Pilot Report: Flying with the iPad’s built-in GPS

One of the most widely discussed topics among iPad pilots centers around which model is best to use in the airplane to display digital charts and navigation data. The short answer is that every iPad available from Apple today is more than capable of running even the most demanding aviation app with ease. The decision ultimately comes down to personal preference, specifically regarding screen size, performance, internal storage and the option to add cellular data connectivity (check out our 2021 buyer’s guide for a review of the pros/cons of each option).

What many may not realize is that the model with cellular data includes a bonus hardware feature, in the form of a dedicated internal GPS receiver. This provides an obvious benefit to pilots in the airplane when using aviation apps, providing location and navigation data without the need for an external GPS accessory.

Going back over a decade to the first several generations of iPads, the cellular model’s internal GPS performance was pretty disappointing. It took a long time for it to get an initial satellite fix, position accuracy was subpar, and putting your iPad’s screen to sleep caused a loss of reception

The Facts – Apple’s iPad GPS Option

Before we go further, here are some simple facts related to the cellular data option. 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.  But as previously mentioned, the upgraded cellular model also includes a built-in GPS/GNSS receiver, which operates completely independently from the cellular antennae and does not require a cellular data plan or connection for the GPS to work. For this reason, many pilots 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.

Flight testing the internal GPS

While just about every electronic device you can buy today includes a GPS chip, performance, speed and accuracy can vary greatly. For example, a dedicated Bad Elf GPS receiver will provide a much better experience when connected to an iOS device, compared to the GPS chip in a smartwatch. Differences result from antenna placement, sensitivity, power requirements, and the quality of the firmware in the device itself.

To test out the performance of the iPad’s internal GPS, we recently brought a brand-new iPad mini along on both an airline flight (as a passenger) and then in the cockpit of a Cessna for a flight across the U.S. For the tests we disabled Bluetooth and WiFi, to help measure battery life and ensure it was disconnected from the ADS-B receiver in the airplane.

The airline test ended up being purely accidental, as we were sitting in the aisle seat of an Airbus A320 and decided on a whim to test out the GPS reception. After disabling WiFi and Bluetooth from the main settings apps, we set the iPad on the tray table, opened up ForeFlight and waited. Much to our surprise, it only took about 30 seconds and ForeFlight was showing 5-meter accuracy, from a spot over 4 feet away from the nearest window!

The next test was a bit more formal and designed to see how the iPad’s GPS performed when used in the cockpit. The trip included two 2-hour legs, between Las Vegas and Cincinnati. Here are some key takeaways.

GPS Reception

We positioned the iPad on our lap in the front seat of the airplane, opened ForeFlight and it displayed our position on the chart in less than a second. ForeFlight showed an accuracy of 4 meters, which is very good (for comparison, a Sentry ADS-B receiver typically provides 1-meter accuracy). We then positioned the iPad on the floor of the airplane to test an obstructed view of the sky; while the accuracy dropped to 22 meters, it worked just fine.

GPS performance worked equally as well in Garmin Pilot. The accuracy displayed in this app was 15 meters, but from a practical standpoint that doesn’t really matter.

Switching Apps

One of our previous gripes with the GPS found in older iPads is that it the GPS often took a while to get a good satellite fix and display position again on the chart when either switching between apps or putting the iPad screen to sleep and waking it back up. This is no longer an issue, as ForeFlight showed our location instantly each time the app was opened.

Backup GPS

Many pilots prefer to connect their iPad to a portable ADS-B receiver, like Sentry, to receive weather and traffic updates in the cockpit (these accessories include a GPS receiver as well). If your iPad also has a built-in GPS, ForeFlight will automatically use the more accurate position source for location services, which in most cases will be the GPS from the ADS-B receiver. We ran a test to simulate the ADS-B receiver going offline by turning off the Sentry at altitude and found that the iPad automatically switched to using the internal GPS after about 5 seconds.

