More than just a gadget – how the iPad is making flying safer

Pilots typically wear their skepticism like a badge of honor. Diesel engines are more fuel efficient? I’ll believe it when I see it… Airplane parachutes? It’s a fad!

That’s what makes the iPad revolution so surprising. For all their cynicism, pilots have adopted tablets and apps like eager teenagers. Just five years ago, no one had ever heard of an “Electronic Flight Bag app.” Today, the majority of general aviation pilots – and a whole bunch of airline and military pilots too – are flying with one. How many other tools are used by Air Force tanker pilots and J-3 Cub drivers alike?

iPad in cockpit
No longer an unusual sight.

Sure, there are some curmudgeons who dismiss this as just the latest technology obsession that is destroying our stick and rudder skills, but these voices are increasingly rare. Far more common are the pilots who are simultaneously intimidated by technology and yet open to trying the iPad – old dogs who are working hard to learn new tricks.

Why the rapid adoption here, when so many other worthy technologies have been ignored? Certainly tablets are affordable by aviation standards, and they’re also justifiable to the family budget since they can be used for a host of non-flying applications. More than anything, though, I think pilots are realizing that the iPad is much more than just a gadget: tablets and the apps they run are making general aviation safer, less expensive and more vibrant. If that sounds like naive cheerleading, consider a few of the benefits that we now take for granted.

Tablets democratize avionics. The majority of pilots are either renters or flying club members, which means they do not directly control the avionics in the airplanes they fly. That’s obvious, but it has major implications. If Garmin adds an incredible new feature to the G1000, the vast majority of pilots don’t have access to it. With tablet apps, though, every pilot can have that new feature overnight – often for free. Cutting edge avionics are a reality for anyone with a $500 tablet and a $75 app, not just owners of new airplanes.

Everyone has current charts. Now that the statute of limitations has run out for most of us, we can admit that we might have occasionally flown with outdated paper charts in the past. It was easy to fall into that trap, due to cheapness, laziness or just plain bad luck. Now we have access to every aviation chart, IFR or VFR, for the entire country, and they can be updated in a matter of minutes. That’s good for safety.

ForeFlight terrain
The universal availability of terrain alerts has been good for general aviation safety.

Terrain and obstacle awareness is mainstream. Here’s one technology with a proven record of success – since Enhanced Ground Proximity Warning Systems began appearing in airline cockpits twenty years ago, the rate of Controlled Flight Into Terrain accidents has plummeted. Now general aviation pilots have access to similar safety features, with 3D terrain profiles and pop-up obstacle alerts available on even the most basic apps. True, portable GPSs have offered versions of this for years, but tablets make it less expensive than ever before. More importantly, they’ve made it so much easier to keep that obstacle database up to date, which really matters.

Weight and balance is fast – so pilots actually do it. Let’s be honest: doing a weight and balance calculation is no fun at all, ranking right up there with sorting the sock drawer and getting a root canal. While the iPad hasn’t exactly made weight and balance fun, it has made the exercise a lot faster and easier. After an initial setup process, computing an accurate gross weight and CG number is laughably easy: slide a few bars to the correct values and look at the pretty picture. If it’s green, you go. Because this is easier, more pilots than ever actually calculate the numbers before flight. I know I do.

Datalink weather has never been easier or less expensive. When portable XM Weather came along in the early 2000s, it transformed cross-country flying. No longer did pilots have to draw mental pictures of radar imagery based on vague Flight Watch descriptions. Portable ADS-B receivers and tablet apps are continuing the transformation by driving costs down (subscription-free in this case) and functionality up (a large touch-screen is a great way to look at weather). While no datalink weather will ever “solve” general aviation weather accidents, pilots have access to more information than ever before.

Garmin Pilot fuel price map
Fuel price maps can save pilots real money.

Fuel price information saves pilots money. Finding the price of fuel used to be surprisingly hard, so most of us didn’t even look. Apps now make this task so easy it’s almost fun, especially if you’re hunting for that cheap self-serve fuel. More than one pilot has graphically planned his route of flight based not on weather or FBO facilities, but on fuel price. The iPad has also made pilots active participants in this process, since they can quickly update prices as they pay – no need to fire up the laptop after the flight. With avgas well above $5 in most places, that can save some significant money.

Tablets engage passengers. While this advancement may not impact aviation safety, anything that encourages non-pilot involvement is a welcome change for pilots. In my experience flying Young Eagles, I’ve noticed than many kids are as interested in the iPad as the airplane. If that’s what sparks their interest, who are we to complain? Apps also demystify the pre-flight and in-flight decision-making process for non-pilots: it’s a lot easier to show your spouse the radar picture on your iPad than it is to decode the scribbles you made after listening to the Flight Service briefer. This type of collaboration reduces anxiety and stress for both pilots and passengers.

Apps have helped aviation rediscover its innovative, start-up culture. Beyond the day-to-day benefits for pilots, the emerging world of aviation app companies has been a shot in the arm for the aviation industry. Some of the winners of the iPad age are established players, but many are not. Dozens of companies, started by pilots with an innovative idea, are competing to deliver better products at lower prices. That kind of competition is healthy, and pilots are the real winners.

