Debate: has the iPad made pilots safer?

iPad on pilot's leg

It sure is handy, but does it improve safety?

The iPad, originally dismissed as a novelty, has now become an essential part of many pilots’ flight bags, whether student pilot or airline pro. Popular apps like ForeFlight Mobile and Garmin Pilot offer features that were previously only available on the latest glass cockpits. But have all these features actually made flying safer?

Many pilots say it has. The relatively low cost of aviation apps and the ease of database updates means more pilots are flying with current charts than ever before. Detailed terrain and obstacle maps, plus subscription-free in-flight weather, offer easy ways for pilots to avoid common hazards. And besides these in-flight features, aviation apps also make it easier than ever to compute weight and balance or complete a detailed pre-flight weather briefing. Most importantly, these safety features are not tied to the airplane, so renters and flying club members can have the same tools no matter what airplane they fly.

Skeptics point out that new toys rarely make flying safer, just easier or more fun. No app can remove the requirement for solid stick and rudder skills and good judgment. In fact, tablets may actually increase risk by keeping pilots’ eyes in the cockpit instead of outside. Or, fancy terrain and weather tools could encourage pilots to take risks they wouldn’t have otherwise considered.

What do you think? Is the iPad revolution good for general aviation safety? Or is it hype? Add a comment below.

45 Comments

  1. dallas says:

    Both arguments are correct.

    The problem is the FAA focuses on CYA old technology and refuses to embrace new technology.

  2. Dave says:

    It’s good for safety, because it puts the kind of info at the fingertips of pilots of more modest means that used to be reserved for these who can afford $10k or more for glass cockpits. As far as spending too much time looking in instead of outside the plane, I’ve seen pilots do that with steam gauges, not to mention glass displays. It all goes back to training and emphasis on stick and rudder skills.

  3. Hillel says:

    No question. iPad is a tremendous help. It’s a back-up to almost everything in the cockpit of any steam-gauge aircraft.

    Skeptics worried about too many pilots with their heads-down are pointing fingers at the wrong problem. The problem is the pilot’s lack of discipline not the equipment they’re using.

    In fact, it takes far more work to find things on a paper chart than on an tablet-based chart. Don’t even get into comparing the multi-tasking necessary to do an IAP in a non-glass cockpit, w/out autopilot, using nothing but the paper IAPs and paper charts. With tablet apps, as non-certified as they are, they still add tremendous situational awareness and simplify access to information in a way that paper can’t compete.

    The paper IAPs and paper charts are *not* required in the cockpit per regulation, so as long as we’re not “flying” with the tablet as our GPS or other instruments, there’s nothing we lose from using it over the paper it replaces. In fact, we gain a lot. Ever drop your paper IAP book as you bump your way to the airport in IMC? Or ever drop the chart? How about finding out on attempting intercept that the localizer or glideslope in your plane must not be working and you’ve got to go missed or switch to a LOC, VOR, or GPS approach at the last moment? My brain doesn’t hold every detail of every alternative approach I briefed before arriving. How much stress and work is reduced by being a flick or a few taps from the next best approach?

    The strongest argument against these apps would be the same argument about becoming too reliant on automation. I’ll still take it over flying with paper.

    • JACK FOX says:

      Ipad in the cockpit with Foreflight is fabulous. Aside from the comfort of knowing you have a back-up in event of aircraft electrical failure,
      it provides real time redundancy to what you see on the panel. Seeing
      your position on the approach plate or hearing an audible warning as you
      approach a runway while on taxi are marvelous additions to what I see on my Garmin 430/530. In flight nexrad weather painted along my route with
      zero subscription costs is another plus. Pilots everywhere thank the
      innovative and creative guys at Foreflight (and similar companies) for
      making flying safer and more enjoyable……….

  4. Brad Koehn says:

    Stick and rudder skills have nothing to do with having an iPad in the cockpit, nor does judgement. The device serves to provide additional information to a pilot; an incompetent pilot will rely on the device as a crutch, where a competent pilot will use it to provide information, bearing in mind that it can fail.

