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Of iPads, Certificated Avionics, and Arguments

ipad in cockpit usePerhaps you heard a few weeks ago that a couple in a Piper Comanche suffered a total electrical system failure. It doesn’t happen often, but when it does all of an aircraft’s installed certificated radios and electrical components become inoperative, including the landing gear. Unless, of course, there’s a backup supply—which many of us do not have.

This happened at night, which compounds things significantly, but a trusty iPad got them to an airport. The mostly happy ending was that they landed safely. Unfortunately, for whatever reason, the pilot was unable to extend the landing gear manually but no injury resulted. Good!

The relatively inexpensive (as much as anything Apple is inexpensive) uncertified technology really helped. Anyone who has flown with an Electronic Flight Bag (EFB) app (which I believe are mostly “uncertified”) will have a hard time going back to paper. They have become so good that the FAA has approved EFB-use in airline operations (as long as there is more than one unit). Maybe that should help guide the FAR Part 23 rewrite where we look for lower cost alternatives to the low volume, high price certificated items. With internal or supplemental GPS, the EFB’s ability to navigate is more accurate and far more versatile than VORs—but it’s not perfect.

I had an earlier model iPad where the system locked up several times and refused to do anything until going through the dreaded iTunes reboot. This takes an internet connection, the patience of a saint, and about 20 minutes to accomplish—not so good for cockpit apps. Replaced the unit six months ago and so far, so good—but I still carry paper charts. So, as in all things in life, there is a balance point.

There was an ATC save last year involving an EFB pilot who ran out of juice on his pad and thus was chartless in IMC. ATC gave him progressive instructions to get to a runway. That’s putting too much blind faith in batteries—especially when the length of flight exceeds the available power.

Having redundancy in uncertified units might be better than putting all the eggs into just one super electronic basket—no matter how good. There have been some well-publicized meltdowns with ultra-sophisticated airline equipment proving that the disastrously infallible HAL 9000 computer in 2001: A Space Odyssey was eerily prescient.

Back to reality: After the above iPad rescue story was published, one of the CNET pundits—who has likely never been in a light aircraft—made some ignorant and disparaging remarks. Some of our pilot audience chimed in to attempt some education. Two of them proceeded to get into a public squabble about what happened and which of them was better qualified to hold forth on the topic!

Reminds me of the guidance never to get into an argument with a skunk as it’s hard to tell who smells worse after the fight. Without discussing any of the merits—far better to be respectful to each other and not give the media anything more to shoot at. As Mark Twain eloquently said, “Never argue with stupid people, they will drag you down to their level and then beat you with experience.”

11 Comments

  1. I changed from the iPad to the iPad mini in my 182 because of size, but the mini has a much shorter battery life.

    While doing an instrument refresher course, the mini on the yoke ran out of juice; I had a charger in its case, but it takes a few minutes for the iPad to come back up. Fortunately, I had the full-size iPad in my flight bag; in about 20 seconds I had ForeFlight up and running on the second unit, and all was good.

    Lesson: know your battery level, and as noted in the article, have a backup plan if your iPad goes toes-up. I now fly with the mini plugged in and the full-size iPad in the console at my right hand.

  2. I love the ability to go digital in the cockpit. Since these devices are primarily battery operated, a plan B is always necessary. My flight bag includes an iPad, iPad mini, and iPhone. (Foreflight allows for these 3 devices to be used under the same subscription.) All are loaded up with my flight plan and available readily in flight. Switching over takes less than 10 seconds. The need to switch can be anticipated by watching the battery level drop. One device can charge while the other is operating. Redundancy is key here.

  3. I’m a private pilot, instrument rated – 145 hrs actual IFR single pilot. These days flying as a sport pilot in non-electrical system Taylorcraft. I use an iPad mini strapped to my leg powered by a closed cell battery. iPhone backup. Both with WingX — no failures in several years. Occasionally practice GPS approaches under the hood (with safety pilot) only using the iPad to keep my hand in. Never had a iPad failure in flight or with the X-plane simulator. Hopefully the Pilot’s Bill of Rights 2 will pass and those like me can get back into IFR flying!

  4. I’m 62 flying VFR only with an iPad Air mounted to the extreme left windshield of a C172 and an iPad Mini on the yoke, both of which are linked to a Garmin GDL39 via Bluetooth. In our business, power redundancy is a must. That makes sense in the cockpit as well. So, I fly with two 12000mAh batteries, each at the ready, and plugged into each iPad, but not activated. On a longer cross country trip, as I see the power descending to the 20% mark, I switch over to the backup battery. The system works well. The price of each battery backup is negligible compared to the peace of mind. The GDL39 is plugged into a power outlet on the dash, also with its own battery fully charged as a backup.

  5. I have been flying VFR and IFR in a two seat IFR certified GA aircraft for several years now, and doing so all over the US and western Canada. My primary nav is with a certified and current Garmin 430W, but my source of chart info is a knee mounted iPad mini, with a full size iPad2 as backup. I plug the unit in use into ship’s power and have never had a problem (nor have I had to resort to the backup unit). Before the iPad I had an iFly with VFR and IFR charts, which saved me once when I had an electrical failure in IMC over the mountains. The iFly had enough battery juice in the external backup battery to get me to my destination. There was also just enough A/C power to operate the radio on the Garmin certified WAAS unit, but I had a handheld radio as well.

