Three cheers for the iPad—an aviation miracle
The teenage years can be awkward, as any parent can tell you (and as some of us might remember). Something similar seems to be happening to the iPad, which turns 13 this year. Dramatic advances in tablet technology have slowed down, small companies have been snapped up by major industry players, and prices have crept up. Some pilots have noticed, and started to share their frustration. One relatively new private pilot recently told me, “maybe the iPad is just a rip-off after all.”
Hardly. The iPad and aviation apps are nothing short of a miracle for pilots. They manage to make flying safer, easier, and less expensive—a rare accomplishment for technology. With a few moments of reflection, this becomes obvious.
Consider a recent cross-country IFR flight we made using the iPad. Everything was planned with ForeFlight, from the route and altitude to the weather briefing and the fuel burn calculations. In flight, we used a Sentry Plus ADS-B Receiver to keep an eye on weather and traffic, making deviations as needed and updating our plan along the way. The end result was a routine flight and happy passengers.
The tools required and the money spent to accomplish this trip were surprisingly small. In the flight bag:
- iPad mini 6 (essentially a screen with a battery here) – $649
- ForeFlight Pro Plus subscription (charts, airport directory, flight planning, navigation, checklists, and so much more) – $240
- Sentry Plus ADS-B Receiver (weather, traffic, GPS, AHRS, CO detector) – $799
- RAM iPad Mount – $74.95
Total cost for my digital flight bag: $1522.95 plus $240/year.
Consider that the iPad can also be used for a host of non-aviation applications, from email and work documents to family photos and games for the kids, and the value is even more impressive. This multi-function ability makes the iPad my everyday companion, and it does help with spousal approval in some cases—a tablet is probably more useful for the rest of the family that a panel-mount GPS.
Now let’s recreate this flight back in 2010, when the iPad came out—I did it hundreds of times myself and I can confirm that flying was indeed possible before ForeFlight. But I remember it being more difficult and more expensive. A quick browse through the Sporty’s Pilot Shop catalog archives provided some real numbers. Here is a comparable flight bag, pre-iPad.
- Sectionals – $9.05 X 5 charts for this route (updated twice per year) = $90.50/year
- En route low altitude – $4.70 X 4 charts (updated six times per year) = $112.80/year
- Approach plates – $5.30 x 7 charts (updated six times per year) = $222.60/year
- Airport/facility directory – $4.80 x 3 charts (updated six times per year) = $86.40/year
- Chart plotters, binders, kneeboard – $95, one time.
Navigation and weather:
- Garmin GPSMAP 696 (moving map, airport directory, terrain) – $2999
- XM Weather subscription (in-flight weather) – $50/month
- Zaon XRX (portable traffic system—limited, but the only real option in 2010) – $1495
- Electronic CO detector – $179
Paperwork and planning:
- Electronic E6B – $69.95
- Digital logbook program (for Windows) – $69.95
- Books and documents – it varies, but easily $100
Total cost for my non-iPad flight bag: $5007.90 plus $1112.30/year.
So the pre-iPad equipment was more than three times as expensive, and the subscription was nearly five times as expensive. That $3500 in up-front savings would easily pay for an ADS-B Out upgrade or a Garmin G5 instrument. That annual savings of nearly $900 would pay for roughly 150 gallons of avgas, enough for 10-20 hours of flying in most piston airplanes. And of course none of those 2010 numbers take inflation into account (in 2022 dollars, the Garmin 696 would be over $4000).
Perhaps more importantly, the new equipment is not only cheaper but better: there was no backup attitude display on the Garmin, no seamless chart planning, no synthetic vision, no flight data recorder, no automatic winds aloft planning tool before flight. My iPad lasts over five hours and recharges off a standard USB port; my old 696 lasted maybe three hours and used a proprietary cable. ADS-B traffic in ForeFlight shows other airplanes’ speed, track, and relative altitude (complete with audio alerts); my old Zaon only showed which quadrant to look for an airplane, and even that wasn’t too accurate. ForeFlight updates every chart in America in about 10 minutes; doing Jepp updates used to take half a day.