    I use my iPad as a tool to help me inside and outside the cockpit and I find it very valuable. I won’t ever go back to paper charts/plates, and the additional information it provides in the cockpit helps confirm the decisions I make in flight. There’s no downside to it at all if you’re competent.

  5. Even though I’ve spent decades in IT, I am an absolute Luddite when it comes to stuff like this. I want my charts on something that won’t die if it’s dropped on the ramp, runs out of battery life, gets soaked, or bakes in a hot airplane for days. I fly with a 430W, but there’s also a backup 396 in a panel dock and I always have the paper chart handy. Never, ever, will I rely solely on electronic charts.

    • Eric Basile says:

      Dozens, if not hundreds, of professional flight operations operate solely with electronic charts (including ours.) We had to undergo a six-month test period from the FAA, using electronic devices while still carrying paper backups on board, before FAA approval.

      All of the concerns you mention – damage to device, batteries dying, overheating, etc. can be addressed through policy. Our operation carries two iPads with mandated minimum battery levels at the beginning of the day. The backup device is always carried in a charged, shut down state and only used if the primary device malfunctions or battery drains below 25%. We also conduct testing of apps following software and firmware updates.

      I believe your comments reflect a level of unreasonable speculation and hysteria that is unsupported by the data from professional flight operations flying in the real world every day.

      • Yes, professional flights and your equipment is bought and maintained by your employer. As I said before, I can buy a lot of flight time for the cost of two iPads and two subscriptions. And if I was running your IT department or whoever manages your iPads I would never allow both of them to be updated at once.

        Your stuff doesn’t sit out in the airplane and get heat soaked, you have a bridge to get to the airplane dry, etc.

  6. Bruce says:

    Safer if used as a tool to plan preflight. Is darn hard to see while in flight so is basically useless as a nav tool unless it’s a really dim day or at night.

  7. Dennis says:

    Student pilots should no way be allowed to use this on any nav training as the need to learn and respect paper charts and nav equipment is imperative to good airmanship….after achieving a ppl….knock yourself out, further to this why is there any need to have eyes inside any more than before since all info is at hand and easier and faster to find than ever before so i really believe electronics promote more eyes outside…..thats my take anyway

  8. Duane says:

    The arguments against portable cockpit electronics simply don’t hold water.

    “Eyes kept in the cockpit” – that’s silly … if you know how to use the device – which is easy to learn on the ground, unlike panel devices – you can find information much quicker than you can fumbling through paper charts and plates. You can tee up the info before even starting the engine as a matter of proper flight planning, and in the event of an emergency, the search functions (nearest airport, terrain, etc.) are much more quickly accessed than in any paper medium.

    “Too dependent upon automated features” – since the FAA prohibits coupling a portable device to any aircraft autopilot, this issue simply does not exist.

    “Can’t depend upon electronics which can break” – actually, the electronics in a portable device, unlike panel devices, are both extremely reliable and fully independent of the aircraft electrical system. And electronics are so cheap and widely available these days that the average pilot can afford, and probably already owns, multiple GPS navigator devices (anybody with a smart phone has a GPS and moving map display as a backup to any tablet computer or specialty aviation portable GPS device). Tell me how many backup attitude indicators or turn coordinators does the average light aircraft possess? Zero, is the answer.

  9. Duane says:

    There is one glaring shortcoming for today’s portable electronic nav and EFB devices – it’s difficult to situate the display(s) anywhere near the pilot’s field of view to the front. That’s not an issue, of course, for enroute flying in the clouds where your eyes are already glued to the panel anyway (unless on autopilot). On IFR approaches and VFR flight, however, it certainly is an issue.

    As we all know, aircraft panel real estate is valuable stuff, and unfortunately, steam gages are not very efficient users of display space, as compared to a primary flight display or multi-function display.

    The available kneeboard, suction cup, and glareshield mounts of today are all work-arounds for portable devices. They’re pretty clumsy, however, and not very good from a human factors design perspective.

    The ideal solution would perhaps be a combination of the following:

    1) A less expensive (likely as part of the FAR Part 23 rewrite) universal glass panel setup that would fully replace all of the steam gages, and which would be (legally) linked to both panel and portable and/or modular electronic devices via wireless bluetooth.

