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 dont 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
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 dont 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:
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 well 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 www.garmin.com/. Prices were recently reduced on the GSPmap 396.
Airplane of the Year:
Diamond DA42 Twinstar
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. (www.diamondair.com/)
Best Lighting Innovation:
Hid Landing Lights
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 www.preciseflight.com/, www.knots2u.com/ and www.rmdaircraft.com/.
Best Deal In Active Traffic:
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 www.avidyne.com/.
Best Airport Bike:
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 www.dahon.com/
Best VHF Radio:
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 www.sportys.com/.
Best EFIS Display:
Chelton Flight Logic
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 www.chelton.com/.
Best Autopilot Value:
S-TEC System 55
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 www.s-tec.com/ for more information.
Best Yoke Mounts:
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 www.ram-mount.com/.
Best Premium Flashlight:
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 www.uwkinetics.com/.
Best CO Detector:
Best Oil Analysis Lab:
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 www.blackstone-labs.com/.
Top Flight Sim Program:
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 youll be fine.
X-Plane has excellent flight dynamics, simulates every aircraft youd could ever want to fly and many you probably dont and it sells for only $59. Its a heckuva bargain, in our view. See www.x-plane.com/.