Back in the dark ages, when IFR GPS first hit the streets, Garmin took a terrific beating in the press-and among some customers-for its cumbersome GPS 155 operating logic. In reality, the navigator was learnable but it took effort. The company is still smarting from the dubious experience of being a pioneer in certified GPS, although the sale of shiploads worth of GNS430 has helped them get over it.
Garmin and the other GPS makers learned bitter lessons about jollying a new piece of gear through the FAA certification process. Lesson one: the FAAs often arcane and capricious suggestions for operating logic might or might not work. If they dont work, hey, no skin off the FAAs nose, right?
In round two and three of GPS development, the manufacturers improved operating logic. Still, owners of boxes as simple to use as the Garmin 430/530 series occasionally complain about how difficult it is to learn these devices. Enter the software geeks, riding to the rescue with the emergence of interactive computer products designed to teach GPS operation from the comfort of the den.
We recently tried two of these products, one called Vflite Interactive Guide from Pegasus Software and GPS Trainer from Global Navigation Sources and marketed by ASA.
In the world of computerized training, interactive is the hot buzz word and has been for the past five years. Computer-based training has been a fixture at major airlines for quite some time and has trickled down to the GA level, too.
The airlines have learned that its cheaper and more effective to have upgrading pilots studying the intricacies of B-system hydraulics and fuel-dump valves via computerized learning systems than it is to have an instructor droning away at a somnolent class for eight hours.
The same applies to learning GPS navigators, so much so that were surprised it has taken this long to see these products come to market. There are tradeoffs, to be sure, chiefly the fact that using a mouse to manipulate buttons and knobs is like wearing a raincoat in the shower. Ah, but some sacrifices must be made in the name of learning and thats a small one to make. The fundamental idea of computer-based training is a good one, in our view.
We first saw Vflites Garmin-based software at Oshkosh last summer and they kindly shipped us a loaner copy. This training system covers all of the Garmin 400/500 series navigators in great detail, and at $159.95 for a basic version and $189.95 for a Plus version, we think the price is right, if a little on the high side. The plus version has a few extra features, including a digital movie intro flight, progress tracking and simulator exercises. We think its worth the extra 30 bucks.
To run it, youll need a machine with some horsepower. Minimum requirement is a 266 Mhz processor or better with 32MB of RAM and a sound card. Theres also a Mac version and when we attempted to install our PC version, we wished we had one.
On a Windows 98 PC, the installation process naturally failed. Weve come to expect this from about half the Windows-based software and hardware we try, so we no longer fume about it. Most PC users realize their computers are frequently dysfunctional so why get agita about it, right? We were able to install Vflite on a Windows XP machine with no hitches.
Pegasus assures us that the program will run on Windows 98 machines but some may require manual installation, rather than auto installation. The glitch has something to do with the Install Shield. The company will provide a CD-ROM for manual installation if you auto install crumps. Pegasus tech support proved superb and theyll stick by you to get the program running.
We didnt like one step in the installation, however. For validation, youre required to log onto the Pegasus Web site for an unlock key to authorize completion of the installation. Our XP machine wasnt equipped to go on the network so it had no online access.
We got the unlock key via telephone but we find this somewhat awkward. We understand that the unlock key is necessary to minimize piracy but its still a nuisance.
Once installed, the program is quite easy to use and impressively rich in training detail. In a nutshell, it will lead you painlessly through what youd be unlikely to do on your own: learn the secret inner workings of the navigator, rather than just the superficials.
As are most such programs these days, Vflite is set-up to run in various animation modes, either as a straight tutorial or as a self-guided teaching exercise. Although it doesnt have encapsulated video snippets like those found on the King Schools tutorials, the program does have VCR-style onscreen controls for navigating through the program. You can click forward, pause and go back to a topic easily and quickly.
Each training page has a block of text explaining the task at hand and you can either read this or listen to an audio accompaniment, provided the machine youre using has speakers. Some of the text blocks are quite long and we liked the option of listening while watching the animated screen cursor-a tiny hand with an extended finger-do its thing.
Weve said this before and it bears repeating: the Garmin boxes are sophisticated and complex, but learnable. The same is true of Vflite. Its complex and it will take a few minutes to ground yourself well enough to navigate around the program.
