Database debacle: why aviation GPS systems are different

tl;dr: We’ve all been spoiled, and it’s Google’s fault.

All right, maybe it’s not entirely their fault (though I do love a good Google-bashing session), but the widespread availability of Google Maps put incredible price pressure on vendors of mapping data to drop their prices. That pressure led to today’s bounty of mapping applications: Google, Microsoft, and Apple offer high-quality map data on their mobile and desktop operating systems, and there is a huge number of applications that take advantage of this data and mash it up in interesting ways. Most of the major vendors of portable GPS devices quit charging for map data, given that their competition– smartphones– have instant map updates anytime, anywhere.

Sadly, this revolution in cheap, broadly available map data has largely bypassed the aviation world. In part that’s because the number of data sources are small; in the US, you can get approved digital chart data for aviation use from the US government or from a small number of private providers, many of whom take the government data and format it in various ways for specific applications or devices. The approach plates, sectional charts, and other maps that pilots depend on for planning and flying are generally not free (though, in fairness, some sites, such as SkyVector, make lots of data available for free).

If you have a panel-mounted or handheld GPS that’s certified for aviation use, you’ll be paying for regular database updates, one way or another.

This is true for two reasons. The first is that data quality is super important. Things change all the time: people put up new towers, airports open or close, the FAA changes routes to accommodate changes in air traffic patterns, and so on. If your car GPS doesn’t show the street you’re on, no biggie: you’re still on it, and there are probably signs. At worst, you can stop and ask for directions. On the other hand, if your airplane GPS doesn’t include a newly added TV tower along your route of flight, you may be in for a very unpleasant surprise.

The other reason is that the FAA requires you to use only certified and up-to-date data sources for navigation. You may use some data providers or devices for “reference” or “advisory” use, but you can’t depend on them as the sole source of navigation data. For example, the excellent Foreflight app for iOS has charts that display your aircraft’s position (known as “georeferenced” charts), which provides great situational awareness. For $149/year, you get full access to all the visual and instrument navigation charts for US airspace. But the FAA won’t let you use the iPad as a primary navigational instrument for instrument flight. For that, you need an IFR-certified GPS, and those have strict requirements for data quality and timeliness.

As part of my instrument flight course at GATTS, I’ve been learning to use the Bendix/King KLN94 navigator in my airplane. The KLN94 first shipped in (drum roll) 1991. Think about that for a second: I am flying with a GPS system that dates back to the First Gulf War. That said, it’s pretty capable; it can navigate me through almost all the different types of instrument approaches, and its user interface, while clunky, is not that much worse than the very popular Garmin 430/530 that followed it. (For an example of flying the KLN94, see this video.)  When Derek and I bought the plane, I knew the KLN94 database was out of date, but the owner gave us a Compact Flash card with a map update. (Note: yes, I said “Compact Flash.” Remember those? If so, then you are officially old.)

Today I got ready to install the database update on that card.. only to find that it was valid for 1-28 May of this year. That’s right; the whole card had one lousy month of map data on it.. data that was 3 months out of date. Showing up for my checkride with an outdated database in my GPS would lead to instant failure. But I found out about this about 215p on the Friday before a holiday weekend. I won’t say I peed a little, but I was getting unsettled at the prospect of hosing my checkride schedule. As soon as we landed, I called Bendix/King’s “Wingman” service number.. and got their answering machine. Uh oh.

At this point, I was trying to figure out how long it would take me to drive to Olathe, Kansas (not long) to pick up a new database card. Maybe I could lurk outside the Bendix building like a ticket scalper! Or I could hand-write a cardboard sign: “NEED KLN94 UPDATES PLEASE HELP”.

You might be wondering why I didn’t just download a new database update from Bendix/King’s web site. Fair question. See, there’s another problem with aircraft GPS systems. They often have ridiculous systems for providing data updates. KLN94 database updates can be downloaded from Bendix/King’s web site, but the only supported device for loading the databases is a single model of SanDisk CompactFlash card reader or you need a special cable to use it and the software to use that cable only works on Windows 95. Oh, that one card reader? It needs a firmware update, which requires a machine running Win95 to install. Other systems have their own failings, so I’m not picking on Bendix/King, but sheesh.

A second call to their tech support number got me a super helpful gentleman named Shane. He confirmed that only the Holy SanDisk could be used to load database updates, but he passed me over to Lorie, one of the folks in the database update department. She listened patiently to my explanation, refrained from saying how stupid I was to put off the update, and told me the solution: “Go to our web site, order the card, and I’ll make sure you get it tomorrow.” Whew, that seemed simple enough. I went to the web site, created an account, and found the KLN94 updates. For the low, low price of only $280, I could get a new CompactFlash card with data valid from 21 August to 18 September.

That’s right.

$280.

I ordered it anyway.

It will be here tomorrow. Then I can update my GPS and pass my checkride. After that, I will expedite installing a GPS system that has a lower ongoing maintenance cost. (In fairness, it’s only $120 to download a single month, and there are deep discounts for subscriptions, but I hope not to have the KLN94 long enough to make a subscription worthwhile.)

So, hats off to Shane and Lorie for their help; thanks to Bendix/King for continuing to support a 24-year-old GPS system, and shame on me for waiting until the last minute to check my database. Bet your boots that won’t happen again.

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