Gear of the Year

Our annual roundup of the best products and services weve seen since our last look.

The gladhanders and flacks would have us believe were in the midst of an aviation renaissance. But from where we sit, it merely looks as though the patient is propped up on one elbow and taking nourishment.

But whos quibbling? There are definite signs of life in the GA industry, as evidenced by the increasing pace of new product introductions and even a new airplane model here and there.

Our annual tour of the horizon for the best products and services usually turns up more good things than bad but in our world, someone always has to finish first. With that in mind, heres our annual no-punches-pulled review of the best products weve encountered during the past year.

Product of the Year
IIMorrow GX60

Being in the GPS panel-mount business these days has to be nerve-wracking. Demand has been rising but is nonetheless unpredictable and the FAAs WAAS program hangs over the avionics development cycle like a cheap suit.

Against this backdrop, the GPS manufacturers have soldiered on, especially IIMorrow, which we believe merits our Product of the Year award for the GX55/GX60 navigators and mapcoms.

IIMorrow came out of the chute late with its first IFR GPS, the 2001 NMS. Although credible, it wasnt our first choice. IIMorrow obviously listened to customer feedback and last year rolled out the GX series, which have a re-designed moving map and vastly improved control logic.

Better yet, the GX60 represents a clever marrying of comm and nav functions that clearly points the way to the future, so when the White House cuts the ribbon to the bridge to the 21st century, we’ll at least be able to hold the centerline and talk at the same time.

At $4995 retail-less discounted-the GX60 is an affordable choice and with WAAS uncertainties still overhanging the market, the GX60 is both a good interim choice and a long-term player, since the navigator will navigate and the comm will communicate for the foreseeable future. Kudos to IIMorrow for shoehorning an impressive product between the start-of-the-art and the fuzzy future.

Contact IIMorrow at 800-525-6726.

Best New ANR Headset
Pilot Freedom

When Bose stunned the aviation world with active noise canceling headsets seven years ago (yes, its been that long), this product occupied the near edge of exotica. At a grand a pop, most pilots relegated an ANR headset to things-to-buy when the first Powerball check arrives.

Now, the market is awash with ANR choices, most of them quite good. The best new product introduction weve seen this year comes from Pilot Avionics, a company noted for middle-of-the-road standard headsets. With its new Freedom ANR headset, Pilot has made active noise cancellation affordable for the average schlub.

Rather than having to fuss with a tangle of wires or a bulky battery box-the usual penance for the sweet silence of ANR-the Freedom has a rechargeable battery hidden away in one earcup.

Our trials indicated that this system worked we’ll and the lack of a power wire is a blessing in a tight cockpit. With a $389 street price, the Freedom is a heck of value in affordable ANR. Contact Pilot 800-874-1140.

Best Windshield Cleaners
Novus, Plexus and Prist

We try to pick a winner but sometimes there’s a tie, as with these three windshield cleaning products. All three were convenient and easy to work with and seemed to stand out in a field glutted with choices, most of them from the automotive market.

When using these cleaners, the critical step is flooding the windshield with water first to avoid scratching the relatively soft acrylic. Once youve done that, any of these cleaners will knock the bugs and oil off. Contact NOVUS at 800-548-6872; Plexus at 818-879-1493 and Prist at 800-354-2853 for suppliers.

Best New Transponder
Garmin GTX 320 Transponders?

Who gets excited about transponders? You do-or you will-if you have to replace yours this year. Although all a transponder does is squirt a little line of code across ATCs radar scope, you gotta have one. Garmins GTX 320 is a likely replacement candidate, in our view. It has neither a sexy digital display nor a fancy return-to-VFR button.

Its just a solid, exceptionally well-made and relatively inexpensive transponder. For $1495 retail-less discounted, of course-you really cant do much better. Contact Garmin at 800-800-1020.

Best New Handheld GPS
Lowrance AirMap 100

Just as were certain the portable GPS market has about run its course for awhile, another model or two appears. This spring, it was Lowrances AirMap 100.

Although it breaks no new technical ground, the AirMap 100 stuffs remarkable capability into a small package but its strongest selling point is price: $599 list, which brings it in under the Garmin GPS III pilot while providing more accessories.

The AirMap 100 has excellent surface detail and Lowrance has come up with a slick and relatively inexpensive CD-ROM set-up that allows the user to load in additional topo map detail. (The CD-ROM replaces the 64 cartridges that carried the same data for previous AirMap models.)

Thus, the rugged outdoors person will know which bog has swallowed his Ford Explorer with an accuracy of a few feet. In a few minutes, you can unload the land data and convert the navigator back into a full-featured airborne unit. Contact Lowrance at 800-324-4740.

Best Engine Monitor
JP Instruments EDM 700

Engine monitors long ago graduated from relative curiosities to must-have instruments, especially in high performance airplanes. As we reported in our May, 1998, issue, there are many to pick from across a wide price range.

The big two have traditionally been Insights GEM series and JP Instruments EDM 700 units. Both are first-rate instruments but we give the edge to JPI because it has steadily edged forward on the features front, while Insights instruments have remained relatively spare.

In our view, if youre going to have electronic monitoring, add on items such as oil temperature, fuel flow, bus voltage and so forth are just as valuable diagnostic tools as is data logging and you’ll use the former on every flight.

Contact JPI at 800-345-4575.

Best Gas Checker
Jeppesen Fuel Tester

At $10 or less, fuel testers are consumable items that don’t merit much attention. Then again, if you need one, you still have to make a choice.

Our pick for the best fuel tester out there is Jeppesens improved tester, which is we’ll constructed of heavy plastic and is equipped with an anti-splash collar that actually works as advertised. At $12.95, this is one of the more expensive testers available but cmon, you probably spend more than that on lunch and a plate of Linguini Alfredo wont keep you from careening through the trees off the end of the runway with a carb bowl full of water. Contact Jeppesen at 800-621-5377.

Best Electronic E6B

Lets confront reality here and admit that very few pilots really use an E6B-electronic or otherwise-in everyday flying. But when tackling an FAA written test, the additional accuracy of an electronic calculator can make the difference between a right and a wrong answer. And if youre not the sharpest tack on the board to begin with, you may need all the help you can get.

Sportys sells both the best and cheapest, in our view. The price was recently reduced to $59.95, making it $20less than its two competitors. Contact Sportys at 800-543-8633.

Maintenance Idea of the Year
Thicker Glass

Heres an unpleasant thought: landing at an unfamiliar airport in the rain at night with a burned out landing light and trying to taxi on a pitch black ramp. A beat-up, scratched windshield will make finding the yellow taxi lines difficult if not impossible, yet many aircraft windshields are in horrible shape.

When yours gets that bad, we recommend replacing it with a new one of thicker material, either 1/4 or 3/8 inch, if available. Thicker glass reduces noise and it provides additional protection against bird strike damage. LP Aero Plastic-412-744-4448-has the widest selection of STCs for thicker glass and has most common windshields in stock. If LP doesnt have it, they can turn around custom orders quickly.

Best Cheap Flashlight
Photon II Micro-Light

If youre like us, youre always losing flashlights. This mini-light fits on a keychain and tosses an amazingly bright beam for a humble LED. For $15, its a heckuva deal. Contact LRI at 541-925-3751.