    In my aircraft, keeping weight down is exceptionally important, and paper charts for long cross-country flights are heavy. Before using the EFB I flew across the US using paper and when I started out, I had 30 pounds of charts and AFDs on board!

    It is important to verify that any portable electronic accessory does not interfere with the certified units on board, but before relying on my iPad, I determined that it did not interfere (in VFR of course!), and I have never had a problem in hundreds of hours and thousands of miles of use.

  6. There is another solution to the battery life issue: plug it in. Most airplanes have at least a cigarette-style outlet. Otherwise, plumbing one into the cockpit might be a worthwhile idea.

  7. Many years ago when I was in long haul boating, I would rib the sexton users that they should be using GPS. Their response was: What if you drop that hand held GPS overboard? My response: What if you drop the sexton overboard?

    Today, the answer to that conversation is easy: bring several GPS units and lots of batteries (or keep internal batteries charged).

    Redundancy is good.

    FWIW when I fly hard IFR, I bring a paper plate of destination and alternate. I have yet to use these for anything but scratch paper, but it’s reassuring knowing they are in my flight bag if needed.

    The worse thing that has happened with me & iPad is that it overheated and shutdown on a sunny day because I placed it on top of the glare shield. I know not to do that now.

    Also, how many folks know where the GPS antenna is located on the iPad, or, which side should be up?

  8. I am an instrument rated pilot and I too had my own electrical failure on a cold dark December night while flying over the Delaware River heading back to VA from NYC. I was communicating with Dover ATC and noticed my autopilot acting up. ATC notified me that my transponder went out and I had just enough time to reply that I think I am having electrical issues. Just after I said this my panel went black (later learning that I had a bad diode which is why my annunciator light never illuminated). I did not panic, and I knew my iPad was running with the Garmin Bluetooth gps connected. I put direct to Georgetown, DE (an airport I had experience with) and quickly was heading in that direction and started my descent. It was then I realized that I had no way of turning on the lights at the airport since they were pilot controlled. I climbed back to my original altitude and tried to figure out my next option. I knew Salisbury, MD had a control tower and hopefully the lights would still be on. I later learned that Dover ATC contacted the tower, and told them to be on the lookout for my plane. Long story short the lights were on at the airport, and my passenger helped by using my iPad to illuminate my dash as I flew the plane to a perfect landing of course when it counted. Just after landing the lights went out on my taxi back to the FBO. I learned that the tower had given up, and was headed home when he heard my plane and a very dim strobe fly over. I had landed in latterly at just the right moment and I lived to fly another day. I didn’t think I needed a hand held radio, but I now make sure I never leave without a charged handheld radio, and a PLB. While I find my iPad now priceless I learned at night it just might not be enough. Blue skies and Safe flights!

  9. We all have some stories, but here’s a different take from an electronics engineer with 30 years in defense electronics (some avionics). When I started this career transistors and simple logic circuits were the norm. Certified Radios were vacuum tubes with migration to transistors over time. These tube radios were ‘certified’, but were much less reliable than uncertified products using the ‘new fangled’ transistor designs. while the difference is not so stark today, certified vs. iPad/Stratus, the point I’m trying to make is that ALL the equipment we are using today is so much more reliable than the certified equipment of yore that we’re arguing at the point of diminishing returns in hardware. Software, however, is a common source of failures today; software reliability increases as the number of units (and the user feedback) increases. Eventually, IMHO, the most reliable equipment will be that which has the biggest software user base. A different take?

    That said, ALWAYS pack extra power, and get your equipment tied to your electrical system for non-emergency use. That will always be true.

  10. I fly a Bonanza N35 certified for IFR. It has 2 Garmin 430s and Sandel SN 3500, with an IPad mini retina (Forefight) with Stratus 2 . It has several back up steam gauges as well. Of all this equipment, I have found the iPad to be indispensable. Having the airplane position directly on the approach plate is my favorite feature and has made even the most complex approach, straightforward and safe. I believe this technology is here to stay and will continue to innovate. The ease of updating charts and retrieving information on the fly is unsurpassed with any paper solution. I do have paper available if needed, but an older back-up iPad as well. With all the costs involved in flying airplanes, outfitting one’s cockpit with an iPad Stratus, and Foreflight (or similar App) is in my mind minimal for the added safety it brings. Of course with all aspects of flying, it must be done right. I pre-flight my EFB system for currency, charge, and functionality just like my plane each time I fly. I have a back-up battery (USB connector) and charge capability via the cigarette lighter in the plane. I mount my iPad on the left window on a bracket near eye level so there is no significant head down motion that may disorient in IFR or prevent traffic scanning. I think this technology is here to stay and will likely be adapted more and more. Thanks for the article.

  11. In addition to the normal IFR equipment I have full ADS-B in and out, WAAS GPS, a Strikefinder, and an ADF. I learned to fly instruments doing mostly NDB and the old A/N range approaches. I carry a listing of all the AM broadcast stations. The ADF is also a great tool for determining the severity of weather. Radar shows moisture which doesn’t necessarily mean tstms so used in conjunction with my Strikefinder and FIS-B I get a good picture of any electrical activity. I carry an IPAD with a Stratus II. I carry a battery booster, used to jump start cars, that has power ports which allow me to plug in the IPAD and Stratus if needed. When I started flying 50 years ago I never dreamed we would have this kind of situational awareness available to us.

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