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U.S. Air Force jet pilots use Garmin smartwatches, here’s why

If you look a the world of smartwatches, it can be a tad confusing—there is such a wide variety available nowadays, and prices can start in the hundreds and go up to the tens of thousands. We have more affordable devices like fitness bands, which provide basic fitness functions, and we also have feature-heavy smartwatches that are built for enthusiasts or specialists. And as far as specialists are concerned, the U.S. Air Force certainly ranks up there with the most specialised of them all.

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.

SOURCE: U.S. Air Force

“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.”

The General is the head of the U.S. Air Force’s Air Combat Command (ACC), and was making the point that members of the Air Force should have access to communication tech that is available to the general market.

Garmin D2 Charlie

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.

It’s not cheap, which isn’t a big surprise. The D2 Charlie doesn’t appear to be officially available in Malaysia, but based on Garmin’s initial announcement, RRP is US$799 (about RM3,437) for the version with the leather band, and US$999 (about RM4,297) for the titanium edition.

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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 on-board 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.

This isn’t the first time that Garmin’s smartwatches have been used by the military. In 2017, the Navy picked up Garmin Fenix 3 units to alert Hornet pilots before cabin pressure in aircraft reached critical points—apparently, the cabin altimeter gauge can be difficult to read due to its size and location.

If you’re in the market for a smartwatch and you still can’t decide if a “specialist” smartwatch like the Garmin D2 Charlie is worth the extra investment, I spoke with Amin recently on the benefits of these devices. Have a look:

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