One of the most ubiquitous pilot gadgets is the electronic E6B. Sportys says it has sold 100,000 of its model, which equates to one in six of all certificated pilots-student and otherwise-in the U.S. Thats a lot of calculators.
Do pilots use them? Well, yes. Some do. At the very least, theyre useful when seeking a higher rating, saving the trudge of doing weight-and-balance by hand or putting a sharper point on ETA calculations when minutes matter.
For this report, we tried the three major contenders, the aforementioned Sportys, ASAs CX-1a Pathfinder and Jeppesens TechStar.
As far as the basic functions go, theres little practical difference among the three. Any one of them will get you through the written and figure preflight course and groundspeed (as will the much cheaper mechanical version). They also perform dozens of other functions youll probably never use in the real world. (We dont actually remember the last time we really needed to know to three decimal places at what percentage of Mach a C-152 cruises. Its too depressing anyway.) Lots of the potentially useful calculations such as figuring headwind and crosswind components from known values are things that we learn to ballpark mentally with experience anyway.
One advantage the electronic flight computers have over their mechanical counterparts is that each will store default values for various calculations. All are palm sized and will indeed fit in a shirt pocket, as advertised. Button size, density and touch pressure didnt vary significantly among the three in our estimation and all have identical three-year warranties. Each one has an automatic shutoff function after varying periods of inactivity. Since core functions didnt vary significantly, we concentrated on ease of use.
Sportys E6B and ASAs CX-1a Pathfinder are more or less identical in layout and mode of operation, but the Sportys product edged out ASAs in ease of use in our opinion, as well as being the cheapest of the three. Jeppesens TechStar is set up around an entirely different user logic that we found much less hospitable than the other two.
A couple of preliminary words on functions: Each of the three we tested can function as a timer, both count up and count down. However, youd have to rig up something to secure it in the scan, so we dont see that any one of the three being as useful for timing approaches as a plain old West Bend Velcrod to the panel.
The same goes for the advertised sales pitch that each will also operate as a regular portable calculator. Cmon, now. For five bucks, you can buy a garden-variety number cruncher thats smaller, lighter and eats a single watch battery every couple of years instead of 3-volt batteries or AAAs every six months or so. Just buy a half dozen, figuring youll lose three of them.
Sportys and ASAs products are both reasonably intuitive and you dont really need to spend quality time with the manual to get the ball rolling. The keys are well-labeled and the basic function menu is displayed at the bottom of the screen.
Its a simple matter to scroll through it with the arrow keys to find the function you want, which will prompt you line by line for the data needed. Conversions (nautical to statute and the like) can be entered directly on the screen. Then you hit the Conv button and the labeled number key which performs that calculation.
None of this is true of Jeppesens TechStar. You have to access a menu for everything and then use side keys to select the line for which you want to enter data. (Reminds us of a high-end jet FMS.) This capability allows you to enter the initial information in any order you want, but the difficulty of TechStars menu logic more than outweighed this advantage, in our opinion.
TechStar does have a few more available calculations, but if you dont go around figuring mean aerodynamic chord variables for fun, its not anything you cant live without.
Pros: Small and lightweight with a superior digital display. Screen contrast was excellent and readily viewable at a variety of angles and lighting conditions. It comes with a nice zippered carrying case that opens toward the top. Logical, intuitive and easy to use. Cost: $69.95.
Cons: It was the only one of the three that didnt include the 3 AAAs needed. Then again, at $5 to $10 less than the other two, well buy our own. Setting the countdown timer for minutes and seconds wasnt particularly intuitive, but otherwise everything was relatively sensible.
ASAs CX-1a Pathfinder
Pros:Thinnest and lightest of the three. The On button doesnt stand up as high as the others and is less likely than the other two units to be activated accidentally. Cost: $79.95.
Cons: Most expensive of the three. Uses two 3-volt batteries, which could be a pain to find and keep around. It only has a left and right arrow key, which makes scrolling through the multi-line menu more aggravating than Sportys four-arrow directional pad. The fold-open case is essentially useless and doesnt even close flat on the unit.
The top strap is thin plastic which doesnt look like it will hold up under long-term use, in our view. In addition, it tends to obscure the top display line in some menus. The bottom corner straps are also thin plastic and just didnt fit the unit, resulting in not being able to secure it properly. This one qualifies as needs work.
Pros:Case is deeper at the top and feels good in the hand. Display angle makes it more convenient for working computations at a table. Uses 4 AAAs, which are included. Cost is $74.95.
Cons: Very little can be worked directly from the keyboard. Youre even forced into a menu just to start the timer, while the other two have a dedicated button. We get enough menus trying to beat Windows 95 into submission, thanks. The protector is just a thin vinyl slip case and the computer must be removed from the case entirely for use, which will probably result in the case being misplaced even before the early date at which the vinyl case will degrade to uselessness.
The screen is darker than either of the other two and display contrast is consequently poor. Very sensitive to viewing angle and reflection; numbers and letters are feeble compared to the other two. Frankly, given the price, this one was disappointing.
If youre bound and determined to have one of these, the Sportys model is the clear winner in our opinion. Not only is it the cheapest of three-all of which do essentially the same thing-the display is excellent and easy to read.
Learning to use it is easy, functions are intuitive and it has the only protective case which looks like it will hold up as you crunch your way through the commercial and ATP.
-by Jane Garvey
Jane Garvey is a contributing editor to Aviation Consumers sister magazine, IFR.