The Pilot’s iPad Form Factor Choice

When I started learning to fly almost two decades ago the “standard” items in a pilot’s flight bag included some steady standbys. These included items such as a fuel sample cup, headset and aeronautical chart. Many of the contents of the “standard” pilot’s flight bag remain the same today, but a significant percentage of pilots now include an iPad in their flight bag.

Photo Apr 02, 9 06 16 AM

The standard contents of a flight bag haven’t changed too much over the past 10-20 years, but the emergence of the iPad as a flight management tool has made it a must-have for many pilots. Note: My iPad mini is hiding in there somewhere!

I often think about how “simple” the iPad has made flying. When I was a new instructor one of my irrational fears was that one of my students would become lost on a solo cross country flight, specifically their first one. Since then moving map GPS units have become more common. These units added another layer of reassurance that the students had a “full-proof” back up for their plotted course on the paper chart.

The iPad has taken this to a whole new level. The capabilities of the flight planning/flight management apps on the market today provide students and certificated pilots with a whole new level of cockpit management capabilities. However, it’s more than just all of the things that a pilot can do with the iPad/app…

Today student and renter pilots have the ability to become more familiar with the capabilities of their iPad and app of choice as compared to the panel-mounted GPS systems in the aircraft that they fly. Granted the GPS in the aircraft can be certified for IFR flight but for added situational awareness the iPad/app combination is just as effective. Even more so, as the pilots can spend ample time at home learning the capabilities and trying the apps out to become familiar with the “button-logy” in the comfort of their own home as opposed to in flight, while paying for an aircraft.

With the ability to practice at home and really get to know what will happen during the normal course of usage, the pilots know what to expect with various user inputs and in various operational situations. This results in a higher level of comfort for the pilot with the capabilities of the unit thanks to plenty of practice.

The value of the iPad for a pilot is unquestioned. However, one question that every pilot will face before flying with an iPad remains: Which iPad is right for them in the cockpit? In the early days of the iPad there was only one choice, the 9.7” iPad was the only model on the market. Now however, consumers can choose between one of three sizes:

  • iPad Pro with a display of 12.9”
  • iPad/iPad Pro with a display of 9.7”
  • iPad Mini with a display of 7.9”

There are a variety of factors to consider when selecting an iPad to use in the cockpit. For flight planning the 12.9” displays offers the most real estate. However, for being the easiest to utilize in the cockpit, the 7.9” display model offers the most flexibility. Mounting the iPad to the yoke is fairly easy with the smaller display model, whereas the units with larger displays can become extremely bulky.

North Pole Approach Chart on the iPad

On a Christmas Eve flight of the past, my 9.7″ display iPad 2 with an approach plate for the North Pole! The now medium-sized iPad worked for me, but the iPad mini has been even better!

For full disclosure, I have never used the 12.9” model in the cockpit. The first time I used one I wasn’t even a fan of using it in a recliner or at a desk, let alone in the cockpit of an airplane. My first iPad was a 9.7” device and I felt that was a little too big for easy use in the cockpit. When I switched to the iPad mini, with a 7.9” display, adopting the unit into my flying was easy. I quickly realized the form factor was perfect for my needs. With the ability to pan and zoom, the screen size was perfect. Granted for planning it can be a little small but that’s a tradeoff I’m willing to make for the effectiveness of the unit in the cockpit, as part of my personal cockpit resource management program.

Photo Apr 30, 1 44 44 PM

Chart folding, soon to be a lost art!

My recommendation for every pilot evaluating which iPad to utilize is to select the iPad that will be most effective for you in the cockpit. In previous times, I would teach my students the tricks to folding a sectional chart to best organize it for the flight ahead. This would allow them to have the minimum number of chart panels open at any one time. Now however, it’s more about which size iPad will allow pilots of all experience/certification levels to get the best from their flight management app of choice.

-Fly Safe, @MTElia1B9



3 thoughts on “The Pilot’s iPad Form Factor Choice

  1. I think the 7.9″ is the way to go even in larger aircraft. Seems like the old guys still need the 9.7″ so they can zoom more to see plates, etc.

  2. I had the whole tour, started with a 9.7 when the iPad as EFB started, was happy. Moved to the Mini when is became available, was happy. Realized the small screen and especially the yoke mount were the wrong direction for me, even had impact on autopilot function. Got a 1st gen 12.9, which was a bad decision due to its bulkiness. Moved to 3rd gen 12.9 and am now happy, cause its a nice compromise. You can’t beat screen estate and 3rd gen 12.9 smaller case is suitable as its almost letter size.

    • Markus,

      Thank you for sharing your experiences with the various models. I have yet to try to 12.9. Between the 9.7 and 7.9 I still prefer the smaller unit, though your point about the screen real estate makes a lot of sense…

      -Fly Safe, @MTElia1B9

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