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Garmin Pilot - iPad Navigation Software

During the EuroGA fly-in to Carcassonne in France, I took the opportunity to test our Garmin's Pilot navigation app.  This is a write-up of my experience with the product.  The flight was done in a TB20 from Shoreham to Carcassonne and back again.  I ran it on a fairly old 10" iPad and an iPhone 6S Plus. 

Background

Back in May 2015 I asked the readership of EuroGA about their use of handheld GPS devices.  Despite what some may think, EuroGA is actually made up of about 65% of pilots who fly only or mostly VFR.  Only about 20% of pilots say they fly mostly or exclusively IFR.  Less than half of the pilots have an Instrument Rating.  For these reasons I looked at software from both a VFR and IFR point of view, with a slightly greater focus on VFR.

Using a handheld device is popular: 70% use a panel GPS but nearly everyone also uses either a handheld aviation GPS or a tablet or phone GPS too.  67% of pilots also had a paper copy of a flight plan/log even if they didn't refer to it in flight. Fewer than half used paper charts.  57% use a portable device for approach plates.   The most popular software to use is SkyDemon.  At the time, Garmin Pilot was not a hugely popular option with around 5% of pilots using it.  Based on informal conversations I think this number has gone up in the last 12 months.

Garmin

I would like to thank Garmin for providing the software, complete with various data and chart subscriptions, free of charge for the purposes of this review.  They did not offer any other inducements.  I wanted to include SkyDemon in this review, given that it is still the most popular software on the market at the moment, but SkyDemon weren't willing to offer a time-limited version for evaluation.  I did load their 30 minute trial version occasionally to verify some facts about it. SkyDemon is a product which is well liked by its users and it's highly relevant to EuroGA readers so it was disappointing to not get a better response from them. I had some conversations with the creators of SkyDemon last year but they refused to budge. Read into this what you will, but I must say I found it a little arrogant - they said they were doing well enough in Europe without additional exposure and questioned the quality of the publishing of websites such as EuroGA. That Garmin were willing to assist is a big tick in the plus column for their view of the customer.  One might expect a huge company like Garmin, with its larger market in the US, to be less interested in European GA, but they were very happy to help.

Pricing

The basic product is downloadable from the app store for free.  To use it you need a subscription for £110 per year which includes the global navigation database and a base map. Europe FliteCharts (approach, arrival and departure charts) are £19, as are the SafeTaxi charts.  It's also available for Android devices on the equivalent app store, presumably for the same prices.

The Basics

I won't go through all the basic functions, because just as with most software of this type, they're all there - you can create a flight plan, see a live updating PLOG and track your position on a moving map.  It has overlays for the map which can be configured with dozens of options, allows you to get information about airfields and navaids en-route and keep an electronic log book. 

User Interface

Overall the user interface is very nicely designed.  The fonts, colour schemes and various controls are clear, attractive and responsive.  I found it easy to use without reference to any kind of documentation.  The charts are very well done and use contrast where it's required and avoid it where it's not.  They are of course very configurable but the defaults worked well as they are. Visually I much prefer it to SkyDemon, but it's a subjective opinion - Pilot has a more professional and polished look, but clearly SkyDemon has its fans and is perfectly adequate in terms of how it shows its data.

Tapping anywhere on the moving map brings up a localised menu which is radial in nature - rather than a linear text list it uses segments of a circle to offer each option; depending where you click this will include different options, but always includes Direct To (this point), Mark as a user way point or go in to graphical flight plan mode.  Clicking anywhere near an airfield, an airspace, or a navaid, will add options to the radial menu to see the details of those, including the most recent weather.  It works really well. In the middle of the radial menu you'll see distance, bearing and time en-route to that point, which is a very quick and easy way to get time estimates if requested.

The image below shows the radial menu when tapping near Stansted airport. 



Tapping the runway symbol brings a popup of information about that airport, including frequencies, runway lengths, etc. and tapping within that brings up a wealth of information including weather reports, all the pages from the AIP, including the aerodrome info and charts, approach plates (geo referenced), approach and departure procedures, etc. as well as Garmin's safe taxi charts - simplified aerodrome charts which are geo-referenced.  They contain none of the clutter of the traditional aerodrome charts such as lat/lon etc. as they are purely an aid to taxi and/or follow ATC ground instructions.  Carcassonne has a very simple taxiway system but at other aerodromes this would be really useful.



You don't even have to explicitly call up these taxiway diagrams: they appear on the main chart when you zoom in enough, which can be set to happen automatically when you are on the ground.

Elsewhere (for example, from the main menu where it will present options for each of the airports in your flightplan) the AIP charts for an aerodrome can be loaded as thumbnail previews, which makes it easier to find the one you need.  You can annotate approach charts - useful to highlight particularly critical pieces of information for example.



