Gear of the Year: Garmin GPSmap 396

In our annual tour of the best products and services weve seen this year, Garmins GPSmap 396 is the walkaway winner.

During the course of a typical year, we see and use dozens of aviation products. Call us jaded, but were hard to please and if a product comes up short, we don’t mind telling you as much. In fact, thats our job.

But its also our job to call attention to what we think are the very best products we see and, frankly, there arent many of them in a market defined by intense competition. Yet every year, we see a handful of products that we think are exceptional in design, execution or value. Or all three. Herewith are our findings for the 2005/2006 editorial year.

Product of the Year:
Garmin GPSmap 396
Have you used one of these things? We recently sat on the ground in a Tomahawk wondering how far those dark clouds on the Florida horizon extended and could we fly around them. (No, it turned out.)

A couple of years ago, that kind of weather prescience would not have been possible in anything, never mind a Tomahawk. But the brilliantly designed and conceived Garmin GPSmap 396 makes it not only possible, but affordable for owners of the most modest airplanes.

In our view, that means that the GPSmap 396 easily meets the design brief for an exceptional product: breakthrough capability, ease of operation and an affordable price. Users of the XM-Radio-based WxWorx, which the GPSmap 396 displays, consistently tell us it all but takes convective weather off the table as a flight planning worry. You can make the go/no-go decision before even getting out of your car at the hangar. Further, like its predecessors from Garmin, the GPSmap 396 has a GPS-driven flight instrument page that we have proven is quite capable of serving as a gyro back-up in the event of a vacuum failure.

The GPSmap 396 has been selling we’ll for Garmin for about a year. And now were told that a follow-up product is planned. At least one new portable aviation GPS product will appear at EAA AirVenture 2006. Stay tuned. Meanwhile, contact Garmin at Prices were recently reduced on the GSPmap 396.

Airplane of the Year:
Diamond DA42 Twinstar

One of our correspondents e-mailed with alarming news earlier this month. In Teterboro, New Jersey-the U.S. capitol of profoundly absurd fuel prices-100LL passed the $7 barrier. On balance, the GA industrys response to this has been a head-inthe-sand blind hope that fuel prices will somehow decline again.

There have been two exceptions to this: SMAs four-cylinder aerodiesel, which has had trouble gaining ground, and Diamond Aircrafts Thielert aerodiesels, which havent. Diamond adopted Theilerts line of aerodiesels to produce the DA40 TDI and the DA42 Twin Star. The latter remains one of the most innovative and intriguing airplanes in light aircraft history. It has decent cruise speed, a comfortable cabin and exceptional economy. If the future of GA lies in more efficient airplanes and powerplants, Diamond is leading the way. (

Best Lighting Innovation:
Hid Landing Lights

Among the many aviation accessories that remain shockingly in the dark ages is the lowly landing light. The bulbs have a fraction of the life of a car headlight and arent very bright even at that.

High-intensity discharge or HID lighting is a welcome change. Its daylight bright and the tubes last almost forever, with little maintenance required. Thanks to RMD, Precise Flight and Knots2U, this technology is becoming more affordable. LoPresti Speed Merchants deserves credit for pioneering it, but other companies have brought the prices down to more affordable levels, which we see as good for everyone.

Besides reducing maintenance hassles and costs, HID lighting is a safety-of-flight upgrade and the more owners who can afford it, the better. Contact, and

Best Deal In Active Traffic:
Avidyne TAS600

It would be nice if everyone had active traffic systems and many of us would if the cost of entry wasnt $20,000. Avidyne has addressed this conundrum in its TAS600 traffic system, a product that proved to be the quick ripening fruit of its merger last year with Ryan International.

The TAS600 is the great gap filler between the well-regarded but expensive Skywatch system and glareshield-mounted portables that are inexpensive but lack impressive performance.

The TAS600 has good range and response, display flexibility and at about $10,000, a modest price that will suit many buyers who cant afford a higher-priced system. Contact

Best Airport Bike:
Dahon Helios
Pedal power at the destination airport has always been one solution to the problem of getting from A to B when no other transportation is available. And some owners enjoy the recreational aspects of biking to restaurants and parks nearby distant airports.

To meet the design brief for a flyable bicycle, it has to be foldable, light and small and stable and sturdy enough to ride some miles without being an annoyance. Our trials of a number of bikes revealed that Dahons Helios succeeds on all these counts. At $579, its not a cheap knockoff but it has an excellent folding mechanism, good brakes and impressive rideability. Contact

Best VHF Radio:
Sportys SP200
In the world of aviation gadgets and accessories, $300 doesnt buy much. But if you shop carefully, there are bargains and one is Sportys SP200 handheld VHF radio, one of the famous pilot emporiums first grand slam products and still a mainstay.

