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(June 20, 2006)

Guard Aviation : Blog

Product Review - Garmin's GPSMAP 396
June 25, 2006 - Submitted By John Nagle

"When I was a kid, we had to walk to school...uphill both ways!" It's almost cliche that the older generation had a much more difficult time in life than the young whipper-snappers these days. Just 2 weeks ago, I had flown a friend of mine to Burnet Texas (BMQ) to visit the Confederate Air Force museum there - a place I visited often with friends in my Bonanza B35 - and we got to see the old airplanes with all their rickety-looking old altimeters, radios, and even an old 100% analog instrument simulator, the progeny of some really ingenious engineering.

How fitting it is then that now, 2 weeks later, I should have arrive at my door the poster child of what I consider the most significant technological advance in aviation since the arrival of the GPS itself: the Garmin 396.

Oh, what the great aviation pioneers would have given for the breadth of information that can now be stuffed into a space smaller than their own shoe (and I mean just one shoe, not a pair!) I can without reservation say that not only will the technology employed in this device make flying more fun, more accessible, and more useful...most importantly, it will save lives.

GPS technology is about not getting lost. It's a big sky up there, and it looks a hell of a lot different up there than it does down here. The 396, when taking advantage of the WxWorks service available via the XM satellite radio service, is about complete situational awareness. You now not only know where you're going, but what the weather will be like when you get there. Tired of tuning in AWOS on COM2 and waiting until you're 10 minutes out before you can even hear it? Now you can get the METAR data at your destination before you even reach your cruising altitude. Worried that going VFR-on-top will leave you trapped up there? No problem, look at the satellite picture. It's all there, and then some.

As of this writing I've made 2 flights with the 396. The first was on the morning it arrived, coincidentally a morning of marginal VFR conditions. I had been asked by a friend to fly him and 2 other pilots to Huntsville, Texas (KUTS) to retrieve some hail-damaged airplanes. The ceilings were a little low and there was still some rain moving through the area, but the visibility was good and there were plenty of solid VFR alternates, so we decided to go. The 396 showed a clear shot all the way to Huntsville, but it also showed several spots of rain activity to the left and right of our course. As we approached where they were supposed to be, I could easily see the corresponding area out the window.

As we approached 50nm or so from our destination, I pulled up the METAR data for KUTS and saw that it was excellent VFR conditions. And the closer we got the more that it became apparent that the system was right; the clouds had begun to dissipate nicely and sunlight was streaming in through the last remaining moisture.

Once on the ground I decided to check the weather using the computer in the terminal building. Lo and behold, it was a dial-up system, so I clicked the internet icon and waited...and waited...and waited...and finally, made my way to the website. I clicked on site radar for Austin saw that a fairly heavy rain cell had settled over the city. Oh well, I thought, I'll head back anyway and if it's still bad when I get there I'll just go to my alternate. But strangely enough, when I powered up the 396 less than 5 minutes later, the picture was entirely different. Georgetown was as clear as a bell, and though there was some spotty stuff along the return route, it was more than navigable.

Needless to say, once again the 396 was dead-on accurate. At about 2/3 the distance of the flight, the sky opened up to an amazing VFR day. Yes, weather can change quickly in Texas, but I still feel like the radar image I saw at the terminal must have been cached or something, it was too wrong.

The WxWorks "Aviator" (top-tier) service provides you with NexRad radar (the piece de resistance), echo tops, METARs, TAFs, TFRs, satellite cloud cover, winds aloft, lightning data, and so on. The "Aviator LT" package leaves off quite a few things such as satellite imagery and winds aloft. You can get the full package details here.

For the "weekend warrior", the device and the service can be a bit pricey, especially for the top-tier service. But if you do anything beyond the weekend bounce-and-boogies, you should seriously consider the 396 or any of the other alternative ways to obtain the WxWorks service. In 5 years, we'll all have it and we'll all wonder what we did without it. Why, when I was your age our GPS didn't have any danged weather data! And them kids didn't wear their pants around their butt cheeks either!

Keep slippin' them surly bonds!

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