salac said ADS-B would replace the standard radar tracking, instead using a combination of the plane’s avionics, global positioning satellites, and ground-based receivers to let air traffic controllers know where planes are in their airspace.

The ground signal receivers are easier to place than radar systems and a complementary system, which the FAA does not require, will allow pilots to know the whereabouts of other aircraft, see and avoid terrain and bad weather and receive updates on safety and flight restrictions.

Much of this will be available through an interface on an iPad or similar device.

‘This could end your flying’

But while the public won’t notice the gradual switchover, general aviation enthusiasts worry about a mandate that could cost them thousands.

“A lot of folks have already upgraded because of the advantage of getting weather or traffic information in the cockpit,” Dover AFB AeroClub manager Joe Nickel said. “It’s more of concern to the guys who fly once in a while who own their airplanes.

“If you only fly 100 hours or so a year, this could end your flying.”

The Aero Club has a fleet of about a dozen aircraft to help prospective fliers earn their pilot’s licenses. Nickel has budgeted money over the past 10 years to ensure the aircraft will comply with FAA rules.

But it’s not cheap.

When the FAA came out with ADS-B, each unit had a price of about $5,000. Installation costs were about half that. The price has come down considerably, as has the price of installation, but, “Even two or three thousand dollars is a lot of money,” Nickel said. “Most pilots aren’t exactly wealthy. They pretty much use all of their extra money to fly with. Anything you take out of their pockets means they fly less. It really affects the small guys.”

One small saving grace is that the FAA does not require ADS-B in all aircraft, just the ones that fly in controlled airspace near airports or if the plane flies above 10,000 feet.

That means much of Delmarva still is accessible to private pilots as long as they don’t stray into airspace around Wilmington, Washington or Philadelphia.

“For the most part, if you stay in the Dover area, you don’t really need [ADS-B],” Nickel said. “But if you fly north you’ll need it once you get around Middletown. If you head west, by the time you hit the Delaware state line, you’ll pretty much have to have it.”

Pilots groups question timing

Pilots’ groups, such as the Experimental Aircraft Association and the Airplane Owners and Pilots Association, have problems with the FAA directive.

While they support the idea, they feel the government should extend the 2020 target date.

“Our position has been that any mandate cannot create an undue financial burden on individual aircraft owners,” EAA Senior Communications Adviser Dick Knapinski said. “Aircraft owners are dealing with equipment costs all the time that can run into thousands of dollars, even if you own a small aircraft.”

Though the federal government has shown no willingness to extend the date nor to renew a now-expired rebate program for ADS-B equipment, the EAA still encourages pilots to buy it.

Since planes not equipped with the system won’t be allowed to fly within controlled airspace, pilots flying long distances will be forced to skirt airports en route.

Large parts of the country, such as the Great Plains, may not have this problem, but that’s not the case on Delmarva, Knapinski said.

“If you never fly in any controlled airspace, you won’t need ADS-B,” he said. “But if there’s even a chance you will, then it will come into play.”

The EAA also is concerned there may be an installation backlog if pilots keep putting off buying equipment, hoping the price will come down, Knapinski said.

Melissa Rudinger, vice president of government affairs for AOPA said the organization also likes the idea of ADS-B -- to a point.

“We disagree with the implementation strategy,” she said. “We opposed the mandate. We thought a better strategy would be to provide benefits, to incentivize. ADS-B really benefits the system, but requires the user to pay for it.”

AOPA was successful in its fight for a relatively long implementation period, hence the 2020 deadline, she said. This allowed the markets to adapt and prices to decrease, which has been an important factor in having pilots get on board, Rudinger said.

“You were looking at a significant chunk of change,” she said. “Many general aviation aircraft are 30 years old and have a hull value of $30,000 to $40,000 and the ADS-B equipment cost a significant portion of that figure.”

A bare-bones system now could cost as little as $1,500, plus installation, she said.

A 2015 survey conducted by Embry Riddle Aeronautical University showed 56 percent of general aviation aircraft owners and operators planned to hold off installing ADS-B until the price came down. The majority said they could afford a system priced between $1,000 and $2,000.

In most cases, the type of aircraft determines the cost. A high-performance aircraft such as a Cessna CJ1 will require a more sophisticated system than a cropduster such as the Grumman Ag Cat.

Steady work

John Bonnell, director of general aviation at Summit Aviation in Middletown, said the real challenge is the technology cost coming down.

Some well-known companies produce equipment, including Garmin and Honeywell. The final cost depends on factors including the type of aircraft and equipment already aboard.

