Satellite Radio For the Cockpit

Automotive systems from XM and Sirius are inexpensive and perform we'll in the air.

by Tom Gresham

Somewhere around the 200-hour mark, most pilots pass the point where its enough to just be in the air and they start thinking about creature comforts. High on the option list is in-flight entertainment in the form of music.

Clearly, scratchy AM radio beaming Rush or the farm report through the ADF (remember them?) wont do. While FM stations have better fidelity and selection, a Bonanza driver on a cross-country trip must re-tune constantly as stations come into and move out of reception range. Tape, CD and even MP3 players have been used and remain popular (okay, maybe not cassette players) but the killer app in in-flight entertainment has remained elusive, at least at prices most light airplane owners consider affordable.

But here comes satellite radio and it looks promising. Its also cheap. Dwellers of the cutting edge are finding that satellite radio eliminates line-of-sight issues-except for deep canyon flights-and delivers CD-quality sound with a wide variety of programming.

Better yet, the very same satellite radio receiver that works in your car and your house can easily be pressed into service in the cockpit, in portable mode. There are the usual portable wiring hassles but performance is excellence and although weve heard of some GPS interference issues, we don’t think this is a serious problem.

Airplanes? Forget It
Im in the radio business and when I first heard about satellite radio several years ago, before the first satellite was launched, I contacted the two companies providing the service -XM Radio and Sirius Radio–to suggest that their new service was perfect for airplanes. They simply didnt care.

Their interest was, and remains, cars. A one-percent penetration into the auto market, I was told, would make the billions invested worth the effort. In fact, Delphi, maker of XMs SkyFi receiver, told us that using one in an airplane wasnt legal. When we pointed to FAR 91.21-the portable electronic device rule that permits the pilot in command to make that decision-Delphis spokesperson said: oh.

Even the companies making avionics turned a cold shoulder to the idea, preferring MP3 players. But there is one exception. PS Engineering, ever an innovator, recently announced a Sirius-radio based panel mount. Even three years later, Sirius and XM still don’t care about airplanes.

But pilots havent waited. They have purchased portable receivers and currently listen to NPR, old-time radio dramas and an astounding variety of music while airborne. Sure, you can plug your portable CD player into your audio panel and the sound is, well, CD quality. Why fool with a satellite radio service which carries a monthly fee? Convenience. Both services offer 100 channels of music, talk, news and entertainment (such as comedy channels). No more switching CDs and no need to burn MP3s. Plus, news junkies can keep Fox News or CNN Headline News running for up to the minute non-stop current events.

Comparing XM and Sirius shows more similarities than differences. A portable receiver, plus the car kit you’ll need to wire it in will cost under $250. A short phone call or Web registration activates your subscription, billed to a credit card. Check the details on early cancellation penalties. The fine print is on the respective Web sites. Ten to 20 minutes after signing up, your new toy is a made receiver. You can listen to the feed in your car, boat, at home or in the aircraft.

Originally, XM had limited commercials on its music channels, while Sirius was commercial-free. Both services have commercials on the news-talk channels. The subscription fee for XM was less–$9.95 versus $12.95 for Sirius. One presumes this difference was based on XM customers putting up with commercials on the music channels. Last March, however, XM dropped the commercials from the music channels, and didnt raise its monthly price. Advantage XM, but only for days.

Sirius immediately offered a plan with a monthly fee of about $10. Competition between the two services means there are deals. Check their web sites frequently. And a heads-up for those who already have a car satellite receiver in a car. You can add a second unit (portable for the plane) to your subscription for seven bucks a month and thus avoid the minor inconvenience of moving the receiver around.

And it is minor, since these things are designed to be used easily in different venues. XMs Delphi SkyFi, for example, simply snaps in and out a plastic cradle in the car, boat or aircraft.

The hardware is evolving rapidly. The aforementioned SkyFi from Delphi was the first satellite radio receiver to hit the mass market. Its a unit about the size of a portable GPS and retails for $129.99. Virtually every consumer electronics outlet on the planet sells these things-Circuit City, Amazon, even Wal-Mart-so actual selling price of the receiver and accessories varies widely.

Delphi recently introduced a new receiver called the XM Roady which retails for $119.99. However, the Roady is designed to work with an automotive cassette player through an adapter, so the SkyFi is the better choice for aircraft. Another $70 buys the antenna and accessory kit you’ll need for the airplane. The range of hardware choices for the Sirius system is wider, thanks to more manufacturers offering receivers, including some in-dash models that include MP3 and CD capability. For portable use in an airplane, receivers from Clarion, JVC and Audiovox all retail in the $99 range. Again, add another $50 to $100 for antennas and other accessories. With either system, the hardware should cost under $250.

Setting up a satellite receiver isn’t difficult, but the particulars depend on the audio panel in your airplane, the intercom, the electrical system and your headsets.

Many recent audio panel/intercom installations include a panel jack for music input. If yours has this, youre there. All you need is a standard audio cable to connect the receiver output to the audio input. If you don’t want to bother with that, PS Engineerings Muse (see sidebar) is the no-fuss solution for a single headset set-up.

Several owners told us that the Garmin 340 audio panel doesnt have enough volume for the radio to be heard well. I experienced the same thing and solved it with a headset amplifier from Radio Shack. Just plug the unit between the receiver and the audio panel, turn it on and there’s plenty of volume.

