The student pilot’s guide to learning to fly with an iPad

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Welcome to iPad Pilot News! You’ve come to the right spot if you’re a student pilot who has decided to buy an iPad and would like to incorporate it into your flight training. You’ll find an iPad in nearly every cockpit today, whether it’s a Cessna 172 or Boeing 737, serving a variety of roles, from a flight planner and weather display to aviation chart viewer and GPS moving map. Student pilots have found even more ways to take advantage of this popular tablet, using it to access pilot training courses, FAA handbooks, test prep, flight computers and a wide variety of other resources.  

Here we’ll cover a variety of considerations to help you get started, from buying an iPad to selecting an aviation app, and which accessories work well with an iPad in the cockpit.

Which iPad should I buy?

Starting off, the question we hear most is “Which iPad should I buy?” Well here’s what you should consider.

New vs. used iPad

Electronics have only so many years before the hardware inside can’t keep up with the demand that new apps require. Eventually, they’ll run slow and the battery won’t last long enough for your flights. For that reason, we recommend buying a new iPad and getting a good 3 to 5 years out of it rather than just getting by with a used one that will only last 1 or 2 years.

You can save a few bucks by checking out Apple’s refurbished options, which include a new internal battery and the same warranty as a new iPad.

Internal memory

The entry-level iPad starts out with 64GB of internal memory, which may seem like a lot, but doesn’t leave much room for future needs, especially since the storage is not upgradeable. The last thing you want to do when flight planning is find the need to delete other files and apps from your iPad so you can make room to download more sectional charts. Don’t limit yourself, consider 256GB the minimum size.

Cellular data vs. WiFi only

Having the ability to access the internet away from WiFi is a luxury that you may not need, but the one key point to remember is that the Cellular model also includes a standalone GPS receiver. This will show your position on a moving map during a flight without requiring a separate GPS accessory. It’s a nice feature to have if you can justify the $130 premium.

Size matters: Mini, iPad Air or iPad Pro

You’ll find that the iPad Mini is the most popular size among pilots flying single-engine airplanes. However, the entry-level iPad and iPad Air which are both 11″ models fit just fine in the cockpit and are preferred among those who need to see the larger text on the screen. It’s really a personal preference and depends on the size of the cockpit in your training airplane and flight control configuration. 

For an in-depth review of each iPad model currently available and the pros/cons of each decision factor listed above, check out our feature-length article: What’s the best iPad for Pilots?

Staying legal

Next let’s talk about the iPad’s role as an Electronic Flight Bag, or EFB for short. The first thing that you should know is that having an EFB with current digital charts is a legal replacement for paper charts in the cockpit. An EFB is the iPad or Android tablet you’re navigating with and has an EFB app installed with the current, up-to-date FAA charts required for the flight. So to reiterate this very important jargon, if your iPad’s aviation app has current charts downloaded, then legally you’re not required to carry any paper charts with you.

With that being said, you’ll likely still need to buy a paper sectional during the cross-country phase of your training, to learn what goes into planning a flight with a plotter and E6B. Plus, it serves as a good backup and will impress your examiner on the checkride.

For a compressive review of the legalities related to the iPad, check out the iPad Legal Briefing for pilots.

Choose an EFB app

Next, you’ll need an EFB app to download and display the FAA charts. There are many options available for pilots and choosing one can be a daunting task. The two front runners are ForeFlight and Garmin Pilot. The general consensus is that ForeFlight is more intuitive to use, while Garmin Pilot will initially feed more familiar to pilots who are used to flying with some form of Garmin panel-mount GPS or G1000 (check out this article for an in-depth comparison of these two apps).

Our best advice is to download both (and any others you’re considering) and register for the 30-day free trial period so that you can fly with them and decide for yourself.  You’ll notice that most of these apps offer both a basic version and then a more-capable “Pro” version. Starting out we’d suggest with the less expensive version basic version, and then upgrade down the road when you’re able to take advantage of some of the more advanced features.

To learn more about apps suitable for student pilots during flight training, check out our list of Top 10 apps for student pilots.

iPad accessories

GPS receiver

Now that you’ve purchased an iPad and decided on an aviation app, it’s time to consider how you will display your position on the charts during flight. As discussed earlier, if you purchased an iPad with the cellular data option, you’re covered with the internal GPS in your iPad (learn more about the iPad’s internal GPS).