The iPad and electronic flight bag apps are not perfect. Just last week Garmin Pilot crashed the first two times I tried to open the app, ForeFlight has raised their prices recently, and Fltplan Go occasionally has maddening user interface choices. That means pilots should continue to voice their displeasure when they believe companies aren’t holding up their end of the deal (as I have and will continue to do). But we should also maintain some perspective, and recognize what amazing technology we get to fly with in 2023. In terms of cockpit technology, the good old days are right now.
Or as a famous comedian once said in a slightly off-color way, “everything is amazing right now and nobody is happy.”
I couldn’t agree more John. Every time I hear someone complaining about the “insane cost of Foreflight” or some such I just shake my head in wonder and assume they have never been SEVERAL updates behind on their Jepp binders and had a flight tomorrow. Talk about a day wasted. At 100k per year(back then), that’s $48 per hour to sit and update plates. You’ve paid for Foreflight for the year by lunch.
I’ve been using ForeFlight since it came out. I have the ProPlus subscription. The information and features offered preflight, during flight, and post flight are worth every penny. When I flew with my step father (late 80s, former GA CFII) and showed him Foreflight, he accused me of cheating. This stuff makes flying an instrument approach to easy. I replied, no it’s just a wonderful tool, like using a nail gun instead of a hammer.
Well old timers always will remember the skill they have or had and so they are not liking making things easier than existed when they built their skills!
I started flying in the dark ages prior to anything that looked like the internet. My planning for a long cross country started with me on the dinning room table with an aviation navigation map of the united states that was about 4 ft square. Draw a straight line between locations. Once you had the line you then spent a bunch of time figuring out the Victor airways and that you needed to use to get there. Next break it up into 3-4 hour legs and find a place(s) to get gas. Now you have the data needed to order the maps/charts (oh ya, they take a week to get to you) and hope that they don’t expire while you are gone. If they expire, you need to place a 2nd order for the current maps and have them shipped to your destination. Weather briefings from Flight service were all verbal and the only map you had in your head was the one that you saw last night on the TV news. One of my criteria for an airport to land at was if there was a FSS station located on the airport. I could actually see a current weather map. and on, and on, and on.
I love the iPad and the new technologies. I can plan in an hour what it used to take me a week to do. The new tech has made amazing strides in safety and ease of flight and I very much don’t want to go back to the old way.
In the good old days, I was so busy at work that I had a real secretary (imagine that) assigned to me. One of her (sorry – she was a real she!) tasks was to keep my aircraft and pilot logs updated. ForeFlight logbook no longer requires that secretarial expense.
And then, there’s the Garmin Aera 760. When that device came out (on the heels of the Aera 660), I called it every mean name in the book. I thought THAT device was the “rip-off.”
… that is, until I first experienced the iPad’s system crash, when it — unannounced — displayed that Apple logo, which appeared for no reason whatsoever. Yes, I had several other apps running in the background, but I’m talking about my device being a M1 iPad “Pro.”
Now, I never experienced a crash again, but boy-o-boy, have I ever become leery and “tongue in cheek” about its use as an aviation-centric device. Preflight? Absolutely. Weight and Balance? Of course. Content consumption? Always.
But reliance for in-flight data? I’m re-thinking that strategy.
I’m an early iPad/Phone and FF adopter, so I’m just a seasoned user “… putting this out there.”
As for the Garmin 760, and all the “nasty-grams” and comments I made about it being just a “super-sized 660”, “… please accept my apologies.”
