Flying with the iPad, or Another Tablet!

The iPad burst onto the scene years ago as a game changer and a true disruptive technology. It’s easy to see that people have changed the way they live their lives around the tablet technology. The time was right and the product was (not quite) perfect (but it was close enough) and now it is even better!


Using my iPad in the cockpit while visiting Santa back in 2012! Seemed like a fitting picture as we approach Christmas…


The same is true when we think about pilots, student pilots and flight instructors! The iPad has changed the way we fly and it has become an invaluable tool. Whether it is for preflight preparation during the weeks/days ahead of the flight, for immediate preflight checks, use during the flight of even to complete post flight items, the iPad has a wealth of capabilities. The iPad can effectively help us plan a flight. The tablet is equally useful for checklists, charts, traffic display, etc… After the flight we can record our flight time in an electronic log book, find a good hotel close by to the airport and do so much more…

But, before we go rolling down the runway relying on a tablet for in-flight information, there are a couple of things we should think about. Whether you’ve used the iPad or another tablet while flying before, the following is a list of things to think about…

  1. Practice on the ground first!

The expression goes something like, “young and dumb”… I was 18 years old on a sunny September day. The task for the day, the flying portion of my private pilot checkride, a few days earlier with a substantial rain storm passing over I aced the oral exam, but now it was time to fly. I remember the examiner (Jan) and I were climbing into the airplane and during my preflight passenger briefing (See: preflight passenger briefing post shared on RBF earlier this month) I inquired how the checkride would progress? She infomed me of the basic plan and I then told her okay great, I have this cool new cockpit lap board that I wanted to try out. I had completed my flight training with a traditional knee board but on the day of my checkride I had just gotten the new lap desk in the mail and I was anxious to try it out.

I’m not sure what she thought of my desire to try something new on the day of my flight test but looking back, it was a dumb move to try something new like that during a checkride! In any event, the checkride went very well and the lapboard worked great, she even commented on how organized I was in the cockpit while handing me my temporary license…

The main takeaway from the story is that before you go up, up and away it is vitally important to understand how the tablet and your app of choice is going to work for you. Similarly, the G-1000 “glass cockpit” is awesome, but if you don’t know how to operate the 128 knobs/buttons then it isn’t of good use for you. It is hugely important to know what you can do with the tablet/app combination you have at your disposal. Spending some time on the living room couch will help you master the basic functionality. From there, over time you will learn new tips & tricks and ways to get even more out of your selected tablet/app combo. Between the functions you didn’t know existed and new ones that get added, you’ll constantly be learning, but it is important for this to happen on the couch and not in the cockpit. You are a pilot first, not a software beta tester….

The same is true when “major” updates come out for the tablet operating system and/or for the application that you use for flying… It is always better to try out the new software on the ground than to learn in flight that you don’t have access to any charts while you are approaching your destination…

  1. Pick an app and stick with it…

When learning to fly it is extremely important to pick one flight instructor and stick with them, it makes for better continuity in your learning. The same is true when it comes to flying with a tablet & app combination. Pick one tablet & app combination and grow with it. Get used to the app, learn the nuances, the capabilities and the limitations. The more familiar you are with the combination (tablet & app) the better prepared you are for dealing with abnormalities during your flight. As you know, flying often doesn’t go exactly as planned, being able to adapt is important and you will be better able to do this if you are extremely attuned to the tablet and application you use.

  1. Have a charging routine & charger on hand.

When the battery is dead a tablet makes a great paperweight. I have a huge collection of gadgets and flying supplies but one thing I have never wished I had in the cockpit was a paperweight, I’ve never had a need for one over all these years… Depending on a tablet for providing vital in-flight information (ie: housing your approach plates) means that you trust a piece of technology. The tablet is only going to be useful to you if it has battery power.

It is of paramount importance to ensure that your tablet is charged and ready for flight whenever you need it. Flight instructors keep their flight instructor certificate in their wallet so they always have it and it’s always ready to go. That way they never miss an opportunity to make some money… If you rely on a tablet while flying you really need to ensure it is ready to go any time you need it. For planned flights, you should have a plan to charge the tablet the night before or morning of the flight. Moreover, it is very useful to have an in-flight charging solution. Whether it is through the electrical system of the airplane or from a mobile charger. This falls back to the basic motto I subscribe to: It’s better to have it and not need it than to need it and not have it!