One other player deserves credit for the iPad revolution, and it’s one that rarely gets mentioned: the FAA. (I can hear the comments being typed already!) It would have been all too easy for them to kill the nascent app world before it was even born, and history certainly offers plenty of examples of promising technology that was destroyed by the heavy hand of regulation. That didn’t happen here. Part 91 pilots (and even Part 135 and 121 pilots to a large extent) have tremendous leeway to use tablets for everyday tasks, including as legal replacements for paper charts. There are no complicated certification requirements and no paperwork. Kudos to 800 Independence Avenue – at least for that.

No, the iPad may not solve all our problems in aviation, but no one ever promised it would. For now, it’s enough to say that our portable supercomputers have made flying a little bit safer, easier and less expensive. Let’s pause for a moment and appreciate how rare that is these days.

17 Comments

  • “Today, the majority of general aviation pilots….are flying with one. ”

    I don’t believe that…do you have any data to support the claim that the majority of GA pilots use an ipad????

    • I have seen data to support that more than 50% of GA pilots use a tablet of some kind (I’m using the iPad as a generic term here). Not 90% of GA pilots, but more than 50%. It’s not the type of data that companies like to share, but it’s there.

  • We were heading off to pick up our plane after its annual with a friend on a nice VFR day. As we were taxiing out in his Mooney, his KLN 89B decided to quit (most likely the internal battery). No matter … he flew the 170nm with his iPad and I followed along – on mine! He uses Foreflight and has a Stratus, so he has a portable highly accurate GPS receiver as well as ADS-B in.

    What was so interesting is that the KLN 89B failure was a non-event. For practical purposes, nothing changed. The iPad running the Foreflight app provided us with all (more) information and tracked our exact position. We flew the same route, the same way, just without the panel mount GPS.

    During the flight, we chatted about what would have happened if it had been IFR.
    – He would have had to file a /A flight plan to navigate via several VORs.
    – While taxiing out, he would have had to stop at the VOR checkpoint to do a VOR check and log it.
    – The Nav side of one of his KX-155s would have had to be used and appropriately channeled. And we would have had to navigate to at least some of the VORs.
    – But the iPad and Foreflight would have still provided most of the “useful” navigation guidance and other information.

    On the ride, we both joked that these days, it’s a bigger deal if the iPad quits. Which is why I also carry an iPhone loaded with Foreflight — just in case.

  • I’ll will also add:

    Training: you can now take your sportys or King course with you while waiting in line in the DMV.

    Flight Planning: became much more interactive and detailed, zoom in, drag to avoid. Repeat.

    Passenger Entertainment : ever tried to use a portable dvd in a small plane?, iPads are the way to go.

    Pictures: while not that ipad related, the smart phone allows us to creat great memories with a single, available click, and share ( and by share I mean brag!) with friends and family.

    Social: social flight and other apps make us come together and enjoy our freedoms together.

    I can go on… Kids calling… Gn.

  • Great essay, John. Here’s a couple more reasons tablets (not just IPads) are rapidly proliferating:

    1) The current generation of tablet operating systems is highly intuitive and easy to interpret and manipulate. It’s gotten so easy that toddlers are learning to use tablets (I can vouch for that after seeing my two grandkids, ages 7 and 5, literally grow up with those devices). It’s hard to dismiss the capabilities of these devices when they’re so darn easy and even entertaining to use, and it does not require a college level course in complicated menu trees, button-pushing, and knob twisting as the earlier generations of GPS navigators and integrated glass panels imposed upon us.

    2) The cheapness factor is rapidly multiplying. One need not limit themselves to $500 Apple IPads or one software developer. In fact, Amazon just came out with their new budget 7-in tablet for under $50, and immediately WingX Pro came out with support for that device. So literally, if you’re worried about a device conking out or running out of battery, you can easily afford to buy two or three of the darn things. Coupled with ADS-B in with bluetooth connectivity, you can hand one of these to your passengers to play with and follow along with, and quickly substitute one in the event of a failure.

    Effectively portable avionics are now disposable.

    Cheap redundancy is possibly the greatest benefit to pilots. The bad old days when a vacuum pump failed, or the alternator breathed its last, or your artificial horizon decided to go on strike, and therefore your flight mission and your life were in sudden jeopardy, are now over. That factor alone should deliver a major reduction in general aviation accidents over time as these are adopted by most pilots.

    • “Effectively portable avionics are now disposable.” Well said Duane. Who could have imagined that even 10 years ago?

  • Great article. As you noted, I think that tablets and associated apps make flying much more approachable to those who are interested…so much that I wonder if it will put a dent in consistent decrease in the number of private pilots. I fully agree with your kudos to the FAA for enabling pilots to realize the benefits of EFBs.