    2) An affordable HUD device mounted to the glareshield, also connected via bluetooth to an avionics data bus to which all of the other panel and portable devices may connect. The HUD display would facilitate the pilot looking out the cockpit, particularly important on low altitude maneuvering flight (such as IFR approaches) and in watching out for other traffic.

    • BERNIE says:

      DUANE, I HAVE AN IPAD MINI MOUNTED ON THE YOKE AND LOVE IT. IT DOESN’T BLOCK ANYTHING AND IS RIGHT AT MY FINGERTIPS WHICH IS GREAT WHEN IN TURBULENCE. A KNEEBOARD DEFINITELY PUTS YOUR HEAD DOWN TO MUCH AND PERIPHERAL VISION IS USELESS.

  10. John Swallow says:

    I echo the comments of Brad Koehn; the great-grandfathers of the iPad/ForeFlight et al were the ones who were against compasses in aircraft; their grandfathers were dead set against the VFR use of ADFs; their fathers were sure that GPS would erode the skill set of the private pilot. A pox on all of them! (;>0)

    John

    (Can you tell I just got mine…?)

  11. Liad Biton says:

    Charts should be eliminated all together…. When was the last time you PRINTED your driving directions ?! How many of you still read physical newspapers ?

    It’s time to switch it around, and make apps the primary and charts the backup.

    And for all the 100 year old pilots out there that are going to yell and scream at me… Yes, I know, it can run out of batteries or die… That is why I carry backups, three of them!

    • Newspapers are not mission-critical. And yes, I do still print out maps and driving instructions. And how much do your three devices cost you? Do they all run the same OS and software? If so, that’s still a single point of failure.

      • Dave says:

        Single point of failure?!? Come on…

        • I have seen entire enterprises brought down by applying a single software patch. A recent article about the new business jets using ly-by-wire makes a point of how one mfgr is using two separate banks of flight computers with software written by two different companies to avoid just this issue. Apple iOS upgrades are notorious for breaking apps.

          If I was to depend on an EFB, I’d need one iOS device and one Android, running different apps. For the price of those two devices and the subscriptions, I can buy a lot of flight time.

          • Dave says:

            Sorry but you are over exaggerating the issue. Yes software patches can bring down a system. That’s why smart people test it out in controlled environments. That’s why you confirm your efb works after an upgrade. Not testing out out on a 3hr cross country.

            It’s great you take safety to that level. Please don’t take that as me bring sarcastic. I’ll worry about my two iPad being a single point of failure after I figure out the single pilot not screwing up and being the single point of failure

          • It just so happens your response popped up in my mailbox the morning my wife’s tablet died for no apparent reason. Again, for the price of two devices (assuming you can run the same app w/the same subscription on both) I can buy a lot of flight time. And I’ll do it without concerns that the box is going to die.

  12. Stephen Phoenix says:

    Safety is possible with basic VFR instruments and a knowledge of limitations. An IPad can make things easier but not safer.

    • Duane says:

      Stephen – you’re just flat out wrong stating flatly that portable aviation devices cannot make flying safer. There are many, many ways in which a portable device can and routinely does make flying safer for pilots of light aircraft:

      Portable devices improve flight safety by (in no particular order):

      1) Providing the pilot with constantly updated navigation charts (VFR and IRF) and approach plates.

      2) Cockpit weather services, including NEXRAD, winds aloft, lighting detection, METARs, TAFs, icing, etc. Sat-based Wx systems work anywhere, even where earth-based radio communications are not possible.

      3) Greatly speeding up access to critical flight and nav information, particularly during emergencies (“nearest” functions, fingertip access to detailed info on alternate airports, aids to navigation, etc.)

      4) Much improved situational awareness (“where AM I?”, and “how long will it take to get to where I intend, or to an alternate, and do I have enough fuel to get there?”, and “what obstacles might I run into?”, etc.)

      5) Alternate, independent, and redundant flight instruments, including attitude and heading reference system and groundspeed, in the event of onboard systems failure (either vacuum or electrical).

