A Pilot's Perspective.

By Barry Meek.

March 2009

Streetmap GPS: Makes everyone a pilot.

         We went through a lot of air maps back in the 1970’s, 80’s and 90’s.  Pilots who flew back then know all about navigation by drawing lines on the map and following them with their finger.  It didn’t take long before there were so many pencil lines and then erased pencil lines that the map became useless and it was time for a new one.  Depending on who you flew for, or your own map budget, sometimes you flew with a map that was unreadable.  These charts are not and were never really cheap, but they were necessary.  So you or your employer always coughed up the money.  Even with radio nav like VOR and ADF, the map was still required to ensure you didn’t get lost. 

          Maps should be carried for the flight you’re conducting, but unless you’re a student pilot, I doubt that anyone draws the lines.  In fact I’m not sure instructors are still required to teach that type of flight planning anymore.  

          Personally, I always have the map handy, folded to the area I’ll be in, and refer to it often, even with the GPS doing all the work.  Over the past few years, I’ve been fortunate to have experimented with at least four different GPS models.  They all have features that some pilots love and come to depend on, while many functions are nothing but overkill for other pilots.  I don’t think there is a ‘one-size/type-fits-all’ GPS out there on the market.  Best advice if you’re purchasing, is define your needs first, carefully consider the options it has and decide if they can be applied to what you’re doing, then buy the appropriate model.  Last summer most of my work involved flying grid patterns for forestry surveys.  I needed nothing more than a GPS that could keep me on an east-west track regardless of winds.  I could set up to fly on a line of latitude, stay right on it for 30 miles, then turn north or south for a few miles to pick up the next line, and go straight back the other way.  Any model can give you that kind of information in numerical format which eliminates the need to follow the map line or even look out the window. 

           Recently I obtained a street-map GPS for my vehicle.  Everyone had been talking about them but to an old pilot who prides himself on the ability to read a map, I balked at technology that helps follow a road.  But this was a gift, so why not.  It didn’t take long for this little gizmo to become my best friend. 

            If you’ve never tried one in your car or truck, all I can say is you must.  Let’s look at some of the features and what it can do.  First of all, it talks to me.  A female voice (I call her the first officer) tells me when and where to turn, which way to turn, where I’m going to, and even politely let’s me know when I’m exceeding the speed limit.  If I make a mistake and go the wrong way, she immediately and without complaining, re-calculates the route and tells me about the detour.

           The route planning takes only seconds, and I don’t need to draw a line on a map.  There are no VOR’s or ADF’s to consider.  I simply tap an address or location on the screen, and then “go to”.  The machine does the rest.  If I don’t know the exact address I want to get to, the GPS takes care of that too, sometimes with a ‘point of interest’ which is already stored in its large data base.  Look up restaurants, shopping, fuel stations, recreation facilities, entertainment stops, among several other categories, and simply make your choice with a tap on the screen.  Mine is supposed to have over two million points of interest.

            How does a driver get lost on an Interstate road or the Trans Canada Highway?  Why would you need a GPS traveling from city to city?  Well, it will never forget the exit you need.  It always knows where the next gas station or rest stop is.  It always displays the distance and time to the destination.  You should never get another speeding ticket.  If that’s not reason enough to own one, just think of the stress relief when you find yourself in a strange city looking for the freeway out of town. These machines guide you through the streets with ease, and get you back on track without maps, and without bickering with your wife.  Enter the address of an airport you’re looking for, it will take you there in time to meet your mother-in-law’s flight.  For the stress saving capabilities alone, a GPS is worth owning.

            There’s more than enough going on while driving in a strange city.  Unfamiliar roads, landmarks, speed limits, traffic patterns and rude drivers will distract you from the navigation part of the load.  So why not leave that up to the GPS?  If you’re still not convinced you need one of these things, get a friend who owns one to take you for a demo ride.  You will be sold!   And the more you use it, the more you’ll love and depend on it.  Just like the one in your airplane.  What pilot would go back to the pre-GPS days and start drawing lines on maps again? 

           One more thing about the street map GPS devices.  They’re cheap.  For an aviation model, you’ll pay at least five or six hundred bucks (and much more).  These street models are as low as a hundred dollars.  Even less on e-Bay.  Serious drivers need serious navigators.  So what are you waiting for?  Many dealers offer refunds if you’re not happy.  But they know you won’t be back.  

Back to main page