It speaks volumes about our industry that, even during economic downturns, aviation companies still find ways to innovate; indeed, one could argue that some of aviation’s greatest innovations have come when times were hardest. While new-airplane introductions in 2011 were rare, there were innovations galore in the fields of avionics, electronic flight bag technology (read “iPad apps”) and pilot products such as headsets and handhelds. As a result, we had no trouble finding nominees for our annual Editors’ Choice Awards. In fact, as is often the case, our biggest challenge was not in finding deserving candidates but in narrowing down the field. The following winners (with one noteworthy exception, as you’ll read) are products that were introduced in 2011 and proved themselves in the field for their value, innovation and utility. For these reasons and more, it is our privilege to award them each a 2011 Flying Editors’ Choice Award.
Recreational Aviation Foundation
Generally the Editors’ Choice Awards go to companies that have brought innovative products to the market. Instead, this award goes to an organization that provides an innovative service to all pilots. Since it was founded in 2003, the Recreational Aviation Foundation (RAF) has worked tirelessly to save, reopen and even establish recreational and backcountry strips for public use around the United States. In our view, this effort recognizes the symbolic and, more importantly, the practical importance of these strips to who we are as pilots and to what we do. As a direct result of the RAF’s efforts, numerous strips have been saved from public-use closure. In addition, two dozen airstrips have opened or have been reopened thanks to the RAF, including Russian Flat Airport (M42) in Montana, the Saline Valley Chicken Strip in California, Fort Kent Airstrip in northern Maine and Blackwater Airfield (8FD3) in Florida.
Lightspeed hit the bull’s-eye when it introduced the Zulu.2 at the Sun ’n Fun International Fly-In and Expo last year. The new Zulu offers a substantially better fit than the already superbly comfortable original Zulu, and it adds new features to boot. The added comfort was achieved through the use of new ear seals, reducing the side pressure by as much as 15 percent. The Zulu.2 headphones produce a quieter, clearer sound, and the product’s mic has been redesigned with a disc-shape diaphragm that’s about the best we’ve heard. A two-channel Bluetooth receiver enables simultaneous connection of a cell phone and music device, if so desired. And why wouldn’t you want to supply these high-tech headphones with some good tunes? Despite all the improvements, the Zulu.2 is 13 ounces lighter than its predecessor.
Hawker Beechcraft King Air 250
The Beechcraft King Air has been a winning workhorse in the owner-operator, medevac and charter market since it was introduced in 1964. Since then, more than 6,800 King Airs have taken to the skies, and the latest iteration of the twin turboprop, the beautifully appointed King Air 250, beats the predecessor, the King Air 200, by several horse lengths. The new model boasts an 18 percent shorter takeoff run, it climbs to 35,000 feet 15 percent faster, and it’s 8 percent faster than the previous generation King Air to boot. For the operator, these improvements equate to greater versatility, shorter trips and better fuel economy, making the latest 200-series King Air the best King Air yet.
The developers of ForeFlight Mobile, the leading aviation iPad charting, mapping and airport information application, kept very busy in 2011 making their industry-leading product even better. Added capabilities include XM Weather overlay, georeferenced approach charts, airport diagrams and a handy, dandy “binder,” which keeps charts organized on the app for easier access. The “touch planning” feature, which allows pilots to create a route simply by touching the screen, was expanded to include pop-up windows that provide information about special-use airspace. Other new features added in 2011 include winds aloft and the capability to overlay TFRs, sigmets and airmets. ForeFlight also made a noteworthy foray into international coverage when it expanded its service to include charts for Canada. And with its U.S. subscription prices starting at just $75, ForeFlight’s easy-to-get and easy-to-use app is such a great value that pilots no longer have any excuse to fly with outdated charts.
Garmin GTN Series Navigators
Garmin introduced its GTN 650 and GTN 750 navigators earlier this year, and they have been big hits in the marketplace. As replacements for the hugely successful GNS 430/530 GPS/Nav/Comm navigation systems (of which Garmin has sold around 150,000 in all), the GTN series systems have big shoes to fill. And they’ve done it. While the touch-screen capability and new look and feel are truly remarkable innovations, there are other new features that make these systems not replacements but enhancements. These include remote audio panel operation (GTN 750 only), remote transponder control and graphical flight planning. These units have moved beyond the realm of the glass-cockpit-like MFD capabilities such as terrain, traffic, weather and charts, and graphical flight planning, including “rubber band” editing. Best of all, Garmin kept the prices for these two navigators right in pilots’ sweet spots.