With the amount of redundancy in new airplane cockpits these days, a lot of pilots don't think much about portable backups, but for many, having some kind of backup in a pinch remains a valid concern. Sporty's Pilot Shop has long satisfied that need with a line of portable handheld nav-comms, which countless pilots over the decades have used in a pinch to talk to ATC or find their way back home.
Sporty's latest handheld, the SP-400, costs $399 and does a few important things very well. The handheld unit, which, unlike many GPS handhelds these days, you actually can hold in your hand, has a wealth of features yet remains remarkably simple to use. I had an early production unit, and on my first flight with it I figured out its operation right out of the box without need to reference the manual. Indeed, there's not even a menu button on the unit.
I used the SP-400 to track a VOR — yeah, you can still do that — to set a crossing radial and to fly the ILS glideslope (well, to monitor it) at the conclusion of the flight. With help from a buddy, I also tried out the comm, which worked great, having impressive range and good clarity. It was also loud — loud enough to be heard without headsets in the cockpit of the SR22, not a small feat.
The unit's reception was great; the buttons are large, nicely implemented and lighted, with an automatic backlight timeout for conserving battery life. The display is also quite large, allowing pilots with maturing eyeballs, like me, to read the digits without squinting. There's a dedicated 121.5 emergency frequency button, NOAA weather receiver, sidetone when you're wearing an optional headset so you can hear yourself talk and a last-frequency button.
Unlike some endlessly customizable devices on the market, the way the SP-400 works is pretty much how it works. I dialed in the ILS frequency, and the glideslope and localizer popped right up despite the controller slam-dunking us on our practice ILS. The hardest part was figuring out how to set the OBS to fly a course to the Stonewall VOR — hold the OBS button down while setting the desired course.
The SP-400 is a battery-operated device, and there are options there. It takes eight AAs, which Sporty's says gives it "outstanding" battery life. But I'd splurge for an extra $200 and get the NiMH and charger and forget it, or just get a cigarette lighter adapter and plug in when you need extra juice.
The SP-400 is available from Sporty's online at sportys.com.