For pilots using a tablet as their primary chart reference, keeping an iPad charged isn’t just a convenience – it’s a safety of flight issue. Fortunately, there are a whole host of solutions that can keep your battery topped off; unfortunately, many were developed for cars and not airplanes. As we’ve learned the hard way, not all of these “good deals” work in the demanding environment of an airplane cockpit.
Aviation-specific products (like those from Appareo and Garmin) have started to appear over the last few years, and are excellent performers. The only drawback is that they typically require installation and often cost well over $200. We’ve recently been testing a new option that is made for aviation but is both inexpensive and portable. It has some nice upgrades over previous generations too.
The Flight Gear Dual USB Charger is a compact cigarette lighter plug, shaped like many other charging plugs. There are three key differences, though, that make this our new favorite charging accessory.
It’s universal. Most airplanes have 12V cigarette lighter plugs (even those with 28V electrical systems), but some put out 24V or even 28.5V. This automatically disqualifies most car chargers. Conveniently, the Flight Gear model will accommodate a wide range of plug voltages. We’ve tested it on everything from 12V Cessna plugs to 28.5V Pilatus plugs and we’ve had good results them all. No more thinking – just plug it in and go.
Dual 3 amp plugs. Here’s another handy feature that eliminates thinking. While iPhones are happy to charge off a 1 amp plug, iPads and ADS-B receivers all need 2.1 or 2.4 amps to charge properly. Again, inexpensive car chargers often have either no high amp plugs or only one, so you’re constantly searching for the one labeled “2 amps.” Both USB ports on the Flight Gear USB Charger are 3 amps, so you can easily charge an iPad and a Stratus at the same time. Even the latest iPad Pro models can charge off this plug at full speed.
Built-in screen. This is something we’ve seen on a few models, but with varying success: a built-in screen right on the front of the charging plug that shows real time system status. This one delivers just what pilots need, and it also has a pivoting arm that allows the screen to be tilted 45 degrees, which is helpful in tight cockpits. When you plug in the charger and the airplane’s electrical system is on, you’ll see the current voltage being put out by your cigarette lighter. This is a good way to monitor the status of your battery, or at least your plug. You’ll see the screen blink if it drops below 12V (for 12-14V airplanes) or is between 18 and 24 volts (for 24-28V systems).
Once you plug into the USB ports, the screen also cycles through the amps being drawn by your devices as well. This is a great way to confirm that your iPad is getting its 2+ amps, and you’ll notice it automatically charges an iPhone at the lower rate of about 1.3 to 1.5 amps.
We’ve flown a number of flight with this charger, in a variety of aircraft, and so far it has worked well with a slew of portable devices, including iPad Pros, an older iPad, Stratus ADS-B receivers, GoPro video cameras, and inReach messengers. Notably, there has been no avionics interference, a common problem with cheap chargers. The charger even has some handy aviation reference information printed on top, including suggested IFR and VFR cruising altitudes.
The Flight Gear Dual USB Charger is now shipping, and is available for $18.95. We consider it an essential item for any flight outside the traffic pattern.