The iPad is a reliable and easy-to-use addition to the cockpit, perfect for charts, moving maps, in-flight weather and synthetic vision. But there’s a lot to understand to make sure you’re getting the most out of your investment. Over the past several years, we’ve learned a lot through trial and error flying with the iPad in general aviation aircraft, and have assembled our top 12 tips:
1. Pre-flight your iPad (and verify your charts are downloaded)
What’s our number one recommendation for iPad pilots? Always, always, always pre-flight your iPad!
Sure, the iPad is easy to use and awfully reliable. But just like with your airplane, you want to find out about any issues with your iPad while you’re on the ground (and have an internet connection). This could take 30 seconds or 10 minutes, depending on how you use your iPad and how comfortable you are with the technology.
You’ll want to create a checklist that works for your apps, accessories and your airplane. Customize it so that you’ll actually use it before every flight. With that in mind, though, here’s a basic checklist to consider that applies to most apps:
- Battery charged on iPad – it’s a good habit to always take off with a full charge (it takes 4-6 hours to charge a drained battery)
- Battery charged on external GPS or weather receiver – these have about the same life as iPad, so charge alongside your iPad
- Backup power or charging cables available – make sure you have a plan B if the battery dies
- Run the application once – especially if you’ve updated the app, check to make sure it won’t crash or lock up on initial start-up
- Load routes and favorite airports – doing this on the ground saves a lot of heads-down time in the cockpit
- Databases installed and current – verify your charts are there without an internet connection (see this tip)
- Turn off wireless functions that aren’t needed – turn off Bluetooth, cellular data and WiFi unless you’ll need them in flight, as they drain the battery. More info on how to configure these settings here.
- Clean the screen and adjust the screen brightness to less than 100% if conditions permit. Lowering the screen to around the 70 – 80% brightness level can add an extra hour or more of battery life.
2. Secure it in the cockpit
To maximize usability in the airplane (especially in turbulence), you’ll want to secure the iPad either to your leg or use a cockpit mount. Using a kneeboard designed for the iPad is a great option for aircraft renters who want a simple option that easily transfers between multiple airplanes. There are several features you’ll want to pay attention to:
- iPad model – kneeboards are custom made for both the full-size iPad and iPad Mini
- Allows for iPad to rotate between landscape and portrait views
- Allows angle adjustments toward you to minimize glare
- Size – make sure it will not interfere with the yoke or throttle quadrant
- Protection – many kneeboards also double as cases for the iPad outside of the airplane
(check out a variety of iPad kneeboards here)
Another option is to use Ram Mounts to temporarily secure the iPad in the cockpit. Here are some options:
- Yoke Mount – works well in Cessna and Piper aircraft, and can be used on the co-pilot’s yoke if it blocks the pilot’s panel
- Suction Mount – easily secures to the side window, and works well for aircraft with side stick controls like a Cirrus or Cessna Corvalis
- Beech Yoke Mount – most Beech airplanes have a much larger control column than Cessnas and Pipers, so pilots of these airplanes need to use the special Beech Yoke Mount. This attaches to the large control column that parallels the panel.
Like the kneeboards, each Ram mount is designed specifically for either the full-size iPad or iPad Mini. If you want to use the Ram mount to hold your iPad and its protective case, make sure to choose the adjustable spring loaded cradle option.
(check out all the Ram Mount options here)
Here are a few higher-end mounting options for those looking to spend a little more:
- PIVOT case and mounting system – this hard-sided case was developed by a Southwest Airlines pilot and offers serious protection. The complete system includes a quick-release suction cup mount that is ideal for the side window.
- MyGoFlight iPad mounts – MyGoFlight also offers a high quality line of mounts, including a suction cup and a yoke mount. These have multi-piece arms with multiple joints, so they are almost infinitely adjustable. This makes it easy to position your iPad more precisely, either on a side window or on the yoke.
(check out this article for a thorough review of all mounting options)
3. Use an external GPS for reliable position data
Adding GPS to your iPad allows you to view a moving map display and navigation data on popular apps like ForeFlight, Garmin Pilot or WingX. But how do you get the GPS information? Many pilots are confused by this issue.
The iPad model with cellular data includes an internal GPS. The GPS is completely separate from the cellular radio, so you don’t even have to have an active data plan for the GPS to work. And while the on-board GPS does work with all the popular aviation apps, it was made for ground use and is not always reliable in the air. It has a tendency to drop offline, especially when switching between apps or sleeping the screen. It’s not necessarily a question of accuracy, but of reliability. For this reason, most iPad pilots – even those with the model that has cellular data–opt for an external GPS. At around $100, it’s cheap insurance.
