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

6 min read

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 2022 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 brought an new iPad mini 6 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 feet, which is about the same as the 4-meter accuracy reported in ForeFlight.

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.

21 replies
  1. Scott
    Scott says:

    When traveling on the commercial airline, did you have the device in airplane mode? My experience, with the iPad mini 5 is that once you get to around 8-10,000 feet it loses the gps signal or it’s so inconsistent as to be not useful. Can you share any specific settings for airline travel and the iPad? Thanks!

    Reply
    • Kevin
      Kevin says:

      GPS is not ground-based it’s satellite-based so losing it at 8-10,000 feet means something else is going on.
      You will never lose a GPS signal, unless it’s blocked, as long as you have a view of the sky.

      Reply
  2. DENNY SOUTHARD
    DENNY SOUTHARD says:

    The Garmin Pilot accuracy shows 15 FEET on the screen shot in your article [not meters]. That would convert to 4.572 meters horizontal accuracy.

    Reply
  3. Ray
    Ray says:

    Last Paragraph:”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.”

    Can you elaborate on the additional utility when away from the airplane?

    Reply
    • JOM
      JOM says:

      The additional utility is base on the use of a data plan. It gives you the ability to file flight plans, search the web, rent cars, book hotels, use email, get driving directions, etc., just like you can do with your phone, but the bigger screen of the iPad is a plus.

      Reply
  4. Robert
    Robert says:

    The reason you received gps sat in seat away from window was the A320 is a composite fuselage . Very little if any metal unlike a Boeing 737 which u would not have gps signal!
    I fly a piper lance. I know apple is a great tablet but for the price expensive verses android tablet which works similar op system. Lenovo YB-8505FS rom memory internal mem 32 gb has mini sd card slot for additional 128gb memory. 7 in screen 1280×800. A22 quad core CPU that is as fast as apple 5 . 12 hr battery that with both internal Bluetooth and WIFi gps Running . No over heat issues like apple .All for
    price 99$ At Walmart. Fits nicely on yoke. I bought two ; one for the wife’s yoke.
    As I learned at OSH. Foreflight is finally developing software for android ! I use a Stratus 3. For AHARs. My typical trips are central Texas to San Diego, Key West. Michigan. And MSP. I use IFly app full vfr/ifr on three device . Total subscription 159.00 Third device is apple phone.

    Reply
    • PseudoGeek
      PseudoGeek says:

      Robert, I can’t find any Lenovo tablets that start with YB-
      Are you sure that wasn’t a typo? I see some that start with TB-
      Regardless, I can’t find the exact model you describe anywhere. Is it more than a month old and therefore “obsolete?”

      Reply
    • Jack Morris
      Jack Morris says:

      I fly Southwest Airlines (All metal B737 fleet) and I have been able to get Foreflight to display tracking info on my iPhone. I assume the same would be true for an iPad with GPS but my iPad only has Bluetooth and WIFI. Also, I have an Garmin eTREX handheld GPS unit for hiking. This works in the B737 as well. Foreflight is expensive, but you have to consider that it is feature rich and they have to assume a lot more responsibility for an aviation grade app as opposed to general apps that do not require a high level of QA. As a GA pilot, everything costs more because of extra effort the manufacturer has to do to insure safety. In my car, my built in GPS navigator has failed more times than I can count. Not a problem driving a car. A big problem piloting an aircraft.

      Reply
  5. Fredrich Clarkson
    Fredrich Clarkson says:

    Foreflight is a bloated, expensive, subscription based program. You’ll never use most of it’s features. Ipads are also overly expensive. Android tablets will do much the same as the expensive Apples. Avare is a FREE aviation product for android that will do most everything you could ever want or need. Why spend all that extra money? Save the money for some new avionics, or fuel….

    Reply
    • Joe Scheibinger
      Joe Scheibinger says:

      Amen to that! When I went to the Oshkosh EAA this year they had a Android that worked even better than the Apple. Unfortunately I found only one manufacturer on the field that provided map service for both types of tablets. The Android had a clearer, brighter picture, was faster, and didn’t seem to have any heat problems! It was also much cheaper!

      Reply
  6. Oscar J Kaelin
    Oscar J Kaelin says:

    I have an iPad 8th generation with cellular and gps. It is my first iPad with cellular out of about 5 that I’ve owned and I’m very happy with it. I have the Garmin ads-b receiver, so I never use the internal gps in the airplane with the Garmin Pilot app (other than backup), but I use the cellular connection ($10 per month with my 4 device Verizon family plan Verizon).

