Despite quirks, the iPad shines in bizav cockpits

Aviation International News » July 2010
July 8, 2010, 7:33 AM

Apple’s new iPad tablet computer is enjoying instant popularity, with more than two million of the $499-and-up units selling since deliveries began in early April. The iPad has also garnered serious interest from the aviation community, as a tool for preflight planning and in-flight moving-map display.

Unlike other smartphones, Apple’s iPhone has become an enormously popular platform for aviation software or “apps,” as Apple refers to the more than 200,000 programs available for download for the iPhone. Now with the iPad’s 9.7-inch display, developers of iPad apps are taking full advantage of the tablet and quickly turning it into an electronic flight bag replacement device that also happens to be an excellent e-book reader, movie and tv show player and even an almost laptop replacement. 

In the spirit of new technology, I wrote this article primarily on an iPad and iPhone. I used an iPhone as well because I had to borrow an iPad. They are simply still hard to find in stores and I didn’t have time to order one before this story’s deadline. 

As amazing as the iPad is, there are drawbacks. To research this story, I took notes and wrote this document using Apple’s Pages app on the iPad and Quickoffice’s Connect mobile suite word processor on the iPhone. But each time I needed to test an iPad aviation app while using the iPad, I had to close Pages and launch the app, try various features, then close that app, open Pages and write my notes. Later this year, Apple will release new software to allow multitasking on the iPad, which will make researching and writing about apps easier. iPhone multitasking should be available by the time this article is published.

An Apps-based System

The iPad is not a laptop computer, and this became apparent the first time I tried to download and save an approach plate without paying for one of the dedicated apps that make that process simple. AOPA and many other organizations–such as Airnav, FltPlan.com, FlightAware and so on–offer free FAA approach plates, and the iPad displays them beautifully. They are clear and sharp and there is no need for zooming, but zooming is easy via Apple’s multitouch gestures if necessary. 

However, there is no way to save a chart from AOPA or these other Web sites. All allow viewing of the approach plates in Adobe PDF format, but once they are opened on the iPad via Apple’s Safari browser, the approach plates can’t be saved onto the iPad. This is where the major difference between the iPad and a computer becomes apparent. With any ordinary computer, saving a PDF that has been opened in a browser is a simple matter of clicking “file” then “save as” and choosing where to store the file on the hard drive. Not so with the iPad.

This is a curious conundrum. The personal computer succeeded as a tool for a huge variety of activities because it embraced a standard set of protocols for file handling. This includes fundamental processes such as creating, saving, copying and moving files. This basic system made it easier for developers to create software (apps in today’s vernacular) that made use of those file-handling protocols, with which users became familiar and comfortable.

In examining this iPad device (on which I typed using a virtual keyboard that is part of the touchscreen), I tried to find the common protocols that allowed me to do what I want with the device, such as save a document. One-third of the way through the article I had yet to figure out how to save this story and get it to my other devices so I could continue working on it when I returned the iPad to its owner. 

Not being able to save a simple one-off downloaded PDF approach plate is a drawback for the iPad. After all, a pilot might need to bring some approach plates on a trip, and in the air the iPad will not be able to connect with the Internet unless the aircraft has airborne Internet access. The Safari browser on the iPad allows saving only the link to the PDF but not the PDF itself.

So the iPad ecosystem forces the user to do everything through various apps. Downloads of approach plates are doable, but only using apps that offer that capability. One low-cost way to do this is with GoodReader’s 99-cent app and the free download of FAA Terminal Procedure Publications (TPP) offered by PDFPlates.com. 

Apps are also needed for basic file handling. DataViz’s Documents To Go app allows saving of files directly into a Dropbox or Google Docs folder that is accessible from any Internet-connected computer and the iPhone/ iPad. Another handy program from GetHabilis.com creates a special e-mail address that allows an iPhone/iPad user to e-mail a file directly to a Dropbox. Unfortunately, however, this doesn’t work as a way to save those Safari-downloaded free FAA TPP approach plates. It turns out, however, that GoodReader’s app does allow saving of PDF files captured via the Safari browser. Inevitably with the iPhone/ iPad, someone, somewhere has created “an app for that.”

