Should pilots buy an iPad with built-in GPS?


It seems just about every electronic device pilots buy these days includes a GPS, including your phone, watch, ADS-B receiver and personal locator beacon. When you go flying, the odds are good that all these devices are with you in the airplane, so does it really make sense to spend the money for an upgraded iPad which includes GPS? Here are some things to consider.

The Facts – Apple’s iPad GPS option

Google the phrase “does the iPad have a GPS” and prepare to be overwhelmed. More than ten years after the iPad was introduced, lots of people are still confused about whether the tablet actually has a GPS in it. And if it does have a GPS, is it a “real” one? Let’s bust some myths and settle the issue once and for all.

First, some simple facts. Every iPad ever made has both WiFi and Bluetooth, two wireless technologies for connecting to nearby devices (in the case of Bluetooth) and the internet (in the case of WiFi). The only additional option is to add cellular service, which allows the iPad to connect to the internet anywhere your cell phone works.

This comes at a premium though, costing an extra $130 to upgrade to the WiFi + Cellular model. It’ll allow you to browse the web while driving down the interstate, or check the weather and update your flight plan when WiFi isn’t available (but it won’t work in flight).

There’s more to the story, though. In addition to the cell data service, the cellular models of the iPad also include a built-in GPS receiver. But it’s important to note that the iPad does not require the cellular connection for the GPS to work. In fact, you can purchase an iPad with cellular data, never sign up for service with Verizon or AT&T, and just take advantage of the built-in GPS for reliable navigation in any aviation app.

Should I upgrade to the model with GPS?

So now it’s decision time. Let’s assume you have no interest in using the cellular data component and are strictly weighing the pros/cons of paying the extra $130 for the GPS receiver in the upgraded iPad model. If cost is no object and you want the best of the best, we’d say go for it. Many prefer the peace of mind knowing their iPad is a fully self-contained navigation device which can provide backup navigation guidance if everything else in the panel goes dark.

On the other side of the equation, many pilots these days are flying with an ADS-B receiver, like a Sentry or Garmin GDL 50 for datalink weather and traffic, and these devices also include a GPS to show your location on the iPad’s moving maps. When you factor in that your iPhone or Android phone also include a GPS (in addition to the GPS in the panel), many pilots find that it’s not worth the extra cost to add the GPS feature when buying a new iPad.

If you do end up making the decision to buy the WiFi only model without GPS, you can always add an inexpensive external GPS later. They start out at under $100 and wirelessly connect to your iPad (here are some tips for buying an external GPS).




  1. I opted to save the dollars and not buy the iPad w/ GPS- I figured that helped offset the cost of the Sentry 🙂

  2. I definitely vote for the cellular option. It is not only the GPS chip rendering the iPad as standalone backup when everything else fails, but also the capability to pull data from a cell net whenever you are close to mobile connections. I love the possibility to check NOTAM, weather and other information the minutes the engine warms up.

  3. My transponder has WAAS GPS. I fly with a Stratus 3. I carry a little hockey puck Dual Electronic X150 GPS. I update Foreflight via WiFi before I leave home. I can do last minute weather checks with my iPhone. If I need to update anything on the iPad when away from WiFi, I simply tether it (hotspot) to my iPhone. AND, if all else fails, I can easily fly and navigate perfectly well with the iPhone. For me, personally, I saw no point in buying my MINI 5 with cell capability.

  4. I have always had the cell option in both iPads I have had, and it has paid off handsomely. First of all, the internal GPS is excellent, and I now use it as primary navigation in my VFR only Thorp SkySkooter, even around the DC SFRA and FRZ (I back it up with eyeballs and the iPhone). Thus, although I do have a Dual ADSB receiver, I don’t need to set it up on the miniscule glareshield, and I don’t have to deal with a thicket of wires going to and fro all over the cockpit.
    Second, it would have saved my bacon one day to be able to re-update my databases when they crumped while I was on a cross country. This was before I decided to further contribute to ATT by going for a cell subscription (call me a pilot, just cheap I guess!). It took over an hour to find a Wifi hot spot on the airport I diverted into. Next day I got the cell plan, and never a problem like that since
    And third, cell DOES work in the air Call it the poor man’s ADSB-in. Below around 5000 feet, in populated areas, it does work; and, you would do well to keep your cell phones on all during a flight. Little known secret – at CAP most of our “saves” are accomplished not by beacon but by cell phone forensics. Better in most places than a 406 (depends on area – your mileage may vary).

