Tablets in the Cockpit—Boon or Bane?

Article appeared in Flying Magazine July, 2015 by John King – John_05

“Centerline!” called Martha. She was using our standard call-out for advising the pilot at the controls that they are 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 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, 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 provides 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 our iPads during breakfast and, in addition to 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.

Also, with the iPad we are a lot better at using checklists. We scanned our checklists and use them on the iPad in preference to the paper ones we still carry. They are much easier to read in the iPad. They can be made larger in an instant with a simple two-fingered spread and they are illuminated at night. I find it easy to keep track of where I am on the checklist and 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 we would have the pilot monitoring 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. And it is a lot easier to keep our charts up to-date than it used to be with paper charts.

We also 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 WingX displays them with wonderful resolution. With scrolling and zooming, we can follow the trip in much more detail. It’s a lot more fun to follow along on the sectional charts than on our lower resolution multi-function 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 them 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, it can be used by non-commercial operators 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 that 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 knee board. The important things are to make sure it is appropriately secured, doesn’t interfere with the flight controls, and you can see it when you need to.

As with about everything else in aviation, the greatest risk of tablet use in the cockpit is from the pilot. A pilot who does not know their way around the aviation apps they are using is 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 them before we used them in the cockpit.

Another thing that helped us a lot is 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, will 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, and with apps, you shouldn’t. But the risk management benefits make the required restraint well worth it. It 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 they have been taught to manage the risks of doing so.

It is amazing to realize that the first iPad was introduced just a little over 5 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.

9 thoughts on “Tablets in the Cockpit—Boon or Bane?

  1. David Tigwell

    It’s ironic that you mention the couple who used a tablet to navigate after a night electrical failure. The rest of that story is even more interesting, and right to your point. They geared up the Commanche they were flying on arrival at the airport. I’ll let you two fill in the blanks!

    Reply
  2. William Dobson

    A couple of small addenda / corrections to your article:
    1) the Advisory Circular concerning EFBs was revised in May 2014. It is now AC 120-76C. (Not B) www(dot)faa(dot)gov/documentlibrary/media/advisory_circular/ac_120-76c.pdf

    2) EFBs (e.g. iPads) CAN be mounted to the aircraft and CAN be wired into both ship’s power and avionics data lines / antennae, as long as the EFB is used is a “Class 2” device and the mounts / connectors, etc. are properly installed (see the respective advisory circulars listed in the body of AC 120-76C).

    3) A “cigarette lighter” power socket, whether 24V or 12V, can drive a USB power port capable of powering several iPads simultaneously, depending on the allowable current draw of of the socket. Most off-the-shelf cigarette lighter USB power converters will run on up to 30V DC input (check the device label) so no DC / AC inverter is needed. (And several manuf. are now selling FAA PMA TSO’d panel mount USB-type power ports. Installing one is a minor mod -no Form 337 needed- if your plane doesn’t have a cigarette lightet power socket).

    4) Mounting your tablet near eye level, within the periphery of the pilot-flying’s primary vision scan (i.e. to the left side,, near the “A pillar” post frame) will minimize the visual head-down distractions , which are functionally worst with a kneeboard arrangement. BUT, the MENTAL head-down time will always be a dangerous distraction, which is the dark side of any TAA cockpit, certified or otherwise.

    Reply
  3. MARK LOGSDON

    WOW, thanks for an informative look at tablets. I am returning to aviation after a 45 year absence and have been reading all I can bout the technologies that can or can’t benefit me as a pilot. You have nailed it with this article. Thank you very much

    Mark Logsdon

    Reply
  4. J. Phillip Mckie

    John as always I find your article a dynamic reveal of a very serious topic. We nowadays are hellbent on deeming paper charts an outlaw but in fact I am still old school I like my paper charts and just recently I have convinced myself that the ipad is a good option in the cockpit. One thing you did not mention as a drawback is the event called ipad breakage (these things are as slippery as a river toad). Even though ipads are our best advocate in the cockpit, when they break they can become our our worst nightmare.

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    1. Scott

      He did note they have two tablets and two phones. There would be four devises capable of use. I’ve accidentally ripped a paper chart for the approach I was flying.

      Reply
  5. Chuck Davis

    Okay, I will most likely embarrass myself here somehow, but here goes…
    I have been flying for a long time… and I am a CFII… but I am talking to the Kings here!

    I was taught to avoid having an approach plate in my lap because the act of rotating your head up to resume your instrument scan (“Hey, what’s all that wind noise?!”) can trigger vertigo. I took that seriously and taught it to my instrument students as well. I used a yoke clip to hold my plates up near my instruments and I was happy.
    When the slew of new GPS approaches made Jepp updating untenable, I got an iPad. It was too big to work on the yoke of my Piper arrow, so I reverted to keeping it on my lap and lifting it up to yoke level as needed. I still avoided looking down. I recently upgraded to an iPad Mini and it does work between the yoke horns. Using a RAM system, I can offset it a little left, which lets me see my entire panel and the lower power setting instruments without moving my head. I am a very happy camper again.
    In your taxi scenario, If you had a mini at yoke level, quick glances would let you scan instruments and the outside world. I don’t even know if that is possible in the planes you fly.

    Reply
  6. Edward J. Hughes

    This is ancient 1963 era re kneepads. B-47 had an open yoke control column with mic button on one and auto pilot release on the other. During penetration from 20,000 ft and looking for the runway
    stobe lights and conditions 200′ and 1/4 visibility. At about 300″msl I saw the stobes about 100 feet left. Put the plane in about a 45 degree bank for alignment. Then the protrubance on the top of the yoke caught on the elastic strap of the knee pad. A slap at the pad latch released the device and it fell to the floor. The recovery to landing was not one of my best. Brize Norton, UK Never wore a Kneepad again in the B-47.

    Reply

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