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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.