Updates noted in italic. Last update: 12/30/2010.

Apple’s new iPad has made a big splash on news outlets. Some seem to be touting the device as the best thing since Dropbox, and others think it might possibly be as evil as Norton Internet Security. But all kidding aside, what I set out to find out was whether or not the iPad has any place in the cockpit with me.

Let me start off by saying I’ve had my iPad for almost two weeks and I love it. I find myself picking it up at home to browse the web, even if a laptop is sitting at my feet. I love watching Netflix streaming on it, and Flight Control HD….well….let’s just say this would never have been written if I’d not shut that off.

My iPad is the 16GB, WiFi only model (the $499 one). What do you get for $499? Well, let’s be completely clear on this, you DON’T get a laptop, and you DON’T get a netbook. You also don’t get an iPod Touch, as some have claimed. I also have a 1st generation iPod Touch (16GB), and love it, but the iPad is not just a big iPod.

The iPad has a 9.6in LED backlit display with a glass surface and Apple’s multitouch interface (just as the iPod/iPhone do). In addition, there is a volume rocker switch on the right edge, a lock switch for the accelerometer, sleep/wake button, mic, speaker, headphone jack, and the customary “Home” button at the bottom center of the display. All of these controls are necessary — at least I think they are. My favorite feature is the lock switch. I’m notorius for watching videos in bed, and with the iPod, you have to be careful not to tilt the device too much, or it will switch from portrait to landscape. Not so with the iPad’s lock switch. Why do I mention this? Because it’s absolutely imperative in the cockpit.

The Flight

This review is based upon an instrument training flight with a CFI-I, done at night, on a clear VFR day. I was under foggles and using the iPad as my only source of approach plates and en-route charts. The flight lasted 2.6 hours, and we shot 6 approaches, each at a different airport.

The Setup

I chose to keep my iPad on my kneeboard. I use a Sporty’s tri-fold kneeboard, and the iPad would fit in the side pocket, but just barely, and I don’t like doing that. So I grabbed a small piece of non-skid and placed it under the iPad. I have a silicone sleeve for the iPad coming, but as it’s not here yet, I’m not about to go sticking Velcro to the back of the beautiful device. Overall, this setup worked just fine. The iPad was secure, didn’t slide off my knee, and was easy to use.

UPDATE: The silicone iPad sleeve (from Macally) has since arrived and works perfectly for the kneeboard.

There’s An App For That

Of course, the iPad can’t actually do anything for you as a pilot without the right app(s). So let’s review. First up, I need charts and plates. My pick is SkyCharts ($19.99). This program is slightly clunky, but gives you charts with no update fees (so I’m told). You can choose VFR sectionals, IFR low-altitude en-route, and TACs. Also available are A/FD pages, terminal procedures (approaches, SIDs, and STARs), as well as those pesky takeoff and alternate minimums pages from the TPP that you might not have otherwise.

UPDATE: I’m still using SkyCharts, and still have no update fees. The U.I. has also improved, with much easier (if less expansive) download (“cache”) options.

The important think about SkyCharts is downloading and saving both charts and procedures. This means you don’t have to have a data connection to pull them up, hence no need for 3G. Read the SkyCharts documentation for more details on this.

I also like having somewhere I can put notes. So far my pick for that is PaperDesk Light (free). This program allows you to type or draw notes. Simple and effective.

Third, I have GoodReader installed, which allows you to upload PDF files (and other types) to the iPad, exactly as you would load your plates on a Kindle DX.

Navigating SkyCharts

As any pilot knows, if it takes five minutes to load an approach plate onto the screen of your EFB, it’s not worth it. I’ve been working on my instrument rating now for several months, using a Kindle DX. I figured out how to load the plates that work best for the Kindle’s user interface, but the device still requires thought be put into it. Not so with the iPad. SkyCharts has two ways of handling plates. You can either type the airport identifier into the iPad, and tap A/FD to pull up a complete list of documents for that airport, or when looking at a sectional or en-route chart, double-tap any airport to see the same list for that airport.