Synthetic Vision

While many think the synthetic vision feature in aviation apps require an AHRS (attitude) source to function, this is not entirely true. When relying solely on the iPad’s internal GPS, the synthetic vision will display the same ground features, terrain and digital flight instruments, but will not show pitch or bank information.

Battery Life

To compare iPad battery life between flying solely with the iPad’s internal GPS vs. using the GPS from an ADS-B receiver, we flew each of the 2-hour legs using each source independently. The first leg was flown with the iPad connected to Sentry, with WiFi and Bluetooth both turn ON and the screen set to full bright and left on the entire time. At the end of that first two-hour leg, the iPad showed 50% battery life remaining.

For the second leg, we turned WiFi and Bluetooth OFF (Sentry disconnected), confirmed the screen brightness was set to full, and used the internal GPS for location services in ForeFlight. After refueling, we then launched on the second 2-hour leg, starting with 50% battery life. The iPad had 2% battery life remaining at touchdown, indicating that battery usage was nearly identical to when connected to an ADS-B receiver.

Final thoughts

There is a lot to consider when buying an iPad for aviation use and most of the decisions come down to personal preference. At the end of the day, the entry-level iPad for $329 will display aviation charts and data just as well as a decked-out iPad Pro for $2,399. Based on our experience flying with just about every iPad model over the past decade, the most important premium feature to consider is the addition of an ADS-B receiver. This will provide datalink weather and traffic in your aviation app, improve your decision making, and increase the safety of the flight.

Adding an ADS-B receiver will satisfy the GPS requirement for your aviation apps, but if you have room to spare in your budget, choosing the cellular model with an internal GPS may be the next best upgrade. It provides reliable and fast position data, serves as an instant backup to your primary GPS source and can add more utility to your iPad when away from your airplane.

16 replies
  1. Phil D.
    Phil D. says:

    The GPS function when seated in airliners will work best the further away you are from the avionics bay, so sit in the back if that’s an available option.

    The stand-alone GPS units like the Bad Elf also have a data logging feature that can be adjusted from 1 per minute, down to 600 times per minute (10 times per second) — which is especially valuable with faster aircraft. A high refresh rate makes 3-D plots (available on services like Cloud Ahoy) more meaningful. While exporting of flight data to Cloud Ahoy is available using GP and FF, the iPad has no such provision to adjust the refresh cycle, hence and the graphical output often appears jagged. The iPad GPS function was designed with road warriors in mind, not aircraft.

    Lastly, remote GPS units like the Dual and the Bad Elf may be remotely located up to 30 feet away from the iPad, which is important when considering the need to isolate the GPS away from installed aircraft equipment like heated windshields.

    Reply
  2. Gary Wilser
    Gary Wilser says:

    Another useful feature for having cellular on the iPad is on the ground. If you are sitting on the ramp waiting for your passengers , you can check the latest METAR at your destination or update your flight plan. ADSB usually does not work unless you are airborne.

    Reply
  3. Gaetan Gagnon
    Gaetan Gagnon says:

    I believe that my I phone with sufficient memory such as 128 or 256 k will provide all that back up you are referring to. Plus you can also have ForeFlight that will give you the synthetic vision. ???

    Reply
  4. Richard Campbell
    Richard Campbell says:

    On my international travels, I also found that my ipad and Foreflight works fine in an Airbus, but does not work at all in a 787.

    Reply
  5. Scott Cole
    Scott Cole says:

    Last Spring I replaced my slowing iPad mini cellular and saved some money by getting the standard version. I use it with a Stratus 3 as a backup to a G1000. However, while ferrying the plane for repair to a bad magnetometer, I was depending on the iPad for position and traffic, and it kept losing connection with the Stratus, leaving me flying blind in a busy airspace (though VFR). After that experience, I ordered the Mini 6 with cellular as soon as it was announced, and I’m not going back. As reported in the article, I also just tried it in a commercial airliner, and the GPS is excellent. Can I use my phone as backup instead? I suppose, but I’d have to mount it—I wouldn’t want to fly and hold it, or look down if in IMC. Battery life is not an issue for me; an external battery is part of my kit. For me, pilot experience is two things: making mistakes, and having equipment fail.

