Pilot Products

August 1, 1998

Northstar's GPS 60 and M3 Approach

We recently had the opportunity to fly with two of Northstar Technologies' GPS products, the VFR GPS-60 and the IFR M3 Approach. Both boxes offer impressive capabilities and options for owners who are considering an IFR approach approved GPS, or for those thinking of stepping up to a VFR GPS from a loran.

As a co-owner of a Cessna 172M with a Northstar M I loran receiver, I previously thought the decision to install a GPS seemed too costly. Sure, GPS is better than loran, but on our budget it wasn't good enough to warrant spending more than $4,000 to buy and install one. However, after learning that Northstar's GPS-60 is a slide-in replacement for the M1, which nearly nixes the installation cost, we took a harder look. While we were investigating further, Northstar announced the final carrot-on-a-stick incentive — $500 for any loran traded in on a new M3 or GPS-60. With that bait, we finally jumped the fence and purchased a GPS-60. The list price for the unit is $3,495. Subtract the $500 for the trade-in and you're looking at $2,995. (Dealers may be selling them for less.)

The swap required replacing the top-mounted loran antenna with a GPS antenna that has the same footprint. Those with belly-mounted loran antennas will have to relocate the GPS antenna. A new adapter had to be spliced onto our existing antenna cable for the connection at the antenna. After that, we slid the GPS-60 into the M I hole, signed off the logbooks, and fired it up. Operation of the GPS-60 and M3 is very similar to the original M1 loran, making transition for M1 users a no-brainer. Those who have never owned a Northstar can rest assured that it is one of the easiest units to master.

The GPS-60 and M3 Approach use a 12-channel parallel-tracking receiver and contain one of the most complete databases of any GPS. The optional North American database contains all of the standard-issue airports, VORs, NDBs, and intersections in North America, but goes a step further with the addition of all registered private airports. Another optional database adds all registered public and private heliports. A handy feature found in all available datacards is SmartComm, a Jeppesen-derived database that displays the 40 nearest communications frequencies available based on current position and time of day. This feature saves the VFR pilot the hassle and head-down time of retrieving charts to look up which center or approach frequency is available in the immediate area. In addition, SmartComm picks out the nearest flight service, AWOS, and ATIS frequencies for in-flight weather checks. SmartComm also lists all of the frequencies you'll need before flight, including clearance delivery, ATIS, and ground frequencies. This feature is common to most GPS units on the market. Furthering the usefulness of SmartComm is an optional remote-mounted transceiver ($1,995), that can be tuned from the front of any Northstar navigator, even the MI. We elected to forego that option in the Skyhawk but may pursue it later.

Another clever feature common to the M3 and the GPS-60 is the waypoint queuing function. How many times have you input an entire flight plan into your GPS or loran only to have it completely rearranged by ATC in your IFR clearance or after you're en route? Waypoint queuing allows you to initiate a partial flight plan on the fly. if you know the first two waypoints, dial in the first identifier and push Direct, then Ack, just as on all Northstars. After dialing in the second identifier push Direct twice and the GPS-60 or M3 asks if you want to fly to that waypoint after the first. Press Ack and your mini flight plan is activated. Once airborne and en route, you can reenter the revised flight plan in the Routes page. Victor airways and Jet routes are also stored in the GPS-60 and M3. The unit can vector you to join an airway at a certain point and then automatically sequence you to all of the waypoints associated with it.

One weakness of the Northstar navigators is the display. One line of information is enough for 90 percent of navigation chores, but some knob twists are required if you'd like to see time en route, winds aloft, or other noncritical information.

Despite the ease of en route GPS navigation, the reality is that pilots are still having a hard time understanding GPS approaches. When the M3 Approach was certified in 1996, it set new standards, literally, for the TSO requirements for approach-approved units. At the heart of the M3 is software that automatically sequences the box through a GPS approach from initial approach fix to the missed approach point (MAP). This setup keeps the pilot focused on flying the airplane without having to remember to push buttons or twirl knobs at critical points during an approach. (Our only gripe is that the M3, like all approach-approved GPSs, still requires the user to push a button at the MAP to provide guidance to the holding point. But this trait is a requirement of the TSO.) Arriving at the hold point, the M3 automatically guides the pilot through the racetrack holding pattern complete with timing. Once it passes over or abeam the fix, it automatically starts the inbound or outbound timer. For holding patterns not already in the database, the user is able to create one in relation to any fix.

The M3 was also the first to offer a "vectors-to-final" option greatly simplifying the setup of a GPS approach in the real world of radar vectored approaches. The only other unit to offer such an option is 11 Morrow's recently introduced Apollo GX50/60 series (see " Pilot Products," May Pilot).

We recently flew a 1966 Mooney M20E with an M3 Approach. This airplane was equipped with the optional SmartComm. remote transceiver in order to free up some space in the Mooney's tight panel confines. The owner of the airplane uses the M3 as his primary nav and com. En route frequency handoffs on IFR flights reduce the amount of knob turning since SmartComm almost always has the frequency ready for you in the standby mode. When ATC handed us off to the next sector it was simply a matter of switching the outer right knob to Comm and confirming that the frequency and facility scrolling on screen is the same as the one assigned. If it is the same frequency, simply press Ack to make it primary. If the frequency in the SmartComm window is not the same as assigned, turn the small knob until the desired frequency shows up. For airplanes without flipflop radios the SmartComm software comes i handy if you mistakenly tune your active radio to another frequency and forgot what frequency you were on.

