The GPS Jungle

With the avionics market in chaos, you need to tune out the noise to buy smart. Heres our version of clarity.

Talk about buyers remorse, you just sunk $6000 into a new IFR-approved GPS installation when, surprise, the next issue of Trade-A-Plane arrives announcing a $1000 price cut for the very same navigator you just bought.

The only solace we can offer is this: Youre not alone. To describe the current GPS (and navcom) market as fluid is like calling the Titanic a boat mishap. The notion of equipping for the future is hopeless, unless your idea of the future is between six weeks and two months.

An unusual juxtaposition of FAA meddling, flat market demand and intense competition has yielded an unprecedented bumper crop of GPS navigators and mapcoms.

Yet despite the variety in price and features, we see no perfect avionics solution that marries good value with solid gold longevity. There are only compromises that get you part of the way there for what can best be considered a tolerable price tag.

Does that argue for simply holing up for a couple of years until the market clarifies, muddling through with your old KX-170s, hoping those dried out frequency changing belts wont break again? Thats certainly one strategy. But we think there are some other means of taming the avionics demon that involve purchasing new equipment now and we’ll sketch out our logic here.

The Obsolescence Myth
With the FAAs Wide Area Augmentation System hanging over buyers like an avionics sword of Damocles, two persistent myths seem to have developed. Myth one: The first-generation of IFR navigators such as Garmins venerable GPS 155 or Bendix/King KLN 90B will soon be rendered so functionally obsolete theyll have to be ripped from the panel.

Myth two: The FAA is on the verge of unplugging the VOR system, forcing a conversion to GPS as a sole means of navigation and anything that wont work with WAAS isn’t worth having.

Both are false, of course. Functionally, any TSO C129 receiver will work fine for the foreseeable future, including non-precision approaches. The first generation navigators may have obsolete feature sets-rudimentary or no moving maps, no comms, requirement for external annunciators, over-priced, perhaps-but functionally, theyll continue to work we’ll into the next century.

As for forcing sole means GPS, the FAA is in no position to do that now, if ever. Persistent worries about jamming and reliability have prompted the FAA, at Congressional behest, to back peddle on the sole means issue until a GPS risk assessment study is completed early next year. That study-which is being done by Johns Hopkins-could conceivably conclude that GPS will need a back-up of some kind and the leading contender for that at the moment seems to be VOR.

In other words, 10 years from now, the ground navaid network may look essentially the same as it does now. (Well dance out on the plank and make a prediction: It will look the same as it does now, sans quite a few DME sources.)

Further, WAAS is far from a sure bet. Congress has shown some resistance to continued WAAS funding and the FAA administrator is reportedly lukewarm on the project. So any avionics decision made now with the future of WAAS as a driving factor is like putting $1000 on the hard eight in Las Vegas. We just don’t think its a good bet.

What About Approaches?
GPS is slowly opening up more and more airports to IFR operations. Airports that never had approaches are now getting them and many that had cloud-buster NDBs or VORs are getting GPS non-precision approaches with lower minimums.

Overall, we think this is a good trend. And there’s little question that the laser-like accuracy of GPS represents a quantum leap in safety over NDB and even some VOR approaches. The tradeoff, of course, is the cost of installing the navigator, keeping it fed with current data and the hassle of operating the receiver, which many owners have found to be considerable.

Are the approaches worth the price of admission? Frankly, we would say no, unless you frequently operate IFR into out-of-the-way airports or youre based at a Podunker with nothing but an NDB or a VOR approach.

Evidently, most owners share this view, given the modest-well, anemic-sales of IFR GPS. GPS is certainly a boon for en route operations although again, were not sure if an IFR-certified navigator is worth the asking price in this context, given how many pilots use moving map portables to accomplish the same thing.

The FAA recently officially approved IFR GPS as a substitute for both ADF and DME, in most circumstances. (See sidebar.) This certainly improves the utility of IFR GPS but a pilot who has been using a Garmin 195 in lieu of DME for the past two years is likely to sneer at the FAAs late-in-coming largesse. Considering these limitations, its no surprise that many owners have decided to wait-and-see on GPS.

Unfortunately, the way things are going, there may not be a favorable time to buy GPS for the next five years, if then.