There is a Direct To button always available at the top of every page, so whenever ATC gave us a new IFR waypoint I could just tap it, type in the ident and start getting guidance to it immediately.  Direct To offers a good range of quickly selectable options - places from your flight plan, places nearby, recently searched for, etc. If you're on a flight plan you can go direct to a point on that plan and it will activate the next leg once you reach it. If you're given a direct to a point and then told to resume your original plan you can just cancel the direct to and it will reactivate the most appropriate leg of the plan.

There is also a Nearest button on every page which dims all other information on the chart and just highlights the nearby airfields, which can be configured to include only certain surface types and/or runway lengths if required.

There is an option to prevent your device from locking itself whilst the app is in use and also one to lock the screen so it doesn't respond to taps or swipes, except in a particular place to turn off the lock mode.

Database and Charting

There is a clear and simple download function to get various databases and charts, as well as keeping them up-to-date.  There is a global navigation database which comes with the basic product as well as a map - with cities, rivers and railways.  There is an obstacle database and a terrain one.  Terrain is available at various resolutions so you can choose how much storage you're willing to give up.  The North Atlantic terrain (which includes Europe) is 280Mb for the 10 arc seconds and 866Mb for the 5 arc seconds.  This is useful if you want to use the Synthetic Vision mode, of which more later.  

For VFR you can use the built-in database with a vector chart generated from it or use one of the rasterised VFR charts.  Lots of these are free but some including the UK CAA ones have a fee attached and even then coverage isn't universal in Europe.  The quality of the rasterised charts is high and you can interact with the underlying database in the same as with the vector charts.  Personally I don't really see the point in buying those charts.  All the relevant information is present and the advantages of a clear, configurable display are numerous.  Smart Airspace, as provided on other systems these days, will simplify airspace display by removing that which is far away from your current altitude.  One of the things which disappointed me most is that whilst tapping on a piece of airspace brings up the name of the controlling authority, and can highlight the extent of the airspace, it doesn't show you the frequency for that authority.  SkyDemon does this and is a definite advantage over the Garmin product.  

The impact of Smart Airspace can be seen in the next two screenshots; they were taken a moment apart and show first with smart airspace off, then with it on, with us at FL90 at the time.





You can add data overlays to the chart, though a lot of these are only relevant in the US because they use external data feeds for weather and traffic (see section at the end).  You can display winds aloft, assuming you were online before you took off or can get a 3 or 4G signal in the air.  These show as wind barbs on the chart and you can slide up and down an altitude indicator and the barbs update, which is a nice way to see where the most favourable winds are.  One small niggle is I couldn't find a way to turn off the display of rivers and railways; they're pretty feint so it's not a big deal, but somewhat annoying given how configurable everything else is.  

The IFR en-route charts are available in high and low versions.  I used the low version obviously and found them very clear and easy to use. They are the nationalised versions, so on our trip they differ slightly between the UK and France.  The French ones are better in my opinion, because they use grey, green and brown as well as blue to depict different things, whereas the UK ones just use blue.  You can see the difference in the next screenshot which shows the IFR chart from each side of the Channel.



There is a scratchpad facility where you can write on the screen to take notes.  There are several pages available, including a simple form for ATIS which includes boxes for each of the pieces of information you're given, so you don't need to write down "Temp" and "Dewpoint", you just put the ATIS numbers in the given boxes.  Ditto for CRAFT for your IFR clearance. It works quite well, though better with a stylus of some sort.  If you want to go completely paperless you could using this, but if you're the kind of person who likes to annotate a PLOG and keep that for a record of the flight then you're probably going to want to do that using a pen and paper.  

Flight Planning

Creating a flight plan from an existing list of waypoints is a great user experience.  You can type a series of idents (or full names, including VRPs, but not towns or cities) and as you do the system will offer you any matches to tap on.  It's a more fluid and rapid process than in SkyDemon.  As you add each waypoint it's shown on a dynamically updating map (which is customisable in the same way as the main moving map display).  You can also tap on the map to add waypoints to the route or drag the middle of a leg to insert one. Inserting extra waypoints from the list and removing existing ones is simple (unlike some products which make this tricky).  It deals well with multiple matches, offering the one that makes most sense to your route by default - you're more likely to mean the Brookman's Park VOR than the airways intersection in Australia when you enter BPK whilst planning a route from Elstree to Cambridge.  You can easily add an airway that goes through your waypoint and simply choose an exit point, which again are listed by distance.  One thing you can't do (or at least, I couldn't find a way) is reorder waypoints.  Instead you have to judiciously remove one and then insert the one you want.  It's easy to copy a full route from an email or text message, which is an easy way to get a route from other software such a desktop planning application or website.

You can easily add an arrival or departure procedure to a flight plan, but not an approach.  In practice, you're likely to switch to the georeferenced approach chart to see your ship overlaid on the chart, but it's an odd omission - you can do it even on Garmin's old panel mount GPS devices.



Terrain and Synthetic Vision

The high resolution of the terrain database makes for a good display.  It can be displayed North Up in 360 degree or arc mode. This is taken from my desk; I'd be in trouble if it were an airborne screen grab.