Thank you John Zimmerman for a great article. The technology is extraordinary and easy to use, not to mention the accuracy down to 1 meter! ForeFlight with Stratus and an iPad or iPhone has revolutionized General Aviation in the last decade. After flying US Navy and Part 121, I “retired” in 2012 into General Aviation and bought my first VFR Sectional. I threw it away when I purchased an original IPad with cellular GPS and ForeFlight. The Stratus was added as soon as it was available. With the many upgrades to the iPad and ForeFlight/Stratus, both have been my electronic navigator/flight bag since 2012. From flying Skyhawks and Comanches to Beechjets and the HJ, the ForeFlight/Stratus/iPad combo has been the best tool available. Flight Planning, Filing, taxi, enroute and terminal approach, plus all the required manuals are simply a touch away. Just incredible advancement in the last 10-12 years that makes me wonder what is next?
You really devalue yourself when you say something is “nothing short of a miracle”
It’s technology, not a miracle. Great tech yes but miracle… I think you should look up the word.
Miracle: “ a highly improbable or extraordinary event, development, or accomplishment that brings very welcome consequences.”
Sounds pretty good to me!
I totally agree! I just do VFR flying, but still file flight plans so that someone is looking out for us. I love how Foreflight on the iPad allows me to quickly plan a route, show hazards, file, activate and close my flight plan over the internet and show me a moving map along my route that includes traffic information.
I almost feel guilty using it. Makes navigation so easy!
Now compare with Android.
Why would they do that? This is iPad Pilot News, not Android Pilot News. With that being said, I’m sure an Android device running an aviation app and connected to an ADS-B receiver provides the same improvements over the paper chart era.
There is nothing in the android world that comes even close to ForeFlight or the iPad. I can say that with confidence as someone who is part of a team that writes software for iOS and android.
For those who have been flying for awhile, when was the last time you drew a line on a map? About 20 years ago I flew a 150 from Oxnard California to Raleigh NC. It took 27 hours over 2.5 days, about the same amount of time as it took to plan the trip. 10 sectionals, VOR to VOR, VFR all the way. I bought a Garmin 496 for the trip, primarily for XM radio, but nav and weather was nice! I’ve made a dozen coast to coast flights since then. With an iPad and ForeFlight I can plan that flight in about 30 minutes. Everything I need to know is at my finger tips. I didn’t even know I needed all these features! As far as technology is concerned, if you are holding it in your hand, it’s obsolete. Newer, better, faster is coming!
It makes me wonder as a recently completed student why flight schools still insist on E6B, paper Nav logs (I am sorry for offending the “old timers” @57 I’m on “old timer” as well just not in aviation). I akin to it for my days in Emergency response in a fire truck (40 yrs of it) with an Aero Atlas trying to find grids and streets and then routing your response. All while trying to keep an eye on people’s driving. Now they have Mobile Data Terminals (MDT’s) with overhead pictographs, hydrant locations and best routing. I understand the battery failure/Apple Logo failure, which is why I have other back ups since Steam is No1, Electronic G5’s and Garmin 430 No2, IPad 3, Garmin Mach 2 D1 4 and most importantly the six inches between my ears and if something goes out, hey let’s land and figure it out. I was amazed at the lack of instruction in FF during flight school (part 61) I would like to see us embrace it, teach it and hang up the whiz wheel and say to students isn’t it a great time to be alive. Outstanding article and even helps argue my point further.
As a flight instructor and part of a software development team, I still teach my primary students how to use a sectional, plotter, and East 6B.
Why? Because this way they have a better understanding of the math that’s going on in the background when they plan on ForeFlight. And, worst case scenario, they can still do some planning manually.
I have the iPad mini 6 with cellular because it has an internal GPS. I also have the previous, non-cellular model.
The big thing I noticed is that the newer model has a much worse battery life, and I’ve tried everything. It races through battery just sitting. Also, they made the visible screen narrower.
It’s great until it is not. It overheats it gets cold, and the battery simply won’t last. And there’s no way to charge it without overheating. Five hours on a battery is not much if you’re doing any type of cross country or round trip-trip. that’s not five hours of flying time that’s just five hours!!! Just about the time I need my iPad is the time it lays down and poops the bed. It’s great until it’s not.
You have the iPad positioned so it blocks a good part of your view out of the windscreen. I see this practice way too often and it scares me. Electronic devices should not limit our ability to see and avoid.