    Reply
      • John Wrycza
        John Wrycza says:

        I have the same issues with the Stratus 3 losing Wifi connection when positioned anywhere but horizontally on the glareshield – and yes I updated the SW for the Stratus, and its slightly better on the Ipad Mini 6 cellular vs the iPad Mini 5 cellular – but still annoying

        Reply
  6. Tom
    Tom says:

    I see the reference to “GPS/GNSS” As I understand it, GNSS is somewhat generic–referring to any number of satellite-based systems. Does the iPad internal GPS receiver have the ability to link to GLONASS or one of the other systems maintained by other countries? If yes, that could be a significant “plus” as a backup option to panel-based receivers–especially in the Southwest where we see all too frequent GPS signal jamming across wide areas.

    Reply
  7. Andy Goldstein
    Andy Goldstein says:

    I’ve long felt that the iPad’s GPS was underrated. Some years ago I was flying safety pilot for one of my compatriots, with a gen 1 iPad mini in my lap. With time on my hands, I turned on ForeFlight’s recently released track log recording. Later, when I got home, I realized I’d never turned it off. When I checked the track log, I could see our entire flight, but puzzled over a squiggley track at the end of the flight. I finally realized that ForeFlight had logged my drive home – sitting in my flight bag in the trunk of the car!

    Reply
  8. James Wright
    James Wright says:

    Nice review on the capabilities of new iPAD Mini internal GPG. In all the reviews I have read, no one seems to mention the ability to carry your own iPAD Mini w/GPS into a friends airplane as a complete back-up for whatever they may have as a Foreflight or other moving map system. I have done this with a friend in his Money M20E and had good success matching his iPAD with Foreflight and using his external glare shield-mount GPS receiver.

    Reply
  9. Jack Morris
    Jack Morris says:

    Reception using Foreflight running on Apple iphone (OS15 level) varies. Some flights it seems to work and on others it doesn’t get the GPS signal. Not sure if the iPhone has a way to tell you if it is receiving a GPS signal except to run an app that requires position information and see if it works.

    Reply
  10. KEN JACOBS
    KEN JACOBS says:

    Very good article. However I would like to ad an additonal comment. I never see anything about Stratux. I use this with my Ipad and get great reception, weather, traffic and other features. All for a cheaper cost.
    It is not hard to put together and works well.

    Reply
    • SR
      SR says:

      Ditto…Agree…Stratux never mentioned/covered…It works like a charm with Foreflight in any aircraft/any level … airliners & GA!

      Reply
  11. Doug Eves
    Doug Eves says:

    A few years ago I purchased a Garnin glo as my remote gps source while using an iPad mini without internal gps. After a half dozen long cross country’s I purchased a new IPad mini with the gps as the garmin connection would fail probably around 3 times per hour at least. New iPad has never failed ever not to mention my iPhone running ForeFlight

    Reply
  12. daniel s
    daniel s says:

    I have used my GPS enabled iPad on commercial flights since the device was introduced – with superb reception and accuracy. Ditto on my private flights, where it’s replaced all manner of hard to navigate and organize paper in the cockpit. To ensure availability in my well-illuminated (read very hot) cockpit on summer days, I use an XNaut case, with built-in cooling fans. Frankly, the GSP iPad indispensable – especially now that it’s paired with the GTX345, showing the traffic overlay.
    Regarding the observation that the GPS won’t function on the B787 series: I have noted the same ‘issue’, though it does work on all other commercial aircraft. At first I thought it might be due to the composite construction, but since it does function on the A350, the problem might instead be the metal-filmed dimmable windows?

    Reply

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