  • There’s no doubt that iPads and the like have added to the overall convenience of GA flying, as well as–and more importantly–to pilots’ situational awareness. Unfortunately, for some reason this has not translated into improved safety. The latest figures released by the NTSB showed that the fatal accident rate for GA spiked to 1.4/100,000 hours of flying, the highest since 1994. While the airlines have made great strides in reducing the system fatal accident rate to near zero, GA has been stuck hovering between 1.1 and 1.5/100,000 hours.

    The usual suspects: VFR-into-IMC, spatial disorientation, fuel exhaustion and stalls still top the list of pilot-killers. And for these types of situations an iPad will do one very little good. If anything, it’s my guess–and only a guess–that having the iPad may give a pilot a false sense of confidence before launching into the sky.

    IPads are a terrific tool, but they are no substitute for pilot proficiency. My feeling is that improved instruction–not technology–is the surest way to put a dent in these numbers. iPads may help in motivating more pilots to get into the cockpit and fly more and hone their skills, but what we as GA really need to do is make it so more of us are motivated to go out and fly more. And better.

    • Tom – I suggest that everyone ignore the NTSB accident rate calculation for 2014, as it is impossible for the NTSB to accurately estimate total flight hours so quickly after the end of a calendar year. That is the reason that the Nall Report always waits until the year later to attempt to estimate both flight hours and rates. The NTSB estimate appears to claim that flight hours drastically decreased in 2014 compared to 2013, but the Nall Report claims the opposite, that flight activity remained relatively constant.

      Keep in mind that at best, the government can only estimate, not directly measure flight hours, whereas the government can directly measure accident numbers and fatality numbers.

      The total fatal accidents did increase some in 2014 over 2013, while total accidents actually decreased in the same timefame. The NTSB fails to note that the two year period of 2013-2014 had the two lowest accidents and lowest fatalities (raw numbers) in the post World War II history of general aviation.

      The long term trend is clearly downwards over the last 20 years. There will of course be individual blips up or down from year to year, as happens with all macro statistics (like crime rates or highway accident rates) that measure human behavior.

    • <>

      @Tom: It seems to me that the only one of these situations not improved by a tablet with a good aviation app (Foreflight, etc) coupled to a portable ADSB receiver is stalls (LOC). Taking your categories one at a time:

      VFR-into-IMC: The best way for a VFR pilot to avoid IMC is to have a clear idea of where it is likely to be, and a tablet+ADSB shows a nearly real-time weather report available while en-route. How many pilots are likely to try to scud run into an airport when the weather ahead and the airport are clearly depicted as IFR/low IFR?

      Spatial Disorientation: The tablet flight deck provides another backup to what the flight instruments should be telling the pilot. It also provides redundant source of spatial orientation in the case that one of the primary flight instruments has failed during IMC. Flying Partial panel with a tablet is a lot easier than covering one of your primary instruments and going on without it.

      Fuel Exhaustion: The tablet provides a ready way of estimating the total fuel consumed during the flight. This will not help if the pilot took off without enough fuel to complete the flight, or if they have not been correctly managing multiple fuel tanks, but it’s a lot better than 1960s or older vintage fuel guages.

      Stalls: It is likely possible to use the sensors in the tablet to predict stalls, although I’m unaware if any of the apps currently available can do this.

      It has always been possible for a pilot to go kill themselves in an airplane, and it probably always will be. The tablets and aviation apps are just tools, and like any other tool they must be properly used in order to be helpful.

      Regards,
      Don W.

  • I am amazed with the capability of the I-Pad. It has made flying safer and I don’t think students will get into trouble now on cross country flights. Recently I giving istruction with a pilot who had not flown for a while. He bought a new aircraft and was getting back into the swing of it all. I showed him my I-Pad loaded with “foreflight” and the approach plate option. He was instrument rated, but had not flown an approach for years. I set up the radios and talked with ATC while he flew the approach with the I-Pad approach plate in his view. He flew an almost perfect approach safely and easily following the “blue dot” Situational awareness was not an issue.

    I now offer a pinch hitter course for pilots to help them in an emergency using the I-Pad pro features. I believe this will save lives and help pilots to stay out of trouble with a little training!

    BTW flight examiners like the technology and coupled with FlightPlan.com the pilots are much safer then ever before……..

    Thanks

    Rich Wyeroski

  • I wonder if running out of fuel has decreased lately. Situational awareness has dramatically improved and pilots are no longer getting lost, and they are aware of winds aloft and ground speeds, plus always have “time to destination” info.

    • Bruce

      Go to the apps page and type in aviation. There are many apps there and check them out. Look into flightplan.com. It is a free service and has everything you need all in one location.

  • I have a FLYq EFB and like it very much. The only dread I have is flying at night XC and the battery gives out. Hop my stick and rudder skills and basic map skills are up to date. TALLY HO! Dan Courtney

  • The missing part of the EFB invasion is industry-wide and comprehensive cataloging of tutorial products to make it easier for those of us who remember (and miss) the four-course ranges and light guns of olden days. It’s embarrassing to be coached by sixth- graders who will never have to worry about hydraulic lock in their radial engines or pilot-operated loop antennas.

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