Electronic flight bag legal briefing for pilots – 2020 edition

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The best reading is in some Advisory Circulars from the FAA.

Each year we publish a plain-language review of the FARs and Advisory Circulars pertaining to the use of iPads and electronic flight bags in the cockpit. This is great information for pilots looking to make the transition from paper charts to an iPad, but should also be reviewed by experienced iPad pilots as well. We like to think of it as another step in maintaining pilot currency by staying up with the legalities of using digital devices in flight.

We continue to get questions about whether an iPad is “legal” for aviation use. The definition of “legal” depends on what type of flying you do and what you’re using your iPad for, so there’s no one-size-fits-all answer. Here we’ll cover the applicable Federal Aviation Regulations (FARs) and Advisory Circulars (ACs). But first one suggestion: don’t get caught up in all the minutiae.

The short answer is that the iPad is absolutely a legal replacement for paper charts in the cockpit (at least for most Part 91 GA flying).

Here are some regulations and documents that cover electronic devices and iPads:

FAR 91.21, Portable electronic devices (PEDs)

  • This applies only to air carriers and IFR flights
  • Covers almost all electronic devices–not just EFBs
  • Pilots must determine that the PED won’t interfere with the navigation or communication systems
  • The determination must be made by the PIC or operator of the aircraft

AC 91-21.1D, Use of Portable Electronic Devices Aboard Aircraft

  • This Advisory Circular is a complement to FAR 91.21
  • It mostly pertains to airlines and the use of PEDs by passengers (think cell phones and laptops).
  • It also suggests methods to confirm that a PED is not interfering with avionics, and recommends that part 91 operators read AC 91-78 (below) for compliance.
  • This AC also points out that cell phones and LTE-enabled iPads, while prohibited from use in flight by FCC regulations, are allowed to be used in aircraft while on the ground (ie, for picking up a clearance or filing a flight plan).

AC 91-78, Use of Class 1 or Class 2 Electronic Flight Bag (EFB)

IMPORTANT: This is the advisory circular that states it’s legal for FAA Part 91 GA piston aircraft pilots to use the iPad with current data as a paper chart replacement.

  • Aimed at Part 91 operators, VFR or IFR
  • EFBs can be used in all phases of flight in lieu of paper when:
    • The EFB is the functional equivalent of the paper material
    • The EFB data is current and valid
  • A backup data source is suggested, but is not required. Note that this backup can be another electronic device.
  • Users should undergo an evaluation period to make sure they know how to use the EFB before eliminating paper charts.
  • “The in-flight use of an EFB/ECD in lieu of paper reference material is the decision of the aircraft operator and the pilot in command.”

Download AC 91-78 here

AC 120-76D, Guidelines for the Certification, Airworthiness and Operational Use of Electronic Flight Bags (EFB)

IMPORTANT: This advisory circular does not apply to FAA Part 91 GA piston aircraft operations, but should still be referenced as guidance when using the iPad as a paper chart replacement.

What’s new in revision “D”

AC 120-76 was updated to the “D” revision on 10/27/2017 and supersedes version “C”, which was in place since May 2014. Here’s a quick summary of the major changes:

  1. The update removes Part 91F (Large and Turbine-Powered Multiengine Airplanes) operators from needing to comply with AC 120-76, meaning the primary guidance for this group reverts back to AC 91-78.
  2. Pilots are now permitted to display ownship (your GPS-based aircraft symbol) on an EFB during all phases of flight. Previously pilots were only authorized to display ownship while taxiing.
  3. EFBs are now grouped into 2 categories, “portable” or “installed”. An iPad is an example of a portable EFB, whereas an installed EFB is incorporated into the aircraft type design. Class 1, 2 or 3 EFB classifications have been eliminated.
  4. Type A and B EFB application groupings have been reorganized based on the criticality of the function they perform in flight. Type C applications have been eliminated from the AC.

