Lessons learned during my iPad year


I received an iPad for Christmas last year and put it to use straightaway in my Skyhawk.

Not knowing which aviation application to use, I tried several. I purchased ForeFlight, Flight Guide and Pilot My-Cast by Garmin, and did a 30-day trial of WingX Pro from Hilton Software. Now, nearly a year on, I use ForeFlight most often, with My-Cast a close second.

With these apps I can plan a flight, review the weather anytime, fly the plan or change it on the move using an easily readable and seamless electronic sectional — and take advantage of the cheapest fuel stops enroute. In deteriorating conditions I can use the approach plates with georeferencing of my position as a backup to the IFR-certified GPS in my plane.

I bought a mount from Ram and the iPad sits on the yoke without covering any instruments. To connect with the Internet, I use Verizon’s Hotspot, a pocket-sized device that costs about $40 a month. The Internet connection even allows me to check email, file an order with Sporty’s or Aircraft Spruce, or read the best of General Aviation News online — all these on the ground, of course.

Once underway from Marion County Airport (MAO), my home base at Marion, S.C., I rarely fly above 5,500 feet and my cross countries seldom exceed 350 miles. I have had no problems receiving information inflight. But the connection can be lost, just like with cellphones.

ForeFlight works problem-free with my iPad’s built-in GPS. My-Cast also pairs nicely with it. Flight Guide recommended its add-on GPS receiver (now $299) and I bought it. It works fine as well.

The apps show your plane’s location on the maps and approach plates. Pilot My-Cast superimposes weather on the sectional while ForeFlight requires a change to another page.

The iPad viewing screen is bright, clear and easily expands to show increased detail. I set maximum lighting intensity and use a cigarette lighter charger plug to save the iPad battery. Even the brightest setting can be washed out by direct, brilliant sunlight, but I can count on one hand the number of times screen fadeout has been an issue. Also, a dark shirt offers less reflection on the screen in all conditions.

In hot weather keep the iPad out of direct sunlight or it will overheat and shut down until cool. Mine has never overheated while mounted on the yoke with the plane in motion. My iPad has never been exposed to temperatures lower than freezing in the cockpit, so I have had no experience with shutdowns because of extreme cold.

The most important decisions I made this past year using the iPad were the ones not to launch. At least half a dozen times, after a look at weather on the iPad while sitting in the plane, I chose to fly another day.

On the days I decided to fly, the iPad was more than helpful. Once, on a 112-mile flight to Burlington, N.C., the early morning report at BUY showed light winds and good visibility. But underway a few hours later a nasty crosswind and lowering ceiling showed up on the latest METAR. The information didn’t improve conditions, but I was prepared for arrival long before I listened to the Burlington ASOS.

One Saturday I craved a barbecue sandwich from my favorite airport restaurant, Stanton’s near Bennettsville, S.C., 29 miles away. I got a late start and didn’t land on Stanton’s quirky, inclined, dog-leg grass strip until after one.

When I walked back outside in mid-afternoon there were Cb buildups in three quadrants. The iPad radar painted an ominous red and yellow squall line to the northwest with the opening back to Marion dotted with patches of rain. I got off the ground almost immediately and flew a zigzag course home, dodging scattered circles of heavy rain that were easy to see out the window and also on the Pilot My-Cast screen. I landed in a calm drizzle at Marion and three hours later the storm arrived, packing a wallop that would have overwhelmed my aircraft.

I bought a farm this past summer and that involved the iPad in an unusual flight. The farm has a pasture ideal for an airstrip. After working each day to clear the weeds, I flew down to the farm in late evening to relax and to see what the approaches would be like. On each 10-mile trip, with the sun already below the horizon, I would set up for a landing and fly the planned runway at about 100 feet.

One evening darkness caught up with me on the return. No reason for alarm, I knew. This was my home territory and I’d catch the MAO beacon in a moment. Only there was no beacon. And no runway lights.

I found out later a construction team at the airport shut down all exterior electricals when they quit work. That left only blackness beyond the cow pastures where the airport should have been illuminated. I could have easily diverted to a lighted field. But what if I had been a stranger to the area, low on fuel and desperate to land?

On that evening, I called up the ForeFlight Runway 4 GPS approach plate with two finger taps. The miniature airplane on the screen pinpointed my position and I rolled left to intercept the initial approach fix, then turned again moments later directly for Fokav, the final fix. A few minutes later the fuzzy outlines of the runway stripes emerged from the darkness. This would also have been an ideal situation to use WingX Pro7’s new synthetic vision add-on, which I don’t yet have.

I include the iPad in my refresher training to stay IFR current, using it as a backup to the older Garmin 300XL GPS in my aircraft. Seeing your exact position on the iPad approach plate is superb for situational awareness under the hood while shooting GPS or VOR approaches.

In the final analysis, the iPad, like my handheld transceiver and portable GPS, is a safety backup. I could do without it, but that would take my flying back to a less informed, less safe arrangement. Obviously, I will not go back. But I might go forward soon to the even faster iPad2.

Costs: An iPad2 ranges from approximately $550 to $700. ForeFlight offers a VFR plan for $74.99 yearly and ForeFlight Pro with additional instrument procedures and diagrams is $149.99 yearly. Pilot My-Cast basic is $99 per year and the full package is $180. Flight Guide begins at $99 yearly and the IFR standard plan is $129, the IFR Plus Data Plan is $199. Flight Guide has also partnered with Zaon to offer traffic alerts directly on the sectional. Wing X Pro7 is $99 yearly and the Synthetic vision add-on is $99. Add $75 for georeferencing of your aircraft on the charts and another $30 for fuel prices.

