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Watch your flyingWatch your flying

Photo by Chris Rose

Hoping to go one step further than AOPA Editor in Chief Tom Haines, who flew from Oshkosh to Frederick, Maryland, using his Garmin D2 watch, I planned to fly to Toronto for lunch, using only an Apple Watch to file customs forms, plan the flight, navigate, and check weather. Then the watch lost its shine.

Image courtesy of ForeFlight

It can’t browse to the website needed to file customs forms; besides, how would I fill out the form? My favorite weather apps like Storm, MyRadar Pro, and AeroWeather don’t offer apps for the watch; they only work on the iPhone. ForeFlight is pioneering the use of the Apple Watch for its flight planning program most commonly used on an iPad, but the app is currently less capable than the Garmin watch. “It’s a work in progress,” said a ForeFlight official, meaning future capabilities are on the way. It can provide a few nearest airports and tell you the time remaining, the time of arrival, groundspeed, and whether you are on track—as long as that nearby iPhone has a good battery. (See "What can the ForeFlight Apple Watch app do?")

The Toronto plans were scrapped but the bad news just kept coming. The Apple Watch needs an iPhone nearby to feed it information. Without that, it can’t tell you much about your flight, so why not just use an iPhone or an iPad with a screen that you can actually see?

An emergency call went out to Doug Ranly of Sporty’s, who manages the company’s extensive catalog and is always looking for new personal convenience gadgets, or helping develop them in house. “Help,” I said. “We want to be wowed by the Apple Watch but the watch can’t do it.” Ranly suggested waiting for Apple Watch 3. He said the first iPhone wasn’t much, either, but by the third version customers were reaching for their debit cards, a little trick most Apple products can do.

Image courtesy of ForeFlight

“We’ve seen the capabilities limited by the size of the screen,” he said. He noted that Sporty’s customers buying the Garmin D2 watch are not using them for navigation. He prefers reading local and forecast weather on a phone or iPad, he said. If there was more that could be done, Sporty’s would develop a product and sell it, he added.

Fads come and go, Ranly pointed out. The first thing most private pilots bought in the past after getting the certificate was a handheld radio, especially one with navigation. Now, he said, the two things pilots can’t live without are an iPad and Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast so they can receive traffic and weather information while meeting new requirements to report position information to air traffic control. The iPad has struck a blow to handheld GPS sales as well. Now navigation can be done on a cellphone or iPad.

So what kinds of things can we expect in the gadget world, I asked? He at first suggested an oximeter on the pilot’s wrist. That’s where one of the Apple Watch’s capabilities can be used—“tapping” you on the wrist. It vibrates to simulate the tap, you look at your watch, and you see you are running out of oxygen. Pushed further, Ranly suggested the possibility of using a watch to hail a pilotless drone, like a taxi, and literally being picked up.

Don’t give up on the Apple Watch yet. There are more apps coming, and someday Apple Watch 3.

What can the ForeFlight Apple Watch app do?

Image courtesy of ForeFlight

The ForeFlight app has several useful capabilities, with more as yet unannounced. An airports page shows weather conditions at up to 30 airports, including 10 favorites, 10 nearest, and 10 recently viewed. Each airport has a colored dot beside it: Green indicates at least a 3,000-foot ceiling and five miles of visibility, blue denotes marginal VFR weather, red means IFR weather, and magenta signifies really lousy weather.

Tap on an airport to see surface winds, visibility, cloud cover, temperature, altimeter, and weather warnings. Raise your arm, and a “Glance” page appears, as it does for apps not even related to aviation. On the ForeFlight app you’ll find time in local and Zulu as well as three nearest airports and a colored dot to indicate the general status of the weather at each.

An “Instruments” page lists so-called instruments, like “ETE Dest” for estimated time en route, “Ground Speed,” and “GPS Altitude.” You won’t get barometric adjusted altitude, as you can on a Garmin D2 watch. Tap the name and the information appears. Other information includes estimated time of arrival, distance, and track.

Alton Marsh

Alton K. Marsh

Freelance journalist
Alton K. Marsh is a former senior editor of AOPA Pilot and is now a freelance journalist specializing in aviation topics.
Topics: Gear, Weather, Apps

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