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 ...
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.