For more information: Apple.com, ForeFlight.com, Garmin.com, FlightGuide.com, HiltonSoftware.com


  1. Ska350 says

    After two years of use, we’re pretty much “in love” with the iPad/ForeFlight combination. It’s no substitute for situational awareness or spatial orientation but if you have these two things in hand it’s a wonderful addition to the cockpit. On our last big cross country flight we used it exclusively to check weather, notams, file flight plans and look for reasonable fuel prices. We’re based in Fairbanks Alaska and fly most of our trips at 10M since that meets our local MEAs and gives us good fuel economy. In true IMC this devise is best left to the “pilot monitoring” (or whatever they call, it these days). We like to think of the right-seater as “Goose”. That’s the Guy Operating the Other Seat Equipment! (mixtures, temps, fuel flow, etc). In a single pilot environment, the best you can realistically use this for is destination WX updates while enroute (there is this great temptation to keep looking inside when you really need to be a. Looking outside or b. Keeping your scan going). If you’re in VMC ya need to be looking out the windows. Anyway, we fly a C-182Q and with the Bad Elf addition have no trouble with GPS reception (even under the wing in the back seat of a Beaver). In the hands of the “Goose” this is a Wonderful piece of equipment. It’s a great backup to the Garmin 530 in the air and on the ground, well, see above. En route over high terrain in IMC it gives you clear guidance as to where the “low terrain” is if the engine quits. Anyway, that’s one pilot’s opinion (well two, my wife and I are both licensed and have over 5,500 hours between us). It’s NOT an FAA approved soul source for ANYTHING but it’s a humdinger of a peripheral in the cockpit. Oh, the long cross country, PAFA, KSEA, KDFW, KRVS, KROA, KMIA, KOSH and home again. A little over 10,000 statute (sounds cooler than 9,000 something NM).

  2. Bill Ross says

    Why the anger and the dismissive tone, George?  Stan’s observations is appropriate as it gives us pause when dealing with a situation that easily could go bad.  

    Your manners benefit none of us.

  3. Kurtdavies says

    The latest version of Foreflight does allow you to superimpose radar wx on top of your VFR sectional.  Whether you can get wx updates in the air of course will depend on how high you are flying and if you are flying over a populated area or not. I recently flew commercial, from Madison Wi to San Diego, and the foreflight/iPad was able to maintain a GPS fix the entire route.  It was fun to see speed, altitude etc during the two hour flight.  I also have a skyhawk and typically lose the GPS fix.  I purchased the “Dual GPS reciever” and have never lost the GPS fix since.  I think cuz my aircraft is a highwing…it’s harder for the iPad internal GPS to work consistently.  My buddy with a low wing rarely has that problem.  Good article. Thanks, Kurt

  4. Lon Sobel says

    Excellent review. I especially liked that it was based on a year’s worth of experience.

    I am planning to use an iPad in a Skyhawk, but the question of where and how to mount it has given me pause. Other users have said (online) that mounting an iPad on the yoke of a Skyhawk does block sight to instruments, though you didn’t have that problem.

    Did you do anything special while mounting it, to keep your instruments visible? Indeed, if you have a photo of your iPad as mounted, I think lots of Skyhawk pilots would like to see it. I certainly would.



  5. Nsargent says

    Bill your article implies WX in flight. I haven’t been able to replicate that with Foreflight using the GNS 5870. My iPad is wifi only.

  6. Stan says

    I enjoyed your article, up until the point where you announced you landed on an unlighted runway, particularly when you could have “easily diverted to a lighted field.”

    Taking risks and pressing on to the intended destination, even when easy divert options are available, is precisely the same kind of thinking that leads to numerous VFR-into-IMC accidents every year.

    I’d invite anyone to read this


    accident report if you are interested in the risks of landing on a runway at night with no edge lighting. There was some misunderstanding by the crew of which side of the runway the PAPI was supposed to be on, and they ended up landing off the side of the runway instead of on it. Luckily no one was killed.

    • says

      >>>Get over yourself, Stan, and get out more.  Thanks, however, for answering my unspoken question “which dink will jump on this with a naddering nabob comment?” Nota Bene Bogus = your utterly absurd and ignorant reference to one of the higher landing speed bizjets…with three times the touchdown speed, five times the weight, and one tenth the manueverability of the subject aircraft, On one unpleasant extreme in aviation today we have the UL-nos-SP reckless cowboy instructors (now advocated by whoremonger AOPA, EAA, and NAFI as “equivalent” to full CFIs for advanced rating dual credit)  and on the other, you and the panic attack prudes.
      >>>First, for FAA enforcement purposes (and my second unspoken question was “which nolife lowlife will report him to a FSDO?”) the author never said he landed.  Just saw the runway environment. Which IS all you need to approach VFR and then land when the impressive, twin, highwing-mounted lights of a Skyhawk give you sufficient detail.  And BTB, Stannieboy, every deemt, experienced, skilled CFI will expose their student to a no landing light night landing on lit runways before graduation and, with sufficient moonphase ambient, even unlit runay with landing light as here.
      >>>Just as during exposure to a staged noflap landing to provide prior experience with that eventuality, there IS a discernible but insignificant increased risk to this… but then all life contains a particle of risk and cost/benefit analysis is ultimately personal.  In these practice scenarios and the occasion written about, BFD Stan.
      >>>Great, clear, intro level article. More images might have been nice and a followup after two years trial is eagerly awaited.

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