Is flying VFR with an iPad prudent?

At the risk of sounding old school, I’m going to address a topic about modern flight instruction. I got this particular idea while perusing an internet bulletin board. The issue was the practice of using an iPad for VFR navigation once the private pilot checkride is over. Is this a good idea?

The argument in favor of using the iPad comes down to one of convenience. Simply put, with electronic charts and GPS capability, it essentially renders obsolete the need to use paper charts or to keep a paper log. The pilot can simply follow the magenta line between points A and B. And all of this is true. Cockpit clutter is decreased, and theoretically so is workload. In the airplane in question, the panel does not have modern “glass” avionics nor a GPS; it features steam gauges and two VORs.

I believe that a private pilot should rely as little as possible on such electronic gee-wizardry, even when it’s mounted in the airplane. The reason I say this is that part of basic airmanship is learning, using, and understanding—truly understanding—the art of navigation. This includes the concept of calculating and using wind correction angles, compass corrections, and isogonic lines. Simply following a course line on a screen is not understanding; it’s rote, and rote is not a skill.

The skill of computing courses and distances and wind correction angles is not to be taken for granted. It needs to be practiced for awhile to be fully ingrained, and since new pilots generally only fly on good VFR days, there is no reason not to complete a flight log and use it (along with a sectional) while looking out a window. I have no issue with using an electronic sectional with no courses on it, because it is easier than using paper, and as a simple resource, it does indeed reduce workload.

Once the basic skill of filling out the blocks on a paper nav log are mastered, transitioning to a computer-generated one is not only reasonable, but on a long trip, prudent, as the computer is the most accurate method available. However, the pilot should still practice steering the proper course on the DG while using a VOR (when applicable), and should most definitely keep track of times and fuel burns. Where there is a discrepancy, you need to know how to account for it, and to come up with an alternate plan of action when one is called for (usually an unplanned fuel stop in a headwind).

Flying VFR with your head buried in the cockpit is not only a bad idea, it’s unsafe. There is a value in being able to fly from A to B using nothing but a chart, a watch, and a pencil. Besides, most of us learn to fly in part because we want to enjoy the view. The best way to do that is to use it to help you aviate and navigate.—Chip Wright


  1. I accept your point of view and to a point agree with it. But the potential is also there for the negatives of EFB being there with paper charts,pencil,and watch. A person proficient with gee-wizardry can be mostly eyes-outside instead of heads down, with a much improved situational awareness. A pilot can be very easily mostly heads down searching the chart, checking heading, checking clock, looking at chart again, looking at flight navlog, checking heading again, oops check for planes, is that the right checkpoint?.
    What I am advocating is a balanced approach, plot your path on the paper chart and fill out a navlog. Then then setup your path on the ipad/gps to match, making user waypoints at the same places as navlog,then follow along during the flight. Did your times and waypoints match up? did your calculated heading match actual heading? What did points of interest on chart actual look like from air? Did my VOR cross checking match my actual position?
    The gee-wizardry can be very much a tool in strengthening your chart,dead reckoning,and pilotage skills if used properly. They can go hand-in-hand to make a more aware and capable pilot and the point is to be proficient in whatever method you use because both can cause you to lose SA.

  2. I agree with Chris…I think my workload is increased when I need to shuffle between the sectional and nav log on paper. It’s good practice to use the nav log since batteries and electronics can fail…but having a number of tools in the toolbox is smart…it is very easy to lose SA shuffling papers…

  3. And we can look at this another way…

    Suppose we are navigating ‘old school” with paper chart, E6B and all the rest of our teaching material.

    Somewhere in cruise we realize the depictions on the chart are not quite lining up with sights outside the aircraft and it’s time to determine just how far off course we are. Tell me…when you realize something isn’t right, where do your eyes go next? You bet, right down to your lap to look at the chart. And then through a series of guesses, stares and head bobbles it’s time to work out a correction angle. Guess where your head and eyes are pointed when all this calculating is being done. Yes, right down at that chart again only this time your measuring distances, setting up timers, calculating new angles, verifying correctness with your head downward more than outward.

    If all if this is correct, then you’re free to look outside again and if not, the head bobble and stare down process starts all over again.

    In other words, flying with paper charts is completely unsafe compared to the occasional glance at that magenta line on the iPad. This is a no brainer and besides, let’s let a few trees live and no longer contribute to the trash bin.

  4. Old time long-hand arithmetic was a common practice at one time as well….and I can remember using typewriter with efficiency 🙂

  5. I agree, but flying with paper is getting harder and more expensive. More airports no longer stock paper charts because they say “pilots fly with their IPADs these days”. Sure, you can order them on line or get a subscription, but many times your cross country opportunity (or need) is unplanned, so that route is impractical. Stocking up on all latest charts that you MAY need is expensive. I use a GPS combined with a chart, but am finding it increasingly difficult to find an up to date chart when I need it.

  6. My LSA has a Garmin G3X glass cockpit. I also have both an iPad and an iPhone running Garmin Pilot. I use the iPad or iPhone for flight planning and to provide “triple redundancy” because, as Steve said above, batteries and electronics can fail. (As I write this, one of my G3X displays is on its way to Kansas for repair because it’s display started intermittently going dark for a few seconds during flight). I also carry an, albeit outdated, sectional chart in case all of my electronics somehow fail.

