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EFB basics for the cockpit

When Apple launched the iPad a decade ago, there was an overwhelming feeling among the broader public that it was an overpriced toy, sitting in no-man’s land between a phone and a PC. In aviation that sentiment was quickly replaced with a realization that this tool would, if not change the way we fly, at least change the way we managed the cockpit.

Garmin Pilot is one of the leaders among the all-in-one electronic flight bag applications currently available to pilots. It gets high marks for integration with Garmin’s panel-mounted offerings.

Garmin Pilot is one of the leaders among the all-in-one electronic flight bag applications currently available to pilots. It gets high marks for integration with Garmin’s panel-mounted offerings.


EFB (click on image to start slideshow)

When do weather and art combine? With Windy, an application that does far more than the name suggests, studying the weather has never been such a rich experience. A big trap of using an electronic flight bag is its contribution to cockpit clutter. After purchasing the tablet and while first using it, spend time thinking through how best to mount it in the airplane and control the nest of wires, accessories, and back-ups. Calculating weight and balance is an arduous task that no one relishes. That’s why it’s the first officer’s job. Gyronimo makes it easier and faster, and it provides a level of insight that makes it possible to see how loading and fuel decisions impact safety. By most accounts ForeFlight is the leader in electronic flight bag applications for general aviation. Like other apps you can display moving maps, weather, flight restrictions, and a slew of other useful information.

The predictions were correct. Today many pilots think of a pre- and a post-iPad world of aviation. In those prehistoric days pilots had to carry paper, plan each flight meticulously the night before, do weight and balance with a pencil, maintain a paper logbook, and spend hours updating instrument approach plates. Today all those tasks can be handled by an electronic flight bag (the iPad is one of many EFB platforms, and by far the most popular). Having an EFB isn’t essential to flying, but it makes all the stuff around it easier and more enjoyable.

Why have it

With hundreds of aviation-specific applications to choose from, it’s impossible to list everything an EFB can do, but there are some broad capabilities that make it worth the purchase price.

Flight planning and moving map. By far the most useful apps for pilots are those where you can plan a flight, and then use that plan overlaid on a chart for a type of in-flight GPS. Although you will need to spend some time setting up your personal and aircraft profile, once you get into the normal app functionality, these programs can save countless hours of having to put pencil to chart and flight log. Many also incorporate instrument approach charts, weather, airport information, logbooks, synthetic vision, and more.

Mobile learning. With companies such as Sporty’s and King Schools on the iPad, it makes sense to have mobile learning resources as a student. Gone are the days of carrying massive bags of books to each lesson. Now the iPad can house all you need in terms of video training, lesson plans, practice quizzes, textbooks, and other tools. The ability to study at home and then review with an instructor in the same course and on the same device is invaluable.

Weather. Although most flight planning apps have robust weather capabilities, many pilots opt for additional weather apps to supplement their weather information gathering. Some show only the radar, while others have extensive briefing tools and information.

Logbook. There’s no requirement in the regulations that your logbook must be paper. Although paper can be easier in training when you’re trying to keep track of endorsements, starting an electronic logbook early in your flying life is a great idea. There are dozens of good options to choose from, with capabilities including electronic signatures and endorsements.

Weight and balance. When applications are available for the iPad that calculate weight and balance in a matter of seconds, there’s no excuse not to do it every flight.

Aside from those broad categories of applications there are loads of fun, useful, and quirky programs that make the iPad a great tool in training and beyond.

Adding an EFB to your gear kit has the unusual benefit of both making your life easier and saving you money. Aside from the initial investment in the hardware, software is relatively inexpensive, and can pay for itself. Consider that instead of spending money on paper charts, they will all be held electronically, and many programs will update automatically. The same goes for mobile learning, textbooks, regulations, and airport information. To maintain all of that with physical materials would cost considerably more, and be less convenient.

