I waited a couple years before buying my first hand-held GPS. And while others quickly upgraded to color and better graphics, I stuck with Garmin’s Pilot III for many years because of its simplicity and utility.
But Garmin’s latest offering–the GPSMAP696–is a rare combination of powerful new capabilities and ease of use. And I’ve got the strong feeling it’s going to become a new standard for general aviation pilots flying everything from Champs to Gulfstreams. Since obtaining an advance copy of the 696 in October, I’ve flown with it on IFR and VFR trips in planes ranging from a Waco to a Citation. And it’s been worth its substantial weight (three pounds including mounting hardware) on every one.
In an open-cockpit biplane on an autumn trip across West Virginia and Ohio, the 696 showed the mountainous terrain in sharp relief. Sure, I knew the Minimum Safe Altitude for our route from the VFR sectional. But what if we inadvertently strayed from our planned course? The 696 showed the surrounding terrain in brilliant reds and yellow (similar to the actual fall colors), and a profile view of the topography let me know the exact height and distance of the oncoming obstacles long before they came into view.
On a 900-mile IFR trip along the East Coast in a Bonanza A36 a few weeks later, the 696 proved its utility in a far different environment. Instead of making cumbersome performance calculations with pen and paper, the 696 allowed me to accomplish those tasks faster and more accurately on its brilliant screen. And each time Air Traffic Control rerouted us (and it happened a lot) I programmed the new route into the 696 and viewed the course ahead far more simply and successfully than I could using the plane’s panel-mount avionics. The 696 was especially helpful during the single-pilot legs.
The Bonanza was equipped with an IFR-approved GNS480 (a user-hostile abomination) and MX200 multi-function display (MFD). But the 696 on my knee had a larger, clearer screen than either one, and unlocking the 696′s tremendous wealth of information was pleasant and intuitive. And I haven’t even mentioned the 696′s XM weather displays, which are exceptional (or its satellite radio, which I’ve yet to turn on).
The 696 is chunky and expensive ($3,295). But it’s a bargain compared to its panel-mount cousins. And for Part 91 operators (the vast majority of GA fliers), it enables us to leave the flight bag full of paper charts and approach plates at home. That in itself is a significant savings in weight and a paperwork reduction.
Troubling world economic conditions make this an especially perilous time for any company, even Garmin, to introduce a new, high-end product like the 696. But this one’s a real winner. And it’s formidable frame will likely serve as the technological foundation for many avionics enhancements to come.
Tags: Dave Hirschman