      6) Alternate, independent, and redundant navigation instruments (GPS) in the event of onboard nav systems failure (electrical).

      7) “Safe taxi” type airport maps with real time positioning enable pilots to maintain situational awareness at unfamiliar airports and in conditions of low visibility, thus helping prevent runway incursions.

      8) Traffic detection and avoidance

      9) Pilot alerts (altitude busts, switching fuel tanks, etc.) and flight checklists

      10) Illustrating MOAs, restricted airspace, and TRRs in real time.

      As you wrote, Stephen, “safety is possible with basic VFR instruments”, but portable electrical devices (which nowadays serve both as navigation instruments and electronic flight books). But safety is not a simple on/off switch .. i.e., where you are either safe, or you’re not safe. Safety is a matter of degrees of safety, obtained by building safety margins through multiple redundant flight management systems and sources of flight information. Portable electronic devices in the cockpits can be and in fact are very important resources for a knowledgeable pilot.

      Indeed, what modern portable flight electronics do is help equip the everyday private aviation pilot with many of the same flight tools and aids that professional airline pilots have had for many years and now take for granted, and which have done much to greatly reduce the fatal accident rates in the airline industry these past three decades.

      • Stephen Phoenix says:

        Basic safety is a direct result of staying within the limitations of the pilot and the airplane. More equipment, whether it is de-ice equipment or an iPad, only expands the limitation envelope.

        • Eric Basile says:

          I disagree. Scott Crossfield flew into a severe thunderstorm with only a StormScope and his eyes for judgment. The NTSB probable cause cited: “The pilot’s failure to obtain updated en route weather information, which resulted in his continued instrument flight into a widespread area of severe convective activity, and the air traffic controller’s failure to provide adverse weather avoidance assistance…”

          You might pithily (and short-sightedly) suggest that the fault lies in Crossfield having exceeded his limitations. I would counter that having more and better information available in the cockpit could have resulted in a fatal accident being easily avoided.

          The iPad (or similar device) is not just “equipment”. Particularly with respect to weather, it also can provides more reliable, precise information than a pilot has ever had before – a point you seem incapable of or unwilling to grasp.

          • Steve Phoenix says:

            Well, some experienced types would counter than one should not be messing around in active thunderstorm areas with nothing more than a stormscope and eyeballs. Thus, that defines a limitation which was obviously exceeded in the case you cite. If you think you could expand that limitation with an iPad in your lap, go ahead and try it; let me know how it works. You might note that both the NTSB and the FAA recommmend that you not rely on transmitted radar data because it can be up to 12 minutes old.

  13. Bob Fry says:

    It can. Or not. Just like any technology can be used and abused, so too iPads in the cockpit.

    I recently replaced a Garmin 296 with my iPad and WingX Pro. So far I have a slight preference for the iPad, even though I’m not getting weather or traffic on it, because of its far bigger screen. However the Garmin has a better, scalable map, so the iPad is not automatically superior.

    As far as head-in-cockpit, that’s a problem with lots of new technology.

  14. Edd Weninger says:

    Good Grief !! I seem to recall that I was able to fly to wherever was necessary, in conditions Mother Nature provided, (not always, election to not go was/is always an option) without the need for a NRST button, from 1965 through ~2006.

    Before I ever launched, I had all the preparation I thought needed on paper. I maintained situational awareness using whatever information the round gauges provided. And also had a plan covering, from wherever I was, to an IF-THEN-ELSE solution.

    I’m somewhat disturbed that some people think easy access to information from a toy in the cockpit will be helpful in a serious situation. If they are correct, we should see a sharp ‘knee’ deflection in the safety statistics.

  15. Gary Kevorkian says:

    The short answer is emphatically yes.
    But, I do rely on my paper copy flight plan and charts.
    iPad and apps like foreflight are good tools. That’s it.
    The actual flying is done by me.
    The decisions are done by me.
    I am solely responsible for my actions in the cockpit, not the app or iPad.
    The PIC , you and me, are responsible.
    But, I love the iPad and foreflight as a tool for situational awareness!!!
    As pilots we should take advantage of high tech and available tools, to use all available information.
    Flying is so exciting because we have to constantly check and verify for safety and by doing so have fun doing the things that we do as pilots.

