Although the cost of an air-to-ground or satellite communication system is a relatively small percentage of the purchase price of a high-performance single- or twin-engine turboprop or light jet, owners of these aircraft, and also smaller aircraft, want something much less expensive to purchase and with cheaper airtime costs.
Until costs come down for more sophisticated airborne connectivity systems, a simple solution is an Iridium satcom. To make it truly cost-effective, eliminating voice service brings the price of the hardware and service well into the range of affordability.
Send Solutions is now selling one such device, the Airtext LT. The LT can be used only for messaging, but it works anywhere in the world (where satcom is allowed) and is portable, so there are no installation details to worry about. Just plug it into a 12-volt cigarette lighter power outlet, hook up the external antenna, and it’s ready for action, on the ground or in the air.
Iridium’s current limited bandwidth does constrain devices like the LT, which can’t do anything other than send and receive text messages, but it does this at a fraction of the cost of more sophisticated airborne connectivity systems. Thus, the LT may be just what owners of smaller aircraft are looking for.
Airtext does offer more expensive units with voice capability, but these must be hard-wired to 28-volt electrical systems. The 12 volts available from a cigarette lighter outlet doesn’t provide sufficient power for voice calls on the LT, according to Send Solutions founder and CEO David Gray. Send Solutions is developing a USB-powered Airtext LT, and this should be available soon.
We tested the Airtext LT during a flight in northern New Jersey in a Piper Cherokee 180.
Setting up Airtext requires first downloading an app onto an iPhone or Android phone, then connecting the phone via Bluetooth to the Airtext LT, and placing the phone into airplane mode (but Bluetooth on). Up to six users can connect to Airtext LT simultaneously.
After plugging in the LT’s external antenna and making sure it has a clear view of the sky, then plugging in the cigarette lighter connector, it is ready for action.
Once the LT finds Iridium satellites, sending and receiving text messages is done via the Airtext app. As long as the phone is connected to the Airtext LT and the LT is communicating with the Iridium satellites, messages will go through via Airtext. The recipient first receives a message that [so-and-so] is flying and messaging via Airtext. Please respond to this number until landing.” After unplugging the Airtext LT, anyone responding to a message sent via Airtext will receive a message that says: “[So-and-so’s] flight has landed. Contact [so-and-so] via their regular texting number.”
Airtext messages are limited to 140 characters, but Airtext strings longer messages together.
The benefit of communicating via Airtext was evident during the flight because I was able to send and receive text messages in the air and on the ground, and there is no need to wait until climbing to 10,000 feet to switch the system on as there is with air-to-ground connectivity systems.
Text messages via Airtext traveled quickly, sent from about 2,000 feet agl and also from the ground at Greenwood Lake Airport in West Milford, New Jersey.
Airtext isn’t just for messaging; the Iridium connection has additional benefits, including weather requests and FBOlink.
Using Airtext, pilots can request digital-ATIS (at airports where it is available), Metar, TAF, and ASOS information. D-ATIS is currently available only for U.S. airports, but the other weather products work for almost any airport in the world. The Airtext app also connects to Airtext’s FBOlink service, which notifies participating FBOs when an FBOlink user sends a text message requesting service or answers to questions.
Airtext LT retails for $4,950, which includes a carrying case, antenna, and power cord, and is available from Send Solutions and distributors such as avionics shops and Sporty’s Pilot Shop. The initial price includes 500 text messages, then messages cost five cents each. Longer messages such as D-ATIS may cost around 25 cents, depending on how many characters are sent. This is much less expensive than current D-ATIS products, according to Gray, who cited a customer with a Challenger 605 using a weather retrieval system paying $5 to submit a weather request then another $5 to receive the weather information. Airtext buyers range from light aircraft owners to business jet pilots, he said. “It’s not just for the little airplane.”
Buyers who purchase an Airtext LT now can trade that in up to two years later for full credit toward a more capable permanently mounted Airtext system or one that will work with Iridium’s new high-speed Next satellite network.