Sky Kings: Tablets in the Cockpit — Boon or Bane?

Using new tech in the left seat.

“Centerline!” called Martha. She was using our standard call-out for advising the pilot at the controls that he is wandering off the taxiway centerline. We were at Dallas Love Field. There were piles of snow all around the place, and the taxiways had patchy ice. It was a good time to stay on centerline.

The problem was that the iPad strapped to my leg had quit displaying our position on the airport diagram. I had made the mistake of allowing myself to be distracted by it, and was head down when I should have been head up.

With so many apps and enticements, the use of a tablet like an iPad in the cockpit provides abundant opportunity for distraction. It also provides a slew of other risks that have to be anticipated and mitigated, but when these are managed, a tablet in the cockpit is wonderful. We find our iPads make so many things easier both in our flight planning and in the cockpit, and provide greatly increased situational awareness. As a result, they make us better risk managers.

For instance, very often when we are going on a trip, we get out both of our iPads during breakfast, and in addition to checking the weather, we brief the approaches we will fly and even our taxi routes. Then, just before we leave, sometimes even in the cockpit before startup, we download the very latest weather and flight logs from fltplan.com.

With the iPad we are a lot better at using checklists. We still carry our paper checklists, but we scan them and find them much easier to read on the iPad. The checklists can be made larger in an instant with a simple two-finger spread, and they are illuminated at night. I find it easier to keep track of where I am on the checklist, and I am more likely to leave an uncompleted checklist open in front of me until it is completed.

We also do a much better job of using our approach charts in the cockpit. Back in the days before the iPad, because of the cost and the pain of filing updates, we had only one set of approach charts. To brief an approach, we would remove a chart from the binder and pass it back and forth to each other. During the actual approach the pilot monitoring would keep the chart and update the pilot flying on altitudes and courses.

Now, with the iPads, each of us has an approach chart right in front of us. For approach briefings we can both refer to the chart. The ability to move around the chart and zoom in and out lets us read small notes much more easily. We find we are doing a far better job of briefing and monitoring approaches than we did before. We are legal to not carry paper charts, and we don’t, but we do have two iPads and two iPhones, each of which has current charts. Also, it is a lot easier to keep our charts up to date than it used to be with paper charts.

We now are much better at knowing exactly where we are while en route. With WingX we can easily download sectional charts for the whole country, and the app displays them with wonderful resolution. With scrolling and zooming, we can follow the trip in much more detail than we otherwise could. It’s a lot more fun to follow along on the sectional charts than on our lower resolution multifunction display (MFD), and as a result we are paying a lot more attention to where we are.

With our iLevil ADS-B receiver paired to our iPad, we can get updates on the weather as we fly. We’re able to do that with XM Weather on our MFD, but we get the hourly updates more quickly through ADS-B than we do from XM Weather. Plus the user interface for getting weather reports on WingX is much better than on our MFD. On the other hand, we do get the whole country right away on XM Weather, while ADS-B tends to be limited to providing the weather that is closer to us.

As much benefit as we are getting from tablet use, we probably have just scratched the surface. Other pilots use tablets to display traffic and terrain information and as backup attitude and heading indicators. Instructors use them to record flights. Plus, one couple used a tablet as an emergency navigation system to get to the airport after a complete electrical failure at night.

Tablets like an iPad can provide all of these wonderful benefits so economically because they are taking advantage of commercial off-the-shelf technology that was not developed specifically for an aviation purpose. Plus, when a tablet is not permanently installed and has no connection to the aircraft systems, noncommercial operators can use one without FAA approval. We just have to follow the rules set out in the advisory circular (AC 120-76B).

The FAA’s rules about tablet use actually introduce some risks. The fact that a tablet is not allowed to be permanently connected to a dedicated power supply in the aircraft means you are at risk of running out of battery power during the middle of a trip. So it is a good idea to make sure it is charged the night before and to put it in airplane mode to minimize the drain on the battery. A way around this problem is to plug an adapter into an electrical (cigarette lighter) socket if your aircraft has one. In our case we installed an inverter to provide AC power to keep our iPads charged.

The fact that a tablet cannot be permanently mounted to the aircraft also introduces the risk of having the thing fly around the cockpit. People use all sorts of clamps, mounts and contraptions to secure them. We have noticed that even pilots with the most modern avionics have mounted their tablet in the most prominent place, and the tablet is the star of the show.

Our solution is pretty simple. We use a leg strap that basically turns it into an electronic kneeboard. The important things are to make sure it is appropriately secured, doesn’t interfere with the flight controls and can be seen when we need to see it.

As with about everything else in aviation, the greatest risk of tablet use in the cockpit is from the pilot. Pilots who do not know their way around the aviation apps they are using are at risk of finding their tablet to be a dangerous distraction that keeps them, like me, head down when they should be head up. Plus, they are deprived of the information they need to manage risks when they need it the most. Our approach was to simply play with the apps a lot at home to make sure we were good at managing them before we used them in the cockpit.

Another thing that helped us a lot was learning how to get around in our iPads. We have a friend who made us a lot smarter at iPad navigation. He showed us that a double click on the home button, or a scroll up with four fingers, would reveal what is known as the “app switcher.” Then you can tap on an icon to quickly move to another app. Also, a four-finger sideways swipe will move you to a previous app. Our friend also suggested we lock the rotation of our iPads so they keep the orientation we want.

All in all, I am a raving fan of using tablets in the cockpit. As I demonstrated by wandering off centerline at Dallas, a tablet — like all technology in the cockpit — can be a compelling distraction. It takes incredible willpower to keep yourself from messing around with them in the cockpit when you shouldn’t. But the risk management benefits make the required restraint well worth it. Tablet usage is, I believe, something flight instructors should be prepared to teach. A pilot who is hooked on technology is likely to use a tablet in the cockpit, regardless of whether he or she has been taught to manage the risks of doing so.

It is amazing to realize that the first iPad was introduced just a little over five years ago. The lack of an FAA certification requirement has meant that developers were unleashed to move at a spectacular pace, making this masterpiece of design one of the most useful risk management tools in the cockpit ever. I wonder what will happen in the next five years.

Get online content like this delivered straight to your inbox by signing up for our free enewsletter.

Login

New to Flying?

Register

Already have an account?