I had just dropped my wife off at the Cherokee County Airport (KCNI), north of Atlanta, on our way back from Tennessee.  We had flown to Nashville for an overnight trip to surprise her mom for her birthday (read the blog here). Having been at a conference in Atlanta, my wife had to pick up her car and drive the hour back home to Lake Oconee while I flew it.  We got ahead of some developing weather in Nashville and the route had cleared nicely for my final leg home.  It was a smooth ride in a low workload environment – the kind that is easy to get bored or complacent. But a good pilot always has something to do, so I made the most of the cruise. One of the uses I found for my time was to gain a deeper understanding of the avionics in the airplane.  When the airplane is running, playing with non critical nuances of the GPS is rarely given much attention.  This makes knowing the ins and outs of the GPS unit a weakness unless you put some effort into studying it on the ground.  It’s not always practical or even possible to spend time with the unit on the ground, but there are some great ways to learn it – aside from just reading the manual.


Simulator Software
Some of the units you might fly with have an official simulator product of that system. Garmin offers their simulator, for example. You can learn and practice the various features and functions of the unit in the comfort of your home. The biggest advantage here is that the simulator is strikingly close to the real thing, offering a near direct translation to the airplane. The challenge I’ve run into with this software is the limitation of the operating system it will run on.  Garmin’s won’t run on Windows 7, or on a 64 bit system, for instance – or on a Mac.  Being a Mac user, I did find a way to work around that limitation. You can download a Windows Emulator and then download the Garmin software to run on the Mac using the emulator software. Kinda complicated if you aren’t computer savvy, but a great option if you absolutely need it.  Here are the instructions.  Companies like Garmin also offer apps like the GTN 750 Trainer for iPad.  I hope we see more and more simulators available as they are developed.


iPad Garmin GPS Trainer

iPad Screenshot of the Garmin GTN Trainer App. Image: Garmin


Docking Stations
Many flights schools have a docking station for their GPS unit.  By either removing the GPS unit from the airplane, or by purchasing another unit to remain on the dock, you are able to learn the actual GPS system you will use in the airplane.  If you were to turn on the airplane’s avionics to learn the GPS, it ties up the airplane, runs the hobbs meter, and runs down the battery. On the dock, the unit is powered and can be used in simulation mode so you can get experience on the real thing.

Aviation GPS Docking Station

A docking station for the Garmin 430. Image: Sporty’s Pilot Shop


Flight Simulator

If you’ve read any of my material, you probably know what a huge fan I am of flight simulators, both for the pure enjoyment of the sim and for staying sharp as a pilot.  X-Plane 11 is my Simulator of choice, and the units that are installed in the airplanes have many similarities to the real ones. I wouldn’t call it official training, but if you get familiar with the X-Plane Garmin GNS430, for example, you’ll likely transfer that right over to the one in the airplane with very little trouble. The best part of the simulator is that you can immerse yourself in the environment and actually fly the plane, following different courses, tuning in actual ATIS information, and interacting directly with the features.  Many third party developers create airplanes with various avionics options through X-Plane.org.  I’m a huge fan of the Airfoillabs Cessna 172 with it’s Garmin GNS430 coupled with a traditional radio stack.


Aviation GPS X-Plane

The GPS in X-Plane is remarkably similar to the real thing.


YouTube is one of the largest search engines on the internet. You can look up step by step demonstrations on nearly everything. Changing your alternator, fixing your iPhone screen, and of course, airplane GPS systems. There are some great tutorials out there where you can learn the features of likely any unit you might have installed in your airplane. If you are learning the GNS430, I have created a video on the Clayviation YouTube Channel that you will want to watch. Flying in the Airfoillabs Cessna 172 around Chattanooga, Tennessee, I walk you through five of the most common and fundamental features of the GNS430.  Check it out and be sure to SUBSCRIBE (please and thank you!) to the channel while you are there.



Regardless of the unit you are looking to learn, take the time to study it on the ground. There are usually downloads available online of the user manual or even a quick reference guide for your particular unit.  My preference is the visual demonstration and being able to manipulate the unit myself. User manuals might be informative, accurate and thorough, but nothing beats a few seconds of demonstration to explain pages of processes in the manual. While many of the systems working their way into airplanes have some great functionality, there are rarely as intuitive to use as, say, your smartphone. When we can ask Siri to track a VOR radial, that’ll be the day.  “Hey Siri, track and intercept the 180 radial to Chattanooga.”  In the meantime, master your equipment on the ground to save you time and money in the air, and build your proficiency and confidence.


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