Competition is a marvelous thing.
In theory, it pushes prices down and drives unworthy products from the market, allowing the best to rise to the top like rich cream in a pitcher of fresh milk.
The theory generally works, but for the unfortunate intrusion of marketing and advertising, which tend to smear the truth in ways rarely beneficial to customers. Thats where Aviation Consumer comes in.
As professional shoppers not beholden to any advertisers, we examine the claims and counter claims in the harsh light of reality and make buying recommendations with only reader interests in mind. If we step on a few toes along the way, so be it.
Our forays into the world of aviation products and services yield some genuinely exceptional finds, and herewith is our annual Gear of the Year tour-the-horizon survey of the best stuff weve unearthed during the past 12 months.
Product of the Year
Garmin GNS 430
Its not like this was a hard pick.
As GPS continues its rocky transition to the navigation system of the future, the avionics market has proven chaotic for both manufacturers and buyers. With the shining path to the future still shrouded in uncertainty, weve seen lots of hand wringing as manufacturers puzzle over what to build and buyers straddle the fence, dithering over buy-now or buy-later decisions.
With the introduction of the GNS 430 last summer, Garmin cut through the fog with a single box that combines IFR GPS with conventional VOR and ILS receivers, a VHF comm and a vibrant color moving map.
Clever as this product is, the real genius is timing: Its the first box that both bridges the gap to existing technology while offering buyers a navigator that will remain state-of-the-art for the foreseeable future. No surprise that its selling faster than Garmin can make it.
In retrospect, the GNS 430 seems an obvious solution but we offer a tip of the hat to Garmin for having the guts and foresight to develop it on the fast track. The market hardly lacks for choices and of late, an avionics hot seller occupies the top dog list for less than a year. Trust us, the GNS 430 will be there for a lot longer than that.
At $9250 retail, the GNS 430 strikes some buyers as pricey. But because its an all-purpose mapcomm with unlimited future capability, we think its an unusually good value.
Contact Garmin at 800-800-1020; www.garmin.com
Avionics Innovation Award
Sandel SN3308 ColorMap HSI
While Garmin was wowing the world with the GNS 430, tiny Sandel Avionics has been quietly making inroads with its SN3308, the first affordable all-glass horizontal situation indicator.
The Sandel talks to virtually any unit in the typical panel with little fuss, displaying highly customizable navigation symbology on a crisp, easy-to-read display, making it the perfect companion for an early generation GPS without a moving map. We think Sandel deserves exceptional mention for its innovation and design brilliance.
Contact Sandel at 760-727-4900; www.sandelavionics.com
Best Deal on Sun Screens
Cunningham Aircraft Covers
Taxiing along the typical ramp, were always astonished to see airplanes tied down in the blazing sun without benefit of either covers or sun screens. This strikes us as monumentally dumb.
A few summers worth of UV does noticeable damage to upholstery and baking the avionics day after day is hardly our idea of preventative maintenance. We think exterior fabric covers are a must but at the very least, interior sun screens will do.
Our trials reveal that Cunningham Aircraft Covers sells the value leader in sun screens. For $130, theyll sell you a set for a typical single-engine airplane. We see this as a no-brainer good investment. Runner up is Kennon Aircraft Covers. Equivalent quality if a bit more expensive.
Cunningham Aircraft Covers: 360-435-0342. Kennon Aircraft Covers:307-674-6498. Find them on the Web at www.kennoncovers.com.
Best Deal on Multi-Tools
We once mercilessly teased a flying buddy for carting around two Leatherman Tools in his flight bag…until we had to borrow one to fix a broken headset.
With gadget-hungry Yuppies driving the market, the multi-tool field is red hot and weve found that these devices are definitely useful for pilots. Overall, the best value tool, in our view, is the Leatherman Wave, a second-generation multi-tool. Its well made and has all the basic blades, bits and accessories youre likely to need. Runner up is the Victorinox SwissTool, which is nearly as good but a bit cheaper.
Leatherman Tool Group: 800-847-8665; www.leatherman.com. Swiss Army Brands: 800-442-2706; www.swissarmy.com.
Best VHF Handheld
A VHF handheld is must-have equipment for most owners, but especially those who fly serious IFR. Two navcoms or not, electrical failure will leave you unable to talk or navigate.
Until recently, Icom ruled the handheld VHF market but Yaesu recently introduced the new VXA-100 handheld and were impressed with it. Into a tiny package, Yaesu-a company well respected by amateur radio enthusiasts-has crammed a full-feature comm and a rudimentary VOR, all for about $460 retail.
Yaesu USA: 562-404-2700; www.yaesu.com.
Best IFR Hood
Depending on how you interpret them, the FARs require some sort of view limiting device when practicing instrument flying in visual conditions. (If you dont buy that argument, skip this section.)
Every pilot needs a standby IFR hood of some sort and our choice for the best value is the ThunderHead, a soft-visor type design that works well when its needed and stows the heck out of the way when its not. At $19.95, its relatively cheap. Cheaper yet is runner up Best Hood, a cardboard contraption that sells for a mere $5. Use it twice and toss it.
ThunderHead from Sportys Pilot Shop: 800-543-8633. Best Hood at 888-644-0591.
Best Maintenance Idea
Cover Royalite with Eurostretch
New airplanes are being delivered with nicely detailed composite interiors which at least have the whiff of luxury cars. Bully for them. Meanwhile, the rest of us suffer acres of yellowed and cracked Royalite, the cash crop of 1970s Wichita spam cans.
Replacing this junk is not always advisable, even though newer plastics are more durable. One option is to cover the Royalite with an elastic fabric material called Eurostretch. Its cheap, easy to apply and most upholstery shops can work with it.
Point your shop at G. Baker Steeves, the supplier, at 800-498-4536.
Best Computer Logbook
Have you ever noticed that when you upgrade a computer program, the newer version is (a) harder to work with than the previous version or (b) it causes your machine to become utterly dysfunctional and technical support says it must be a hardware problem?
Were happy to say that AeroLogIII from Polaris Microsystems has neither of these faults. Its a solid, easy-to-use and reliable logbook program at a fair price. Its also well supported, a widespread rarity in an era when software thats supposed to be market ready, isnt.
Polaris Microsystems: 800-336-1204; www.polarisms.com.
Special Mention Boo-Hiss Award
We hate it when this happens. Last summer, LightSPEED technologies announced its new 25K ANR headset. Last spring, we tried it. We liked it. But you cant buy one yet because the company still isnt shipping.
Cmon, guys. If youre gonna overhang the market, a couple of months is the outside limit. A year is intolerable.
Meanwhile, what to do? We certainly cant recommend what you cant buy. And although were reluctant to reward this sort of behavior in the marketplace, we still think the previous version, the 20K, is a superb ANR headset and, at $439, probably the best combination of comfort, performance and price.
Through gritted teeth, we recommend the 20K highly. Contact LightSPEED at 800-732-8999. The Web URL is www.lightspeed-tek.com.
Best Under $50 Gadget
R-A-M GPS Mounts
Garmin, Lowrance and Magellan make terrific portable GPS navigators but when it comes to mounting them to the yoke, as the Queen might say, we are not impressed.
National Products, with its Round-A-Mount bracket system does a far better job. For under $50, you can buy the parts and pieces necessary for a first-rate mount that will attach anywhere in the cockpit, not just the yoke.
Contact National at 206-763-8361; www.ram-mount.com to find a local or mail order dealer.