So which external iPad GPS to buy? There are plenty options: the plug-in Bad Elf, the wireless Bad Elf Pro, the Garmin GLO, the Dual Electronics XGPS150 and the Dual SkyPro (XGPS160). They range from $99.95 to $150, and all offer roughly the same performance. The choice is really personal preference–do you want to plug in the GPS directly to your iPad (Bad Elf) or do you want to put the GPS on the glareshield and connect wirelessly (Dual/Garmin/Bad Elf Pro)? The advantage to the Bad Elf is that you don’t have to charge its battery, as it runs off the iPad. The advantage to the Dual/Garmin/Bad Elf Pro is that you can place it out of the way, but you do have to charge a battery. The Garmin GLO, Bad Elf Pro and the Dual SkyPro allow you to connect multiple devices to the same GPS; the others are limited to one device.
Another option would be to purchase a combination ADS-B weather and GPS receiver. Options here include the Stratus (works with ForeFlight, WingX, Fltplan Go, and FlyQ), the Garmin GDL 50 (works with Garmin Pilot and ForeFlight) and the Dual XGPS190 (works with WingX, FlyQ and FltPlan.com). These are more expensive, but add the major feature of in-flight weather and some add traffic as well.
4. Use Control Panel for quick access to settings
The iPad’s Settings app is the one-stop shop for adjusting preferences and making configuration changes, but requires you to first switch out of whatever app you’re currently running to access it. Fortunately Apple added a hidden Control Panel feature that you can use to adjust the settings needed most often.
Simply swipe up from the bottom of the screen, and you’ll see a collection of buttons and sliders. Here you can adjust screen brightness, volume, and quickly toggle WiFi, airplane mode and Bluetooth on or off. The best part is you can access this at any time while an app is running, and even from the lock screen.
5. Know that you are legal
For Part 91 VFR and IFR flying (the section of the regulations that most of us fly under in general aviation) you are completely legal to use the iPad for electronic charts, provided that the data is current and is a functional replacement of the paper version. There are two FAA documents you should be familiar with:
- FAR 91.21 – You must determine that the iPad, as a portable electronic device, does not cause interference in the airplane’s communication or navigation equipment.
- Advisory Circular 91-78 – this AC considers tablets like the iPad as a Class 1 Electronic Flight Bag. It is legal to use it as a paper chart replacement as long as it contains the functional equivalent of the paper reference material, e.g. an app like ForeFlight or Garmin Pilot. This AC does not require you to carry a backup (though we think you should), but does suggest you use the iPad first during an evaluation period alongside charts when transitioning.
For complete details and regulations, see our iPad Legal Briefing.
6. Take care of your iPad battery
The iPad contains an integrated lithium-ion polymer battery that has proven itself as one of the best among tablets. Unlike the battery technology of the 1980s and 90s, this type of battery has no memory effects, meaning you don’t need to run it all the way down to 0% before recharging. In fact it’s designed to be used hard and still retain 80% of its capacity after 1,000 charging cycles.
While Apple states the battery life is around 10 hours for normal use, pilots can expect is to last about 4 to 6 hours when using it with a GPS and an aviation app. While this is longer than the typical general aviation flight, here are some tips to help get the most out of a single charge:
- Turn off LTE cellular data (this is also the most likely source of interference with panel mount avionics)
- Turn off Wi-Fi and/or Bluetooth if they’re not required for connection to a GPS or ADS-B accessory
- Turn off Background App Refresh: go to Settings > General > Background App Refresh. Note though that some flight tracking apps like Cloud Ahoy require this to be turned on to record your flight track while running another app like ForeFlight.
- Clean the screen and set the screen brightness to the lowest viewable level
- Close unneeded apps that are running in the background: double-click the home button and swipe the app’s preview window towards the top of the screen
- Allow the iPad go into standby mode during the times when the iPad is not needed in flight
And here are some best practices when it comes time to charge your iPad battery:
- Always start each flight with a 100% charge
- It’s OK to the leave the iPad on the charger at all times when not in use–you won’t do any long-term damage
- Plan on it taking 4 – 6 hours to charge a fully drained battery
- Perform a complete charge cycle every few months to calibrate the battery life indicator. This involves completely draining the battery to 0%, charging it fully to 100%, then draining the battery back down to 0% again before recharging a second time.
Read this article for complete details about your iPad battery.
7. Turn off app auto-updates
The iPad includes a buried feature that automatically updates your apps as new versions become available in the App Store. While many may find this to be a convenient feature, pilots should disable this and continue to manually update apps. The primary reason is that some aviation apps require an internet connection when first starting up after an update, and will not function if you discover this in the airplane. It’s also smart to keep an eye on each update to keep track of when functionality or features change.
To disable this, go to Settings > iTunes & App Store > Automatic Downloads > Apps
8. Bring a backup for data and power
- Backup aviation data and charts: It is completely legal for general aviation pilots to use an iPad with current aviation data as the sole aviation reference source in the cockpit. While we’ve never had an iPad let us down in flight over the past 5+ years, we think it’s still smart to bring along a backup. Our preference is an iPhone with a second install of an aviation app (remember all the major aviation apps allow you to install a 2nd copy on another device). You might also consider a second iPad, or a limited selection of paper charts if you’d prefer something non-electronic.
