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, since the airplane is 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. Garmin’s inReach portable communicators are becoming increasingly capable and affordable. They certainly don’t enable email or web browsing, but they are useful for short text messages, flight tracking, and even emergency messages—and they integrate nicely with the Garmin Pilot app. Best of all, you can be up and running for less than $500 all-in.
We’ve been flying with the Garmin inReach products for over five years now, and after learning a few quirks we’ve found them to be solid performers. The latest hardware options include the inReach Mini 2 ($399.99) and the inReach Messenger ($299.99). Both are battery-powered, portable 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—deep in the backcountry, on a boat in the middle of the ocean, or at 12,000 feet in a Cessna. 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. This is just like pairing any other Bluetooth devices: after turning on the inReach, navigate to the Settings page, then choose Bluetooth and “pair.” Confirm this on your iPad or iPhone in the iOS Settings app and your two devices will be connected.
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.
Garmin Pilot also integrates inReach information into the drop-down Connext 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 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 (see below).
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 Mini 2 is available for $399.99, and is our top recommendation because it includes a black and white screen that’s helpful for use when you don’t have a phone or tablet nearby. The battery life is up to 14 days in 10-minute tracking mode. The inReach Messenger, available for just $299.99, is the best overall value and is the perfect choice for pilots who will always use their iPhone or iPad. The battery life is also excellent: up to 28 days in 10-minute tracking mode.
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.