Today the question is not “Should I?” but “What type do I need?”
Tablets have evolved from a “nice to have” to almost a “need to have” piece of equipment for the airplane. They are functional and lightweight. They are relatively economical. And they can hold massive amounts of information that in paper form meant pilots had to strain their back muscles carrying heavy flight bags and cases to hold it all (see “What Am I? Paperless,” p. 14).
The recommendations that follow pertain primarily to Apple’s iPad, because Apple dominates the general aviation software market. However, there are several other tablets available at different price points.
When planning to purchase an iPad, you will have at least a few aircraft-specific considerations.
Physical size: Apple sells multiple models of the iPad, all with different sizes and weights. The iPad mini screen is 8.3 inches, while the largest iPad, the Pro, measures 12.9 inches. The Pro weighs in at 1.5 pounds, and the mini weighs 0.65 pounds. The size you choose may depend on where you plan to display it in the airplane. Yoke and window mounts are prevalent. You may choose to strap it to a kneeboard or simply toss it in the right seat (or ask your right-seater to hold it for you). Finally, there are some after-market options to mount the tablet on your airplane’s panel, which keeps it nicely powered and out of the way but may also be more difficult to see without causing you to crane your head and remove your focus from outside the cockpit. It may take some trial and error before you find the combination that works best for you.
Memory: When it comes to aviation navigation apps, which are hungry beasts requiring frequent updates and many megabytes of storage, conventional wisdom is to buy an iPad with as much memory as you can afford. iPads range in capacity from 64 gigabytes all the way up to 2 terabytes, which is a lot of storage by anyone’s measurement. You can get away with less memory, but it helps if the iPad is solely used for aviation and not, for example, the repository of your family photos, videos, movies, and other memory-gobbling applications.
Cellular plan or no cellular plan? Tablets like the iPad are sold in a couple of configurations. Wi-Fi models come with Wi-Fi and Bluetooth technology that enables them to connect wirelessly to the internet or Bluetooth devices. A Wi-Fi model iPad can be synced with your airplane’s ADS-B receiver to display datalink weather and traffic, as well as show your location on the moving map. Or, you can add an external GPS that wirelessly connects to the iPad.
Tablets have evolved from a “nice to have” to almost a “need to have” piece of equipment for the airplane. They are functional and lightweight. They are relatively economical. And they can hold massive amounts of information.The Wi-Fi plus cellular model, which enables the user to connect the iPad to the internet wherever a cellphone works, includes a built-in GPS that will work with ForeFlight, Garmin Pilot, or any other iOS-compatible apps. The cellular model will cost more than the Wi-Fi-only model. However, the cellular iPad includes a built-in GPS that does not require a cellular connection for the GPS to work. Sporty’s iPad Pilot News, a digital newsletter, notes, “you can purchase an iPad with cellular data, never sign up for service with Verizon or AT&T, and just take advantage of the built-in GPS for reliable navigation in any aviation app.” If you want the additional security, short-term data plans can be purchased for extended trips.
Battery: Apple likes to claim that its iPads can be used “up to 10 hours of surfing the web on Wi-Fi or watching video” or “up to 9 hours of surfing the web using cellular data network.” That may be true, but as mentioned previously, flight planning apps are thirsty. Three hours of continuous use will deplete the battery. Portable backup battery options are plentiful and economical, and they likely will contribute to your overall sense of security. Even better is the ability to plug the iPad into your ship’s power so that it charges itself continuously as you fly. Some pilots utilize solar-powered battery chargers when camping or overnighting at airshows, but I have not encountered any who use one of those in flight.
Heat/cold: iPads and other tablets weren’t designed to operate in 90-degree Fahrenheit cockpits, and the battery will overheat and shut the unit down if exposed to high temperatures for even a short length of time. You’ll need a method to prevent that, which can range from a battery-operated cooling holder to placing the tablet in a cooler bag. By all means keep it out of direct sunlight, but even that is no guarantee you will not see the warning message “Temperature: iPad needs to cool down before you can use it.”
As is the case with so many things in aviation, iPad configuration will depend on how you fly. I started out years ago with a bulky, 9-inch tablet. I tried mounting it on the window of a Piper Cherokee and on the panel before finally moving it to my lap, which led to more than a few head-down moments. It was the family’s iPad, which meant that I had to retrieve it from someone whenever I wanted to take it flying. Today I use a cellular model Mini that is strictly for aviating. The smaller unit takes up less space, while its touch screen lets me pinch charts and documents to be as large or as small as I need them to be. When I fly the iPad is mounted on the yoke of a Cessna 182. When I am not flying, it is in my flight bag until I need it. And I have three or four back-up batteries. I just have to remember to keep them all charged between trips.