Four Strategies
We don’t see a drop-dead purchasing strategy that makes perfect sense of a chaotic market for every buyer. There are too many variables and lots of panels flying in varying stages of IFR capability. Many owners who have upgraded to GPS from recent-model lorans find that their navigation capability is only marginally improved in a way hardly commensurate with the price tag.

On the other hand, for high-performance singles and twins, area navigation of some kind is an expectation among buyers and increasingly, that translates as IFR-approved GPS.

Speaking of buyers, expectation or not, a recently installed GPS will return only a fraction of its purchase price at resale, so if you don’t plan to keep your airplane for at least two or more years, we think it makes sense to postpone the GPS buying decision, make-do with a handheld or buy an inexpensive panel-mount.

Similarly, if you own a low-performance single, say a Cessna 172 or a Piper Archer, with a low hull value, installing $6000 worth of IFR-approved GPS makes little economic sense unless you plan to keep the airplane for awhile or fly lots of serious IFR.

Against this backdrop, we see four basic strategies: Do Nothing, Go VFR, Cheap IFR and The Full Boat. we’ll look at each and make specific recommendations for equipment to meet each situation.

Do Nothing
Although there’s lots of swell GPS out there, you don’t have to buy any of it. As we noted, GPSs influence on the world of IFR is inching forward, but VOR/DME/ADF, which most aircraft already have, will cover IFR basic navigation for at least the next five years and probably the next 20 years.

The do-nothing strategy applies best to owners with recent lorans-IFR approved or not-or with older rho-theta navigators (KNS 80s/81s) that allow them to legally file as area-navigation equipped for IFR. (These days, thats still a /R equipment code.) The Department of Transportations recent decision to extend lorans operational life until at least 2008 means that there’s no worry about having an orphan box in the panel, although manufacturers may begin to decline support on some lorans.

What are you missing by not upgrading to GPS now? Not much. Whether IFR approved or not, most pilots use loran or GPS to fly direct clearances and the ATC edifice makes no distinction. You cant fly approaches with a loran, of course, but unless you operate frequently into airports with only GPS approaches, no loss there. There are enough conventional approaches nearly everywhere to get where youre going.

How about a moving map? We think these are definitely worth having so for a modest investment, buy a moving map portable. Our first choice is the Garmin 195 which offers a top-of-the-line 12-channel receiver and a large map display with good surface detail. Our second choice is the Garmin GPS III Pilot; same 12-channel receiver but a smaller display. Third choice, in the same mid-price range as the GPS III Pilot, is the Lowrance AirMap 100.

Pricewise, there are several facets to waiting it out. Not spending money now means you’ll have it later, unless you squander it on something else. As GPS demand heats up-and there are signs that it is-prices on first-generation C129 receivers will likely plummet before theyre remaindered and the new WAAS-capable boxes hit the market. For the now, Garmins impressive (and pricey) GNS 430 rules the WAAS-to-be market but when other manufacturers roll out their versions in a year to 18 months, we expect to see competition-induced price flexibility. But none will be as cheap as current GPS.

If you decide to delay buying, you can sit back and wait for the competition to work in your favor and you wont miss much.

Although it may seem like every pilot has already bought a portable GPS or is about to, portables arent for everyone. Despite their terrific capabilities, some owners don’t like yoke mounts, glareshield antennas and the associated rats nest of wires. (One solution is an external antenna, which will add $300 to $500 to the cost of a portable while improving its reliability somewhat.)

If youre not interested in mega-buck IFR GPS, a VFR panel mount is worth considering. you’ll pay twice to three times as much as you would for a top-of-the-line portable in exchange for a cleaner installation, an external antenna but perhaps map detail thats not up to the best available in portables such as the Garmin 195.

What can you do with a VFR-only panel-mount GPS? There’s legality and there’s reality. The legality is that its advisory navigation only; no officially blessed IFR functions. The reality is that pilots who buy these boxes use them as though they were IFR-certified for en route and terminal operations.

In other words, they accept direct clearances and substitute the VFR GPS freely for DME and ADF. The fact is, controllers don’t draw the distinction between IFR and VFR boxes and the FAA, caught between its own rules and a desperate push to see fleetwide GPS, seem inclined toward a don’t-ask, don’t tell policy. Were not recommending wholesale flouting of the rules, just noting how buyers seem to be resolving the current confusion over equipment.