    While I agree that a pilot should know how to navigate without all this technology, I definitely think these tools increase safety by reducing workload, which allows me to look outside the cockpit more. OTOH, “just following the magenta line” is foolish. For anything more than a 30 minute direct flight somewhere, I still set waypoints so that I can ask myself “am I where I planned to be when I planned to be?” and, if not, consider what implications that might have regarding fuel consumption, ETE, ETA etc.

    That said, given the abundance of affordable GPS/moving map options available — including Garmin Pilot, ForeFlight, etc. on the iPad, why would anyone still navigate via VOR? I learned how to navigate that way to pass my checkride three years ago, but I don’t see the point (other than for the enjoyment of doing it “the old fashioned way”). And hasn’t the FAA announced the retirement of the whole VOR system?

  7. I also agree with Chris. I have been a private pilot for over 35 years and I find it much more enjoyable to fly with my iPad and consequently I fly more often now, as my workload is significantly decreased. That being said, I always set my VOR’s as well as the Garmin to cross check everything and to keep my skills current. A backup chart is definitely a necessity when using an iPad, although my backup tends to be another iPad and an iPhone. On a hot day, it is possible for the iPad to overheat and need a backup while it cools off. That is a good reason to have the other instruments set ahead of time as well.

  8. Not using an IPad for VFR navigation when available is a poor choice.
    The best you are going to get using crossing VORs radials (in a NON IFR rated aircraft) is a 10 square mile area. Couple that with the poor accuracy of winds aloft and with your head down for 90% of the time on the paper chart with E6b and the odds that you are going to slam into a mountain start going way up.
    Now in the past this was the only choice so we had to live with the risk, flew higher or just followed roads.
    Myself, I choose the vastly increased safety the IPad gives me when flying. I spend 90% of my time heads up looking out the windows now instead of the other way around.

    Can I fly without it? Sure. Will I fly without it by choice, no way in hell.
    As for the risk of battery failure, I have 2 IPads and an IPhone.
    Normally I have the sectional up on the full sized IPad and airports up on the IPad mini.
    The phone is for backup in the unlikely event both IPads fail at the same time.
    I have never had an IPad fail on me, give me an inaccurate location or misleading information. I can’t say the same for my 40 year old VORs.

  9. Instructors – If you want students to function the same way that kids don’t know how to perform mathematics without a calculator, be sure to encourage them to use iPads or other electronics devices while training.

    Then you can always have confidence that when the tablet malfunctions, you’ll be the first one they call for help in getting back home.

  10. The answer is there is no universal answer. I hate to play this card, but a good deal of this is generational- guess what! That’s ok too! If you’ve got 30 years of steam gauge and sectional time under your belt, then you are almost certainly safer sticking with that technology and maybe augmenting it with a digital confirmation tool. If you go through a whole day of work and never use a pen, have your entire life in the cloud and find paper clunky and foreign, you’re probably better off using the sectional to support what your avionics are telling you.

    Learn both- steam and paper are not going to get more popular with time- and back up the one you are most comfortable with the other.

    2 cents

  11. Just had to chime in here… There was a day when cars were not fuel injected, had RPM gauges in them, power-nothing, and standard transmission. Just curious if you feel that today’s student drivers should be learning on these vehicles so they can drive fully automatic vehicles with built-in navigation correctly, or are they better off learning how to drive in snow in an automatic vehicle (knowing it has slight differences from a standard transmission in snow) and how to use the built-in navigation? Can you imagine where we would be in the car industry if it moved as slowly as the aviation industry?

    My point is this… The authors thoughts are old and behind the times, and are the type of thoughts that are preventing the aviation industry from moving forward. I am amazed at the stupid things people in aviation have to put up with given the progression of technology. How dumb is it that we have an entire aviation industry built on selecting radio frequencies for transmission? Can you imagine having to “tune in” to a local cell tower before being able to place a call on your cell phone? Why have we not built a universal radio system where the radios simply connect to the nearest tower and you instead punch in the airport code in question to communicate for that area (with security of course so you could do this from 1500 miles away?) Why do we put up with having to calculate ground speed via dumb E6B’s for an FAA test when GPS’s (portable, tablets, built-in, even watches!) are now so prevalent that they represent the tiniest of costs to a pilot? And I love the answer “because that electronic equipment might fail!” Oh please, as one person stated already… I carry two iPads, a phone, a watch with GPS (some even with NAV,) I also carry a backup radio that has GPS and NAV, plus my plane has built-in GPS, plus if I have even ONE passenger with me, they have a phone that at it’s worst has GPS built in. Are you telling me that having 7 devices that all can show groundspeed and location is not sufficient backup so that I can calculate my fuel burn rate? Wow, we’re building electric cars now with all glass dashboards, and you advocate that we still be tested on pulling out a mechanical E6B so I can figure out wind correction angles. Your E6B will fit very nicely in the museums, right next to the steam engine.

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