As this was a training flight, I opted to double-tap, since we weren’t covering a very far distance, and I can scroll around the en-route chart on the iPad with ease. Overall, there was no issue with loading the plates. I was even able to load plates faster than my CFI-I, who was using a Garmin 696.

Flying the Approach

Unlike the Kindle, the iPad has the ability to adjust it’s timers. SkyCharts turns off the auto-sleep function, so the device is always-on…no need to keep tapping a button, as you must do on the Kindle. To me, this is a potential life-saving feature.

The plates are nearly full screen, and you can zoom if you want (although it’s sluggish). I never had to zoom in on a plate to find a number or heading, the plates are very easy to read on the iPad’s display. The only con I can think of is when you load a plate, it will slightly run off the bottom of the display, you must swipe up to see the last few numbers on the plate. You won’t have to swipe back and forth, just up once, as the only thing you lose off the top of the screen is the approach heading, and you’ll be able to see that at the bottom of the plate.

Night

As I mentioned, this flight was at night. It was a clear night, but no moon, so it was dark. We were flying over mostly sparsely populated areas. The iPad has an ambient light sensor so it will automatically adjust the screen brightness, however, I turned the brightness all the way down before takeoff. This must be done in the iPad settings screen, it cannot be done from within SkyCharts.

UPDATE: With iOS version 4.2 for the iPad, brightness can be controlled by double-tapping the home button and swiping to the left once.

After takeoff, when I turned the iPad on, I was concerned it was too bright. I have steam gauges, so my cockpit tends to be dark when compared to a glass panel. The iPad was noticeably brighter than the 696 on the right side yoke. However, this didn’t bother me while flying the approach. When I did get to the transition to landing, it’s so quick to turn the iPad off, I just did that.

Battery Life

At takeoff I had 63%……on landing I had 54%. Simply put, unless you’re going to fly 10 hours straight, you don’t have a battery issue. As a note, I did turn both the WiFi and Bluetooth radios off.

Conclusion

I’m going to make some adjustments, but overall, I was very pleased with the iPad as a source of en-route charts and plates. I felt more comfortable with it than with the Kindle. I tend to rest my hand on the Kindle’s screen when I don’t need my right hand, and you have to remember not to do that with the iPad, as you’ll probably touch some control button. During a VOR-A approach to KENL, I accidentally tapped the “Done” button twice, taking me back to the en-route chart. However, the iPad is so quick, that I was able to re-load the approach plate within seconds.

When I first saw the iPad, I never thought that I would think of replacing my Kindle with it — but that’s just what it’s done. Not only for flying, but for reading, the iPad means I don’t have to carry another device, and I like that.

There are other apps for charts and plates, some cost, some don’t. You could always load PDF plates via GoodReader, but from my rather quick testing of other apps, SkyCharts really works well. To me, having the best solution means one that you’re never fighting with in the cockpit. Although I like my Kindle, I’ve had it go to sleep 500 feet above an MDA, and that’s just not a good thing. SkyCharts removes that risk.

I’m also planning to put my aircraft’s checklists onto my iPad, not for primary use, but for a backup, should I misplace my own paper checklist.

Comments and questions welcome! Thanks for reading.

More posts regarding the iPad can be found in the Flying category by clicking here and check out the Flying page for other stuff that I posted here for some reason.

iPad as an Electronic Flight Bag?

12 thoughts on “iPad as an Electronic Flight Bag?

  • Well written, and a good synopsis of using the iPad in the cockpit. I was hoping to get one and not have to buy the more expensive setup, which looks like I can do. Couple of questions when you have a second:

    1. How much memory does the SkyCharts use of the 16GB?

    2. How did you “download” the charts. Do you use a wirelless router or did you use a USB cord?

  • I have four VFR sectionals and about 5 en-route charts, with plates, and my iPad only has a few gb’s worth of “apps” showing in iTunes. There’s no way to know specifically how much of that is SkyCharts.
    The download is handled from SkyCharts, it’s all in the programs’ docs. Just tap the ‘i’ button and choose the charts you want saved.

