iPad: the most awesome pilot aid — ever

Had a phone conversation a week or so ago with a pilot interested in purchasing an iPad for use as an electronic flight bag while flying. His questions made me realize there’s an appetite out there for information and given that Transport Canada just yesterday issued an update to its circular about EFBs, now seems like a particularly apt time to fill in some blanks.

I use an iPad 2 every time I fly, and I consider it, simply put, the most miraculous enhancement to aviation since the VHF radio. I consider that to be true whether you fly a Piper Cub or an Airbus A380.

Screen shot from my iPad of the FltPlan moving map GPS.

Screen shot from my iPad of FltPlan’s moving map GPS. Present location is shown by the little blue airplane.

What can’t it do? It’s a weather station, a GPS navigation tool, a flight planning device, a storage device for pilot operating handbooks, operations manuals, SOPs, NavCanada and Transport Canada documents such as the AIM. It will display approach plates and VFR and IFR navigation charts. And when you’re through flying for the day and parked in a hotel or your home, it does all the things a computer will do, and more besides: e-mail, twitter, web browser, gaming platform, etcetera, etcetera, etcetera.

All the big airlines are moving to iPad use. American Airlines was the pioneer and trail blazed a path through the FAA red tape. Canadian airlines have been slower, but they’re all headed in that direction. The advantage is all their operations manuals, SOPs, etc., can be stored on the iPad, a tremendous savings in weight and, therefore, fuel.

These days I’m usually flying a 172. When I have a mission to do, the first thing I do is reach for my iPad. I use it to check the weather, NOTAMS, and then with some simple data entry — a departure point, arrival point, the time I intend to fly, number of passengers and altitude — it generates a boffo flight plan and weight and balance a split second after hitting enter. It automatically corrects track for wind and even points out the gains and losses in speed and fuel burn at various optional altitudes, All can be easily updated if the flight parameters change. The flight plan can then be submitted electronically to ATC.

Once in the airplane i strap the iPad to my knee, just like a knee board, using a third-part velcro case I bought on-line. It then becomes a remarkable moving-map GPS unit, geo-referencing my airplane on a VFR or IFR chart (which I can change in an instant). Need more detail? You can pinch-zoom on the chart.

Then, let’s say I need information about an airport en route or prior to approach. A couple of taps and there’s all the data at my fingertips. Another tap and I’m back to the GPS.


Screen shot from my iPad of a CAP approach plate for the ILS 26 at CYKF.

The real beauty is if you fly IFR. The iPad display happens to be identical in size to NavCanada’s CAP approach plates. So you can have plates available for every airport in the country (or the continent, for that matter), all stored on your knee. No more heavy books to lug or flip through. And when it comes time to update them? Press a couple buttons and, presto, new charts loaded. Even better? They’re free.

If you fly in the U.S., it gets even better. There, the approach plates will geo-reference as you fly the approach. So you can check your progress through the approach on the plate as you fly it in real time. Delicious, no?

When I was a flight attendant at WestJet I’d show my iPad, and what it can do, to 737 pilots and their mouths would drop in amazement. It gives small operators the kind of functionality that previously could only be found in expensive avionics arrays on large commercial aircraft.

If you’re going to buy, and I’d heartily recommend doing so, here are some things to consider:

  • Get the 3G capability. Yes, it will cost more, but it will significantly enhance what the device can do for aviation. Apps such as ForeFlight Mobile (more on it shortly) work better if you have 3G. As well, if you’re at a location with no wifi access, such as a small or remote airport, 3G will allow you to update your flight plan and check weather. Otherwise, you’re stuck.
  • Get a Bad Elf dongle. It’s about the size of a quarter and plugs into the iPad’s charging port. It significantly enhances the internal GPS to give you better reliability and WAAS-level accuracy. It costs about $100.

By far the best app for the iPad, in my opinion, is made by ForeFlight. Their web site has a terrific explanation of the iPad, real-time weather additions, which iPad to get and how the Bad Elf dongle works and why it’s necessary. There is subscription required to use the app.

I use an app called FltPlan. It’s free and there’s no subscription. It has a good flight planning function and you can download Canadian approach plates and IFR charts within the app. Canadian VFR charts aren’t yet available but NavCanada says they’re coming soon. In the meantime, if you live reasonably close to the U.S. border, you can get by using the digital version of the U.S. charts that spill into Canada. You would, of course, be required to have a paper version of the appropriate Canadian chart as your primary reference if you were flying in Canadian airspace.

If you’re a bit overwhelmed, head to ForeFlight’s web site. It’s a terrific place to start.