Portable Flight Avionics

Portable Flight Avionics


Newer GA cockpits are transforming to coloured informative glass screens that once only airlines could afford.

Regulatory requirements also drive improvements; such as in some countries - aircraft flying under Instrument Flight Rules (IFR) must be GNSS navigation equipped, colloquially referred to as "GPS-equipped".

Visual Flight Rules (VFR) pilots may hire IFR-equipped aircraft on line, so gaining use of in-dashboard GNSS as a free aid, GNSS dependency is a concern; remember the wise VFR pilot utilises all available aids and regularly cross checks the chart information.

For those without in-panel gear a handheld GNSS may be worthwhile investment. If you buy offshore beware features that do and don't exist in different countries (for example the Garmin Aera 796, 560, 510 and GPSMAP 696 provide XM Weather in USA) and be certain that local features like airspace, terrain, and waypoints are available and updatable.

Legacy products,although not covered in this article, can be economical but may have limited manufacturer support. There is usually an ongoing price for regular data base updates including airspace.

Garmin GPSMAP 695 Aviation Navigator

This is a large screen aviation navigator (9.2 x 15.1 cm) designed as a portable multi-function display and moving map. The screen is easy reading day or night.

Soft keys and a multi-function joystick make operation simple and the fast GPS update rate ensures flight data and graphics flow smoothly.

Although a VFR aid, IFR route details and minimum safe altitude as found on enroute charts can be displayed.

With its Pacific base map and Jeppesen database, a high-resolution terrain page shows hazards at your altitude and a profile of route terrain as well as airspace close to current altitude to assist situational awareness and avoid violations of airspace.

The 695 panel has a HSI with course deviation indicator, VSI, and altitude, ground speed, and rate of turn indicators, although this is supplementary information to the aircraft panel.

Memory capacity allows 3000 locations and 50 routes and an SD card slot is provided for extra memory and updates.

Utilities include weight and balance calculation, up to 10 aircraft profiles, and flight log up to 50 flights. The 695 weighs 1 kg with three-hour battery pack fitted.

Garmin AERA 795 Pacific GPS

The Aera 795 steps up from the 695 as the new Garmin portable flagship with size reduction and weight reduction to 750 grams.

It has 695 features including the same size screen and resolution but adds ability to view in portrait or landscape, touch-screen interfacing removing the joystick need, and 3D vision.

Quick access to favourite pages is by user added icons with intuitive pictures along screen bottom. The map itself is easily finger panned and zoomed.

A digital document viewer and scratch pad for clearances or notes moves closer to a paperless cockpit, and the E6B calculator allows some altitude, true airspeed and wind calculations.

The document viewer accepts PDF documents, JPEG photos, and electronically formatted materials for example aircraft flight manual checklists and performance data.

Garmin AERA 500 Pacific GPS

The Aera 500 is a smaller unit with a 9.7 x 5.7cm screen, suitable yoke mount, automotive friction mount, vehicle power cable, battery, USB cable, pilot's guide and quick start manual. Rechargeable battery life is around five hours.

Garmin AERA 550 Pacific GPS

The Aera 550 is the 500's big brother with all 500 features but faster aviation terrain resolution and improved road use features including enhanced lane assistance and junction view.

Although $500 price jump from the 500, one yearof aviation database updatesis included, quoted at $800 value.

Garmin GPSMAP196

This budget unit suits aviation, land & marine applications, with a monochrome (12-level greyscale) display. The aviation databaseis included although not terrain dataor IFR map mode.

Street navigation and marine data can be purchased, with guidance pages setup automatically for aviation, land and water.

The 196 has detailed moving map graphics, HSI steering guidance, anda Jeppesen database. Map redraws and scrolling are fast and map readingis assistedby the base map land detail including cities, highways, roads, rivers and lakes.

An automatic logbook calculates flight time and departure and arrival locations, downloadable to Garmin logbook software. The 196, weighing 680g, uses four AA batteries, life up to 16 hours.

