Here’s Why U.S. Air Force Fighter Aircraft Pilots Use Garmin Smartwatches

Here’s Why U.S. Air Force Fighter Aircraft Pilots Use Garmin Smartwatches

As we have reported earlier that U.S. Spy Plane Pilots Use Russian & Chinese Satellite As Backup To GPS. American U-2 spy plane pilots, who have long flown bleeding-edge technology to the edge of Earth’s atmosphere, have a new high-tech gadget: a watch that receives satellite navigation coordinates from Russian, Chinese, and European satellites. It serves as a backup to U.S. Global Positioning System satellites, in case their signal becomes unavailable.

According to a new report from ArsTechnica, U.S. Air Force pilots from the 99th Reconnaissance Squadron at Beale Air Force Base in Northern California use Garmin‘s D2 Charlie smartwatches as their flying companions when flying high-altitude reconnaissance aircraft. General James M. “Mike” Holmes explained that pilots of the iconic Lockheed U-2 reconnaissance jets in the squad use Garmin’s 3-year old wearable as a backup navigation tool.

“My U-2 guys fly with a watch now that ties into GPS but also BeiDou and the Russian system and European system… so if someone jams GPS they still get the others.”

Here’s Why U.S. Air Force Fighter Aircraft Pilots Use Garmin Smartwatches
The current model U-2S aircraft features an all-glass digital cockpit, improved sensors, and propulsion systems. But its pilots still wear backup GPS/GLONASS-enabled watches, just in case. Credits: USAF

The Garmin D2 Charlie isn’t a new model—in fact, it was announced back in 2017 and was designed with pilots in mind. This translates into a host of aviation-centric features in the watch, such as real-time worldwide weather radar, as well as airport information. Pilots also have the ability to wireless transfer flight plans to the D2 Charlie, and to transfer GPS data from the smartwatch to other devices.

General Holmes might not have been totally accurate when explaining the pilots’ choice of wrist-wear, though. While the D2 Charlie does indeed have GPS, as well as GLONASS positioning signals, pilots don’t have access to BeiDou and Galileo satellite navigation systems.

Still, the smartwatch still has a bunch of features that could come in handy for an aviator (as per its name). And you also get a bunch of more smartwatch-y features—notifications, fitness tracking, profiles, and so on. And the navigation system has a safeguard, according to Brian Plank from Garmin:

“The watch is always correlating the two signals and trying to give you the best fix. If GPS goes away, the GLONASS fix will be used.”

The idea behind pilots wearing the D2 Charlie is for situations where GPS isn’t available, or when the Dragon Lady‘s onboard navigation systems fail. And the U-2 is a high altitude reconnaissance vehicle, which means that it could be targeted by “electronic warfare” systems—Garmin’s smartwatch could be the backup option here.

And of course, the other functions of the D2 also help with communication, as well as fitness monitoring of the pilots themselves.

Since aviators began using Garmin “wrist-top computer” GPS-equipped smartwatches, the company has introduced several new, aviation-specific watches called the Garmin D2 Bravo Pilot, the D2 Charlie, D2 Delta PX and flagship Garmin MARQ series, which includes the MARQ Commander and Aviator, models that actually “Check with Pulse Ox³ to gain awareness of how well your body’s oxygen levels are adjusting to the thinner air at higher altitudes.” The flagship MARQ Commander and Aviator models retail for $1950.00 USD according to Garmin.

It’s interesting that Garmin hasn’t used their new-found military street cred more aggressively in marketing campaigns. Other than a few low-ley company press releases, which didn’t receive very much notice in aviation media until January 29, 2018, E/A-18G Growler incident when a Garmin saved the day, the public hasn’t known much about Garmin’s quiet entry into military aviation.

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