Avionics: It Flies and Drives

Take this low-cost GPS in the air and in your car.

January 1, 2009

Long absent from the ultracompetitive handheld GPS marketplace, avionics powerhouse Bendix/King has returned with the AV8OR, a lightweight, touch-screen unit that, for the first time, brings satellite weather to a low-cost GPS.

But the AV8OR, despite its high-flying name, works equally well on the ground. It’s got a built-in roads database and can be tremendously useful in the car (among its capabilities are music and video players).

One of the most striking things about the AV8OR is the owner’s manual—or rather, the manual’s slim size. The AV8OR is so intuitive and easy to use that the directions fit in a pamphlet that’s about the size of a single piece of paper.

For pilots, the AV8OR’s main attraction is that it brings satellite weather into the cockpit at a far lower price than any previous handheld GPS. The AV8OR carries a retail price of $750 (although avionics outlets advertise them for about $75 less), and a WxWorx receiver adds as much as $475. That compares to Garmin’s popular GAPSMAP296/396/496 series that tops out above $2,400—but the product lines are so different that the ability to show satellite weather is one of their few similarities.

The AV8OR looks and feels more like Garmin’s terrestrial nüvi, the touch-screen wonder that has become so popular in cars. It begs the question: How long will Garmin wait to introduce a similar touch-screen model for aviation?

In its “Go-fly” mode, the AV8OR’s bright, 4.3-inch-diagonal display shows a colorful topographical or topo map. Tapping the screen brings up a menu that allows pilots to enter a flight plan, zoom in and out, and customize screens to show their choice of information. Like other handheld GPSs, the AV8OR has a “Direct-to” button that allows users to enter the four-character identifier for their destination airport. An information screen confirming the full name of the destination pops up, and clicking OK brings up a magenta line on the topo map that leads directly there.

Looking ahead is a simple matter of zooming out (the minus key) or touch-dragging the map along the magenta course line. A miniature airplane (or helicopter, your choice) shows your aircraft’s current position, and a dashed line projects forward to show your alignment (or lack of it) with the desired course. Obstacles also are depicted on the topo screen, and simply touching them brings up their height (msl and agl). Airports are also depicted, as are VORs, airspace boundaries, lakes, rivers, and terrain features. Once again, simply touching an airport marker brings up its identifier and name, and hitting the “More info” button brings up runway information, sunrise/sunset, types of instrument approaches, fuels sold, and radio frequencies.

Changing map views brings up a color-coded terrain map with the familiar red- and yellow-shaded altitude warnings. Another map screen shows the two-dimensional map with a battery-saving dark background (no topo details).

Dragging a finger up and down the left side of the screen allows pilots to view the touch-and-drag readouts that include speed, distance, bearing, estimated time, elapsed time, stopwatch, and many other categories.

The AV8OR has a keypad where pilots can type in airport or VOR identifiers. But the small screen, fat fingers, and turbulence can conspire to make thumb typing a frustrating and time-consuming task. For this reason, the AV8OR has a built-in stylus, but a pen, pencil, or any other pointy object works just as well.

I made the mistake of failing to thoroughly wash my hands after working on the airplane before a recent flight with the AV8OR. Before long, the GPS screen was dotted with oil smudges. But the splotches came off quickly and easily with a dry cloth.

Unlike some competing handheld GPS units that have panel screens meant to mimic aircraft instruments, the AV8OR does not. It’s meant primarily as a multifunction display to provide broad situational awareness. The AV8OR also lacks graphical depictions of instrument approaches, a feature that has become standard on other aviation GPS units.

The AV8OR’s built-in antenna initializes quickly in the air or on the ground, even when the unit is started far from the place it was shut down. It comes with a cigarette-lighter adaptor, and that’s an important item to carry since the internal battery discharges in about 1.5 hours on full brightness. An optional larger battery with a longer life is available.

And the AV8OR is tremendously useful outside the cockpit. After navigating in the air on a recent flight to Orlando’s Kissimmee Gateway Airport, the AV8OR became a fantastic asset to have in the rental car. Type in the address—or the name of the hotel, restaurant, or attraction—and it directs you there with maps and voice commands. It can also speak a dazzling variety of languages and accents. In fact, it’s become an ongoing game among AOPA staffers (and my kids) to surreptitiously reprogram the polyglot AV8OR to talk to the not-always-amused driver in U.K. or Australian-accented English, Chinese, Dutch, German, Hebrew, Italian, Russian, and several varieties of Spanish.

The voice on the speaker can be a bit tinny. But the visual displays are crisp, clear, and simple to read and follow. Roads can be shown from the driver’s perspective (called 3-D) or from an overhead map perspective (2-D). Either way, the displays tell you the distance and direction of the next two turns—a handy feature when you’re in a strange city and turns seem to come in rapid-fire succession.

Although Bendix/King has been gone from the handheld GPS game for more than six years, the company’s long absence doesn’t show in the AV8OR. It’s full of sophistication and utility, and the marketplace has embraced it. Chad Cundiff, Bendix/King’s vice president for crew interface products, says AV8OR sales are exceeding expectations, and the biggest problem the company has had is keeping up with demand.

“The market response has been extremely favorable,” he said. “We’re struggling to meet demand—and that’s a good problem to have.”

The AV8OR is sure to be popular among pilots for its low-cost satellite weather. And it slides easily into a jacket pocket and is wonderfully versatile on the ground. The name AV8OR is a bit of a misnomer for a product that both flies and drives so well. But it’s easy to forgive Bendix/King for the transgression. The moniker is catchier, and easier to remember, than AVDRVR.

E-mail the author at dave.hirschman@aopa.org.

Dave Hirschman

Dave Hirschman | AOPA Pilot Senior Editor , AOPA

AOPA Pilot Senior Editor Dave Hirschman joined AOPA in 2008. He has an airline transport pilot certificate and instrument and multiengine flight instructor certificates. Dave flies vintage, historical, and Experimental airplanes and specializes in tailwheel and aerobatic instruction.