Garmin GLO

The GLO Bluetooth Aviation pack isan external GPS receiver for other for aviation and land use. It comes with the Pacific Jeppesen Aviation Database and Australia and New Zealand Street Mapping displayed on the icon driven touch screen.

For aviation, the Aera 500 combines coloured topography, with built-in terrain and obstacle alerting, plus IFR map mode. Fifty flight plans can be saved, each with 300 points and there is an automatic log for the 30 recent flights.

For vehicle use, the Aera is similar to the Garmin Nuvi series including spoken street names. Bluetooth hands-free calling is provided. Weighing 270g it is supplied with devices. Via Bluetooth, GLO pairs to phones and tablets including Apple and Android.

The GLO can be placed for clear view of satellites, this aviation version including an anti-skid mount, while the phone or tablet is placed to suit pilots and crew.

Battery life is up to 12 hours, recharging via the included USB or cigarette lighter cable.

GLO is WAAS-capable and can receive position information from GPS and GLONASS satellite constellations, allowing it to connect to up to 24 more satellites than GPS only.

Position updating is 10 times per second, depending on the paired EFB capability.

Apple iPad

The iPad can suit work, home and flying, with add-on software like OzRunways EFB or AvPlan EFB making it an all in one flight planning, electronic flight bag and moving map display.

The GPS in the iPad is single constellation (US GPS) only. It is not WAAS enabled and Apple describes it as 'A-GPS' or 'Assisted' meaning it uses Wi-Fi and non-GPS data if GNSS signal is lost and so is better treated as an EFB-standard moving map than a precise positional device.

The aerial is inbuilt and positioning for user visibility may negate clear sky view and result in poor satellite signal reception.

Manufacturers recognised the demand for satellite reception enhancement and available for under $220 are available the Garmin GLO, Bad Elf GPS Pro 2200, Dual XGPS160, and GNS 2000.

These are conveniently Bluetooth-coupled so can be placed in view of the sky, some are dual constellation (GPS and GLONASS), some also support Android, and Bad Elf includes data logging capability independent of iPad. Before you buy, decide what features you want and check specifications for compatibility.

Airbox GPS products

Airbox is a new player formed in 2008. Working with UK National Air Traffic Systems, Airbox produced its Aware Airspace Warning Device and in 2011 was recognised by the Flight Safety Foundation for efforts to reduce airspace infringements across the UK and beyond.

When asked to differentiate their products, Airbox suggests they offer a broad price range and use official maps, some with free desktop flight-planning software "Fastplan" complementing the GPS intuitive ease of use. Internationally, Airbox markets the Clarity 3.0, Foresight 3.0 and versions of the Aware.

Airbox Clarity 3.0

The compact Clarity has a 12.7 cm screen uncluttered to present only essential flight information.

Typing in an ICAO identifier or airfield name sets destination, then press and click adds airspace-avoiding waypoints.

Stored routes can be loaded from system memory and current route edited in-flight.

A 3D terrain data base is available looking out up to 20nm from present position, and potential airspace infringement warnings are issued five minutes prior based on the aircraft altitude, climb, descent or drift.

To assist arrival, within 10 nm of destination extended runway centrelines are produced. Flights are logged and can be transferred to PC.

Airspace data (not chart updates) is updated every 28 days, free by Airbox for product life.

Complete WAC 1:1,000,000, VTC 1:250,000 and VNC 1:500,000 VFR charts and Airways 1:250,000, charts are installed as standard so pilots can cross reference their position with paper charts.

Each unit comes with suction mount, 12/24v power supply cable, 240V plug socket, USB cable and SD card reader (for data transfers between Clarity and PC), and a copy of Fastplan PC desktop flight-planning software. Battery life at full brightness is claimed as 2.5 to three hours.

Airbox Foresight 3.0

The Foresight uses the same software and features but has a larger 17.8 cm screen and superior readability in sunlight.

