Flying a general aviation airplane usually means being disconnected (other than perhaps from ATC). For some pilots that is one of the joys of a pilot certificate, as you get to escape earthly annoyances; for others it is a major drawback, with the airplane the last place where you can’t be reached. While high speed internet isn’t available for light airplanes, Garmin’s new inReach products offer an affordable option for staying connected in the air.
We tested the inReach Explorer+ on 10 different flights recently, and found a lot to like. It certainly doesn’t enable email or web browsing, but it is useful for short text messages, flight tracking and even emergency messages. It also integrates nicely with the Garmin Pilot app.
The inReach communicators are battery-powered, standalone devices that connect to the Iridium satellite network. That means they get reception everywhere in the world, from pole to pole, even at altitude. You can send position reports, type text messages, or check weather reports using the screen and buttons on the device. This actually worked better than we expected – it is time-consuming to type a long message with arrow keys instead of a full QWERTY keyboard, but it wasn’t bad.
There’s also an SOS mode that sends an emergency message to a global monitoring center, which can be activated by pressing a protected button on the side of the unit. This makes it useful as a standalone product in an emergency.
The best option, though, is to connect the inReach to your iPad or iPhone via Bluetooth and use an app to manage communications. By doing this, you can mount the inReach in an optimal position for satellite reception (out of the way) and use an existing mobile device as the keyboard. After turning on the inReach, navigate to the Settings page with the arrow keys on the front of the device, then choose Bluetooth. Select “pair” and confirm this on your iPad or iPhone in the iOS Settings app. You can still use the keypad on the inReach, but now you can also control it with one of two apps.
Garmin Pilot integration
One of the best features of the inReach is the way it can integrate into Garmin Connext, the company’s vision for a connected cockpit. Once it’s paired with your device, open the Garmin Pilot app and go to the Connext page. Here’s you’ll see a green bar next to inReach, and you can tap on this page for basic information about your device.
You’ll also notice a new menu option: Calls / Msgs.
Tapping on this new menu option brings up the messaging page, which is the place to send and receive text messages. The app can also access your stored contacts, saving you time when creating a new message thread.
This worked quite well for us, but there are two limitations to be aware of. First, the inReach is particular about placement. You simply can’t place the device on the floor and expect to get reception – it needs a fairly unobstructed view of the sky. We got it to work in every airplane we flew, but it did take some experimentation to find the best place.
Secondly, the messages are not sent instantaneously. Sending a message took anywhere from 10 seconds to 60 seconds, depending on satellite location and reception. This isn’t a major issue on a long flight, but it’s something to be aware of if you’re used to lightning fast messages on your smartphone.
With those limitations in mind, though, we found all kinds of uses for the inReach. We texted colleagues to update our arrival time, sent tracking messages to friends and even contacted an FBO before landing. Once we got used to having it on board, we really liked it. Even if it wasn’t used on every flight, it was nice to know the option was there.
The tracking feature is also a fun and helpful tool. This can be set to automatically send a message on a pre-set schedule to a list of contacts, and these messages include GPS lat/lon information. Recipients get a link to view your progress on an online map, which is great for flights that are VFR and can’t be tracked online.
Garmin also offers a standalone app, called Earthmate, for non-aviation use. It’s more aimed at hikers, but we found the app to be very useful. If you aren’t a Garmin Pilot user, this app allows you to use all the features of the inReach, and it’s free to download.
In addition to accessing settings, initiating an SOS message, and sending messages to contacts, the tracking options in Earthmate are quite robust. You can review exactly how many messages you’ve sent, monitor trip statistics, and adjust how often you send updates. There’s even a compass screen.
The inReach Explorer+ is available for $449.99, and is our top recommendation. The inReach SE+ is also available, at a price of $399.99. While it’s a good value, it lacks some nice features, like moving maps, digital compass and barometric altimeter.
All inReach devices do require a monthly subscription. Plans range from $11.95/month to $99.95/month, with flexible options for both seasonal and year-round plans.