Allow some pad for the iPad

December 15, 2010 by Bruce Landsberg

The iPad is taking not only the consumer world by storm but has found its way into cockpits big time.  I blogged last spring as the devices began to show up “Glass Cockpits – Easy to be Hard?“, and there was a recent segment on AOPA Live during the Long Beach Summit “Cockpit Revolution: Apple iPad”, and in the most recent issue of AOPA Pilot, Avionics Overkill?.  Predictably, there’s massive enthusiasm on the device with a super slick interface that  some of the mainstream avionics manufacturers may be lusting over.

But remember, this is aviation and many of us are conservative. (Not a political commentary so cool your jets).  We like to be sure something really works and supplemental applications are one thing – core navigation is something else.

There have been several reports recently through NASA’s Aviation Reporting System (ASRS) that indicate that the GPS navigation and geo-referencing function on the iPad may not be quite up to aviation standards. Environmental factors  may also be a problem. There are multiple apps and hardware is being added constantly so it’s possible that with an external antenna and the right application the “pad” would work just fine for VFR flight. Not quite sure how we adjust cockpit temperatures to keep the hardware comfy, let alone the occupants.

Report 1 – ASRS Analysis : A VFR pilot reported using an iPad to navigate in the LAX area’s complex airspace and possibly entered Class C and Class D airspace.

Pilot Analysis “I simply placed too much trust in the iPad’s moving map information and didn’t use pilotage often enough to verify its accuracy. While it appeared that I had a reasonable displacement from Class C and D airspace boundaries using the map’s medium range scale, this might not have been the case.”

Report 2 – ASRS Analysis : An iPad personal electronic device, not inflight certified, was used for VFR navigation and about two hours into the flight at 10,500 FT overheated and shutdown.

Pilot’s comment: “During cruise approximately two hours into the flight, the iPad displayed a notice indicating that it had overheated, and shut down within about five seconds. I had paper charts available and used them to continue the flight, though it took a couple of minutes to find the correct position on the chart and fold it appropriately. Had this happened during a complicated instrument approach, especially without paper charts both available, safety could have been impacted.”

Report 3: ASRS Analysis  – A pilot reported entering the DC Special Flight Rules Area (SFRA) as he was attempting to avoid a warning area but did not have either his GPS or area charts to track his location and stay clear of the SFRA.

Pilot’s comments: “I just started using the iPad for my charts (iCharts, flight prep), I had the updated version of the Baltimore/Washington Terminal Chart up. As I made the turn from 2W6 waypoint I realized I did not have a waypoint in to go around the restricted 6611A and 6613A zone. I had the iPad terminal map zoomed in to look at the 6611A zone and saw the SFRA ring but with it zoomed in; I thought I was looking at the speed restriction zone. At that point I deviated to the north to avoid the R-6611A zone not realizing that I was flying into the SFRA. I went just north of that zone and once clear I navigated direct to my destination. I did not realize that I had flown into the SFRA until I landed. The FBO told me to contact Potomac TRACON.”

This is not intended as a “bash” but rather a caveat that the limitations of the tools we use must be considered. New tools are both inviting and offer the greatest potential for mishap since not many of us have learned the hard way.

This is offered for our collective consideration and thanks to these pilots who reported their difficulties. Y’all be careful and let us know what you’re learning.

Bruce Landsberg
Senior Safety Advisor, Air Safety Institute

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  • michael mercer

    Thanks for the article. I use my iPad to supplement other tools in the aircraft, most notably for VFR and IFR charts. I’ve had many questions about power management, possible avionics interference, and GPS performance of the iPad. Apple was initially willing to answer my questions. But half way through our dialog those answers look like they stopped coming from technical representatives and more from Apple lawyers. Apple is so far refusing to acknowledge my questions regarding GPS performance and avionics interference. Perhaps you would have better luck getting past the lawyers and getting technical answers pilots can use to make informed decisions about the use of this technology in our aircraft.

  • Carl

    We are going to use the iPad, so tell us what tools make it better. That is how you can assist pilots.

  • Mitch Friedman

    You need to buy one of two external GPS devises. They are WAAS and work well. The GPS on the IPAD 3G is not very good for aviation. The non 3G model does not have a real GPS.

  • John Ellenberg

    What are the “two external GPS devises” that will work with the IPAD 3G. Can you tell me where to obtain them?

    Thanks for your assistance.

  • Gerard

    For sometime I have been using both the iPhone and an iPad and have a number of aviation apps, but mostly I use ForeFlight HD. For flight planning, filing and briefing, it is a great tool. In flight for charts, frequencies, airport info, it is much more user friendly than folding and unfolding charts or thumbing through the AF/D and approach plates. But I still keep paper backups within arms reach with the proper pages for the flight marked so I can get to them quickly.

    What I do not do is use the built in GPS for navigation. The fact is the GPS is just not that good. I often cannot receive a good indication of my position in my car on the ground from these devices, I would never trust them in the air. I am not surprised Apple provides lawyers to answer questions about aviation, but I think talking to the makers of the apps might prove more fruitful.

    Inspired by the AOPA live “Cockpit Revolution: Apple iPad”, presentation I did investigate and then purchase the external GNS 5870 MFI Bluetooth GPS Receiver that supports ForeFlight and will test it with the moving map function for VFR flight very soon, but even if it works great I would not rely on it as my sole means of navigation, I would back it up with Radio aids, pilotage. etc. I am not aware of any GPS for the iPad that is WAAS capable, maybe Mitch could provide more info on that.

