“My Navatar” is my Co-Pilot by Deepak Mahajan

As a devout aviator I pray before every flight to the gods that take care of me and ensure they are all awake and doing their job. However, as a practical pilot, I like to make doubly sure that my planned flight, its route, the weather along the route, any NotAms that may affect the flight are perused and studied. I also ensure that I have all the information I need to complete the flight successfully and easily.

All of this preparation takes time and effort as the various nuggets of information are collected and disseminated by many different agencies, quangos, departments, governments, individuals and airports. In the ‘bad old days’ one would have to spend a lot of time looking up various publications, telephoning different people and asking advice from knowledgeable pilots. In the ‘good young present’ days with our penchant for individual access to all information we have a wide selection of gadgets and websites to view and study the information we require to ‘plan a flight and fly the plan’.

The search for the perfect paperless battery powered companion and virtual co-pilot who can help plan, organise and assist you actively during your flight, goes on despite the variety and abundance of GPS units, Ipad Apps, Aware units, Air Boxes, Flymaps, Rocket Routes, Flitestars, Jeppviews, AirNavPros, Skydemons, et al.

This is my personal experience and opinions of trying out several methods, over and above the “standard conventional missionary map” method, as well as several different gadgets in pursuit of learning and understanding if it could be a cheaper, easier, quicker, simpler, lighter, less hassle way to plan, organise and execute a flight, whether it is a local bimble or an expeditionary flight over and through several countries covering more than 10,000 thousand nautical miles and 300 plus hours in flight.

Right, so where do we start? ‘At the beginning’ said the Missionary Map Man. What is that I am looking for in a gadget that I can use before, during and after flight?

  • Reliability of data relevant to flight
  • Ease of use on the ground and in the air
  • Simple to use with intuitive controls
  • Lots of memory to contain maps and airport plates as well as flight tracks for downloading after flight
  • Ruggedness in a compact size
  • Battery life which exceeds flight time

I know that finding the perfect device or software is an ongoing search and I have included some initial purchase cost criteria for this article; for detailed cost comparisons you will have to make a list and shop around.

After flying several different microlight and light aircraft with GPS units made by Garmin and AvMap, as well as the iPad 1 & iPad 2 with several aviation Apps on them, I must say that there is not yet, one single device or device and app combo that “does it all” to my satisfaction.

A newly purchased GPS unit will include the latest maps and data plates; but this is usually out of date in a couple of months and most GPS units offer a subscription service for an annual fee, which can be quite expensive. The Dynon Sky-View panel, which includes the GPS data, can cost about £500 per annum to keep current. The Jepessen maps and data used on the Garmin and AvMap updates are slightly less expensive. The Flitestar mapping software from Jepessen is an annual cost of about £150 for Western Europe coverage. There are similar annual costs for Apps on the iPads depending on coverage. If you only ever fly in the UK and rarely go abroad, you are far better off purchasing the required maps and the small Aware unit for under £150, but if you fly regularly and far and wide, the electronic maps are much more cost effective, easier to use for planning and in the cockpit and do not weigh any more than the gadget itself. Thus the average club pilot who may fly less than 50 hours every year should check updates at least twice a year, in the Spring and late Summer.

The main in-flight use criteria I have for any unit is that it must have a screen large enough for my 55 year old eyeballs in varying light conditions. My ‘look-over’ type reading glasses are specially made to focus at one meter distance for the cockpit of the CT that I fly regularly. Any gadget placed on the panel is easily read provided the screen display is large enough to be read at a zoom level appropriate to that sector of the flight. For example, I want to be able to view an area on the screen which displays the projected track for the next 10 minutes of flight and about 10 miles on either side. If the screen is small, I need to zoom in and reduce area coverage just to read the letters describing airspace or radio frequency numbers or place names. The iPad beats all other gadgets with its large 10” screen with a brilliant colour display. However the silly thing changes its mind every time you touch the screen inadvertently!

The dedicated GPS units with a large enough display, intuitive keyboard and joystick and all the maps and data required that I find most reliable, easy to use, rugged and cost effective is the AvMap EKP 5 (Electronic Knee Pad). This has a 7” display with an internal battery that lasts about 2.5 hours which is longer than most GA flights and if required, plugs into a cigar lighter socket for continuous operation of longer durations. The USB connector plugs into the laptop for downloading planned routes and flight tracks after completion. The maps are clear and the data-base includes all the airport plates shown on the Jepessen charts at present. Price is about £1700 and I think this is worth every sterling pound.

Garmin has several gps units that are portable and now even a touch screen type unit is available. I have used the Garmin 695 and found it to be a good 7” display but a bit ‘clunky’ i.e. not intuitive, to use. It is more expensive, but more rugged and has a longer battery life than the AvMap unit.

There are many various apps on the iPad that help plan, organise and display the route on the ground as well as in the air. The best app I have used for the UK is Sky Demon with its facility to display all the information a pilot might need for planning his flight. However, in flight, I find that the app crashes more often than others and I have not been able to use it reliably. At a subscription cost of £180 per annum, it is quite a lot more than 3 sets of UK maps (total cost of 3 maps is about £50) and some time spent on the net looking for all the info yourself; but I can almost guarantee that any pilot worth his salt is lazy and would much rather pay the money and get the info literally at his finger tips on the iPad for all the ease of route planning, NotAm and weather checking that the app does.  You can also file a flight plan with this app, though there seem to be some bugs that need to be sorted out. The best aspect of Sky Demon app is the vertical display of airspace and weather along your planned route.

The Air Navigation Pro app at a cost of £30 or so is unbeatable for iPad users with its free maps and airspace depictions. But I much prefer to purchase the maps with it and by the time I had paid for ICAO maps of UK and most western European countries on this app, I had spent nearly £300. The best thing about this app is that all airports for Germany and France are shown with their circuits geo-referenced. Thus you can see where to join the circuit as your aircraft position is shown on the aerodrome plate. (The EKP 5 does this as well for all European countries, not just Germany and France).

I also have Jeppview app on the iPad which shows VFR route, airways and reporting points as per the Jepessen paper charts. I found this app to be very useful especially in Eastern Europe and the Near East as not any other app had the map coverage. Cost is not cheap at about £200 per year subscription, though you get updates every two weeks or so for the entire coverage so you are sure to get the correct current maps. This app has the airport plates for all licensed aerodromes and you can see the aircraft position clearly on the geo referenced ground plates to find your way while taxiing at large airports to the correct parking stand or runway or taxiway. This is an essential bit of information at unfamiliar airports.

Foreflight is an American app for the iPad which looks great for all the planning tools it has, but no offers no coverage for UK or Europe so I had to cancel the purchase within hours of buying it. They plan to include Europe maps soon I am told.

Our radii of flight have increased over the last few years, Europe has now no borders for the microlight and light aircraft, pilots and planes have the capability to travel longer distances going thru various airspaces with different regulations and conventions and practices. I would like to have the ideal “flight planning department” and “Satnav Susan” combined into one for every flight. A large easily readable display which I can carry about to plan my routes, find out weather and NotAms, file flight plans and be reliable and long lasting in flight navigator mode with up to date data with no drop out tendency.

At present I am pleased to say that a decent satnav like the AvMap and the iPad with several suitable apps make a good combination. By the way, I also carry backup AvMap and iPhone as well! The age of the electronic companion, my ‘Navatar’ is here!

PS:- “Navatar” is a term I coined from two Marathi  words,  nawin = new and avatar = form taken by a god to appear on earth as a mortal, generally to set an example or teach a lesson.

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