- Power: The average battery life of an iPad running an aviation app with a GPS source is roughly 4 to 6 hours. While this may be long enough for the average flight, it’s important to think about “what if” scenarios. Events like diversions or weather delays can lead you to need the iPad for a longer time than the battery will last. The easiest and least expensive option here is a cigarette lighter USB adapter if your airplane has that option, which will allow you to keep the iPad charged in flight. The other backup power option is a backup battery, which has USB ports to charge your iPad. This backup battery model is our favorite.
9. Use Multi-Touch Gestures for easy multitasking
Another hidden feature that Apple includes with the iPad is Multi-Touch Gestures. These allow you to quickly perform routine tasks without relying on the bottom Home button. To activate this functionality, go to Settings -> General, and you’ll see the Multitasking & Dock option. Here’s a brief summary of each function:
- Pinch to the Home Screen – Use this instead of pressing the home button to access the home screen from within any app. Place 4 or 5 fingers spread out on the screen, and pinch together.
- Swipe Up to Reveal the Multitasking Screen – Use this instead of pressing the home button twice to access the multitasking bar. Place 4 or 5 fingers spread out on the screen, and move your hand upward.
- Swipe Left or Right Between Apps – This allows quick movement between applications that are currently running. With an app running, place 4 or 5 fingers spread out on the screen. Now, move your hand to the left to switch to the last opened app. With the same motion, move your hand back to the right to switch back to the previous app.
Want to multitask the traditional way? Simply double-tap the home button to reveal preview windows of the apps that you previously had open. Tap one of the windows to quickly open it, or slide it up towards the top of the screen to completely close it down.
10. Capture screen shots for offline viewing
During the flight planning process, online flight planners provide excellent navigation logs that can be very useful in the cockpit. The problem is most of us don’t have internet access in the air. Of course you could print them, but the goal here is to have a paperless cockpit. Using the iPad’s built-in screen capture function, you can quickly save a copy of whatever’s on the web browser screen with a few button presses. Here’s how:
- Pinch, zoom and position the data on the screen in the browser so all the important information is viewable
- Now, simultaneously press the Home Button (lower front of screen) and the On/Off button (on the top right), and you’ll see the screen flash white and hear a camera shutter sound
- Next, go back to your home screen, and locate the “Photos” app. When you click on this, you’ll see a photo of what was on your web page. This is now stored internally on the iPad, allowing you to view your important flight planning data without an Internet connection in the air.
- If you have more info that than will fit on one screen, take multiple screen captures (don’t worry–these don’t take up much space on your iPad’s internal memory).
- When finished with the flight, go back into the “Photos” app and delete the screen capture photo by clicking the “Garbage Can” icon at the upper right.
Use your imagination on this one – you can save any screen from any application. Use it to store official weather briefings, TFR maps, Google Earth airport layouts or a screen from any other app that requires an internet connection to display data. It’s also helpful to grab screen shots of your app in flight if things aren’t working right to help troubleshoot when back on the ground.
11. Get free in-flight weather over ADS-B
ADS-B is an integral part of the FAA’s Next Generation Air Traffic Control system, and consists of hundreds of ground stations throughout the U.S. While the primary job of the system is to feed your aircraft’s position data to ATC, these towers also output a free datalink weather broadcast. This includes detailed radar imagery, text weather, PIREPs and more (here’s a good article showing what each of these weather products look like in flight).
The good news, in addition to being free, is that you don’t need to install expensive panel-mount avionics to view this data. Rather all you need is a portable ADS-B receiver, such as Stratus, and a compatible iPad app like ForeFlight, and you’ll have near real-time weather in the cockpit. Read a full pilot report on Stratus here.
Here’s a guide to help choose the right model for your needs: ADS-B Receiver Comparison Guide.
12. Don’t leave the iPad in the sun to overheat
Most electronic devices that incorporate an internal battery have a limited temperature operating range. For the iPad the optimum range is between 32° and 95°F. When the iPad gets too hot an automatic protection feature kicks in and shuts the device down to protect the battery–not good when you’re viewing charts. In our experience this is more likely to happen when the iPad is exposed to direct sunlight for extended periods of time, even if the ambient temperature in the cockpit feels cool. The black screen quickly absorbs heat, causing the iPad to reach the upper temperature limit fairly quickly.
The obvious solution here is to mount the device in a way so that the front is not in direct sunlight, using either a kneeboard or RAM mount. If the iPad does overheat and displays the temperature warning, move it quickly to a cooler location in the shade and near an air vent if available. Removing any covers on the device will further allow additional airflow around the iPad and help it cool down faster.
Another scenario where your iPad can overheat is if you leave it in the airplane after parking on hot summer days. Make it a habit to take the iPad out of the airplane with you when stopping at the FBO so you’ll know it will be ready to go when it’s time to start back up.
Let’s hear from you. What tips do you have?