The synthetic vision mode is even more impressive.  It provides a ground speed and altitude tape with VSI (all GPS derived of course), as well as a compass rose with CDI indicator with various data fields.  The CDI is based on the current direct track to the next waypoint.  There is no way to set an OBS, so if you want to use it to intercept a particular course inbound to a runway you'd need to put a point on your plan on the extended runway centre line.  If you're flying IFR there will likely be such a point already but you're going to be looking at the approach plate rather than this display.  For VFR or even more so for marginal VFR, where you might want the synthetic vision mode, you might have to add one yourself.  It will display extended centre lines on the normal charts.

On our visual approach to Shoreham I followed along using the SynVis mode.  It was very impressive.  Whilst nobody in their right mind would think it's a good idea, in a dire emergency (think an iced up windscreen and a broken ILS) you could probably fly the aeroplane down to the flare using this.  In the US I knew a pilot who tried it with another SynVis system and a safety pilot whereby he trimmed himself nose up for an absolute minimum speed approach and just flew all the way down to the ground using the display.  It was a firm landing, but it worked.  



Other Things of Note

There is an easy to access stopwatch and a night mode which dims the backgrounds significantly whilst keeping the other elements brighter, which you'd then adjust the device's own brightness adjustment.

There is a split screen mode which allows you to have a moving map on half the screen and have a number of "widgets" on the other half - these can be a variety of information.  Better still, you can display an approach chart, the terrain display, flight plan, profile view, etc. 

The route profile shows a profile view of your flight plan as it crosses the various airspaces on your route.  It shows weather, including wind aloft and can be scrolled and zoomed.  It's slightly less comprehensive than that on SkyDemon which shows more information at ground level, e.g. city locations.

All the features are available on the iPhone version as well as the iPad.  There are a few places where some options can't be displayed because of the smaller screen and there is no split screen mode.  It works surprisingly well, particularly on the larger screen phones such as the 6S Plus I was using.  I think a phone would make a brilliant standby device and the subscription licence that you purchase allows you to have it running on your phone and iPad at the same time.  Whilst it makes buying and learning to use the product easier, I suppose there is a disadvantage that it's one piece of software, which means that a bug present on your main device will likely also be present on your standby device.  You can sync your flight plans to the cloud and access them across each device. 

There are a number of features which reflect that the product is an American creation and which are sadly not useful in Europe. In most cases this isn't Garmin's fault - it's more a function of the differing GA infrastructure and the way pilots fly in the US versus Europe.  There are features around PIREPs, weather sources and routing which won't work in Europe. You can give the app a departure and destination airport and it will show you "crowd-sourced" routes between them, ranked by popularity.  Flight plan filing only works in the US.  In Europe, you can use the EuroGA Autorouter.

It also offers integration with a number of other Garmin products, including external data sources which can significantly increase the functionality of the app.  One example is the GDL 39 receiver which can be used to retrieve in flight weather and traffic information, but again, only in North America.  It's a portable device so if you fly in the US you could take one with you and have it in a rental aeroplane - it's about $650 and subscription free.  For another couple of hundred dollars you can get the 3D model which adds an attitude sensor which can be used as an emergency back-up for your traditional artificial horizon - this obviously will work in Europe, but it's quite a lot of money if you're missing out on all the data features.  The FlightStream 210 device ($1,000) allows the app to wirelessly communicate with other Garmin avionics in your aircraft, taking weather and traffic data from devices that collect them, or of more use in Europe, syncing flight plans with the GTN 750/650 and the GNS 430W/530W.  It also connects to the VIRB camera, the D2 Pilot watch etc.

Complaints

Most of the downsides have all been mentioned above.  

I wish it would display a frequency for the relevant piece of airspace, because without it you're going to struggle to call them up to ask for clearance or status information.  Likewise it doesn't have the frequencies for areas you might be flying in, unless you're using the rasterized national charts.  

You can't add an approach to a flight plan. You can't use a bearing selector on the CDI display.  There's no trail log display on the moving map, so you can't see where you've been - not a big deal for me but some people like it.

Buying all the available charts would cost a good deal of money, but presumably most of the costs of the optional VFR raster charts are those imposed by the publishers.  For the whole of the UK it is £70, as is France.  

It doesn't display NOTAMs graphically, which SkyDemon does.

Conclusion

Garmin Pilot is a really nice piece of software and it works really well for both VFR and IFR flight.  It's not cheap, but if you already own an iPad it's cheaper than a dedicated device. For VFR, the functionality is very similar to that offered by SkyDemon, albeit with a slightly better user interface.  It doesn't do quite as well with NOTAMs which are a big deal when flying VFR in Europe.  This alone may be enough for some to favour Sky Demon.  If you have other Garmin products with which Pilot integrates then that would definitely swing the needle back to Pilot.  

However, it's the ability to also cover your IFR needs that make Pilot a clearer winner though.  If you fly just IFR, or more likely as a reader of EuroGA, some VFR and some IFR then Pilot is ideal and you can happily use just one piece of software for all your planning and flying.