8:16 PM

Moving Forward
from the Dark Ages

This week I took ownership of a brand new cell phone. That is not news, the things are now so cheap, even the good ones are free if you re-up for two more years of service.

I had put off trading in my "brick" for a schmancy new camera phone, because (a) I usually travel with a bag full of real digital cameras and saw no need to shoot itsy-bitsy little JPEGs in resolution so small they fit on, well, a CELL PHONE SCREEN...and (2) I do not text message or access any of the Internets on my phone, so I saw no need to get a phone with those capabilities.

But these days, any phone is a camera phone, so I got one anyway. The phone I picked was a Samsung sch-u740 dual flip phone, one that you can open in landscape mode and access a small but functional QWERTY keyboard. If you do not know what that means, ask a 12-year-old. But the main reason I picked this phone was so I could try out Digital Cyclone's Pilot My-Cast by Garmin, a $9.95/month service that delivers actual real-time aviation weather to the palm of your hand.

So for the past few days, I have been test driving the Pilot My-cast service, and for the most part I am pleased. Here is a capsule summary of what this pretty cool system can do, from their site:

With Pilot My-Cast® by Garmin, critical aviation weather intelligence and flight planning is literally in the palm of your hand. You can check current and predicted NWS data at your departure airport, your destination, or at any terminal waypoint in the continental United States. Then, using DUAT(S), you can file a flight plan right from your cell phone. Pilot My-Cast makes it easy to page through surface meteorological reports, terminal forecasts, observations and advisories – instantly as they become available.
The My-Cast site says this system was "developed by pilots, and it shows." That is a true statement, when you read the partial list of what kind of data can be retrieved out of thin air for just ten bucks a month:
• Animated Nexrad Doppler® color radar
• Coded and decoded TAFs - 24-hour forecast
• Satellite loops to track cloud cover
•1 km visible satellite imagery during the day
• Easy flight plan filing via DUAT(S)
• METARs and TAFs in text and graphic formats
• Current visibility, altimeter and wind data
• Winds aloft
• Lightning strike data
Adding Pilot My-Cast to your existing wireless service is simple. The service is compatible with most Java™ and Get-It-Now/BREW-enabled mobile phones, and is supported by all major providers, including Alltel, AT&T, Midwest Wireless, Nextel, Sprint, SouthernLINC, and Verizon. Information on the service can be found here.
Now, the meat and potatoes of this post...how does it work? Well, in about five days of testing, I can say that the text data is spot on, instantly available as fast as it is on the WWW. But I have found the graphics screens to be cumbersome and hard to get used to. For instance, tonight I ran a query for a flight from EUG to FAT, in Central California, with a waypoint as SAC VOR. The system quickly delivered the text data with amazing accuracy, but when I tried to view the many weather maps, I could not scroll past about Modesto, no matter what buttons I pushed on the phone, Frustrated, I just went to the textual METARS which told me what I was looking for.
On another query, out the window, the Southern Willamette Valley was less then 1/4 mile and fog. The system's METAR for EUG showed the ceiling and visibility accurately, but listed the flight conditions as VFR. Huh? And then about an hour later, the conditions were correctly listed as LIFR, but on the next try, it was back to VFR. Phone calls and emails to their support lines have proven a waste of time as of yet to solve that riddle. But when I went to the WX Briefing section and grabbed the textual METAR, it was perfectly accurate.

I will continue to road test this service for a couple of months, and see how handy it is as I travel in the 235. I do know that logging on and grabbing a quick METAR is a 30-second procedure that could not be any easier, and I find myself pulling out the phone just to check EUG several times a day. You know us pilots, we just HAVE to know the conditions at our home patch...it can be almost addicting.

So far, it is a great tool which I feel is best used with text only...for me. The next time a big bad front moves through I will test their animated NEXRAD radar, which looks to work fine. Now I must...go ....and ..... check...... weather .....again.... must...... push...... buttons..... need...... data......now.....

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