But what if ATC calls? The Garmin 340 and the PS Engineering audio panels offer automatic muting when ATC or other aircraft are on the air. The Garmin cuts the music out sharply, while the PS Engineering has soft muting. On IFR flights, when ATC is busy, I find it too distracting to have the music fading in and out so I use the pilot isolate function on the 340 to give passengers music, while I listen to traffic calls.

If your aircraft has a 12-volt system, the receiver can be powered by the cigarette light plug. For 28-volt systems, you’ll need a voltage step-down device. We know of at least three options. Sportys and offer a converter which plugs into the 24-volt lighter socket and reduces that to 12 volts. This costs about $150.

Being cheap, I went another way. The local auto parts store sells a small battery unit for jump starting a car. The plastic case includes a cigarette lighter plug-12 volts, of course-which will power a radio receiver seemingly forever. It does require charging before a trip and you’ll need a place for the battery to dwell. I just put it on the floor behind the co-pilot seat.

The slickest option, which I would have gotten had it been available last year, is a converter which plugs into the 24-volt socket, converts the juice to 12 volts and plugs directly into receiver. The Delphi 10-30 VDC power adaptor looks much like the power cord which comes with the XM receiver but it has a converter built in. Aeromedix sells this for $39.99.

The antenna can go on the glareshield or on the hat rack if you have a Plexiglas window above it. Some car kit antennas have strong magnets which keep the puck on top of the car roof so use common sense if you perch the antenna near a mag compass.

On the SkyFi unit I bought, I peeled away the foil on the bottom of the antenna, removed the magnets, restored the foil and used a tab of Velcro to hold the antenna in place. Since the satellites sit in geosynchronous orbit a bit south of a direct overhead line, its possible, with some antenna locations on the glareshield, to lose the signal when flying on a northerly heading. (Center, wed like to hold this heading until the end of this song.) But mostly, reception is mute-free.

Interference Issues
As noted above, FAR 91.21 allows the use of any portable electronic device in the cockpit but it puts the pilot in charge of determining if there are any interference risks. This is important. Earlier models of the Delphi Roady portable unit have been shown to knock out GPS reception, due to spurious emissions. We are told by Delphi that this has been fixed, but its up to each pilot to verify that any portable unit wont splatter the nav equipment.

On a VFR day, with a safety pilot, or at least the autopilot engaged, test how your satellite receiver affects your panel mount and portable navigation equipment, especially GPS. Select the satellite page on your GPS and note the relative strength of the signals received.

Then turn on the satellite radio receiver and watch for changes. Checking the VOR receivers ag ainst the sat radio would also be prudent, although such interference seems unlikely.

Owner Reports
We spoke with and e-mailed some owners about their satellite radio experiences.

Mike Fredette, a Bonanza pilot from McKinney, Texas, told us he chose XM over Sirius because XM provides WxWorx weather downloads and Sirius doesnt. The music aspect of XM is a side benefit of this other package Im putting together.

I have purchased the new Garmin IQue 3600, which is essentially a Palm V PDA with a built-in Garmin GPS receiver. This allows me to run the NavAirWX, moving map software, view realtime NEXRAD weather and the only additional hardware is the XM receiver. I pipe the XM music into the input jack of my Garmin 340 audio panel. Fredette told us because IQue 3600 is a Palm V, it will also receive and process engine data from the JPI engine monitor.

If I had it to do over and had a deeper checking account, Id use one of the tablet PCs for the larger screen and also have the ability to view approach plates, Fredette says.

Coyle Schwab, who flies in the Midwest, detailed his experience: Ive been using the SkyFi and XM service for about 50 hours. Its installed on the lower panel using the standard automotive bracket and cables into the aux audio input of a PSE PMA7000-CD using a standard 3.5mm stereo audio cable. The…antenna is affixed to the top of one of the sunscreens in my Cessna 195 with Velcro.

Schwab reports minor signal blocking easily addressed by moving the sunscreen and no GPS interference issues. He went with XM because it was a couple of bucks cheaper and has excellent channel reception.

Ive enjoyed listening to CDs with my PMA7000CD, but frankly I like the satellite radio more. I just choose a channel that fits my mood instead of fishing for the right CD. And sometimes Im just more interested in listening to news or talk, Schwab says.

A California Cirrus owner offered this: Ive had the XM Delphi SkyFi in my SR22. It fits perfectly in the glovebox. The standard Cirrus install is to use the car kit, cut a piece of clear Plexiglas to match the bottom of the box and stick the car mount onto the plexi. Power is from the cigarette adapter and the antenna is Velcrod under the glareshield, about an inch from the GPS antenna. Like other owners, this Cirrus pilot couldnt get the volume he wanted through the Garmin GMA340 but he corrected this with a custom made impedance-matcher to boost the gain.

Although the owners we spoke to seem to favor XM, this is probably due more to hardware availability than the service itself. Both systems perform we’ll in the air and offer similar program content. If youre an NPR listener, Sirius offers some programming from that network, while XM doesnt.

Check out the Web sites of each service for more detail on content. We don’t think you’ll go wrong with either one.

Also With This Article
“Audio Interface Solutions”
“Panel-Mount Options”

• XM Radio, 800-967-2356,
• Sirius Satellite Radio, 888-539-7474,
• Avionics Innovations, 760-788-2602,
• PS Engineering, 800-427-2376,

-Tom Gresham flies a Twin Bonanza and hosts Guntalk, a syndicated radio show featured on Sirius satellite radio. (He receives no remuneration from Sirius.) For more information, see