    In the cockpit, my headset is always connected to my iPad to get traffic and other alerts, making it very convenient is for getting clearances with a Skype phone call to ATC through the headset. Outside the cockpit, it’s a useful phone for outgoing calls, a large screen car GPS using Google maps, and it provides the ability to use the Internet anywhere with a decent 4G LTE signal. Compared to my phone, the large screen makes everything easier to see an manipulate.

    Reply
  7. Jeremy
    Jeremy says:

    I fly with an iPad mini 6 WITHOUT cellular and a Sentry. I wanted weather and traffic but also wanted to save a little money, so that’s why I opted for the iPad without cellular combined with Sentry. If I had to do it again, I’d spend the little extra money for the cellular as a backup, because my Sentry disconnects from my iPad on a lot of occasions. I have to reach behind me and power cycle the Sentry. Not ideal.

    Reply
    • Jim
      Jim says:

      I have the Sentry, use it constantly, and don’t have the problem with disconnecting from my old iPad Air 2. Works great. I am wondering if you got a defective unit and perhaps Sporty’s will stand behind it.

      Reply
  8. Hugo Costa
    Hugo Costa says:

    Why Sporty’s is always talking of Ipads….? Why they do not use another Pad ? It’s good that here somebody explain the benefit of cheaper android tablets

    Reply
  9. Warren Anderson
    Warren Anderson says:

    I don’t think cheaping-out on safety-of-flight gear like EFB is a great idea.
    “Android” is a hodge-podge of incompatible devices shipped with spamware, unsynchronized legacy-disqualifying software updates, and unvalidated home-grown start-ups, at a discount. If you understand and accept that risk, no sweat.
    Garmin, ForeFlight and Apple are proven well-funded innovators with large R&D and customer support budgets. Obviously their products are not perfect, but they are reliable and responsive. If you buy a refurbished recent-generation iPad it will have a new battery and you save 15% or more.
    Apple-haters aside, for the rest of us the stuff just works and if it doesn’t they fix it pronto. To say nothing of the continuous expert aviation quality assurance.
    And I also had an aisle seat on a 320 and was astonished that I could track my 2-hr flight on ForeFlight, watch our weather detour in real time, and see what approach we were using. The FAs were pissed that I was updating my seat mates with arrival time estimates–they like to own that info.

    Reply
  10. Kenny
    Kenny says:

    Another reason to get an iPad with cellular / GPS is that it would make a good backup if your ADSB in / GPS source fails. I have had a problem with my glareshield mounted Stratus 2S overheating and shutting down on sunny days. An iPad Mini with GPS (which has never overheated on the yoke mount) would provide an alternate GPS source.

    Reply
  11. Cary Alburn
    Cary Alburn says:

    I’ve been using a Mini with cell since they first came out, but not trusting ForeFlight at first, I kept my paper charts for about 8 months before cancelling my subscription. Since then, I’ve relied strictly on the Mini, until replacing it when the Mini 4 with cell came out, but keeping my old Mini as a backup. One of these days, I’ll replace my Mini 4, and it’ll become the backup. Actually, my iPhone is also a secondary backup—belt and suspenders approach.

    I have a Brydge keyboard for my Mini 4, so in addition to using the Mini 4 in the cabin, it also makes a very usable substitute for a laptop. With the cell option, there’s no need for a hot spot away from WiFi to connect to the Internet.

    My original Stratus 2 failed at one point (since replaced), and having the built in GPS in the Mini 4 made the difference in whether I could “see” my location on a chart or plate.

    Overall, the relatively small extra cost for a cell-equipped iPad is worth it to me.

    And for those who still don’t understand the value of an iPad with a ForeFlight subscription, all I can say is, don’t mock it until you’ve tried it.

    Reply
    • Warren Anderson
      Warren Anderson says:

      I’ve flown with two flight instructors who skip the iPad and fly with only iPhone. (I too carry phone as backup for iPad as supplement to G3X.) As I get more comfortable with FireFlight and learn to focus on only the critical info I need, I find that it is all there on the iPhone which has longer battery life and is less likely to overheat/shut down. And sure is easier to stow in a pocket or Velcro to kneeboard.

      Reply

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