  • I have an Anywhere Map Quadra. Basically dissatisfied with it for many reasons. I was thinking of getting the iPad and Sky Charts. I’m also afraid of being disappointed again.

    To replace the Quadra, I’d need the 3G modle w/GPS. Do you have a GPS that you use seeing you have the WiFi version of the iPad. I’ve read reviews on the Sky Charts using the iPad GPS and I have some concerns there.

    I guess I have to decide on keeping the Quadra for GPS and maybe using the iPad for my EFB. What do you think?

  • I haven’t seen the Quadra. I can tell you that I’m extremely happy with SkyCharts on the iPad.
    I use a Garmin GPSMap 496 on the yoke and, for IFR legal reasons, a Garmin GPS 155XL in the panel. I feel that with the 496, especially being backed-up by the 155, that I don’t need a third GPS, and I don’t keep SkyCharts on while cruising, only when planning the approach, actually flying the approach, and when flight planning.
    The iPad is a bit big for a primary GPS, also the GPS unit in it isn’t up to aviation standards, like the 496 is (and presumably the Quadra). This is one of the reasons I don’t like the 696 from Garmin, it’s too big. The 496 sits comfortably on the yoke and has everything I need at a glance. If I need more information or an approach plate, I just grab the iPad and put it over my kneeboard.
    Hope this helps, and thanks for the comment!

  • Thanks Evan. I appreciate your quick response.

    The Quadra is a good unit that was released way before it should have been and that is probably why I give it a bad rap. The developers are working diligently to correct the faults that should have not been there upon release. It does have promise for sure. They also have an EFB version with geosynched approach plates, taxi diagrams, enroute charts and sectionals, but the Quadra screen is too small for sectionals. Maybe OK for approach plates and enroute charts. It’s basically a PDA.

    I think you have a good plan. Use the Ipad and Sky Charts strictly for EFB and leave the GPS to something else. I’m strictly VFR….for now, so I have a different need than you have for sure.

    BTW…nice web page and nice blog. Keep ’em flying.

  • Evan, can you comment more on the 696 being too big?
    Currently I have a 396 that I have on a ram mount stuck to the left side of the windshield. works great. It’s close to my eyes and hand. I was thinking of mounting a 696 the same way.

    Colyn

  • Colyn, Sure!. I must mention that I don’t own a 696, I fly with a 496. I have a few friends with a 696 as well as my primary flight instructor. My CFI uses his in my plane every time we fly. I’m not sure what you’re flying, but in my Cherokee Six, I use the yoke mount for the 496 and I love it. The unit fits very comfortably between the yoke’s hand grips, and I find it in the right place, and not blocking anything. I have never mounted the 496 in any other way, but I can’t imagine that I’d like a windshield mount, as the switch panel on the Six is under the pilot’s side window.

    What strikes me about the 696 is how tall it is, and how heavy. I can actually feel the difference in control pressures when my CFI has his mounted to the right yoke. This has never been an issue when flying, but it amazes me how different the controls feel on the ground. In my plane, if my 496 were any taller, I believe it would begin to cover the DG, and were it to extend below the yoke too far, it would hit my knees.

    I suppose to sum up, I don’t see a need for the 696. I get my plates on my iPad for free, and the 496 is already in the inventory, so financially it makes sense to me not to go to the 696. I also don’t find myself wanting more screen space on the 496, I have the information I need, easily accessible.

    That being said, the dial on the 696 is a HUGE UI improvement over the D-pad on the 496. Were Garmin to make a 496 with the dial, I’d probably be pretty tempted to upgrade.

    Hope this helps.

  • I have Sky Charts Pro on the IPAD If making a trip should the trip be downloaded at home on the WIFI and then used when needed while flying. I was unable to get this info on first trip locally. Do I need to turn off the 3G and WIFI before starting the trip? Thanks, John

  • I strongly recommend downloading any charts your trip crosses before heading out. This ensures the appropriate A/FD pages, approach plates, and charts are available. If the iPad can’t connect to the Internet (via WiFi or 3G, if equipped), you will only be able to see chart, plate, and A/FD data that has been previously downloaded into it’s memory.

