Plane & Pilot
Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Learning To Fly 2.0: Cooler, Safer And More Fun Than Ever

Big changes in technology, manufacturing and design have changed the way we learn to fly

Gear For Pilots

It can be difficult for new pilots to discern between what’s necessary and what’s designed to separate them from their money. Here are a few essentials that every pilot needs.

Research has proven that long-term exposure to GA cockpits causes permanent hearing damage. There are two types of headsets to protect your hearing: active noise reduction (ANR) and passive noise reduction (PNR). ANR headsets use sophisticated electronics to block damaging noise by creating an “anti-noise” that matches and cancels the original noise. Passive headsets use thick padding, tight clamping and other mechanical methods to keep damaging noise from reaching your eardrums.

For ANR headsets, look for the highest attenuation rating (usually listed in decibels) and also the widest frequency spectrum. The best headsets attenuate across a broad frequency spectrum instead of a narrow band. For PNR headsets, weight and clamping pressure are critically important for comfort. Look for the lowest headset weight to minimize hot spots on long trips. Clamping pressure rarely is listed, but can be judged by wearing the headset for 10 minutes or more. Many retailers will give you a 30-day trial period.

With both headset types, make sure you buy a model with an electret condenser microphone to make transmissions clearer. Dynamic microphones don’t have the same output strength or clarity as condensers for use in the cockpit.

Some of the latest features to appear in headsets are both innovative and useful. Multi-channel Bluetooth can wirelessly connect MP3 players and cell phones to your headset at the same time. Backup push-to-talk switches; wide-band, “intelligent” ANR attenuation; and helmet-style, integrated headsets are other options to consider.

Finally, don’t skimp on your headset. Think of it as a tool for your trade, and invest accordingly. Your hearing is nothing to be trivial with. Browse our Headset Guide.

DVD, CD and Internet training courses include materials you’ll need to earn your private pilot certificate. Starter kits go one step further by including the video courses and adding textbooks, sample written exams, study guides, maneuvers guides, navigation tools and even a basic flight bag. They’re a great bargain and allow students to study at their own pace.

The best courses are available in various media, and can be watched on a TV or home computer. Production value is important, since good graphics and clear explanations make learning easier. Look for such key items as:
• A good core textbook/manual
• Some type of flight maneuvers manual
• A suggested training syllabus
• A study guide that addresses the PTS (Practical Test Standards)
• FAA written-exam sample questions or study guides
• A navigation plotter and an E6B computer

Some courses will include such extras as a logbook and an Airman’s Information Manual (AIM). Each kit has its own style. ASA (, Jeppesen (, King Schools ( and Sporty’s ( are among the respected companies producing private pilot starter kits.

Portable GPS technology has exploded in the past five years. Does a student pilot need a handheld GPS? The answer is a definite yes! Simply turning it on will offer a clear view of airspace boundaries and nearby airports. At their most basic, they’ll save you from an embarrassing airspace violation and give you confidence and peace of mind on cross-countries. While these units shouldn’t be viewed as substitutes for good flight planning, they’re a fantastic enhancement to cockpit situational awareness.

The core function of portable GPS units is to provide navigational and airspace information to the pilot to increase cockpit situational awareness. All major manufacturers accomplish this task, albeit with minor differences; even the most basic units will provide the most used functions. The unique characteristics of each brand’s units include the level of complexity in operating the unit, and additional options that can be added. Features to consider are touch screen versus buttons and dials, battery life, display brightness, highway capability, physical size and ease of use. Advanced features available on more expensive models include XM satellite weather access, traffic display, checklists and interfaces to software and other devices. Low- and high-altitude en route charts, approach charts and airport diagrams are all available by subscription.

Pilots should consider their current needs and future aviation goals when shopping for a portable unit. Since unit prices range from hundreds of dollars into the thousands, it makes sense to buy a unit that will grow with you as you progress in aviation.

Though there are many manufacturers (as well as models), the most popular are Anywhere Map, AvMap, Bendix/King and Garmin.

The best units are transceivers, in that they transmit and receive (scanners only receive; they’re great for listening to radio communications around an airport, but they can’t transmit, so they’re of less value in a cockpit).

A popular use of handheld radios is for learning. Instructors will frequently suggest that a student get a portable radio to become familiar with radio communications. In fact, many students who had difficulty with the radio, experiencing “mic fright,” have found that listening to actual communications at their home airport eased the learning process and helped them to use correct phraseology.

Since the primary job of the handheld radio is to communicate, look for one that has adequate output power and can be heard clearly. Have somebody transmit with the unit while you receive, so you can determine if the signal quality is sufficient. Look for long battery life and high output power (making communications clearer). Different accessories are available for most units, including ear buds, remote chargers, carrying cases and various battery options.

Navigation capability is important to some users and less so to others. Proponents say it’s a great backup for standard VOR navigation in an emergency. Detractors say it’s difficult to navigate from the small CDI display of a portable radio. In any case, NAV capability will add to the cost of the device. The most popular manufacturers are Icom, JHP, Maycom, Sporty’s and Vertex Standard. For more, read "Best Handheld Products!"

Comm1 Radio Simulator Software
This great training tool allows students to hone their radio skills from the comfort of their home. The course includes realistic audio and six hours of FAA-approved phraseology.

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