During our tests last fall, we expected to see the big guns from Icom and Vertex blow away the little Sportys radio, but the reverse proved true. While the other radios struggled to lock onto even strong VOR signals, the SP200 nailed the radials every time. It has good RF punch and an easy to use control logic and can be powered by a long-shelf-life alkaline pack. Overall, its a top-drawer product. Contact

Best EFIS Display:
Chelton Flight Logic

Not too long after our eyeballs had been rolled around by EFIS displays for the umpteenth time, we realized something: All they do is present a pretty picture of conventional flight instruments. Hey, its 2006. Shouldnt there be a better way?

Chelton thinks so and it delivers in its FlightLogic EFIS system, which we think has the most practical, imaginative and innovative display design of all the EFIS systems we have seen. The FlightLogic was born of military ethos and is thus rich with aircraft path and vector information and a unique three-dimensional feel that makes the other systems look like cardboard cutouts.

Although its screens are on the small side, we found the FlightLogic easy to master and-this is the best part-really fun to use. The screen has a constant, dynamic flow of information thats engaging and useful. Check out Chelton at

Best Autopilot Value:
S-TEC System 55
For any owner, autopilots are a big-ticket upgrade, many costing as much as a major engine overhaul. And if not done correctly, they can be trouble.

S-TEC, however, has made a name for itself by designing and building autopilots that work in just about any aircraft without the major gnashing of teeth and wringing of hands that seem to accompany many major upgrades. S-TEC autopilots are generally mid- to high-priced but they deliver excellent capability for the money.

Even the modest S-TEC models have major flight system options such as altitude hold, roll steering and vertical speed control. S-TECs list of STC-approved models is among the longest in the industry and seems to be growing. See for more information.

Best Yoke Mounts:
RAM Systems

We cant tell you how many times weve opened a box containing a juicy new GPS only to discover a cheesy yokemount. Its like having a BMW with a Wal-Mart sound system. Thats why at least some manufacturers have thrown in the towel and bought off-the-shelf yokemounts from RAM.

Although far from perfect, RAM mounts are still the best design out there, being composed of a modular

system based on a hard-rubbe-ball -and-socket arrangement. Putting the bits and pieces together, you can mount anything to anything and for not much money. How great is that? See

Best Premium Flashlight:
UK Zoom

Now that were into the age of the $300 flashlight and the hype is such that nobody is even blinking at the very idea of it, can something costing less than half as much be worthy of purchase?


You bet it can and our friends at Underwater Kinetics make it. Its called the UK Zoom and for $50, its the best LED-type flashlight weve seen. Its durable, well-powered with four AA batteries and it throws a bright, tight beam. Its also seriously water resistant. For more, see

Best CO Detector:
CO Experts
Given the paranoid age we live in, its easy to overstate the risk that carbon monoxide incursion represents for pilots and occupants of piston aircraft. Its also possible to understate the risk and ignore the fact that for a mere $100 or so, you can protect yourself against this insidious hazard. Our top pick for cockpit-ready CO detectors actually costs a little more than that at $120, but the CO Experts detector passed all of our tests with flying colors. Weve been disappointed with such detectors in the past, but this one looks like a long haul winner. For more, see

Best Oil Analysis Lab:
Blackstone Laboratories

Although most owners don’t realize it, the trick of making any sense out of engine oil analysis is not so much looking at a sample in the present but knowing how what youre looking at compares of what went before it.

In other words, the secret of canny oil analysis is historical data for lots of engines and the more you have, the better. Thats why we think Blackstone Laboratories is tops for GA piston oil analysis. Blackstone has had years of experience and a few years back, it purchased the database of Howard Fentons Engine Oil Analysis, one of the most experienced aviation labs in the world.

Weve found Blackstones reports to be timely and personalized, just what you want after youve spent 20 grand on an engine overhaul. Contact

Top Flight Sim Program:

Reviewing flight sim programs is a little like testing underwear. Whats too tight and the wrong color for one customer, will be just right for another. But far be it from us to shrink from a bold choice in the proverbial race thats too close to call.

We think X-Plane is the top choice among flight sim programs, but with one important caveat. If youre a computer moron, get your 15-year-old nephew to help you get it running. Then you’ll be fine.

X-Plane has excellent flight dynamics, simulates every aircraft youd could ever want to fly and many you probably don’t and it sells for only $59. Its a heckuva bargain, in our view. See