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. Numerous companies are working to close this gap, whether with ground-based cellular antennas or satellites, but there simply aren’t any practical solutions for airplanes smaller than turboprops. Unless you’re willing to spend over $50,000 on hardware and at least $1000/month for data, your passengers cannot send emails or watch video so any visions of an airline-like experience should be dismissed.
That doesn’t mean pilots are totally cut off, though. Two products, Garmin’s inReach portable communicators and AirText’s semi-permanent boxes, offer reasonably affordable services for sending messages or retrieving text weather. Both have limitations, but they are reliable and fairly easy to use. Here’s a long term test report.
We’ve been flying with the Garmin inReach Explorer+ for a few years now, and after learning a few of its quirks we’ve found it to be a solid performer. It certainly doesn’t enable email or web browsing, but it is useful for short text messages, flight tracking, and even emergency messages. Perhaps most importantly, it also integrates nicely with the Garmin Pilot app.
The inReach communicators are battery-powered, standalone devices that connect to the Iridium satellite network (there’s an inReach Mini model in addition to the Explorer+ we tested). 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.
Our preferred method was with Garmin Pilot on our iPad. Once the inReach is paired with your device, open the Garmin Pilot app and go to the Connext page. Here 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 / Messages. 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.
Newer versions of Garmin Pilot also integrate inReach information into the drop-down Connect menu on the Map page. This is a convenient way to check battery status and your inReach inbox without leaving the main page.
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. You could easily run this side-by-side with ForeFlight, for example. 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 Mini is also available, at a price of $349.99. It’s a good value, and the perfect choice for pilots who will always use their iPhone or iPad. There is no moving map or keyboard option, so for standalone use it is more limited.
All inReach devices do require a monthly subscription. Plans range from $11.95/month to $64.95/month, with flexible options for both seasonal and year-round plans—so you don’t have to commit to 12 months of data. We like to turn on the unlimited plan during summer, when we use the inReach for trips to Oshkosh, hiking vacations, and more.
Further up the market is a series of devices from AirText, which address two main limitations with portable devices like the inReach. First, portables are sensitive to antenna placement in the cockpit: without a clear view of the sky, satellite reception is inconsistent. Second, many portable devices work on a “party line” system, where every pilot and passenger shares a messaging account. This can be frustrating if two passengers want to have private conversations with people on the ground.
AirText systems are FAA-approved and permanently-installed, so they benefit from a roof-mounted antenna for reliable reception. The app also allows up to 16 users to connect at any one time, each with private messaging. While it’s significantly more expensive than the portable options, it is much less than the business jet systems and has affordable data plans.
We’ve been flying with AirText for over three years now, and have grown to really appreciate its design and features. It’s not for every airplane, but for pilots looking for a reliable and relatively affordable in-flight connectivity solution, it’s worth considering.
AirText is available in two main versions: AirText for text messages and AirText+ for text messages plus voice calls. Both share the same hardware design, which includes a one pound metal case and two small antennas. This can be installed almost anywhere (we’ve even heard of some being installed inside cabinets to hide the box), and simply requires a connection to the aircraft’s electrical system and the roof-mounted antenna. AirText will work with a portable, hockey puck-style Iridium antenna, but we recommend the external antenna for best performance.
Once the device is installed, simply connect your mobile device to it via Bluetooth (the Settings app on an iPad or iPhone). Up to 16 devices can be connected at once, using Bluetooth Low Energy. This makes it handy for charter airplanes where many different passengers may be using it. Like most in-flight connectivity solutions, users must download an app to enable communications, which is free. Once this is downloaded, open the AirText app and you’re ready to communicate.
AirText uses the Iridium satellite network, like the Garmin inReach, so coverage is truly global. You can send and receive messages anywhere on Earth, and from any altitude. Iridium is very slow compared to full internet systems, but as you can see below, it still supports a number of useful features.
The most popular feature will surely be text messaging. Open the AirText app and choose the first tab, labeled Messages. This allows you to initiate and respond to text messages, and connects to your contacts list for auto-fill functionality. It works just the way you would expect, with the standard 140 character limitation. As mentioned above, one of the key advantages of AirText is that each app user can send messages without the rest of the airplane reading them.
This is a completely two-way system, so recipients can quickly reply to your message from their native messaging app—there’s no need for them to download anything special. When receiving text messages, your phone will display a notification just like a normal text message, except it will come from AirText. We even received notifications on an Apple Watch in flight.
Since you’re communicating through the Iridium satellite system, your messages actually come from a different phone number (the Iridium number tied to the AirText box). This can cause some confusion for first time message recipients, so we recommend sharing the Iridium phone number before flight. This will allow frequent contacts to associate that number with your contact (“Steve’s AirText,” for example). Beyond that tip, though, AirText has thought of an innovative solution to this “two phone number” issue.
The AirText app allows you to set up a list of favorite contacts. Once this list is created (spouse, close friends, dispatcher, chief pilot, etc.), go to the Settings tab in the app and turn on the “Always Notify Favorites” feature.
This will automatically send a message to your favorites when your airplane takes off, advising them to use your AirText phone number. A similar message is sent when you land. This is a great reminder, and the process is well thought out.
A newer feature allows everyone on the airplane to communicate with each other, via the Seat-to-seat page. This is probably not of interest to a Cherokee pilot, but it might be helpful on a business jet. You’ll automatically see all other AirText users who are connected to the same device.
Beyond text messaging, AirText offers a few other features that work within the confines of Iridium’s low bandwidth. One is the Weather feature, which allows pilots to get METARs and TAFs for any airport in the world. While this may not be a major help for US pilots (where ADS-B and SiriusXM weather receivers are common), it’s a nice benefit for pilots outside the US. Want an updated METAR for Iceland when you’re over the North Atlantic? Simply type in the four letter identifier for the airport and you will receive the METAR or TAF as a reply. You can also get D-ATIS at larger airports, which provides the same information broadcast on the ATIS frequency, including runways to expect and NOTAMs.
The AirText+ unit enables voice calling in addition to text messages. This works by holding your mobile phone to your ear, but a better option is to pair the AirText with your headset or audio panel. To do this, go to the Keypad tab in the app, then tap the headset icon in the lower right corner. Now you’ll be able to talk while using the noise-canceling benefits of your headset. We’ve used it multiple times and can confirm it works quite well.
You can also receive inbound phone calls, which are answered from your mobile phone. This is a nice feature, but frankly the texting option is easier to use and more helpful on a day-to-day basis.
Data plans cost $300/year, which includes 1000 text messages. Beyond that, messages cost five cents each. Voice calls on the AirText+ cost $1.60/minute, and use a prepaid Iridium sim card so there is no fixed monthly cost. The number of minutes remaining on your prepaid card are announced at the beginning of each call, so it’s easy to keep track of your current status.