  16. Cary Alburn says:

    I’m on the fence as to answering the specific question, does an iPad enhance safety. I’ve been flying (and have not yet been lost) for 41 1/2 years, and I’ve only been using my iPad Mini and Foreflight Pro, along with my Stratus II, for 11 months. I also have FF Pro on my iPhone.

    I’m not yet comfortable enough with the whole thing, although it hasn’t failed even once, to totally chuck paper, but I also haven’t actually used any paper charts in the time I’ve had these so-called “toys”. With the Mini mounted on my airplane’s yoke, where I used to have my approach plates mounted, it’s easy to see, it’s part of my scan, and consequently my cockpit workload is reduced. The screen is the same size as NACO approach plates, and it’s easier to change from one plate to another, so that reduces workload.

    Does all this make my flying safer? I don’t know, but it does make my flying easier.

    Cary

  17. Anonymous says:

    I suffered an engine out near St Joseph, MO, AT 4,500′. ATC wanted to direct me to the St Joe airport, 17 miles away, too far to make it. My electronic charts, which are constantly on display, showed a private strip 7 miles NW of me which I made handily. A crop duster’s abandoned strip, it wasn’t on ATC’s charts. Searching a paper chart under those circumstances (single pilot) would have been difficult. Better information faster from electronic charts.

  18. Trujor says:

    I love my iPad/Foreflight. I do carry two units and have been more than satisfied with its function as a tool in my bag. I’ve only used paper charts twice – while I was planning for and during my check ride. It was cumbersome to use by not impossible. I’d much rather use my iPad for charts and not allow it to distract me from the most important matters as hand – aviate, navigate, communicate. With those three rocks in place, all of the other pebbles can fit in around and be used correctly as tools.

  19. I have been flying over 40 years but gladly transitioned to the iPad two years ago. I was negotiating a cold front, at night IMC over NYC area trying to piece a couple IFR enroute charts together (in a Mooney no less) to find a newly assigned routing…stupid! iPad makes this simple…what a beautiful piece of technology. Now it’s even better with ADS-B weather enroute and for monitoring your destination. I vote for “safer!” Like any tool it can be misused so training and restraint are necessary…no enroute games please!

  20. Eric Basile says:

    I am disappointed by the article’s reliance on unnamed “skeptics” for an assertion that iPad technology has not made flying safer. A thoroughly unconvincing argument.

    As a previous poster noted, the FAA remains stuck in 1960’s technology. There is no clearer evidence of this fact than the FAA’s steadfast refusal to permit own-ship position display in Part 135 air carrier operations. I am convinced that this alone would lead to greater situational awareness, and if not a reduction in accidents, certainly a reduction in unsafe occurrences such as procedural deviations.

    The FAA’s resistance to this and other common-sense improvements in technology is the real barrier to safety – not the use of iPads in the cockpit.

  21. Chris Tarbell says:

    I don’t think having an iPad or any other tablet in the airplane makes the PILOT any safer. It simply gives the pilot more useful information that he would otherwise have to call an FSS to get or have prior knowledge of. So, having a tablet in the cockpit makes FLYING safer. The safety of the pilot is determined by skill, experience, and good decision making.

  22. Andy Hough says:

    The Ipad does not improve the Skills of an PILOT but it certainly is the one of the best tools available and makes Flying a lot more Fun at an Affordable Price.

  23. Andy Hough says:

    The Ipad does not improve the Skills of an PILOT but it certainly is the one of the best tools available and makes Flying a lot more Fun at an Affordable Price.

  24. Brian Knoblauch says:

    Tried the iPad for a bit, but gave up on it. The concept is solid, the hardware just isn’t up to it. A dim glossy screen has no place in the cockpit. Hard to see in direct light and too easy to accidentally blind yourself (or others) with the reflection. Maybe if a matte screen was an option.

