A WEATHER SHOOT OUT ADS-B vs. SIRIUSXM
Flying|September 2020
A retired airline pilot’s perspective
LES ABEND

Cruising among the flight levels in excess of Mach 0.82 most times, our weather radar typically remained in an active status. The Boeing 777’s system was sophisticated enough to adjust its sweep to the attitude of the airplane and turn itself on during takeoff for predictive wind-shear-detection warnings. It was the primary long-range tool for in-flight convective-weather avoidance and often the reason for the statement, “Unable a heading of…”

Depending upon one’s experience and acuity, adjusting the radar return was an art form. Trusting the display for more than 200 miles in front of the nose became a matter of opinion. All that being said, the radar provided a mostly accurate and instantaneous picture.

Aside from forecasts and other data, our long-range convective-weather planning started and ended in operations. We didn’t have access to SiriusXM weather or ADS-B in the cockpit. The in-flight Wi-Fi wasn’t known for providing a reliable-enough signal to our iPads, which was especially problematic on widebody airplanes, where the cockpit was a long distance from the router location.

Screenshots from the iPad running the Garmin Pilot app show the level of detail given by the FIS-B (left) and GDL 52-streamed SiriusXM (right) weather information.

So, now that I rarely fly at altitudes higher than four digits—and that my cruise knots are barely equal to typical 777 approach speeds, I have no radar, and only one spinny thing is keeping me airborne—my airline-pilot psyche requires a reliable source of in-flight weather data.

Years earlier, the only real choice was SiriusXM, which has evolved into an even more comprehensive weather product. Now with ADS-B and its attached FIS-B (flight information system-broadcast) data, I have great options. But should I choose one over the other, especially if one of them is free?

Well, to answer that burning question, I was given the opportunity to equip my Piper Arrow II with a Garmin GDL 52, which has the ability to simultaneously receive both SiriusXM and ADS-B signals through a compatible app. In my case, the app is Garmin Pilot, installed on the iPad because it has been playing well with the airplane’s Garmin GTX 345 ADS-B transponder.

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