If you’re flying with the WiFi-only model, you’ll want to consider purchasing an external GPS receiver. For less than $100, you can purchase a wireless GPS that connects to your iPad via Bluetooth. If you’re just getting started with flight training then you really don’t need an expensive GPS. For more information about iPad GPS, check out this article on choosing the right GPS.

ADS-B receiver

The next step up from a dedicated GPS is a portable ADS-B receiver, which will allow you to view free datalink weather (radar imagery, METARs, TAFs and more) in your favorite app while in flight. ADS-B is the most cost-effective way to get weather on an iPad in the airplane since you won’t have internet access at altitude.

These can range anywhere from $300 up to $700, and will also provide traffic, GPS position and a backup attitude display, in addition to traffic and weather. Beyond that, there are options for satellite weather, using the SiriusXM network, although these require a monthly subscription.

If you’re on a budget it’s ok to stick with just a basic GPS when getting started, but you’ll probably want to upgrade to an ADS-B receiver eventually, especially when you start flying longer cross-countries or working on an instrument rating. Here’s a comparison of each portable ADS-B receiver currently available, including features, app compatibility and pricing.

iPad mounting

Where do you plan to keep the iPad when you’re flying? Mounting options for the iPad essentially break down into two groups – mount it on the plane or mount it on your leg. Your first time flying with the iPad will be a little less organized. It does take practice to make the iPad do what you want when you want it. But as a student pilot, flying the plane is your first priority. Suction cup mounts and yoke mounts are great options to place the iPad right in your view. But it could be too easy to stare at the iPad for 30 seconds, and then who’s flying the airplane?

A good kneeboard puts the iPad at your fingertips without being in your scan. Just remember that altitude, airspeed and heading are most important and the goal is to not to bury your head in the iPad during flight. Once you’re used to it, having an iPad will greatly speed up the time looking at charts so you can focus on flying more. Here’s a comprehensive guide on mounting your iPad in the airplane.

Backup power

You’re well on your way to building a well-stocked flight bag to support your iPad with a GPS, kneeboard and aviation app. Here are a few other things you should consider. Backup power is great for both the iPad and GPS, since the iPad’s battery life is only about 4 hours when using it as a moving map in the airplane. Either a cigarette lighter adapter that puts out 2.4 amps on both USB ports or an external battery will do the trick. Our favorite battery is the Flight Gear Battery Pack. This features 4 USB ports and enough power to double the battery life of your iPad (you’ll find yourself taking it everywhere you go). Here are more tips on keeping the iPad powered.

Additional resources

Also, consider investing in a flight training app for home study to save you time and money during your training when away from the airport. Sporty’s Pilot Training app is optimized for iPhone and iPad and offers a full Private Pilot course, and you can try out the app free here. It contains hours of in-flight video training, along with interactive written test prep.

If you’re looking to learn more about ForeFlight, there’s a course designed to teach you exactly how to get started and use all of its features. It’s called Flying with ForeFlight and it’s also available in the Pilot Training app.

Lastly, here are a few resources to check about how the iPad can be integrated into the flight training process:

Should you use an iPad during flight training?

Student pilot’s guide to cross-country flight planning with an iPad

You’ll quickly learn that you only need to focus on a few basic capabilities of your aviation app initially, like looking up an airport communication frequency, viewing a sectional chart or reading a METAR. As your pilot skills grow, so will the utility of your iPad and aviation app, and you’ll soon find you won’t want to take off without it.

4 replies
  1. Scott Hebert
    Scott Hebert says:

    Foreflight is out of my budget, what other top rated EFBs are there available to student pilots.

    • Rangi Keen
      Rangi Keen says:

      FlyQ EFB is a good lower cost choice. It’s certainly not as refined as ForeFlight, but has all the features you’ll want.

      FltPlan Go is free and has many features, but I found its interface a little clunky.

      There are others as well you can find with a quick search but I haven’t tried those. Most have a free trial period so if you aren’t sure which one fits your style best, you can try them out before you subscribe.

      Finally, I’ll put in a plug for Civil Air Patrol who provides the top level subscription of ForeFlight at no cost to all its qualified pilots.

      • LTC Chuck Stone
        LTC Chuck Stone says:

        Thanks for putting in a plug for Civil Air Patrol and the fact that they do provide free of charge for flight pro series to all qualified cat pilots. The civil air patrol flying program is probably one of the best kept secrets in the world if you have a private pilot license you need to look in to the many advantages of becoming a Civil Air Patrol pilot.

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