  5. My iPad does not have cell. Recently my iLevil decided to stop giving GPS signals, so I lost the moving map display. Not a big deal but inconvenient as I was working with a student at the time. Next iPad I will get the cell and GPS.

  6. This is a no brainer. Everything under the sun will fail. If you use your iPad for either navigating VFR or for increased situational awareness IFR the back-up input of a built in GPS is a must.
    Imagine shooting an instrument approach without the built in GPS. If your ADS-B receiver fails. There is a significant loss of situational awareness. You beautiful iPad will give you little more than a paper chart does. With an internal GPS you will have lost the ADS-B and AHRS. But you will still have a visual representation of where you are. (increase situational awareness)

    In real estate it’s location, location, location.
    In aviation it’s redundancy, redundancy, redundancy. Spend the $130, it’s very cheap insurance.

    • I guess you can never have too many backups, but I’ve flown for 10 years now with an iPad and none of the ones I’ve owned have had GPS. I’ve literally never missed that feature. I either have a Flightstream in the panel to drive it or a Stratus to drive it. In a worst case scenario, I figure I can pull out my iPhone for basic navigation and charts.

      So yes there’s nothing wrong with buying the GPS model, but I can’t say I’ve missed it.

  7. For the price of about an hour of flight time the cell+gps capability is a no-brainer. It adds not only redundancy in flight but non-aviation utility as well.

  8. Thought I could just use my cell as a Wifi hotspot for my iPad to get GPS. Although it did show my position on Foreflight, it never would show my symbol as an airplane or cycle through a flight plan and would loose signal frequently freezing on my last position. Added a Sentry ADS-B and problem solved.

  9. It is irresponsible to advise against getting a cellular iPad for $130, and then say for only $100 you can buy an external GPS. Of course this adds yet another piece of equipment to put in the flight bag and aircraft, more batteries to keep charged, etc. And you still don’t have the option for connectivity. Yes, you can use a Sentry or another ADS-B device to supply the GPS input, but that’s only half the advantage to having a cellular iPad. Flying ain’t cheap, however buying a cellular iPad is a sound investment. With cellular (and cellular service at @$10/month) the iPad becomes a much more usable tool. I recommend iPad with cellular to all my students – setting up a phone as a hotspot adds more tasks and distraction in the cockpit. Keep it simple – go for the cellular option.

  10. Get the internal GPS (ie. cellular data capability) and if you don’t want extra ongoing costs, just don’t sign up for cellular service, you’ll still have full internal GPS capability. The redundant GPS capability & associated peace of mind is very cheap insurance.

  11. Flying an airplane worth tens or hundreds of thousands, using ratings that cost thousands, and there is a debate about $130 iPad option that can save the most valuable asset you have – YOU. I think everyone reading this is worth the money.

  12. I had a total electric outage and my glass panel gps’s and transponder went dark. Sure was glad to have a gps ipad to navigate home. No reason to buy a back up that doesn’t have back up potential.

  13. I almost always opt for the cellular model. Small price to pay. Adds $10 to my monthly bill. The second iPad I purchased I was convinced to spend the money on a portable GPS to feed the iPad. The pair were being used in a plane without GPS and the portable GPS failed one day before warranty expired while on a cross country. I decided then, the $130 plus $10 monthly was a small amount in the total cost of flying and would never scrimp again.

  14. I’ve used an iPad Mini without the cellular+GPS for many years with Status ADS-B and have never felt the need for the internal GPS. My Android phone, with its own GPS and the free FltPlan Go app gives me a very capable backup, if I ever need it.

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