We didnt find it especially difficult or frustrating, but we suspect that those who lack patience with the navigators will similarly lack patience with Vflite. The only solution is to carve out the time to read the introductory screens and let the program lead you through the hoops.
For example, theres a getting started screen that we think is a must-read, since it explains how the programs three modes work: demo, training and solo mode.
In demo mode, you select the topic youre interested in-say approach set-up-and Vflite runs through that task automatically.
You can watch and listen hands-off or click forward and back to repeat or skip elements in the tutorial. Once this function is understood, even the densest pilot will find the program enlightening.
Training mode is more interactive. When you select it, you can ask the program to review such basics as screen navigation, key function, map and page options, flight plan options so on. These choices appear in a row of boxes along the top of the screen.
Picking one automatically launches the program into a lecture on that narrow topic, complete with onscreen demos. Again, you can pause, advance or repeat any task youre not sure of.
In solo mode, you again pick a topic area youd like to explore and the program then prompts you through the task with onscreen checklists. Rather than merely watching the programs cybernetic fingers do the work, you use your own mouse to punch the buttons and twirl the knobs. If you punch the wrong knob, a red circle/slash pops up on the screen to remind you to try again. If you get stuck, clicking on the help on button brings up tutorial labels.
Once the basics are understood, you can pattern your learning based on phase of flight, beginning with start-up, through departure, enroute and approach. In other words, Vflite offers several avenues to learn a task, which reduces frustration and helps with retention.
Compared to the Vflite program, ASAs GPS Trainer is rather broader and shallower. Rather than being limited to just the Garmin boxes, the GPS Trainer software covers the Garmins, including the 295 color portable, Bendix/Kings KLN89B/94 and the UPSAT GX-series navigators.
Youll need at least a Windows 95/98/ME/NT/2000/XP machine with a 166 Mhz Pentium or faster processor and 32MB minimum RAM. (We know, no one is that stingy on RAM anymore.) The Mac version-yes, there is one-will run on a Power PC processor with OS 8.5, 8.6, 9.0.4, or 9.1.
Vflite and GPS Trainer are, to a degree, apples and oranges, since the GPS Trainer software is so much broader than Vflites treatment of the Garmins. (You can see an online demo at www.asa2fly.com, click on demos. The demo is quite detailed.)
As does Vflite, the ASA GPS Trainer offers a general tutorial on how the boxes work, with a review of control functions and a sidebox carrying animations. Theres no audio function, however.
GPS Trainer also covers more GPS operating theory than does Vflite, which is fine if youre not already familiar with it. The operating manuals shipped with each GPS cover this ground, too, so were not certain its needed in a computer learning format.
GPS Trainer is organized somewhat like Vflite, with preflight, departure, enroute and approach learning segments, plus a section on regulations and GPS-related Advisory Circulars, which Vflite doesnt have. GPS Trainer isnt nearly as interactive as Vflite is, with its multiple-mode learning design. Trainer does have a good index and glossary, plus a quiz system that allows you to evaluate what youve learned.
We think the GPS Trainer softwares strongest attraction is that it represents an effective way to compare the various featuresets of the major IFR boxes. Vflite is Garmin specific and doesnt have that capability.
If youre looking for in-depth, detailed interactive training on Garmin products, Vflite delivers good value at $199.95 for the Plus version. Although that seems expensive for specialty software, Vflite is well designed and, more important, Pegasus has packed a lot of detail into the program.
Weve used the Garmin navigators extensively for several years, yet we picked up several tricks from using Vflite. If you already know the Garmin system well, you probably dont need Vflite.
At $99.95, GPS Trainer is a nice tool for comparing the operational highlights of six GPS units, including the Garmin 295 portable. In our view, the Vflite is the better in-depth training program.
Contact- Pegasus Interactive, Inc., 300 Willowbrook Lane, Suite 323, West Chester, PA 19383; 610-738-6901; www.pegasusint.com. ASA, Inc., 7005 132nd Place SE, Newcastle, WA 98059-3153; 425-235-1500; www.asa2fly.com.