Maverick Aviation Group is headquartered in Las Vegas, where its Maverick Helicopters business gives tours in Class B airspace. Not complying with the FAA’s ADS-B Out mandate — which becomes effective Jan. 1, 2020, at midnight — is not an option.
John Mandernach, VP of maintenance for Maverick, knows from his years of experience in the helicopter business that waiting until the last minute to comply with equipage and other rules could end up costing the aircraft owner more money than if he or she had done it in a timely fashion. That’s why Maverick, according to Mandernach, became one of the first operators to start equipping ADS-B Out technology in 2013. Despite the fact that he had 47 aircraft to make compliant, Maverick could have all Airbus Helicopters H/EC-130s equipped by August.
The company trumpets having “the largest and youngest fleet” of ECO-Stars, which feature seven individual front-facing seats with raised seating in the rear, is fuel-efficient and uses 25% less engine power, among other differentiators from other aircraft, according to Maverick’s website. “We’ve been doing it over time,” Mandernach said of ADS-B equipage. “When the aircraft would come in for a major inspection, we would have our local avionics shop come in and do the wiring. We had some spare units we would send out for upgrades. When they came back, we would be standing by to install one in the aircraft.”
When Maverick began that process in 2013, it was acquiring new aircraft. As they were being completed, they were also being upgraded. Equipage is occurring at a rate of about one aircraft per month. Mandernach admitted the process could probably have gone faster. But the operator had only one spare GPS and one spare transponder, meaning it could only send one of each at a time to Garmin for upgrades — the rest were in use.
Garmin came as standard equipment on Maverick’s EC-130s, so making them ADS-B-Out-compliant meant upgrading the Garmin 430 GPS to a wide-area augmentation system (WAAS) and upgrading the Garmin 330 transponders to the extended squitter, or ES, version.
Maverick’s oldest aircraft was acquired in 2004 and the newest in 2015. Fifteen aircraft already featured WAAS and didn’t need an upgrade. But for those that did, Mandernach said it cost some $4,000. Then transponder upgrades were some $1,300. Then, add to that the labor rate the avionics shop that Maverick uses charges, which is some $1,600 per aircraft.
“[It was a] pretty big upgrade for us,” he said, since that amount is paid 47 times. Mandernach said Maverick is looking at some $250,000 in total costs to comply with the FAA’s mandate.
When it came to ADS-B Out equipment and installation, Mandernach said Maverick was able to keep it simple. However, other facets of the process posed challenges. Since the operator started equipping so early, there was a bit of a learning curve for everyone involved, including the FAA.
Since there was no supplemental type certificate for the ADS-B Out equipment on the Airbus aircraft, Maverick and its local avionics shop needed to obtain field approvals. That process took over a year, Mandernach said. In the earlier stages of the FAA’s ADS-B Out push, the agency was still grappling with what should be required. Mandernach said Maverick ended up needing to have flight manual supplements made for the GPS. And, of course, field approvals require flight tests.
Flight tests don’t ensure error-free operations, though. Mandernach recalled a call from Washington, D.C., telling Maverick some of its helicopters were showing as commercial airliners on tracking maps. Someone noticed a Boeing 747 showing where a helicopter should have been, stemming from an error in the transponder installation. Mandernach said it had probably been like that for a year and a half.
“I asked the guys in Washington, ‘Why didn’t anybody notice this?’” Mandernach said. “He was like, ‘Well, we’re just starting to learn this ourselves.’”
Mandernach said some of the affected aircraft were able to be fixed without original equipment manufacturer (OEM) intervention. Other affected parts had to be fixed in coordination with Garmin.
The whole ADS-B Out compliance process is being done without the aircraft OEM. When Maverick was first starting to research ADS-B Out installation and equipment, Mandernach tried to work with Airbus to get the aircraft upgraded before delivery. But, he found doing it on his own would cost less.
Forgoing the installation of ADS-B In equipment is also saving Maverick money. Mandernach said that technology wasn’t a necessity for the VFR missions Maverick flies, anyway.
“If we were [IFR], we probably would have tied it in. But it’s not worth it for us,” Mandernach said. “We don’t need the weather capability and we really don’t need to see everyone around us.”
It might have been useful for Maverick’s operations in the Grand Canyon (the company has six permanent locations, with Kauai, Hawaii being added this year), he added. But the cost would not have ultimately been justified.
Instead, Maverick uses traffic information service-broadcast (TIS-B) to see the local radar. As long as the helicopter stays in Class B airspace in Las Vegas, it receives air traffic and alerts. Mandernach said Maverick doesn’t need weather information, so the TIS-B is sufficient.
This cost-effective approach to ADS-B Out compliance is what Mandernach would suggest to other operators.
“The biggest cost is buying equipment, and then installing it. So for me, it was very easy just to figure out a way to adapt our existing equipment to comply with the rule,” Mandernach said. “That would be my advice to people: try to upgrade what you have, rather than buying new equipment.” RWI