The M3 contains all of the other features found in the GPS-60, such as waypoint queuing, but it goes one step further with the availability of the M3 Trainer. Using this software installed on a personal computer, the user can practice any published GPS approach while in the home or office with the actual unit right next to him or her, which allows the user to get the feet for knob and button commands.

The M3 Approach lists for $6,395 but can be found through dealers for about $5,400. Besides the $500 credit for any loran, Northstar is also offering an upgrade to convert GPS-60s to M3 Approach units for $2,900, if at some time you'd like to trade up.

Northstar navigators may not offer the greatest number of features for the money or wow the user with gee-whiz moving maps, but they do have a lock on a simple, yet clever design that other companies have only begun to emulate. In a day when pilots are just learning the nuances of GPS approaches, the M3 Approach should help to make the transition as painless as possible. For more information, contact Northstar Technologies, 30 Sudbury Road, Acton, Massachusetts 01720; telephone 800/ 628-4487 or 978/897-7241, or visit the Web site ( www.northstarcmc.com). — Peter A. Bedell


A few years ago the National Business Aviation Association developed Travel$ense, a software program aimed at a trip-by-trip assessment of business aircraft utility.

Its second version, Travel$ense 2, offers a comparison of any business aircraft and compares them to airline travel. Through a series of option tables, the user provides the parameters for business and charter aircraft, including the length of the trip, the operating cost of the aircraft, and the value of the executive's time. The software was recently tested using an entry-level business jet, a mid-level business jet, and a mid-level turboprop.

Airline assessments are made when the software dials into CompuServe's airline reservation service, and picks flights that match the desired travel schedule. Users can pick high- or low-priced fares.

The first job in testing was to determine accurate operating costs for the corporate aircraft, and it wasn't easy. A final number of $850 an hour was chosen after interviewing operators of smaller business jets; most flight department agreed that amount would cover any costs, even pilot training and crew expenses, in addition to the more common expenses of fuel, insurance, and maintenance. The flight departments, and software author Ian Willson, agreed that it was reasonable to use $900 an hour for the turboprop, and $1,400 an hour for the mid-level jet.

The software forces the company's accounting officials to think about values other than money that are involved in a trip. For example, employees are paid while they are sitting in an airport, waiting for an airline flight, yet they are contributing little to productivity. Family time has value, too. More efficient travel means less time on the road. Finally, Travel$ense allows the traveling executive to decide just how much hassle he or she is willing accept in order to save a few bucks.

A trip was chosen that is typical of executives in need of general aviation's on-demand transportation. The trip ran over four days, according to Travel$ense; the itinerary was from Frederick, Maryland, to Columbus, Ohio, then to Chattanooga, Jacksonville, Illinois, Chicago's DuPage Airport, back to Springfield, Illinois, and finally to Cincinnati before returning to Frederick.

The software worked well the very first time, dialing out to CompuServe and selecting lowest-fare flights that met the demanding schedule as closely as possible. In a nutshell, the airlines couldn't meet the schedule, and four days had to be added to the trip. That, as any traveler knows, added hotel, rental car, and food bills to the overall cost. Three of the airports on our hypothetical schedule had no airline service, so time (and money) was wasted in rental cars getting to and from meetings. Airline fare alone for two people, before the added expenses, was only $ 1,000 less than the smaller jet, $3,000 less than the mid-level jet, and just $2,000 less than for the turboprop.

When true costs were examined, including productivity and the value of employees time, the smaller jet won the contest as the least expensive way to travel. The mid-level jet and turboprop were close behind. Airline travel, because it could not meet the schedule, was nearly double the corporate aircraft total. Yes, NBAA made the software and one might expect it to be friendly to corporate aircraft travel. But selecting options when setting up the sample problem above, I intentionally tried to bias the program against corporate aircraft. For example, I placed the productivity of the executive traveling in a business aircraft at zero dollars, thus eliminating monetary benefits from work time.

Installation of the software was simple, but setup time took a few days. It costs $495 for NBAA members, and $695 for nonmembers. To order call 202/783-9000, or write NBAA, 1200 18th Street N.W., Suite 400, Washington, D.C. 20036, or visit the Web ( www.nbaa.org). — Alton K Marsh

Briefly Noted

Stenbock & Everson, Inc., has introduced the latest video in its Flying Consumer series. Bonanza Service Clinic details what American Bonanza Society Service Clinic inspector Dick Pedersen looks for when inspecting the popular singles. Many items missed by mechanics in the field are pointed out to owners in the 30-minute video. Nine other videos in the Flying Consumer series are available in various formats for $29. For information or orders, contact 503/678-4360 or visit the Web site ( www.stenbock.com). — PAB

Unless otherwise stated, products listed herein have not been evaluated by AOPA Pilot editors. AOPA assumes no responsibility for products or services listed or for claims or actions by manufacturers or vendors. However, members unable to get satisfaction regarding products listed should advise AOPA. To submit products for evaluation, contact: New Products Editor, AOPA Pilot , 421 Aviation Way, Frederick, Maryland 21701; telephone 301/695-2350. Links to all Web sites referenced in this issue can be found on AOPA Online ( www.aopa.org/pilot/links/links9808.shtml).