As of late, Summit has seen a steady stream of work.

“As far as the availability of installation slots goes, we’ve been doing it right and left,” Bonnell said. Some pilots will fly in to let Summit’s inspectors go over their aircraft before making a final decision, he said.

“If you hit up a couple of pilots, you’d be amazed at how much they’ve researched and how thorough they are,” he said. “It all boils down to safety because if you’re up there in the sky, you want to be as safe as possible.”

‘So much better’

Garret Dernoga, who owns Georgetown Air Services at the Delaware Coastal Airport, didn’t have to install ADS-B in his Cessna 182, but did so anyway.

“If you’re just flying around the Georgetown airport, you won’t need it,” he said. “Say a guy wants to fly from Cambridge, Md., to here for breakfast on Sunday, he won’t fly through controlled airspace, so he won’t need it.

“But if you want to do any traveling, like up to New York, you have to have it installed because you’ll be traveling through controlled airspace.”

Having it can help resale value, he said. As a prospective buyer, one of his top concerns would be whether the aircraft has ADS-B.

“About half of them won’t, and I’ll be crossing them off my list,” Dernoga said.

Dernoga feels the equipment is worth the time, money and effort.

“It’s given me so much better traffic information in the cockpit than I had before,” he said. “You see planes that you’d never been aware were out there. It definitely enhances safety, and you get weather information that increases a pilot’s ability to make good decisions.”

Aircraft need upgrades

Meeting the FAA’s January 2020 mandate is a concern for Michael Hales, director of Aviation Programs at Delaware State University. The retired U.S. Army lieutenant colonel took over the program in March 2016. Since then he has made a priority out of upgrading the school’s 10 aircraft with ADS-B equipment.

So far, four have had the electronics installed.

He likes the system, but like other pilots he worries about how to pay for it.

“It allows us to see any other air traffic in proximity to us, and that’s helpful when trying to avoid mid-air collisions,” he said. “It’s absolutely great.”

He’s working to include the system as part of a general avionics upgrade, replacing analog equipment with modern digital systems, or “glass cockpits.”

“What I’ve done is slowly try to carve into my budget for these upgrades,” he said. “There had been talk about it before, but there hasn’t been the action I felt it needed to be before it runs into the January 2020 deadline.”

Hale’s worried that his students will have bachelor degrees in aviation, yet they’ll still be behind the power curve when looking for jobs.

“We don’t even have GPS in our aircraft,” he said. “Our students have found there’s an expectation to understand glass cockpit devices we don’t have in our aircraft, so we’re tying the two together, not just to be ADS-B compliant but to upgrade avionics.”

“Friends of DSU Aviation” looks to upgrade university’s aircraft

Delaware State University depends on the state for its operating funds. The Friends of DSU Aviation, formed earlier this year, is working to raise money to keep the program solvent and to buy a new plane.

“Delaware is facing financial shortfalls from many directions and may not be able to fully support a program such as DSU’s as it would like to,” noted Donald Blakey, a DSU alumnus, licensed pilot, and former state representative.

“Other sources of help must be created and applied,” Blakey said. Without the cash to buy and upgrade to ADS-B, the school may have to shut down the program.

A fundraiser was held in February, and another is planned for Nov. 18. For more information about “Keep ‘Em Flying,” call the DSU Office of Development at 302-857-6055.

Air Force lags behind

Only 29 US Air Force aircraft have been fully outfitted with ADS-B equipment, according to an Oct. 10 article by Oriana Pawlyk on the military.com website.

Information in the article was verified by Capt. Emily Grabowski of the Secretary of the Air Force Public Affairs Office.

Of those, 27 -- including three gliders -- are for training at the Air Force Academy; two are C-130J cargo aircraft. There are 77 “J” models in the Air Force inventory.

Speaking before Congress last year, military officials blamed the delay on increased operations overseas. They said the Air Force would ask the FAA to exempt certain aircraft if they would miss the January 2020 deadline.

However, Grabowski said the fleet of C-5M SuperGalaxy aircraft at Dover Air Force Base and elsewhere would meet the mandate. The C-17 Globemaster III cargo planes at Dover would not. Those will be outfitted by May 2020, she said.

The E-4B Advanced Airborne Command Post, aka, the Doomsday Plane, will be upgraded by 2019. Others, such as the B-1A Bancer, the B-2 Spirit, and the B-52 Stratofortress, will get the ABS-B system between 2023 and 2025.