But Then We Gotta Send It Back... Bummer!
By Aero-News Senior Correspondent Kevin R.C. "Hognose"
It was the hottest thing in aviation. Did we want one for
testing? Uh, duh, yeah. Then the fun started. Before this GPS got
turned on it already had about three thousand miles on it.
You see, Garmin's people sent the 396 to us at our Oshkosh
house. UPS recorded it as being dropped off. But we never saw it.
This caused all kinds of chaos -- with us, with UPS, and with
Garmin alike. I think for a while each of us suspected one of the
other two of nicking the thing.
But about two weeks after we were back from the show, the owner
of the house we stay in called Jim. The box had been misdelivered
to a neighbor, who hadn't been home, and it had sat. And sat.
So the peripatetic Garmin wended its way from Oshkosh to Winter
Haven, where Jim looked at the Garmin, looked at his schedule, and
called Associate Editor emeritus Juan Jimenez in Puerto Rico. Could
Juan do the review? Uh, no. Too busy in his new job. Which is how
the unit came to me.
Except, I immediately left on back to back business trips.
Finally back at home, I got to open the box of what is probably the
most lusted-after handheld GPS in aviation -- and start this
There will be a few more snags, as I have bailed out of the FBO
business (considerably smarter and about 70 GPSMAP-396-equivalents
poorer than I went in) and no longer have planes on tap, but we can
work that out. We'll be answering some questions like, is it better
than my old Garmin (in my case, an antediluvian GPS 90)? What kind
of flying is it good for? Is it really one GPS that can be used on
land, sea and air?
What about those neat new options, like XM, which gives you
satellite radio, and better still, NEXRAD satellite weather?
Opening the attractive black and white box, you get the
impression that Garmin wanted the box-opening consumer experience
to be a good one. Everything has a place and is in its place,
attractively laid out (photo). When you lift out the cardboard
tray, a dismayingly complex jumble of accessories confronts you. Oh
dear, I'm gonna have to RTFM to test all this.
The unit is of a manageable size. It's not as small as my old
GPS90. There's a comparison photo against normal household items
like a floppy disk, a beaten-up E6B, an iPod, and a Gerber fighting
knife. (In my house, these are normal household items. Your mileage
The documentation consists of a flight-log sized wire-bound
manual, and a welter of little single-sheets containing such things
as your code to install one Jepp update, etc. We'll get back to the
sheets, for now, let's dive in to the manual, which begins with the
normal inane safety warnings. "This product, its packaging, and its
components contain chemicals known to the State of California to
cause cancer, birth defects, or reproductive harm," the last of
which presumable means that if one eats a GPSMAP 396 in California
he might sire a baby with two heads. (This may explain a great deal
about the high demand for the 396 unit, and the bizarre doings in
California -- people in the Golden State are eating them, and their
bicephalic offspring are in charge). Since I'm not in California,
and not planning to eat the GPSMAP 396 or its packaging or
components, I'm probably OK, but we'll be unable to test Garmin's
claim that the unit is carcinogenic, mutagenic, and otherwise
really bad in California.
Not all the warnings are that ridiculous. One, at least, is
deadly serious: "While navigating in an aircraft, use the GPSMAP
396 only as an aid for VFR Navigation." That's worth repeating --
we're starting to see mishaps where somebody uses a
non-IFR-certified GPS and invents his own approach, and comes to a
sad end in a smoking hole. The very precision and confidence that a
GPS gives you in situational awareness can make you overconfident.
A related warning is similarly serious: "Use terrain and obstacle
data only as an aid to situational awareness." If you've ever seen
a work crew erect a cell tower, you know it goes up a lot faster
than it can get noted in charts. If that wasn't enough, many
telecommunications firms are careless about reporting their new
Additionally, "This product should not be used to determine
ground proximity for aircraft navigation." As a long-time user of
satellite navigation (I go back to when it was experimental in the
military), I am glad to see improvements in accuracy that have come
with better units and with the 1990s shut-down of Selective
Availability. But I still note that the LEAST reliable information
coming out of any conventional GPS is altitude information. There
are several reasons for that, but bear in mind that in the GPS
"world" elevation information is overlaid on a spheroid, or model
of the world's shape, that is necessarily somewhat compromised and
inaccurate. The GPS's idea of where the ground is is often off by
fifty feet, occasionally by a hundred, and from time to time will
have even greater errors.
And finally, Garmin includes a warning about the reliability of
map data. Garmin is again speaking gospel truth: even in the USA,
map data frequently has errors; when you get out of the USA, it
gets scary in its incompleteness. In Afghanistan one bad choice was
American-made maps based on a 1940-something survey that were
inaccurate about the terrain and missing most cultural features, as
well as being too large-scale for ground use. The other bad choice
was Russian maps that were forty years newer, detailed, and
extremely accurate, but used a foreign grid system, making it
difficult to express exact locations.
As the unit is charging up (after I find the illustration which
is not on the nonexistent "page X" mentioned in the manual -- it's
on Page 1) and I'm pawing through the documentation, I come up with
a tentative test plan. We'll try the unit first in a car -- maybe I
have one more day of top-down motoring after this rainy weather
passes. Maybe let some of my military friends comment on it. Then
get it up into an airplane. I won't try the maritime features;
boating season is already over here in bleak New England, except
for those who ply the most dangerous profession, commercial
Finally, you can help. Do you have specific questions, perhaps
ones that the other reviews haven't answered? Or do you have one
and have a beef with it? Is there something you would like to know
about the unit? If we think your question is interesting to the
readers in general, it'll get answered in the review (if it isn't
of general interest, we might answer it anyway, but no promises, in
case you guys bury us in email).
Send email to:
Garmin 396 Feedback!