Plane & Pilot
Sunday, January 1, 2006

Garmin GPSMAP 396

The wunderbox that brings satellite uplink weather and radio capabilities to the cockpit

Garmin GPSMAP 396Fourteen years ago, when I met Tim Casey of Garmin International, we were at the Paris Air Show, and Carl Pascarell and I had just ferried the prototype Sino Swearingen SJ30 jet across the Atlantic to Le Bourget Airport with little more than point-and-shoot VHF radios. Like most prototypes, the first SJ30 was having its share of systems problems, and electrical glitches had burned up both of our VLF/Omegas on the eastbound crossing. By definition, we were flying IFR above 35,000 feet and needed a method of positively identifying our position for the trip back to San Antonio, Texas.

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Vnav capability has been enhanced as well—at least it’s now easier to use. On the GPSMAP 296, Vnav descent guidance was only available on the HSI page, so you were required to select that page in order to monitor vertical progress. That wasn’t such a bad thing, except that most pilots probably fly with the moving-map page most of the time. Now, Vnav also plays on the moving map, with a drop-down glideslope bar on both sides of the display.

Finally, on a less serious note, there’s always XM Radio, providing 150 choices, including everything from rock to classical music. As you might have guessed, XM is heavy on rock, featuring hits of the ’50s, ’60s, ’70s, ’80s and ’90s, plus every possible variety of acid and puke (sic) rock, but there are a few channels dedicated to classical, jazz, country and a variety of alternative music options. Inevitably, there are several talk options and a few news choices. No matter what your taste, you’ll probably find something to accommodate it. You can either listen through an interconnect to your audio system or, if you have a really quiet airplane and order the auto kit, through the tiny speaker provided with the GPSMAP 396’s power plug.

Once you’ve selected a channel, you can adjust the volume to a comfortable level, return to a weather or GPS page and have the music play in the background as long as you like. ATC communications will, of course, override Howard Stern or music.

Remember, too, that the GPSMAP 396 is a portable unit and may be transferred to your car, boat or off-road vehicle when you’re through flying for the day. Garmin provides an excellent beanbag mount that resists movement more than you’d believe and works as well on the dash of a car or boat as it does on top of an instrument panel. You can even hook up the GPSMAP 396 to a home stereo system, although you’ll need to mount an outside antenna.

The GPSMAP 396 is so talented that you have to wonder if it might cut into Garmin’s more upscale products, the GNS 430 and 530, and GDL 69 Jeppesen Weather Data Upload. The tab for a GNS 530 enabled with a GDL 69 is just north of $20,000, and the GPSMAP 396 offers its own version of the same talents for a little over a tenth of the price. Of course, despite its considerable sophistication, the GPSMAP 396 obviously isn’t IFR-approved, has no communications capabilities and isn’t quite as sophisticated as the top-panel mounts.

Still, the Garmin GPSMAP 396 incorporates a staggering amount of capability for less money than you would imagine. Consider that with a single GPSMAP 396, a 330 transponder and a basic VHF navcom, a pilot can enjoy the full benefits of a 12-channel GPS, ILS and VOR navigation, traffic uplink, XM WX and terrain warnings. That’s an awesome package of talent.

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