What it doesn’t do well

EFBs may be great tools, but they do have their drawbacks. There are some serious limitations to consider. These include:

  • Battery life. Modern tablets have impressive battery life, but nothing is infinite. Depending on how it’s used, an iPad battery may last only two or three hours, or all day. Use it as an active moving-map GPS and the battery depletes quickly. Use it only to check weather and airport information and it will last much longer. There are ways to get around this—namely, external batteries.
  • Heat. If you own and use an iPad in your office or home now it’s a safe bet that it’s never overheated. Not true in an airplane. Most pilots have experienced an overheated iPad, a situation that completely cuts off access to any of its capabilities until the hardware can cool down. Avoid keeping the iPad in direct sunlight for long periods of time.
  • Cockpit handling. Every pilot has struggled with how and where to mount an EFB. Large iPads have beautiful displays, but they can be cumbersome in small airplanes. For that reason, many prefer the iPad mini.
  • Limited connections. Some of the best functions require Bluetooth or Wi-Fi connection, which both drain the battery and limit the amount of hardware that can connect with the EFB.
  • Reliability. Most tablets are incredibly reliable, but digital devices by their nature are going to fail at some point. Other than maybe spilling your coffee on it or losing it out the window, paper will never fail you.

Required hardware

Ready to go shopping? Here’s a list of items to consider when setting up your EFB.

  • Tablet. Apple’s iPad is aviation’s preferred tablet. Although some pilots use Android devices, there aren’t as many apps to choose from, and accessories aren’t as plentiful. Get at least 32 gigabytes of storage, and in the case of the iPad, a unit with cellular capability. You won’t need to activate a cellular plan, but the cellular versions include internal GPS, and Wi-Fi-only units don’t. Essentially that means a Wi-Fi-only version can’t be used as a moving map in flight without an additional accessory.
  • Batteries. Invest in an external battery and make sure it can charge at 2.4 amps. Anything less and the EFB will charge much slower, or not at all. Otherwise, the higher the mAh rating, the more battery power the unit will provide. Typically price corresponds to this important measurement.
  • GPS. Remember what we just said about the iPad cellular model? Forget it. Maybe. Many great external GPS units are available for less than $100. They are generally more reliable than the iPad GPS, and the cost can be less than upgrading to the cellular iPad model. An external GPS is, however, another thing to keep charged and carry around. And it will take up a Bluetooth connection.
  • Weather and traffic. The Cadillac solution is a receiver that picks up free weather and traffic, and includes a GPS. You’ll see these described as ADS-B receivers, after the source of the traffic and weather. Inconceivable just a few years ago, these small devices pick up radar, METARs, TAFs, limited traffic, and much more, and send the data to popular planning apps via Bluetooth or Wi-Fi. It’s one of the cheapest safety devices you can buy.
  • Mount. Be thoughtful about how you mount the iPad in the cockpit. A kneeboard is out of the way, but also out of the way. A suction mount on a side window can be a good choice, provided it doesn’t cover any instruments. Some pilots even mount an EFB on the yoke, which is convenient, but can also get in the way. Try a few spots, and then invest in a good piece of equipment to mount it in the same place every flight.

Digital preflight

Although EFB apps can save you time the benefits aren’t without some minor tradeoffs. Namely, EFBs require you to perform a digital preflight to make sure the system will run properly during the flight, and you have all the available information.

  • EFB condition. Obviously make sure the screen isn’t cracked and the system can be turned on. Then verify a full battery charge.
  • Charts loaded. Many planning and moving-map applications trick users into thinking that charts they can see on the ground are automatically also going to show in the air. Don’t be fooled by this. Many of the apps will stream charts when connected to Wi-Fi, giving the user the impression they are stored on the device, which they aren’t. Check the chart download section to ensure every chart you need is current and loaded on the device. Then turn off the hardware Wi-Fi and check to make sure the charts are still there. Also make sure they are current. Thankfully many apps now upload new charts automatically.
  • Airplane mode. Finally, turn on airplane mode when you’re ready to fly. This saves battery. If you’re connecting a Bluetooth or Wi-Fi device make sure to manually turn on those settings after selecting airplane mode.
  • Pack it. Perhaps most importantly, don’t leave the devices at home. Pack it in the same bag and in the same place every time. Because tablets must be charged and updated it is easy to forget them at home. Make a packing routine and you’re less likely to forget your gear.

You’re now ready to enter the digital age of aviation. Play with your apps on the ground to make sure you are familiar with their operation. Watch instructional videos, reach out to user forums, and work with your instructor. Short flight lessons are not the place to learn the myriad functions these apps can perform. Then charge up that tablet and go flying!

Ian J. Twombly

Ian J. Twombly

Ian J. Twombly is senior content producer for AOPA Media.