The simplest way to avoid losing the contents of an important file that you have created is to e-mail it to yourself periodically. Unfortunately, using the Dropbox or e-mailing doesn’t work where there is no Internet access, and even the iPad with AT&T’s 3G broadband Internet service is subject to problems that many people have accessing the AT&T network. In this case, then, the user simply has to trust that the iPad is saving the document and that it won’t be lost. Without Internet access, the only other way to back up an important document is to connect the iPad to a computer and save it via Apple’s iTunes program. But that means you need access to a computer, which may not be possible if you’re carrying the lightweight 1.6-pound (with 3G) iPad instead of a laptop.

Aviation-specific Apps

Fortunately, plenty of smart programmers are writing apps to do an amazing number of tasks on the iPad, including aviation-specific apps that are easy to use and reasonably priced. 

Two key apps for pilots are ForeFlight’s Mobile 3HD ($74.99 per year) and Hilton Software’s WingX ($99.95). Both allow down- loading of VFR and IFR charts and approach plates onto the iPhone or iPad, which makes them useful as backup chart containers (although viewing charts on the iPad is far easier than on the smaller iPhone). Foreflight is more focused on preflight planning, while WingX offers more in-flight functionality, including display of own-ship position using the iPad’s built-in GPS receiver. Note that like all iPad apps, WingX runs only when it is running–one app at a time until Apple releases the new multitasking operating system for the iPad. Both apps offer extensive weather briefing data, but only before takeoff, not in flight. Although there are Bluetooth wireless XM Weather receivers, I have not yet heard of one that works with the iPad.

Business aviation hasn’t wasted any time jumping into the iPad. The iPhone has paved the way with many useful products such as logbooks, checklists, weather, flight planning and so on (which all run on the iPad, too) but the iPad seems to have generated even more excitement. And the iPad’s ability to show battery-draining movies for more than 10 hours nonstop helps ensure that the battery won’t be dead when you need to pull up a chart that isn’t otherwise on board. 

An Asset in the Cockpit

Pilots are already using iPads in creative ways. Chief pilot Michael Ruganis flies with an iPad displaying programs running on a Panasonic Toughbook PC stored in a nook behind the copilot’s seat. The Toughbook is connected, via USB ports, to an external XM satellite weather antenna mounted on the aircraft and GPS feed from the aircraft’s FMS. The iPad wirelessly accesses programs running on the Toughbook via the iTap Remote Desktop Program application. With this setup, Ruganis and his copilot can view XM weather data by running the WxWorx software, access all 

the charts in their JeppView subscription and run Cessna’s performance and weight-and-balance programs, all on the iPad.

“This allows us to run a fast PC in a laptop,” Ruganis told AIN, “and then use the iPad to operate the laptop. We then just take the laptop into the airport office when we need to accomplish updates. Anything that we place on the laptop is available to us in flight using the iTap software. The [iPad] display is fast and responsive and the picture is the best we have used in the cockpit.”

While those who haven’t spent any time with an iPad worry about whether the unit’s glossy glass-covered display will be difficult to read in bright sunlight, users say that is not a concern. One pilot said that he ran a side-by-side test between a PC laptop and the iPad in the cockpit of his Piper Arrow IV. Both units’ screens were set at full brightness, and the iPad’s display in bright sunlight was clear and sharp, he said, much easier to view than the Lenovo ThinkPad R60 laptop used for the test. Ruganis agreed with that assessment and said the iPad has “the best visuals of any device we have used in the cockpit.” 

Ruganis also employs the iPad for preflight planning, using ForeFlight’s Mobile 3HD app for airport, FBO and local services and to view weather conditions just before takeoff and also to carry VFR and IFR charts and approach plates as a backup. 

For pilots who need a moving-map display with own-ship position information, Hilton Software’s WingX does that trick and is coming out in an iPad version shortly. Note that WingX will display moving-map info only while the program is running and while the iPad’s GPS has a clear view of the sky. 

In August or September, Jeppesen will release its new iPad app, a viewer for the company’s terminal charts. The Jeppesen iPad app and data will be free for current JeppView subscribers. 

Some question whether the iPad will kill off the electronic flight bag business. This is unlikely in business aviation because many operators want a certifiable EFB, and it’s questionable whether the iPad will ever garner FAA approval. However, the iPad with charts meets the definition of a Class 1 EFB using Type A applications (no dynamic or interactive data). And the engineers at National Products, makers of the Ram Mounting System, have designed an iPad cradle that will attach to a Ram yoke mount. The cradle is available now, and the mounting system will be available soon.

The iPad, of course, is much more than a chart viewer, and that is what makes it so useful. The iPad isn’t as useful for creating content, but for those who like to watch movies, listen to music or read ebooks, the iPad might be the ideal device.

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