I’ve been flying with an iPad for around a year now, testing all the various apps, and let me just say that I don’t get it. I mean, I get it in the sense that the thing is cool and it holds all the charts you need; it does some rudimentary flight planning and a little bit of everything else. But I still don’t get it.
Apple’s iPad has taken off in aviation like nothing I’ve ever seen. Even GPS, which was a much bigger technological leap, took years to catch on with as much unbridled excitement. Maybe that’s because it was relatively more expensive, but when you’re talking about the difference between going from VORs to direct and carrying paper versus a tablet, it seems to me there’s no contest. Maybe that’s talking Apples to Oranges, but I don’t think so.
Let’s start with what the iPad really offers. And I mean in terms of new capability. From what I’ve seen on the app market, there’s virtually none. Granted, some apps package information in a new way, or offer a new gizmo or tool. But no one is buying an iPad for the ability to calculate a crosswind faster. Maybe you can say that ForeFlight, WingX, and the rest of the integrated navigation apps offer some type of new capability because they integrated charts with flight planning in the cockpit. But that’s simply not true, other than a few minor features here and there. Seattle Avionics has offered Voyager for years now. It’s a PC-based product, meaning you can use it on a tablet in the cockpit. And it does significantly more than any app on the market so far.
I think most of what these programs do is simply duplicate technology of a panel-mounted GPS and a free computer flight planner, such as AOPA’s. I mentioned this to Editor in Chief Tom Haines, and he made the point that his Garmin 530 doesn’t show airways, and the iPad does. That’s true, but so does a chart.
That leaves packaging. Are we as a population really blown away by the fact that we can carry all our charts in one small, portable device? I think the answer is yes. There seems to be no other plausible explanation for why the adoption rate is so high. As I wrote in an AOPA Pilot feature, “Godsend or Gadget?”: “If the iPad were just a chart viewer, it wouldn’t be worth the expense.” A few letter writers said I was flat-out wrong, but I stand by the statement. If I had $700 to spend on either an iPad and a full set of chart updates for a year, or that same amount to buy paper, I’d buy paper. Call me old-fashioned, but paper doesn’t overheat, you can read it in sunlight, and it doesn’t require a charge.
Admittedly, I’ve been stuck before without the proper chart, which should never happen on an iPad, but that’s more a result of my stupidity than a limitation of the product. And I generally fly over only about half of the states, which I think is fairly common. I don’t need a nation’s worth of charts.
So to me we’re left today with a device that largely replicates what we have, but with all the limitations that come with relying on an electronic device. But, the future is promising. Once we get good in-cockpit weather on it, the iPad will become infinitely more valuable. And that’s just the beginning. Better flight planning products, panel integration, logbook and maintenance tracking, and all the other facets of our aviation life on one device is an exciting thought.
I just think that day has yet to come.