    I think the iPad is great and will continue to use it in my flying, but it is important to recognize the capabilities and limitations of both the device and the apps. Here are few things that I learned from experience:

    1) You have to ensure the charts/plates are up to date. On my apps you need to manually initiate the process to do this and if you keep charts for an area covering several states you will need to do it on the ground over WiFi prior to the flight. It looks like the regulations don’t require a paper back up, but I think that a smart pilot would have them.

    2) Unless you have a means to charge it in the aircraft, you need to ensure you have a sufficient charge on the device to last through the flight. Apple claims 12 hours of battery life, but what you really get depends on your usage, if you have WiFi going and are actively using a lot of apps your available time on a full charge may be as little as 6 hours. There are devices available to provide a back up charge such as the Trent Super-pack IMP500 5000mAh External Battery pack, but I have not used any of these. On a full charge the iPad easily exceeds the endurance of the aircraft I fly.

    3)As Bruce mentioned, you need to ensure you keep your iPad cool otherwise it will overheat and cease to operate until it cools down again. I learned this first hand. Do not leave the device on the right seat in the blazing sun. When not in active use keep the device out of the sun and away form other sources of heat. In the summer I also try to position a vent to blow cool air past it.

    4) You need to put the iPad in a non-slip protective case, I just use the standard case available from Apple, but there are lots of other cases available and now there are kneeboard type cases and straps available too. Whatever works for you, but secure it. The iPad is a surprisingly slippery thing!

    5) Learn to navigate your app on the ground before you take it flying. I can’t tell you how many times I have exited the entire app when I only wanted to exit a particular page in the app. During your turn to intercept the LOC is not the time to restart the app with your approach plate.

    6) If you fly with kids, buy two they are going to want to watch movies and play games during the flight.

  • Craig


    See ForeFlight’s recommendations for external GPS’s:


  • Bob Nunn

    I fly a PA32 with a Garmin 396/430/530. I begin using the iPad to replace my paper charts. I still print out hard copies of my destination approach plates, but it’s comforting to know that I have electronic plates “at the ready” for the whole region available on my iPad. Foreflight is one great app. Flight planning, weather breifing, airport information, both VFR & IFR charts. At this time, I wouldn’t recommend it as a primary navigation tool, but, it can used for so many other features.

    Non pilot passengers love it. I pull up the VFR sectional and they can track exactly where we are. I was flying IMC last night, in the dark, and they really appreciated being able to see where we were. Most of my trips are conducted below 10,000 feet and last less than two hours, so I’ve experienced no overheating, lockups, or any other problems. Battery life has been execllent.

    In addition to my aviation apps (Foreflight, AOPA airports, FltPlan, PilotWiz, Skycharts, X-Plane, Tracker Lite, AeroWeather, iHUD, Wing-X, etc), I have regular iPad apps that my PAX can use. They can read the paper (NY Times, USA Today), play games, slots, watch movies, and all the other 1,000’s of apps available to iPad.

    There are some new bluetooth GPS units that are compatable with the iPad that’s going to address the GPS accuracy issues. I look forward to these apps as they develop and grow.

    If you don’t use an iPad in your plane yet, you’re really missing out. Santa, please bring me a subscription to WingX Pro for my iPad.

  • grumpy

    Just seems like more uncertified, unreliable, consumer-grade crap designed to keep your eyes inside the the cockpit instead of out the window where they should be.

  • Tom Muller

    I am a big Apple fan, having owned both an iPhone and some of their common stock for about two years. My comments relate to the iPad because some applications are similar on the iPhone. I have an iPhone mount on my panel, so I can use it with one finger while in flight. However, I have learned that applications requiring a good internet signal are of limited use in the air. I would never use the device for primary navigation.

    I found AOPA Airports a great tool for finding out airport information and contacting them. Using the optional headset connection, you can also call ahead for fuel if running a little late and still out of radio range. This sometimes requires slowing the airplane down and circling a town to maintain cell coverage. Sporty’s E6B is more versitile than the original mechanical device with about 23 easy-to-use calculations, most of which can be done in flight; the wind speed and direction calculation is particularly handy. Windsock is a must-have that easily calculates your cross-wind component when there is a question of exceeding it. I tried a couple of attitude indicators and found them too unstable.

    AirWx is great for checking en route METARS, provided you run it while over a town or city with a strong signal. The same with My Radar Pro, for getting a good look at Nexrad. The NOAA website is good for Nexrad Clouds and METARS, provided you have a good signal, but unlike AirWx, the date is not stored for reference several minutes after losing the signal.

    Skycharts are too complex for enroute use on the iPhone, even though parts of the data are stored in the phone. Perhaps the larger screen of the iPad will be better.

    Many applications are similar to those on my charts or GPS, but having them on the iPhone enables me to keep the GPS on its primary task while searching for additional information on a separate screen. On the ground, having weather data always available keeps you on top of departure planning, even when a computer is not handy and you are not ready to call for a briefing.

  • Clyde C. Cambridge

    So did you run into royalty issues your iPad Spoof with Apple?

    I found it interesting when it was existent, so since I haven’t been able to find it I’d like to know what happened.