Screen resolution is 800 x 480 pixels versus 480 x 272 for Clarity, and Foresight has a faster processor, and a port for external GPS antenna input.

Airbox Aware and Aware Plus

The Aware is an airspace and situational warning device using GNSS to display own aircraft position on included digital charts.

It is an airspace reporting system, not a flight planner. The bright screen displays a full moving map display showing WAC 1:1,000,000 and VTC 1:250,000 charts for some countries and VTC 1:250,000 charts for others.

The airspace database is updated every 28 days for the unit life.

Aware Plus has the Aware features plus flight planning functionality. Find a location on the chart, press and hold to set track there, add and delete waypoints, load and save planned routes.

Aware Plus is compatible with Airbox Fastplan, the PC desktop flight planner.

Airbox Aware5 and Aware5 Plus

The Aware 5 has 30% more screen than the original Aware and longer battery life of up to two hours at full brightness, but remains a reporting system not a flight planner.

Aware 5 Plus has all the Aware 5 features plus flight planning functionality including en route track, bearing, groundspeed, distance and ETE information.

ASA Pathfinder CX-2 flight computer

The circular computer "whiz wheel" doesn't have batteries to go flat, but requires practice and some mental arithmetic as well as good eyesight or glasses for the pocket sized version.

The CX-2 is an electronic substitute with the most common aviation calculations via keyboard and multi-line display of input and output data.

ASA labels it a flight computer rather than calculator, because it enables follow-on calculations where the original answer is entered as the start of the next calculation.

Results are displayed as maximum eight digits. Calculations include pre-flight weight and balance and key in flight variables.

The internal clock keeps the time even when the CX-2 is switched off, and provides both local and UTC times.

Two timers are included, a stopwatch to keep track of elapsed time and a count-down timer as a reminder for fuel tank changes or scheduled reporting.

The CX-2 uses four AAA batteries, with a low battery alarm when an hour of power remains, and has a neat hard plastic case that stores on the back of the unit when in use.


Analogue dials may not be as accurate as glass screen equipment and are sometimes placed where parallax error reading by the pilot occurs.

The engine tachometer is one where this writer has found actual errors of 150 rpm at 2500 rpm indicated and also non-linear errors across the tacho range.

This is not an issue at idle but can affect engine management and fuel burn and getting best value for money when hiring.

The Proptach is a small 11 x 7 x 3.3 cm lightweight unit which reads two- or three-bladed propellers including on twins, with a clear digital readout covering 200 to 4500 rpm and an update every second.

Accuracy to one rpm is claimed, and the unit can be checked igainst a fluorescent light for reference accuracy.

Power source is a nine volt battery with claimed life of 100 hours. For busy or forgetful pilots battery life is saved by an auto power down feature two minutes after propeller stop.

Controls are basic - On/Off and two/ three blade prop selector. No mounting kit is provided; Velcro on top of the instrument panel glare shield is an easy solution and keeps the display in direct view.

Sigtronics Intercom - Transcom II SPO Series

The general aviation cockpit is a mix of noises — propeller, exhaust, aerodynamic, vibration and can have long-term negative effects on hearing.

Soundproofing means weight, so the alternative is the headset, which is a case of "one in, all in" for best cabin communication. This also enables those extra pairs of eyes to alert the pilot to risks but requires an intercom system if the aircraft is not equipped.

The SPO portable series begins with a two-place intercom that can be extended to 10-place by add-on two-place modules connected by extension cords so that each add on unit can be positioned beside passengers using it.

The unit prioritises pilot or co-pilot transmitting so passenger noise is not heard by external parties including Air traffic Control, and includes music input for passenger enjoyment and record output if flight dialogue recording is desired.

A DC power cable is provided or the SPO operates up to 40 hours on its nine-volt battery. In the event of the intercom switching off, a fail-safe feature allows the pilot to hear the radios.

A range of portable intercoms from other manufacturers is available in America, for example PA 200 and 400 series, and Flightcom II plus expansion module.