You can’t read a story about general aviation these days without being confronted with Apple’s world-beating tablet computer. Some pilots are skeptical that the iPad really changes anything. Most gush about it and how flying will never be the same. What’s the real story? Does the iPad have a place in the cockpit, especially for real world IFR flying?
As usual, reality lies somewhere between the extremes. I’ve been flying with the iPad since it was first released in 2010, and overall I like it—a lot. It’s become a regular part of my flight bag, and I think it has increased the safety of my flying. But I would also admit that it has not radically changed how I fly.
First, it’s important to understand why the iPad works so well in the cockpit. The real magic is not one specific function, but rather an elegant combination of them:
- A large screen that finally makes it possible to read charts and text without zooming
- The slim profile makes it easy to take in and out of an airplane, so it is ideal for renters or clubs
- Great battery life of nearly 10 hours means it doesn’t have to be hard-wired or even use a cigarette lighter
- Mobile connectivity allows for easy chart updates and on-the-go weather briefings
- A (relatively) easy-to-use operating system that is refreshingly stable
These features have all been available before on other devices, but never in one package. Notably, until the iPad there was no way around the trade-off between battery life and screen size.
But most people forget about two other obvious (but essential) benefits. First, it’s cheap. For most pilots used to seeing $10,000 panel-installed avionics, a $500 iPad seems like a steal. Add to that the wealth of apps that are available for well under $100/year and the value proposition is compelling.
Secondly, the iPad has plenty of uses outside of aviation. Put another way, it’s perhaps the first non-aviation product that is actually useful for aviation, a sort of Holy Grail that pilots have sought for years as a justification for their gadgets. This legitimate ability to multi-task makes the iPad more convenient, more practical and an even better value. Plus, it makes the iPad spouse-approved—a welcome benefit for most pilots.
But lest you think I am some Apple-lover, it is worth considering some limitations:
- Tops on most lists is the screen glare. The iPad is one large piece of glass, and it does a fine job of reflecting light. While many screen protectors are available (hint: most don’t do much), there is no reliable way to solve this problem.
- Size cuts both ways—the very thing that makes the screen so easy to read makes the dimensions less than ideal for a cramped cockpit. It does not mount to the yoke as effortlessly as traditional aviation GPSs.
- It is not an aviation-specific device. Again, this is a strength in one respect, but it also means that most components are not ideally suited to the sometimes-harsh environment of an airplane cockpit. Overheating can be an issue (tip: don’t put it on the glare shield).
- Finally, there’s no dedicated Direct-To button!
But even with these limitations in mind, the iPad does have numerous practical uses for pilots, both pre-flight and in the cockpit. It’s all a matter of playing to its strengths, and not getting caught up in “gee whiz” features of dubious utility. It is not and should not be used as your entire panel (and yes, people are doing that). But as a portable way to view charts, follow your progress on a cross country or get a last-minute weather briefing at the FBO, it’s hard to beat. As long as that’s what you use it for, the iPad has a place in most pilots’ flight bags.
I suspect most pilots have their own preferences, but here are my top five aviation uses for the iPad:
- I carry more charts and more current charts with the iPad–there’s no debate. It is both cheaper and easier to have the latest charts for my entire route with me, no matter how short the trip. All my excuses for using a month-old sectional are gone. In particular, updates are a breeze. Apps like ForeFlight can update every chart (plates, sectionals, en route charts, A/FDs) with the touch of one button.
- I get more pre-flight weather briefings and look at more weather graphics. Two factors are at work here: the portability of the iPad means it’s almost always with me, and the quality of the apps makes it easy to get the information I want. Last-minute sprints to the WSI computer and waiting on hold with Flight Service are a thing of the past, as is launching with a 12-hour old forecast on my kneeboard.
- I do more performance reviews and weight and balance calculations. No, I don’t do it on every flight, but having it on my iPad instead of being buried in the airplane’s POH means I’m a lot more likely to check the takeoff distance on a hot day. Some great (and inexpensive) apps make it easy. I use Numbers to make a custom weight and balance spreadsheet for each airplane, and GoodReader to store and read the manufacturers’ information manuals.
- I have consistent information and hardware when moving between airplanes. The oldest airplane I fly was built in 1963; the newest was built in 2011. Just about the only thing that’s the same in those airplanes is my iPad. This makes a big difference, because I will always be “current” on the iPad and I never have to install anything.
- The iPad is a decent backup navigator. This is probably the weakest feature of the tablet–an iPad is definitely no Garmin 796 when it comes to navigation–but it isn’t bad and it is improving as apps mature. When combined with an external GPS, I at least have a moving map display with airport information if the panel avionics should die. And with great battery life, I’m not dependent on the cigarette lighter.
What this list shows is that the iPad is a major convenience, but it hasn’t fundamentally changed how I fly. I still file flight plans the same way, I still use the panel GPS for navigation, I fly the same types of trips and my personal minimums are the same.
In the end, I’d say the iPad is revolutionary, but only on cost and convenience, not features. Would moving map sectionals, digital charts or pre-flight weather graphics be revolutionary if it cost $3,500? Not likely. So in that regard, the critics are right: the iPad doesn’t really do anything new, it just does it easier and cheaper. But don’t underestimate the power of “easier and cheaper.” In a world of complicated glass cockpits, rising fuel prices, pop-up TFRs and other expensive hassles, there aren’t many things in aviation that can make that promise.
What do you think? Do you fly with an iPad? Is it all hype or a major step forward for pilots? How do you use it? Leave your comments below.