Lead me not into Temptation

June 9, 2010 by Bruce Landsberg

blog“I can resist anything but temptation,” or so the saying goes.  Pilots are pragmatic if nothing else and will look for ways to make something work and some, dare I say it,  look for shortcuts. A few try to get too much utility out of themselves or their hardware in pursuit of trip completion.

The growing number of aviation applications for iPhones, iPads, Garmin handhelds of all flavors and various smart phones leads us into temptation regularly. They’re inexpensive and often very user friendly – more so than some of the approved versions for certificated equipment. I’m talking about moving maps,  instrument approach procedures and pseudo glide slopes.

The documentations say that the applications are to be used for awareness only and there are bold, capitalized death and destruction disclaimers that really bad things could happen if used for other than VFR operations. The warnings say that it’s  not the company’s fault if you crash into something but all the marketing promos all say “Isn’t it cool?”

Most of the time pilots get away with cheating but there are some stark reminders why it’s good to consider risk versus reward. The situational awareness brought on by a moving map – even unapproved – is something we could only dream about 20 years ago but IFR means It’s For Real.” Supplement all you want but core navigational guidance must come from approved sources.

Anyone know of a friend – perhaps a close friend  – who had a close call while using an unapproved device?

Bruce Landsberg
Senior Safety Advisor, Air Safety Institute

ASI Online Safety Courses  |  ASI Safety Quiz  |  Support the AOPA Foundation

  • Thomas Boyle


    Your question is rather biased. People can have close calls with either kind of equipment. In general, the cost of certifying approved kit means it is slower to market and therefore much less capable, although sometimes slightly more reliable (and sometimes less, because of the older technology). The higher capability should help to reduce risk; VFR GPS plus synthetic vision is non-approved, and following a VOR is approved – but I wonder which is more likely to let someone inadvertently fly into a desert mountain peak at night? I suspect the major problem is not that non-approved equipment isn’t reliable, or doesn’t work, but that people don’t know what the best practices are in using it, in terms of procedures and backup plans.

    So I propose to be provocative here. People may indeed be out there, “winging it” with non-approved equipment, but they can’t discuss the safest ways to do that because at least some such uses are illegal. Which is a bigger contribution to the danger – the use of non-approved equipment, or the fact that pilots can’t share best practices? Should the aviation community discuss and promote best practices in using non-approved equipment, even knowing that it may be used in “marginal” conditions?

  • Guy Mangiamele

    One of the most dangerous practices I have heard of is pilots using free downloads of approach plates on their mobile devices, without any paper backup. The appeal of course is to save on the cost of subscriptions.

    What if your device goes down in the middle of an approach?

  • Stefan

    I have used my PDA aviation software / GPS based attitude indicator to get the airplane safely back into VFR conditions after the panel mounted one packed it in due to a failed vacuum pump. And the “built in backup” vacuum derived from manifold vacuum is pretty much non-existent I found out at 12000′ in a PA32-301.

    Sure I could close the throttle to create that pressure differential to spin up the gyro. But not while maintaining level flight over the PacNW high terrain.

    I don’t plan to fly my airplane that way but in a pinch it was nice to have the capability it offered….something my $30K IFR approved Garmin panel could not help me with.

    However I do believe that any non-approved equipment should only be seen as a worst case backup and not a required for the flight item.

  • Brian

    I will second what Thomas Boyle said. When I read your writing on this Bruce I almost gasped at how incredibly short sighted this is. For someone who is writing from a position of authority on safety I’m amazed at how narrow-minded the focus is on this. One thing that continues to go through my mind anytime I’m using ANY sort of electronic device (approved/blessed by the FAA or not) is to fly the damned plane first, and then if you have the time and ability to work with the additional resources.

    The same thing could be said about fumbling about with paper maps and charts. I know that for me it’s not terribly easy to deal with paper charts when there’s a breeze blowing through the cockpit. Some of these tools simplifies a great deal of those efforts – and are drawing from the exact same source the maps come from. As long as the information is current (as the paper maps should be) then these electronic enhancements actually could improve safety.

    Of course you’ve got the numb brained folks out there who fly solely by these add-ons, and they definitely need some additional direction. Maybe I live in a sheltered world, but I can’t think of any of the pilot friends, owners, CFI’s or otherwise would think about flying only based on some of the products that are out there.

    So in your words – how about being a little more “pragmatic” about the situation and use it as a learning tool rather than chastising the medium?

  • Brian

    Of course after I finished writing this I had to laugh at the irony about the follow-on article being to “Learn to Fly with Glass”… irony at its best.

  • Terry Firma

    Can we please talk about the real problem? The cost and time delays for obtaining certification are unacceptable.