Key Points from AC 120-76D

  • The AC starts out with who’s required to comply with the guidance and who needs authorization:
    • “It is intended for all operators conducting flight operations under Title 14 of the Code of Federal Regulations (14 CFR) part 91 subpart K (part 91K), 121, 125, or 135 who want to replace required paper information or utilize other select applications as part of EFB functionality.” This is the line that shows most general aviation pilots are not affected by this AC.
  • EFB Definition:
    • An EFB hosts applications, which are generally replacing conventional paper products and tools, traditionally carried in the pilot’s flight bag. EFB applications include natural extensions of traditional flight bag contents, such as replacing paper copies of weather with access to near-real-time weather information.
  • 2 types of applications
    • Type A apps have a failure condition classification considered to be no safety effect and do not substitute for or replace any paper, system, or equipment required by airworthiness or operational regulations; and
    • Type A application examples: FARs, noise abatement procedures, service bulletins, airworthiness directives, etc.
    • Type B apps have a failure condition classification considered minor and may substitute or replace paper products of information required for dispatch or to be carried in the aircraft.
    • Type B application examples: flight planning apps, electronic charts, checklists, performance data, etc.
  • 2 types of EFBs
    • Installed: Hardware supporting EFB applications are “installed” when they are incorporated into aircraft type design under 14 CFR part 21, or as a proper alteration under 14 CFR part 43.
    • Portable: All other components supporting EFB functionality are considered “portable,” regardless of how often they are removed from the aircraft. These devices are typically consumer commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) electronic devices functionally capable of communications, data processing (e.g. iPad).
      • Portable EFBs can be temporarily connected to an existing aircraft power port for battery recharging.
  • Testing/compliance required (this must all be documented and kept on board the aircraft, but is only required for commercial operators when seeking FAA approval and replacing paper with an EFB)
    • Interference testing
      • The AC provides a process (listed as Method 2) by which you can self-test the device
    • Electrical power source
      • Battery-powered EFBs having aircraft power available for recharging the EFB battery are considered to have a suitable backup power source.
      • Useful battery life must be established and documented for battery-powered EFBs. Each battery-powered EFB providing Type B EFB applications must have at least one of the following before departing:
        • An established procedure to recharge the battery from aircraft power during flight operations
        • A battery or batteries with a combined useful battery life to ensure operational availability during taxi and flight operations to include diversions and reasonable delays considering duration of flight.
    • Lithium-ion battery
      • Requires safety and testing standards to be in the cockpit (UL, IEC)
    • Decompression testing (pressurized aircraft)
      • This is not required to be completed on your actual EFB or iPad; you just need proof that a representative device has successfully completed this testing
    • Stowage and mounting of EFB
      • Stowage requires an inherent means to prevent unwanted EFB movement. EFB stowage is required for all portable EFBs not secured in or on a mounting device
  • Develop operational policies for EFB use
      • They’re mainly looking for how you’ll use the EFB in all phases of flight, and a documented plan of action in the event of EFB failure
  • Geo-referencing is allowed, as long as you have another display in the cockpit
    • You may overlay EFB own-ship position on an EFB only when the installed primary flight display, weather display, or map display also depict own-ship position.
    •  The AC recommends using position data from an installed GNSS source. Portable equipment is more likely to experience signal blockage, signal degradation, and performance degradation.
    • For airport map applications, the applicant should choose a database with an accuracy of 5 meters or less (ForeFlight well exceeds this accuracy).
    • Remember, this does not apply to Part 91 operations

Download AC 120-76 here

While the FAA made some improvements in this AC over previous versions, it can still come across as fairly confusing. It represents a complex, 35-page document that is often difficult to follow and requires a good deal of work for operators to fully comply with. If you’re flying under part 91 subpart K (part 91K), 121, 125, or 135 and are looking for assistance in complying with this AC when seeking FAA approval, check out Sporty’s iPad EFB Approval program.

In the end, the key point here is that you as PIC are responsible for ensuring that your iPad (or other PED) does not interfere with your airplane and provides a reliable source of data. This does not have to mean lots of tests and paperwork for part 91 operators.

Our suggestion? Take a safety pilot and go flying with your tablet on a nice VFR day.

Check out our flow chart below for a great summary of the rules:

6 replies

    I am surprised by the statement, “. . . the iPad is absolutely a legal replacement for paper charts in the cockpit”. What regulation makes paper charts in the cockpit a legal requirement? If paper charts are not required in the cockpit why is a digital chart in the iPad make it a “legal replacement” for a paper chart?

    • Steve
      Steve says:

      FAR 91.103 states that, before beginning a flight, you must become familiar with all available information concerning that flight. So even if you are just operating Part 91 VFR, if something happens (e.g., FAR violation or incident or accident), and the FAA can show that a lack of current information (e.g., an out-of-date chart used before or during flight) contributed to the outcome, you might find yourself doing some explaining. That pesky FAR 91.13 rule prohibiting careless or reckless operation might be invoked as well. So no, a current chart (or a chart at all) is not a specific legal requirement for VFR. But if you use an out of date source (e.g., old chart) for aeronautical information and decision making, you might find yourself in a legal bind if something happens. An EFB with a current digital chart/database is an acceptable replacement for the equivalent paper chart and it solves that problem.

  2. Ahmed Taha
    Ahmed Taha says:

    @Robert Ballou, they’re not saying an EFB is a legal requirement; they’re saying it wouldn’t be illegal to replace a paper sectional with an electronic one.

  3. Curtis
    Curtis says:

    For Part 91, there is not a direct requirement to have current charts, but you can be found in violation of FAR 91.103 if there is an incedent/accident:

    91.103 Preflight action.
    Each pilot in command shall, before beginning a flight, become familiar with all available information concerning that flight. This information must include –

    (a) For a flight under IFR or a flight not in the vicinity of an airport, weather reports and forecasts, fuel requirements, alternatives available if the planned flight cannot be completed, and any known traffic delays of which the pilot in command has been advised by ATC;

    (b) For any flight, runway lengths at airports of intended use, and the following takeoff and landing distance information:

    (1) For civil aircraft for which an approved Airplane or Rotorcraft Flight Manual containing takeoff and landing distance data is required, the takeoff and landing distance data contained therein; and

    (2) For civil aircraft other than those specified in paragraph (b)(1) of this section, other reliable information appropriate to the aircraft, relating to aircraft performance under expected values of airport elevation and runway slope, aircraft gross weight, and wind and temperature.

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