On this page:
The plan
Construction notes
Panel #1
Panel #2
Panel #3

The instrument panel is the focal point of the cockpit and object of every builder's obsession. Builders begin planning their panels at a very early stage and I guess I'm no different. Good thing though, you don't want to make a mistake here.

The plan

In designing my panel I had several things in mind...

Include what I will use, don't include what I won't — No point in carrying around (or paying for) instruments you won't use. You need to think carefully about what you really need and include only that, especially with a compact "less is more" aircraft like the RV-3.
Good ergonomics — We all have our own ideas about what good cockpit ergonomics are which is why as you walk the flight line at a fly-in all the panels look different. Some prefer the radios on the left for example so they can keep their right hand on the stick. My take is a bit different — I'm right handed and want the fine motor control of my right hand for those little buttons on the radios and nav equipment when in turbulence. I can fly with either hand but do much better with the small buttons with my right hand. Also, I like to have an intuitive location and flow of all the switches and controls.
VFR plus — This will be a day/night VFR ship therefore I don't need artificial horizon, especially an old fashioned vacuum driven type that is heavy and unreliable. Ah you say, but how will you save yourself if you ever get caught in the soup? Good question. I believe very strongly that a non-instrument rated pilot will have a better chance of saving his butt in such a situation by relying on an autopilot rather than trying to fly on instruments he doesn't know how to use. We've all read that once in the soup most pilots have 37 seconds to live due to the inevitable "death spiral".
Autopilot vs. artificial horizon — A two-axis autopilot is a real priority for me, both as a "butt saver" and as a daily cockpit workload manager. With only one seat in the RV-3 the pilot's workload cannot be shared. Having an autopilot on both axes can really help manage a complicated situation. RVs are fast aircraft and change altitude and heading with very little effort. Ever tried opening a sectional and trying to find something while flying an RV solo? You can be in a 30° bank and/or a couple hundred feet off altitude before you get your sectional flipped over and refolded. Flying the RV-8 for three years really showed me what is useful and what is not so this decision was an easy one. Simply put, I'd rather spend the money on the two axis Digiflight IIVS autopilot, I'll use it more. I am not an instrument rated pilot and accordingly don't intend to fly this plane IFR. The autopilot could save my butt if trapped in the soup better than an artificial horizon that I'm not trained to use. More importantly, I expect to use the autopilot all the time where as I'd use the horizon feature of an EFIS almost never. Regarding autopilots, the downside of including one is weight — the servos for pitch and roll weigh a total of approximately 5 lbs, but the benefits are significant added functionality, an easy decision for me.

So, let's see where this plan leads...


Construction notes

A few notes first for other RV-3 builders on constructing the panel...

Removable panel mod
The RV-3 instrument panel is designed as an integral part of the fuselage structure. Therefore replacing the panel is a significant undertaking and must be replicated perfectly or the forward fuselage cowl skin and the canopy will not fit correctly. With the increasingly fast evolution of panel electronics I'd like to be able to change the panel if needed to accommodate new instruments or technology that might come along. Accordingly I've adapted the RV-8 style panel substructure design to my RV-3. I essentially copied the RV-8 style panel substructure. This will make the panel itself removable and easily replaceable. If you look closely at the picture you can see that the panel is mounted with #8 screws to the subpanel. As mentioned on the Airframe construction page, don't bother making the flange, just order an F-803CPP which you see in the picture. Lastly, buy an extra Drawing 17, they cost $3. Cut out the panel from the drawing and use it as a template to draw around on the F-302 instrument panel blank, I found the scale to be exact. This will save you the time of measuring all the coordinates and drawing the curve.
F-303B panel mount dimension error
The panel is mounted with two u-shaped pieces channel. The supplied parts were off by nearly a half inch which would in turn effect the fit of many things, most notably the canopy. Details here.
Planning for upgrades
I wrote a little article for our EAA Chapter newsletter on specific techniques you can use in any plane to allow for easier panel upgrades in the future. Click here to read it.


Panel #1

As with my last plane, this will be an all electric plane with no vacuum system. Light weight is a priority. Even though I don't have one of those large screen multi-function displays, I also don't have any analog steam gauges, therefore I believe this would be classified as a "glass panel". I'm comfortable with that since if the electrical system goes down my GPS will transparently switch to internal battery power and still provide groundspeed, altitude, and location information which will be enough to get me on the ground. The likelihood of both the ship's electrical system AND the GPS going down at the same time is infinitesimal, a risk I'm willing to take.

Since the RV-3 panel is fairly small I can't quite get everything in it. Therefore I'm building a center console to house the radio and transponder, fuel selector valve, cabin heat vent, and a glove box (see the Cockpit page for details and pics). I really appreciate intuitive interfaces, that is having the machine conform to the user's habits and needs, and in an intuitive and logical manner. To this end the warning lights you see are carefully selected...

• Blue aux fuel pump on light above switch (ever forgot to turn your aux pump off?)
• Yellow Low voltage warning, connected to B&C LR3C alternator controller
• Red LASAR fault warning.
• Red canopy open light.

In buying my avionics I shopped around and of course checked with other builders as to various sources. In the end it was Stark Avionics who emerged as the source of choice... best price and a good reputation among homebuilders to boot. Be sure and give him a call as he doesn't keep his web site up to date, his phone is 706-321-1008.

Click on the pic to see how Panel #1 turned out...