    There is no reason you have to turn off the WiFi and 3G radios before flying. Officially, the FAA requires those radios to be turned off — don’t ask me for the exact reg. You’ll also save some battery by leaving the radios off. Same goes for the bluetooth radio.

  • hi evan! greetings! nice site! amazing to find a pilot who flies between those two airports. my wife and i learned to fly in carbondale and marion [i worked at SIU for awhile].

    we wanted to give a thumbs up on the review. we have done our own research on this topic. what we’ve found in terms of features is the following:

    1. georeferenced maps. the SkyCharts pro are a good compromise of all maps [sectionals, low/high IFR, and approach plates] with en route aspects using a good, switchable moving map. clearly the big expense is moving map software that georeferences on the approach plate itself, which SkyCharts hasn’t done. so if all one wants is a moving map, SkyCharts is it for the price: $20.

    2. georeferenced maps PLUS georeferenced IFR approach plates. only two app developers do this, Beacon: North America and WingX, both using Seattle Avionics package to georeference the approach plates [$99 for one year subscription]. Beacon: North America gets terrible reviews of clunky, poorly adapted software for the iPad, with loads of complaints on crashes and slow updates. The company released an update on 12/17/10, but I’ve not seen it reviewed since that update. However, it does have some neat 3D features beyond the maps and their own proprietary view, so it has potential. WingX also has the georeferenced plates but does NOT have standard VFR or IFR maps, focusing only on its own proprietary view. rumor has it that it will come out with VFR/IFR maps soon. however, both of these app sets are pricey: compared with the SkyCharts Pro program at $20, these are ~$80/yr and $100/yr *just* for the updatable moving map, *plus another* ~$100/yr to seattle avionics for the georeferenced approach plates. And these are are annual fees compared with SkyCharts one time payment.

    3. other apps. there are other apps out there as well, ForeFlight being the most famous. although foreflight does a god job for planning, has a moving map, it does not have any georeferenced approach plates. For $75/yr for the basic program doesn’t go beyond standard Duats or other planning software you might be used to. Foreflight does get kudos for a good user interface, but again, if you are used to other planning software programs you like, and because Foreflight doesn’t do georeferenced approach plates, we didn’t feel it was worth spending the extra money.
    Other programs like AvCharts ($20) don’t give you anything but non-georeferenced IFR charts. AeroCharts ($25) uses it’s own proprietary maps, not standard charts (although things look pretty clear), and has IFR plates but no georeferencing, iChart with VFR and IFR ($50 for the service, don’t get fooled by the “free” app), is just terrible, no one likes it, and it crashes all the time, and has no georeferencing.

    4. notes. Finally, jotting down notes on your approach plates is a standard thing we all do. instead of using Foreflight’s terrible scratch pad (which doesn’t allow you to write on the plate itself) or going with an inferior program that ONLY allows writing on plates but provides nothing else (AvChart), we use the AOPA or FAA site on the ipad to get the plates we want, then use PDF Notes app to open them and mark them up. using the ipad multi-tasking feature, we use SkyCharts en route, then as we get vectored for the approach, switch over to the plate/PDF Notes.

    have a great time flying! CAVU and give our best to the folks at KMWA! [lee is the guy we used to know in the tower there].

    bryan and shannon

  • Lee is still in the tower, and I love flying when he’s up there. Overall a great guy, and one heckuva controller.

  • I have waited a long time for a product which will reduce the paper in the cockpit. I feel the giant leap has ( finally ) arrived with the iPad.
    In my particular situation, I live and fly mostly in the Middle East ( Qatar ). We have a general aviation system which is populated by a small number of very dedicated pilot/owners, but we are growing in numbers. I am looking forward to eventually returning to North America and being able to enjoy these systems, but for now it is the Middle East.
    Are you aware of any plans for the EFB providers to expand their service to include Sectional Charts, LE, HE, A/FD, Approach Plate, etc. data for the Middle East, North Africa and Europe?

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