Traffic Works!

My TIS System is up and running.

PhotoWhen I bought Zero-Mike-Lima, I ordered it with all the features I wanted. After all, I was only going to have a new helicopter once in my life so I’d better make the most of it, right? One of the must-haves I ordered was the extremely costly but extremely functional Garmin 420 Nav/Com GPS. We’re talking moving map in color, with a database that includes roads, towns, lakes, rivers, airspace boundaries, instrument approaches (although my ship is not certified for IFR operations) and more other features than I’ll ever use. The book that comes with it is big and fat and I’ve only gone through 10% of it. I love the GPS and am very glad I bought it.

PhotoI also bought a Garmin Mode S transponder. Mode S is a relatively new thing. Mode C is required for Class A, B, and C airspace. It sends a signal from the aircraft to ATC to provide them with your location and altitude. ATC can then use this information to advise other aircraft and control traffic. Mode S takes this a step further. It receives information from ATC about other traffic. So now the transponder knows where other traffic in your area might be.

Trouble is, a transponder has no way of telling you about this traffic. So Garmin has made it possible for its Mode S transponder to communicate with certain GPSes. Like mine. The GPS gets the traffic info and puts it right on the moving map. Cool.

Well, I had one problem with this. The Robinson factory would not connect the two units together in the factory so they could talk to each other. Frank Robinson reportedly said that he didn’t want pilots looking at the GPS while they were flying. (Mr. R is extremely liability conscious, probably because he owns the company — it isn’t a corporation — and he doesn’t want to give anyone any reason to sue him.) This bugged me, especially since I never got information from the factory or my dealer about what they had done or not done during the installation.

I spent $90 at Corporate Jet in Scottsdale so a technician could spend 20 minutes trying to program the GPS to receive the transponder’s signal. It didn’t work. Needless to say, I won’t be getting avionics work done in Scottsdale anymore.

John Stonecipher at Guidance Helicopter suggested Mile High Aviation in Prescott. So when I finally had enough time to go up there for a day, I brought it in. They said it would take about 6 hours to install the wiring behind the panel. I took my Toyota, which lives in Prescott these days, and spent the day shopping, getting an eye exam, and meeting with the Verde Valley Fair manager in Cottonwood about doing helicopter rides there. I was in Jerome, waiting for my lunch at the Haunted Hamburger (okay, so I’m a tourist sucker), when Mile High’s receptionist called to tell me my “airplane” was ready. When I got the bill, I was very pleased. Only three hours. At $60/hour. And they’d tested it so they knew it worked.

It looked the same, until I started up. The blinking MSG light, that had started annoying me after Corporate Jet’s work, wasn’t flashing. No more error messages. That was already an improvement.

But it wasn’t until yesterday that I saw the TIS in action. You see, because it picks up signals from ATC, you need to be in range of an ATC transmission point. Normally, that’s around a Class B airport, like Sky Harbor. I don’t fly down to Phoenix that often and I fly too low in my area to get the line-of-sight reception I need. So traffic is not available in Wickenburg and many of the places I fly.

Yesterday, however, I flew down to Buckeye. And while I was flying south in the vicinity of the Toyota Proving Grounds, I saw a weird symbol on my GPS: a circle with a line coming out of it (reminding me of a tadpole) with the number 2 beside it. “What the heck is that?” I said to my passenger, Jay, who I’d brought along for company. “I never saw a symbol like that before.”Then it hit me. Duh. It was the traffic reporting system at work. The circle was the target and the line was the projected path. It was either at 2000 feet or 2000 feet above me. (I guess I’d better read the book.) Cool!Of course, I found myself staring at the darn GPS, just like Frank Robinson didn’t want me doing. I realized that and stopped looking. Instead, I tried looking for the target, which should be at the 11 o’clock position. I couldn’t see it. When I looked back at the GPS, the target was gone. A moment later, the White Tank Mountains cut off the transmission and traffic was unavailable.

But now I know it works! How cool is that?

And if you’re wondering why I bought this cool toy when I could just as easily look out the window to see traffic, here’s my explanation. This is cutting edge technology. Today. In five or ten years, when I finally run out of money and have to sell Zero-Mike-Lima, it’ll be standard equipment on all new aircraft. Having in on board will make my helicopter more marketable when the time comes to turn it over to a new owner. That’s my story and I’ll stick to it.

In the meantime, I have a cool new toy to play with when I’m down in the Phoenix area.

What do you think?