The advantages of VFR panel mounts are several: First, installation costs are relatively cheap, thus theyre suitable for low-value airframes or as an interim box you can walk away from in a couple of years without much remorse. As a replacement for loran, a VFR GPS is more accurate and wont roll over in the rain. And it neednt be fed pricey 28-day database revisions.

Our view is that if youre going to install any GPS from this point forward, it ought to have a moving map, unless the panel already has an Argus map or youre satisfied with a portable. We count eight VFR panel mounts on the market as of press time. Heres the list: From Bendix/King: the KLN 89, KLN 35A and KLN 135A, which combines a 760-channel comm with a GPS. All of the Bendix/King units have maps.

From Garmin, the GPS 150 and GNC 250 both lack moving maps so we don’t see them as contenders. We expect them to be discontinued soon. Garmins 150XL and GNC 250XL do have maps, however, and the 250XL sports a combined comm unit.

From IIMorrow, the VFR-only map choice is the GPS 360, which fits into a standard instrument hole. All of IIMorrows other GPS units-whether combined with comm units or not-are IFR certifiable, which tends to elevate the price. The cheapest map unit is the GX-55, which retails for about $3000 discounted and then only if you already have a Flybuddy loran or GPS, for which its a pin-for-pin replacement.

If you simply don’t want to fuss with IFR certification-and we think there’s a strong argument for that at the moment, the Garmin 250XL is the best combination of features in this group. At $2800 discounted, it offers the largest moving map in its class, with crisp LCD and reverse video for night operations, plus a nice comm unit.

In our view, it beats out the Bendix/King boxes on price and features and has a much better moving map. Although the low-end of the IIMorrow line can be officially certified for en route and terminal IFR, we don’t think thats worth the additional expenditure, not to mention the database costs.

We havent overlooked Trimbles TNL 2000A and Northstars GPS-60. Although Northstar has the simplest operating logic in the business, the lack of moving maps put both of these units behind the price-value curve, in our view. We just don’t see the point of paying nearly the same price (or more) without the option of the map and/or a comm section.

The GPS-60 ($3000 discounted) will be most attractive to Northstar loran owners who want to upgrade to GPS; this mode is a pin-for-pin replacement for the trusty M1. Increasingly, however, Northstar is catering to a cult market. We really hope theyll bring their display into the 1990s when they introduce the next new product.

Cheap IFR
On the other hand, if youre a stickler for legal detail and you really think this moving map business is a crock, the least you can spend for a legal en route only IFR receiver is about $1900, for a IIMorrow SL50, plus another $1000 to $1500 for installation. Congratulations: you’ll have the same operational capability as a VFR GPS, but without the moving map. Also in this range are some reconditioned IIMorrow 2001 navigators, which weve seen advertised for about $1700 to $1800.

IIMorrow has been offering deals on SL50/60s with the 360 Map, but weve never been impressed with that unit. Early models suffered from poor readability and contrast and although IIMorrow improved the display, we don’t think it measures up against the companys latest products or those from Garmin. The SL-series navigation boxes, in our view, are best suited for panels with little real estate for expansion and where a moving map isn’t wanted.

If you already own a IIMorrow Flybuddy GPS or loran, IIMorrows GX55 is a pin-for-pin slide-in replacement and is selling for about $3000 discounted, for an installed price of about $3500, $3800 tops if you need antenna work. That buys en route and terminal only IFR-legal GPS and a highly capable integrated moving map. Not a bad deal at all.

If you don’t have the Flybuddy, spend another $1000 for a total of $4000 to $4500 installed for the GX-65 and you’ll get a first-rate comm radio out of the deal, still with IFR en route approval only. Or, if you want the approaches and don’t care about the radio, the GX-50 sells for about $4000 for a total of $5500 installed. Not as good a deal as the GX50, in our estimation. Feeling the competitive heat, Bendix/King recently slashed the price on its market-leading KLN 89B by $1000, meaning you can probably get one installed and have IFR approach capability for around $6000, but no combined comm radio. A close call against the IIMorrow GX-65.

Whispering a constant reality check here is the Garmin GNC 250. Yeah, its VFR only but you get a nice map and a first-rate comm for $2500 less. Those economics are hard to ignore.