  1. Where are your eyes while in flight?

The Code of Federal Regulations, 14 CFR 91.113(b) specifically, states: “When weather conditions permit, regardless of whether an operation is conducted under instrument flight rules or visual flight rules, vigilance shall be maintained by each person operating an aircraft so as to see and avoid other aircraft. When a rule of this section gives another aircraft the right-of-way, the pilot shall give way to that aircraft and may not pass over, under, or ahead of it unless well clear.” Pilots commonly refer to the Federal Aviation Regulations (FARs) as the regulations; in realty it is federal law… Sounds a little more imperative that we follow it when you say it like that, does’t it?

As pilots we are required to always be looking outside of the airplane for other traffic, even on instrument flight rules flights… While operating under visual flight rules it is important to spend the majority of your time looking outside of the airplane, even while operating IFR you should be scanning for traffic… Thus, if you are spending more than half the time looking at your tablet then that is too much time. It is very important to remember to keep your eyes outside of the airplane and not to let your tablet become a distraction from flying the airplane!

  1. Bring a back up!

With #3 we discussed the lack of use for a battery-dead tablet… Losing power isn’t the only potential issue. Even the best pieces of technology are susceptible to crashes and other failures. It could be a software bug in the device firmware or in the application. Either way, finding out 20 miles from you destination that you won’t be able to access the airport diagram or approach plate for your destination is not a good situation to find yourself in. This can be easily avoided by having a back up. Whether the back up is another piece of technology or a paper back up.

Maybe your back up is a set of approach plates, maybe a smart phone with essential information or maybe it is a back up tablet. Regardless of what you use for the back up it is vitally important to have a Plan B. Also keep in mind that once you’ve had to go to Plan B you will already be dealing with a distraction due to your frustration with Plan A not working as you had planned…

Many times I fly with my iPhone displaying a Foreflight moving map on a suction cut mount off to the side. The only view it is obscuring is empty panel space, not out the window or any gauges/instruments on the dashboard. Occasionally I practice using the iPhone for the airport diagram or for my source of information. The idea being if my iPad mini decides to quit for any reason, I know what to do and going to the much smaller iPhone screen doesn’t become too much of an issue for me. Of course, I ALWAYS bring a set of paper charts with me, to this day I’ve never had a software failure or battery drain issue with good old-fashioned paper charts, amazing how that works!

  1. Think about where the tablet is actually going to be placed in the cockpit!

This point is one that a lot of pilots never even consider until they are cruising along and spending time thinking about where to rest their tablet instead of thinking about flying the airplane. Remember the number one rule of aviation, regardless of what else happens, FLY THE AIRPLANE!

It is very important to spend a little time while getting settled into the airplane before starting the engine thinking about where your tablet is going to be positioned. Maybe you have a yoke mount or you plan to use the empty copilot seat, regardless of where you put the tablet, you don’t want to be fumbling around with the device instead of flying the airplane, especially during a critical phase of flight such as during a takeoff or approach to landing. I generally keep my iPad on my lap during taxi (when I’m using the airport diagram) and place the unit in the leg-side pocket before takeoff. Once I have reached cruise the iPad is repositioned onto my lap for cruise flight (or on the empty seat next to me when I am solo). Prior to approach the airport the iPad is handed to my passenger or placed on the empty passenger seat so that I can quickly reference it for taxiing if I am at an unfamiliar airport. If I am landing back at Mansfield or New Bedford where I am intimately knowledgeable of the facility the iPad is stored in the leg-side pocket for safe keeping. That way it doesn’t get dropped and lost temporarily.

A tablet has boundless capabilities and functions. While flying with a co-pilot, instructor or passenger it is vitally important that one person being presently flying the airplane at all times! If your passenger wants to try out some new functionality or see what your app-of-choice can do, that is fine but remember you are flying the plane not providing technical support for their app testing!

  1. Aviation use ONLY while flying…

Lastly, and I don’t feel like this needs a lot of explanation. The pilot should only being using their tablet for aviation use while flying. In other words using your aviation application is good but playing Angry Birds or reading the Wall Street Journal while being the pilot flying is simply NOT okay…

When I started writing this post I intended it to be a short, sweet & simple list of tips & tricks for flying with a tablet but as you can see it quickly became so much more. I hope that you learned something or at least had some food for thought from my items to consider when using a tablet during flight!

-Fly Safe, @MTElia1B9

Editor’s Note: I prefer the iPad with ForeFlight, but there are plenty of other excellent tablets & applications out there to fit any pilot preferences you may have!


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