  25. SkyMachines says:

    Well, you gotta like the in-cockpit weather (for those with ADS-B in or XM) and charts. But, as an instructor, I am finding that most pilots how up no really knowing how to use their Ipad apps sufficiently to do it without hunting around. And, or consequently as a result of, they spend WAY too much time with their heads down programming their Ipads. It was bad enough when they were staying “head in” to just program their GPS and G1000’s, but the Ipad made that 2X as bad. When you are in VFR conditions, you should have your head outside 80% of the time…not 20%.

    My other complaint is that the apps only give you the official NOAA/NWS weather available on DUATS and ADDS. A pilot must “become familiar with all available information concerning that flight,” says FAR 91.103. Not SOME, but ALL. To do that, you need full Internet access, with the ability to use Java apps like the ADDS Flight Path Tool and some of the web pages that include unofficial weather. (For a list, see http://www.wxbriefing.com). An Ipad just can’t do it. Therefore, it is insufficient as a preflight planning tool.

  26. James Tkacik says:

    I don’t see a single bad thing about using this technology. If anything, it makes flying safer because you have everything up to date. Also, there is really no reason think that “not looking outside” is an issue. It’s only an issue if you are careless about it. People use their phones when driving as navigation, and that’s perfectly ok, but it gets dangerous when you start doing things like texting. This is how it is with in-flight tablet usage. If you’re sitting there flying a plane, you probably shouldn’t be watching Netflix on your iPad. However, if you have it strapped to your knees and look every couple minutes for ten seconds, I don’t think there would be to much of a safety issue. However, Air Facts Journal just posted on twitter: “Real pilots embrace new technology, but never become slaves to it.” This is how pilots should treat using a tablet for navigation or anything else while flying.

  27. Doug says:

    Safer? I think so. Definitely easier. Still not going to stop pilots from stall spins on final or running out of fuel. That’s why the safety question is so hard to answer. I think, and we won’t know for another few years, that the ipad should help with weather avoidance. Not sure if it will help with any other common accident cause.

  28. scott jenkins says:

    I have been a police officer for 31 years and a sergeant for 20. When I started we had 6 shooters, a wooden baton, 1 set of cuffs and no walkie talkies. Police units we tuned up ourselves and silly light bar configurations that made out of car safety very dangerous. We used Mapscos to get around to calls and we better know our beats by heart.
    Officers now have all the technology that the world can devise. Car cameras, body cameras, car computers that are incredible linked to data bases that would blow your mind. Efficiency and safety are dramatically increased. Old schoolers like me had to embrace technology or be lost. SURE, I talk about the old way of doing things and how we still got it done. Gum shoe policing. Talking to humans, no texting, no emailing waiting for responses,etc.
    Relating this to aviation is simple for me. When I was training in a 1965 172 all it had was steam guages. Dead reckoning and pilotage were the only terms needed. XC by check points and a timer. You know where I’m going with this. Police work today is not as GRITTY as it was back in the day. Flying is not the stick and rudder of yester years. Does anyone really use a sectional with way points marks on it for XCs ? Fire up the Ipad or smartphone. File a XC flight plan after talking to a briefer ? why ? get your Prog charts and weather on DUATS and letter rip. Officers need to run hot to a call and can’t safely follow the GPS bread crum trail, fire up the voice module and let her talk you to the call location while running lights and siren. Why tell FSS to close your flight plan ? Push the close button and all is well. Officers get on the scene of a call. No need to pick up the microphone, push the On scene button. If the System ever goes down, fire up the smart phone. The comparisons are countless. I’m glad I learned old school policing. I talk about it and feel good reminising. I’m glad my instructor and examiner were OLD school. Technology be damned with those guys. As time has gone on, they have moved to the Ipads. I’m shocked, but glad. Is police work safer, more efficient and more fun because of technology ? Absolutely. Is GA ? In my opinion, you bet.

  29. Tightwad that I am, my annual subscription renewal for ForeFlight is the only one I don’t whine about. What an incredible, invaluable asset! Brilliant engineering. Thanks guys.

  30. MORT MASON says:

    How many of you guys are still both comfortable AND RELAXED in a primary panel environment?

  31. Gary Kevorkian says:

    Technology is luxury, but with more responsibility.
    I love using the iPad, Foreflight, etc…..great tools.
    But I still have to manage a safe flight…

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