Synthetic vision, the 3D display of terrain and obstacles, has been a popular feature for pilots of glass cockpit airplanes since it was first introduced a few years ago. The ability to almost literally see through clouds and haze is a real safety benefit for VFR and IFR pilots alike, from avoiding obstacles to finding the runway on a dark night. That technology has been migrating to iPad apps as well, and now ForeFlight has joined the movement with version 6.6.
ForeFlight certainly wasn’t the first app to release synthetic vision (WingX and Garmin have both had it for a while now), but the end result is quite impressive. Beyond the basics, which are similar between apps, ForeFlight has some nice details that make the app easy to use and flat out good looking.
Here are some of the key features:
- 3D terrain maps. Based on the same detailed terrain database that ForeFlight uses for their terrain profile tool, the app shows a beautiful 3D picture of the world, including bodies of water and mountains. Using a combination of shading, grid lines and realistic runway surfaces, the outside world really comes alive – it’s a very intuitive view.
- Color-coded terrain and obstacle alerts. In addition to the static terrain display, the app dynamically color codes both terrain and obstacles based on your altitude to warn of threats. Yellow means it’s within 1000 feet and red means it’s within 100 feet (or above you). This is useful for both VFR and IFR pilots, and it’s quite accurate.
- Smooth decluttering. ForeFlight has a smart system for displaying and hiding obstacles and airport markers, so they automatically appear as you get close, then disappear as you fly over. This keeps the screen readable and there’s nothing for the pilot to do. In our test flight, it just seemed to work the right way.
- Automatic night mode. Another handy feature is the app’s transition from a vibrant day mode to a more muted night mode. Over the course of about half an hour (and using the sunset/sunrise information for your local area), the app slowly dims the sky and brings up an accurate star field above the horizon. This saves night vision and again, there’s nothing for the pilot to do.
- Stratus adds backup attitude. ForeFlight requires a GPS for the basic synthetic vision features, but for the ultimate backup pilots can add a Stratus 2 ADS-B receiver. This uses the built-in Attitude Heading Reference System (AHRS) to show real-time pitch and bank information. It turns your iPad into a portable glass cockpit, and makes the terrain view even more realistic.
- All new instrument layout. Not to be lost in the big synthetic vision upgrade is ForeFlight’s new instrument layout. First, there’s a full HSI display, a feature we’ve been hoping to see for months. There’s also a new nav bar at the top, which is a much more elegant display of important route information than the traditional overlay. The overall feel is more like panel avionics.
Of note, all of these features work in either split screen mode or full screen mode and there are good reasons to use both. For example, during a VFR flight in the mountains, the full screen view would be a great way to maintain situational awareness at a glance. On an instrument approach, though, a split screen synthetic vision/approach plate overlay is hard to beat.
Synthetic vision isn’t free – it requires a $25 add-on subscription – but that seems like a bargain for such a polished feature. Many other apps charge a lot more, and initial reaction seems to be quite positive.
There’s more in ForeFlight version 6.6 than just synthetic vision, though. An intriguing addition is Model Output Statistics (or MOS) forecasts. These appear next to traditional TAF forecasts, and offer detailed weather forecasts for hundreds more airports than pilots are used to seeing. While a MOS forecast is not the same as a TAF, it’s better than nothing, and is particularly valuable for near-term forecasts since it’s updated hourly.
To see a MOS forecast, go to the Airports page and search for an airport. Then tap Weather and Forecasts. You can also tap on an airport on the Maps page, then select Forecast at the bottom of the pop-up window. Here you can review the nearby TAF or MOS. For smaller airports with no TAF nearby, having this information is a real game-changer.
This is a feature we haven’t seen in any other app, and it shows some of the interesting enhancements that may be coming with Scott Dennstaedt on board. He was recently hired at ForeFlight after a long career as a meteorologist (and CFI), including deep involvement in the MOS product. Stay tuned for more weather upgrades from ForeFlight.
Here’s a video of the new synthetic vision feature in action: