Sunday, April 11, 2010

The iPad EFB: One Week of Use

There is so much to say about the iPad it's hard to know where to start, but the first thing pilots should know is that the iPad is simultaneously very cool and it's not the perfect electronic flight bag. In spite of it's problems and limitations, the iPad is probably the best performing piece of portable hardware I've used to date in the cockpit. The iPad's suitability for use in the cockpit is due in large part to the availability of some very good aviation apps. The apps the post will consider are ForeFlight Mobile 3, Skycharts Pro, and GoodReader. In the process, I'll try to address the issue of screen readability as well as the usability of the iPad itself and these three apps.

Screen Quality and Readability

Before plunking down $500 or more for an iPad, skeptics rightly want to know if the screen can be read easily in the cockpit. The answer is yes, it can. No display is perfect, but I demonstrated the iPad in flight to several pilots with a wide range of experience (from student to airline pilot) and the conclusion was unanimous: The screen is very readable, though you may have to adjust the position in bright sunlight or other lighting conditions. Here are some samples, but keep it mind it's hard to capture the quality of the screen in a photograph. If you disagree, fine, but please, no drive-by comments: We're all adults, right?

Low-wing aircraft, bright sunlight, but shaded.

High-wing aircraft at dusk.

At night, the lowest screen brightness was a bit too bright.

In bright sunlight the screen is hard to read, but then so is a paper chart.

Software Makes the iPad

Kudos to the developers at Skycharts, ForeFlight, and Goodiware for having versions of their apps ready when the iPad became generally available. This was no small task, so keep that in mind before complaining about plunking down some cash to buy their products. A complete review of these apps is not going to follow, just a brief overview of some of the features and needed improvements.

Both Skycharts and ForeFlight allow you to enter a route and have that route depicted on a VFR or IFR chart. They will both calculate rough performance numbers based on airspeed and fuel consumption, but keep in mind these are ballpark numbers: There's no allowance for time to climb, fuel to climb, or winds aloft.

Skychart Pro's subtle, blue course line doesn't obscure important chart details, but it's also hard to see. On an IFR low-altitude en route chart, the course line looks a lot like a T-route. Skycharts will remember your last route if you exit the app, which is important given the iPad currently doesn't support multi-tasking.

ForeFlight's course line is more prominent, but it also can obscure chart details. ForeFlight will not remember your last course if you exit and return to the app later.

ForeFlight can superimpose a course line over other types of displays like radar (assuming you have WiFi). You can see there currently is a bug when you change map displays - you have to resize the image to get the course line to redraw correctly. 

At US$0.99, GoodReader is the app for accessing and reading long PDF documents. You can use GoodReader to download and use terminal procedures from PDFPlates or Nacomatic. You can also use GoodReader to download and store PDF versions of the FAA's publications, even aircraft flight manuals. The user interface in the iPad version is a bit different than the iPhone version, but the app really shines with the iPad's bigger screen.

In addition to these apps, Mac users can access their email accounts, their calendars, and browse the web provided they have WiFi connectivity. Kinda makes me wonder if I'll continue to use an iPhone when my contract runs out. The iPhone has never been a very good phone, after all.


Both ForeFlight Mobile 3 and Skycharts Pro need to provide a way to store and retrieve a route: Currently neither app supports multiple routes, which becomes tedious very quickly. At least Skycharts remembers what you entered the last time you ran the app.

ForeFlight tries to do a lot of needed tasks and it does a reasonable job. Without multi-tasking, switching tasks is time-consuming and that leads some apps to try to do a lot of different stuff so a user doesn't have to exit. ForeFlight really needs to partition its features into pre-flight tasks and in-flight tasks. As it stands now, navigating between say an IFR chart display and a terminal chart display requires too much fiddling and head-down time for single-pilot operations. ForeFlight on the iPad currently doesn't support filing flight plans, animated radar displays, or support for different aircraft, but that was a time-to-market issue and will undoubtedly be addressed in a future release. Last but not least, if you were already a FFM3 subscriber with the iPhone app you automatically get access to the iPad version at no extra charge. A very classy thing to do, if you ask me.

With its chart-centered interface and tap-to-zoom feature, Skycharts Pro gets high marks for usability in the cockpit. No more fumbling to unfold a paper chart, or searching for your Airport Facility Directory, or approach chart binder. It's all at your fingertips for a low purchase price. Unfortunately Skycharts Pro doesn't provide all the information you'd find on a paper chart. In particular, I'd like to see tap-to-zoom for special use airspace: Tap on the label for an MOA sector or a restricted, prohibited, or alert area and you should see the altitudes, times of use, and the controlling agency. Also missing from the terminal area charts is data on special flight rules as well as Class Bravo transitions, flyways, and oddball stuff like the LAX mini-route. Without all the data, Skycharts Pro can't completely replace a paper chart - not yet!

I'd like to see both apps support routes containing Victor Airways and T-Routes as well as support for aircraft performance and winds aloft integrated into a navigation log.

iPad CRM, Enhancements & Limits

Using the iPad can be a challenge in a cramped cockpit. I'll examine some mounting and kneeboard options in a future post, but for now I just set the device in my lap on top of my kneeboard. My biggest fear is accidentally damaging the display with the control yoke or a sharp object like a pen. So far, my set up works and no hardware has been hurt.

iPad battery life seems fine in my one week of use. I used my iPad off and on for 12 to 14 hours a day and when I went to recharge it at night the battery still showed 45% charge remaining. With a power adapter for in-cockpit use, battery life is a non-issue.

Using an iPad at altitudes above 10,000' MSL could be problematic as Apple lists this as a limiting factor. It's hard to know why this limit exists, but theories abound. I've yet to get mine above 8,5000' though in a future post I hope to test my iPad at higher altitudes.

There is no satisfactory way I know of the write with the iPad, so I keep a pad of paper handy somewhere. ForeFlight does provides a scratch pad, but you have to switch screens and writing with an index finger is primitive. Of course my handwriting sucks to begin with ...

There currently is no way to drawn on, highlight, or otherwise mark-up a chart which is a feature I'd love to see. This could have huge potential beyond aviation uses, too. Imagine college students submitting papers as PDF files to their professors who would read them, mark them up on a device like an iPad, and send them back to the student.

The iPad currently does not support a Dvorak keyboard mapping, which is a pain for people like me who use Dvorak. Rumors are it may be in an upcoming release. One can but hope.

The iPad needs some sort of multi-tasking and that is slated to arrive with the next major software release. I've seen some hints at how this might work and I have to say I'm a bit underwhelmed. Still, the construction quality of the iPad and it's overall usability is what saves it from being just an interesting toy.

Apple's obsession with not supporting Flash is ... well ... it seems like an emotional issue. Some may argue that there is a business reason for doing this, but it just seems kooky to me. It's like watching a good friend make a really dumb decision: You're still their friend, but you can't help but cringe.

Overall, Four Stars

With the iPad, pilots have a choice for a reasonably-priced, roll-you-own electronic flight bag, with some caveats. The iPad does more than simple book readers like the Kindle or Sony, but it does so at a higher cost and with a bit more weight. The screen is readable in most conditions and what's more, the iPad does more that just display documents and charts. Manufacturers and producers of other chart products, both paper and electronic, should consider themselves on notice: Overpriced EFB solutions now have serious competition. Pilots on a budget have a new, relatively low-cost option that is a lot more usable and convenient that paper charts. This is just the next chapter in what one hopes will be an on-going revolution in how navigation data is produced and delivered to the cockpit.


David Cheung said...

Truly, the software makes the case here. Much thanks for the review!

Have you had any issues with the lack of support for USB/SDHC?

John Ewing said...

You're welcome!

USB support is provide for the iPad through iTunes. Data (like PDF fiels) can also be moved to/from the iPad via WiFi by applications like GoodReader.

Depending on who you listen to, DropBox support is rumored to be in the works for a future release. Others say it will never happen due to Apple's restrictions on device access.

As for SD cards, I don't necessarily miss them but it would have been nice to use them to extend memory storage or to move data to/from the iPad.

It's obvious that Apple was/is trying to control data access to their devices. The benefits of this are data consistency and security. The downsides are that it makes it hard for app developers to innovate without Apple's permission.

I won't get into whether this is right or wrong, but many find it annoying. It is what it is.

Agivator said...


I use Foreflight on my iPhone and really like it. It lets me store and retrieve routes as Favorites. From your review, it sounds like this capability is missing on the iPad. That's a drawback.

Also, do you use the approach plate displays in Foreflight? I would be interested to know how they compare to downloading the PDF versions. I automatically download them in Foreflight to peruse and for reference, but the display on the iPhone is too small for them to be practical to use in the air.

Thanks for the informative review!

Rick Matus

John Ewing said...


I don't use ForeFlight that much for displaying term procs, though I use it for briefings and filing a lot. The quality of the term procs in ForeFlight is good, it's just not terribly easy to navigate to them.

Skycharts Pro seems very easy to use in flight for viewing charts and the term procs display is also very good. I'm working on getting a YouTube video up in the next few days.

Glad you found the review useful!

Ron said...

A good review. I have not used a "homebrew" EFB (which is to say, one that wasn't designed specifically for aviation use by the manufacturer) in the cockpit myself, so excuse my musings... but from the perspective of an instructor, I can't help but wonder if an iPad could be detrimental to instrument pilots in flight through interfering with the controls, a software glitch during an approach, it falling off your lap in turbulence, or something else that raises the workload a bit more than might be the case if it wasn't there.

I work with a fair number of low time or rusty instrument pilots. They have a hard enough time with the stuff that's already in the panel. I suppose the plus side is that you can take the iPad home and master it before you go flying. But I'd imagine you'd want to be careful about where it was placed in the cockpit, how it was used, and so on.

I have seen iPhone suction mounts in aircraft -- perhaps something like that is in the offing for the iPad, too.

I can't imagine why they'd put an altitude limitation on a purely solid state device. People live at altitudes higher than that, don't they? I wonder if a lawyer somewhere at Apple was concerned about the device being used in a cockpit...


John Ewing said...


FWIW, I flew an instructional flight in hard IMC yesterday with continuous light turbulence and occasional moderate with my iPad comfortably resting on my kneeboard. I'll review the RAM mount for the iPad with the suction grip soon.

I also do a lot of proficiency flights with "rusty" pilots and many of the problems you mention can happen with paper charts - pilot selects the wrong procedure, can't locate the desired procedure, drops chart on floor.

My reading of AC 120-76A indicates that an iPad is simply an off-the-shelf class 1 or 2 EFB and requires no certification for ops conducted under 14 CFR 91 (other than fractional ops under subpart K).

Wanna see something really scary? Watch an old MX20 closely when it boots up (or spontaneously reboots in flight) and you'll see a blue screen. At the bottom of that screen, upside-down, you'll get a glimpse of this text - "Windows NT"!

When you get a chance to use Skycharts Pro you'll realize how dirt simple it is to look up a chart and display it. It's much simpler than loading an approach on an IFR-certified Garmin.

As for the supposed 10,000 foot altitude limit, many theories have been proposed.

Christopher Weiss said...

Is there any support for using gps to geo-reference the charts? Can an iPad connect with a gps at all either via bluetooth or the dock connector?
I expect that the 3G version's a-gps will not work with the 3G radio turned off (as when flying).

John Ewing said...


Good questions and I'll say up front that not all the answers are available at this writing.

The current crop of iPads have no GPS receiver and no 3G, just WiFi. As to whether or not Apple will change the convention of airplane mode turning off both the 3G data reception as well as the GPS is anyone's guess.

I suspect there will be a way (if there isn't already) to "jail-break" an iPad and take control of the bluetooth stack, thereby allowing an external GPS unit to connect. Of course once you "jail-break" a device, you're entering deep waters and departing the safe harbor of an off-the-shelf device with a limited warranty.

I believe that Skycharts has plans to offer geo-referencing on the iPad for VFR sectional, TACs, and low-alititude en route IFR charts, just as they currently do on the iPhone (though that involves leaving the phone active, which is illegal in an airborne aircraft). Geo-referencing the FAA's terminal procedures is a much harder task, I'm told.

I personally don't mind my iPad being without GPS. Small GPS receivers, in my experience, offer poor performance at best. Built-in antennae are easy to block/shadow and the end result could be more confusion and workload than just using the iPad to display the charts and using your noggin' (along with your panel-mounted, IFR GPS) to maintain situational awareness

And let me hopefully preempt my more snarky readers and point out that (imagine the voice of the Big Lebowski here) "these are just my opinions, man."

Christopher Weiss said...

Just an FYI: A-GPS usually requires the mobile phone connection in order to work. See

GarrettD78 said...

Have you tried a POGO stylus to write on the IPad. I have read that they are great for writing on it. Although I don't have an IPad or IPhone to test it on, I thought I would share. Supposed to be better than your index finger.

John Ewing said...


Yes, I have a Pogo stylus and have tried it. It's only marginally better than a finger tip and essential has the same "footprint" (excuse the mixed metaphor).

I got the Pogo when I purchased the Inklet application for the Mac, which is supposed to allow you to do drawing and pen input on a Macbook Pro's trackpad. I found both the stylus and the Inklet software to be lacking.

The best handwriting/drawing experience I had on a computer was on my failed Modbook experiment, which you can read about here:

Patrick Pohler said...

When the iPad came out I had the very same thought, that while expensive the iPad would be a far cheaper alternative to the 1000+ EFBs out there. Hopefully the apps and the device will continue to improve, but it sounds like its off to a very good start!

steveH said...

Two comments:

1: The 10,000' limitation is an artifact of the certification process; that's the maximum required operating altitude. And the limit, by the way, is air cooling capability.

The device will almost certainly function well above 10K', but it's not guaranteed to do so.

2: For Christopher Weiss; A-GPS does not require mobile phone access to work, access simply speeds up position acquisition. It works fine with no cell access, it just takes a bit (to quite a bit) longer is all.

All that said, I'm having fun getting up to speed with what this first gen iPad can do.

Neels said...


Very nice review. for annotation of documents/drawing on charts, try iAnnotate PDF, a brilliant app.

As for GPS, as John Ewing said, you have to jail break the beastie. I'm not a big fan of jail breaking so I can't really say much about the method, but you can check this writeup for more info:

Gary said...

good review.

just bought a used ipad wifi + 3g and loaded current version of foreflight.

just got back from driving around with it in my volvo at 2am.

gps show position good in all maps, in cached google earth images, and in all foreflight maps. March 12,2011