Panel #2

company item
Advanced Flight Systems AF-3500EE EFIS and engine monitor with integrated AOA
Trutrak Flight Systems DigiFlight IIVS 2 axis autopilot
Garmin SL40 comm radio
Garmin GTX 327 Transponder
Garmin GPSMAP 496

Yep, I couldn't leave well enough alone. I built a new panel even before flying the plane. Why? The siren song of modern electronics. When Rob Hickman, electronics guru and owner of Advanced Flight Systems, showed me his new AF-3500 I couldn't resist the notion of simplifying my panel even more — this will replace several conventional instruments I had in the last panel as well as add new capabilities.
When I planned my original panel Garmin had not yet introduced the 396 with onboard XM weather so I included a 296. Now that the 496 has been introduced I upgraded to that unit as well.
A word about AOA instrumentation
Angle-of-attack (AOA) instrumentation is something every builder of an experimental aircraft should consider, the benefits are considerable. I wrote an article for the RVator which has my thoughts and experience, a copy is available here.
GPS antenna
Unlike previous models in the Garmin X96 line, the 496 does not come with the little black GA-26 remote active GPS antenna, only the passive stick antenna that attaches to the unit itself. Since my GPS will be installed in the panel I need a remote mount antenna and I know from past experience that the active antennas work better (faster satellite lock-on etc.) than the passive version. After perusing the Garmin web site I found I had two options, the small black GA-26C which sells for $99, or the larger white GA-29 which is intended for their marine products and sells for $59. Since I wanted to mount the antenna on my turtledeck just aft of the rollbar I ended up choosing the GA-29 because it comes with a 30' cable whereas the GA-26C comes with only an 8' cable that I would have somehow had to extend. Be advised that the GA-29 comes in two versions, pole mount, which is what's pictured on their web site, and flush-or-pole mount which let's you use either method. That is the version that is pictured using the flush mount method.

GPS mount
A few builders have asked me how I constructed my GPS mount so here are some pics. Essentially I took the mount off the yoke mount and mounted it on a fabricated standoff. The standoff is angled both in and up a bit to be more on visual axis with the pilot.
"What, an intercom in a single place airplane? Dude, you won't have anyone to talk to!" With the upgrade to the Garmin 496 comes XM Music in addition to XM Weather. As I thought about how I was going to manage the music signal, and what control over it I needed, I came to the seemingly silly conclusion that I needed an intercom for the sole purpose of controlling the music. Specifically, I needed two functions. 1) I wanted to be able to quickly and easily raise and lower the music volume which means I need a knob rather than the three menu levels I'd need to go through on the 496. And 2) I wanted to have both "soft mute" where the music mutes whenever the radio receives anything, and "always on" mode where the music keeps playing regardless of what the radio is doing. The former (soft mute) is a must when you're under positive control in a busy airspace, but the second is nice to have while enroute on flight following just monitoring center chatter. There simply is no way to get this functionality without an intercom so I installed a PM3000 which has these features. In addition to the XM radio being wired into the music input I installed a jack so any external audio source I might want to listen to can be used.
What to do about an ELT?
Everyone knows that conventional 121.5 mhz ELTs are being phased out, in fact as of this writing all monitoring of this frequency is supposed to cease in 2009. Also, with the false alarm rate of these devices and the poor locating ability they are of questionalble value anyway. When researching this I learned that indeed the FARs don't require a single place aircraft to have an ELT of any kind. It's right there Section 91.207, part (f) where it lists what aircraft are NOT required to have a functioning ELT... "(9) Aircraft equipped to carry not more than one person". So, now that I'm not required to have an ELT what should I do? I'd sure like to be found should I have the misfortune of going down some time, so instead of an ELT I decided to equip my plane with one of the new generation PLBs (personal locator beacons) with onboard GPS. This is a portable battery powered 406 mhz locator beacon with a GPS onboard that transmits your location accurate to one hundred meters. This is the same technology as the new generation, and expensive, 406 mhz ELTs, just in a smaller portable package. Literally, the only thing it won't do is self activate. Therefore in the event of an engine out or other in-flight emergency the first three items on my emergency checklist are: Select landing spot, Maneuver for best possible landing, activate PLB and communicate with nearest ATC facility (AVIATE, NAVIGATE, COMMUNICATE). The unit I selected is an ACR MicroFix 406 Mhz Personal Locator Beacon and I will have it stored in an easily accessible location in the cockpit.

Thoughts on EFIS systems
With all the great choices we builders have in today's market, choosing the right glass items for your panel can be tough, there are several good vendors, and there seem to be features and functionality being added all the time. I went with the Advanced Flight Systems AF-3500EE over the others for several reasons.

1) Installed base, track record, support — Advanced Flight Systems have a great track record with their AF-2500 engine monitors. There are lots of them installed, all the owners report they work well, when there have been problems the company has demonstrated superb support. When so much of your panel is in one box you really want a vendor who is responsive and supportive, AFS has demonstrated that ability (unlike some of the others).
2) Featureset — I liked the AFS featureset best with the key features being the screen presentation, the SD card data acquisition and software upload, and the overall user interface.
3) Best AOA system — If you take the time to really study AOA systems you'll see that the AFS angle-of-attack system is the best. True, it can be purchased as a separate unit, which was my orignal plan, but with my small panel integrating it made sense.

It still amazes me how many conventional instruments this thing replaces. And, as I studied the schematic during installation I discovered many more things this box will do that aren't necessarily apparent. If you're in the market for an EFIS I recommend you check out the AFS line and see if it fits your needs. If you have an older panel in an experimental remember that this isn't like a certified plane, you can upgrade your panel any time you want whether you built the plane or not.


Panel #3

Just kidding, but who knows, with the rate of new technology becoming available to the experimental aviation market somewhere down the road there may be a panel number three. When I fabricated the panel blank for panel number two I took the time to make a spare that I'll keep around just in case.