Still, if some kind of legal IFR is important to you, and your conventional navcomms are reasonably state of the art, we think the GX50 represents the best value in this equipment strategy, with the Bendix/King KLN 89B as second choice. If you want to yank an older comm unit, the GX65 is the best value, in our view. You wont get IFR approaches but thats an even up trade for the radio, which you’ll use on every flight.

The Full Boat
For a real opportunity in buying stupid, consider shopping for an all-the-bell-and-whistles IFR GPS. With Garmins GNS 430 overhanging the market, even second-gen C129 mapcoms are looking tattered. Might as we’ll face it, this is not a good time to buy up-market avionics.

Nonetheless, perhaps you have to buy now or youve just waited so long you cant stand it. Whats the best strategy? Unless the prices are absolutely rock-bottom cheap, we would avoid first-generation C129 navigators such as the Garmin 155, the Bendix/King KLN 89/90B, IIMorrows 2001 NMS, the Trimble 2000 Approach and Northstars M3.

Yes, we know thats a brutal recommendation. But its not your or our fault that the FAA has mucked up the GPS product development cycle with hopelessly vague promises on future capability and we don’t think as consumers, we should be expected to pay for this uncertainty by buying high-dollar boxes that will soon be eclipsed by better stuff with more features and technological longevity. With that proviso in mind, if you must equip for GPS-driven IFR now and cost is not the driving factor, we think any high-dollar IFR GPS installed now should include a VHF comm. That nicely narrows the choice down to two possibilities: IIMorrows hot-selling GX60 and Garmins GNC 300XL.

Both are approach-certified IFR navigators with 760-channel comms. In side-by-side comparisons, we gave the GX60 a slight edge, due to better comm integration. However, the Garmin has a larger, somewhat crisper moving map which features reverse video for night operations.

Our advice is to examine both units and, if all else is equal in your estimation, buy strictly on installed price. The GX60 will enjoy a slight edge there, too, since the required CDI indicator may be cheaper because the receiver uses a resolverless interface.

Our logic is this: Installed at the top of the stack, either of these units will enjoy Alpha Dog status for three to five years. Even when Garmin rolls out its new GNS 430 color moving map (see October 1998 Aviation Consumer), both the GX60 and GNC 300XL will hold their own.

Theyll be perfectly capable of flying the vast majority of new GPS non-precision approaches for the foreseeable future and with the integrated comm, you can remove an older conventional navcomm and end up with more navigation and communication capability.

If you wish to upgrade to a WAAS box in the mid-term future, the GX60 or GNC 300XL can slip into the number 2 slot, offering back-up navigation and a second radio. (Neither manufacturer is promising WAAS compatibility for these receivers and our advice is this: Just don’t worry about it.) Were assuming, of course, that all future WAAS receivers will have integrated comm. If they don’t, they should, in our view. Which leads us to mention one more new navigator: Trimbles new TN500. At $5500, Trimble says this receiver has a revolutionary user interface that simplifies operation. Yet its map is smaller than the Garmin and at $500 more than the GX60 and $700 more than the Garmin 300XL, it has no comm radio.

On paper, it doesnt look like a super attractive deal to us, simply because it lacks the larger map and comm integration. we’ll withhold judgement on it until weve evaluated the unit in detail.

What to do? If youre in no hurry, don’t buy anything. Muddle through with a good portable for the next year or two. If you want to buy something for the panel but don’t care about IFR approval, we think the Garmin 250XL is the best value. VFR only, but at $3700 or so installed, you get a good moving map and a comm. The 150XL, which has no comm, is $300 cheaper but getting a comm radio for $300 strikes us as a helluva good deal. We say go for it.

For serious IFR, set aside $8000 to $10,000 and wait for the Garmin GNS 430 color mapcomm-or the competitions version of it-or do some serious horsetrading and buy either a IIMorrow GX60 or a Garmin GNC 300XL. At the least, you’ll get a smart radio out of the deal.

Also With This Article
Click here to view the Checklist.
Click here to view GPS: Current Best Buys.
Click here to view “Dump DME for GPS? Yes, But There’s A Catch.”
Click here to view “WAAS Approaches: Some Unknowns.”
Click here to view Addresses.