Even before Apple's now ubiquitous iPad was in consumers' hands, early-adopter pilots were aching to get their hands on one. The reasons for all the excitement were clear. From outward appearances at least, the iPad was a thin, light, bright and elegant tablet, and when it came to creating applications for it, the sky was the limit. All of this sounded good to pilots. Moreover, when the flight was done, the iPad would be great to have around town and back at the hotel for checking e-mail, watching a movie or listening to music. It sounded like an amazingly versatile little computer.
As a pilot, however, I wanted to know if it would be a decent electronic flight bag (EFB), a handy cockpit computer for viewing charts and, who knows, even a tool for flight planning. What better way to find out than to go flying with it? Over the course of the past couple of months, I've flown a couple of dozen hours with it, using it to view my approach charts, follow my way on electronic low-altitude en routes, find a hotel or rental car at my destination and plan out my return trip.
Perhaps the best part about the iPad is the physical package. At 1.5 pounds (1.6 for the 3G model), it is very light, less than a third the weight of a comparably sized notebook computer. The screen of the touchscreen device is 9.7 inches diagonally, which takes up almost the entire package. This is good, because bezels and buttons don't give pilots any useful information. And the touch screen works great too, with just the right amount of pressure required to make selections, scroll through lists and enter text. Typing is done via a virtual keypad, which works fine; the touchscreen keys are large and hard to miss. It's not as good as a real keyboard — I hate typing more than a few words at a time on mine — but for entering an identifier or finding a place for lunch, it works OK.
There are a few buttons, all located around the outside edge of the unit. There's a rocker for volume, a screen-orientation lock and the power button at the top. There's also a flush-mount jack for headphones, mic and speaker, and the charger/data port. The battery life is remarkable: You can literally surf the Web all day on the iPad. For viewing an occasional Jepp chart, the battery will be good for many, many days. I've done it. Also — and this is a biggie for me — the iPad uses solid-state storage instead of a hard drive. So if you fly an unpressurized airplane above 10,000 feet, as I do half the time or more, you don't have to worry about crashing the hard drive in the thin air, which I have done with my laptop. And if the iPad's long battery life doesn't win you over, the instant on/off part will. Want to look at a chart? Hit the power button, slide the on button over to confirm, and you're good to go.
In the cockpit, the iPad is a great fit. I've got mine in one of those leather book-cover-like jackets, which protects the housing when I'm using the iPad and protects the screen when I'm not.
Working with the iPad in the cockpit is easier than I thought it would be. The size is just right. In the Cirrus, I put it on my lap when I'm using it, and when I'm not, I close the case and slide it down between the seats. I haven't lost it yet. It appears to be pretty rugged too. Not that I'm tossing it around the cockpit. Nobody's calling it "ruggedized," but it's not a device you need to baby. Plus, several companies make iPad-specific kneeboards or mounts too, to make it easier to accommodate the iPad into the cockpit.
What about GPS? There are two models of iPad now, the Wi-Fi and the Wi-Fi + 3G. The 3G model has built-in GPS; the Wi-Fi only version does not. The port of the iPad can be connected to any number of accessories, keyboard docks, video adapters and the like, but the most important for our purposes is that it can be hooked up to an external GPS, a couple of which already exist. So you can get a Wi-Fi model and still do GPS. The battery life does decrease with the GPS hooked up, though — by how much is hard to say.
iPad in Flight
The iPad is a joy to use. Even in bright sunlight you can see the display just fine, and the touch screen is easy to use, even when the flight is bumpy. There are dozens of available iPad apps, including full navigation/flight planning suites, some of which offer geo-referenced approach charts, so when you're hooked up to the GPS you can see your little airplane icon moving along the plan view of the geo-referenced chart.
I flew with the iPad up to Wisconsin for AirVenture (and on several subsequent flights), and I used it every leg of every trip. Using various apps, some of which were quite inexpensive, I used the iPad to check charts, to see which airports had cheap gas or restaurants on the field, and to plan and fly my approaches.
Now for the ugly part. On my first leg home to Austin, Texas, from southern Wisconsin, I was heading toward Tulsa, Oklahoma, for a fuel stop. The Cirrus we were in that day did not have air conditioning. At altitude, it was comfortable without it. But as we descended toward TUL, it started to get downright hot. The temperature on the field, the XM Weather in the Avidyne MFD in the panel told me, was around 104 degrees. For the last 20 minutes of the flight, it was around that warm in the airplane too. As I was cleared for the visual approach at Tulsa, I was monitoring the approach on the iPad when suddenly it flashed a message at me that it was overheated and was shutting down. It promptly did just that. It was far from a dangerous situation for me that day. I had no paper backup to the iPad, but I did have Cirrus C-Max charts on the Avidyne MFD, which were my primary charts to begin with. Plus, the flight was VFR. But in a situation in which you are using the iPad as the sole source of charts on a really hot day, you could find yourself without charts. On the day it happened to me, it just happened to be VFR.
I'm still using the iPad in the cockpit, but when it gets hot, I take it out of the case for extra cooling, and so far there have been no new overheating episodes, despite flying on some pretty hot days.
I love the iPad, but if an EFB were my sole source for approach charts, I would not pick it for that job. I'd go with a dedicated EFB. As a backup to some other source of charts, however, the iPad is a great tool and great fun too.