23 September 2012

Review: ForeFlight, iPad and GLO

For those who don't want the details, here's a quick summary:

iPad with ForeFlight:
One of the best investments you'll ever make for flying.  It's capable, quick, allows you to select which charts and maps to cache so that you don't take up space with ones you don't use, stores aircraft you fly, and will even brief and file for you through CSC DUATS.  The only slight downside is that if your iPad is the wireless-only version, you'll need an external GPS receiver like the Garmin GLO for aviation, below.

Criticism: The version 4.7 update seems to have deleted the Starred Airports list (yet you can still star them on the airport pages).  It would be nice to have that back.  It's not a huge deal, though.
Update: They fixed this in the last update (4.7.2), which I just downloaded 27.Sep.12 at 2015EDT.

iPad - $499-699
ForeFlight - $74.95 per year (or $149.99 for geo-referenced approach plates)
Optional: Stratus ADS-B - $799

Garmin GLO for Aviation:
It's basically the normal Garmin GLO with a few extra accessories, which includes a non-slip pad which clings to anything so you don't have to worry about mounting it, or having it slide around during the flight.  It boots quickly, locates satellites quickly, and is really easy to connect via Bluetooth.  Worth every penny.

Criticism:  None from me, but some have reported issues with satellite reception with heated windscreens.  Others say it's too easy to bump the power button and turn it on accidentally, but a little care in placing it in your flight bag solves that issue.

Garmin GLO for Aviation - $120

The Full Review: ForeFlight, iPad and GLO

As technology gets more and more convenient, powerful, and compact, it starts to branch out into more and more of our lives.  If you asked me if I'd ever use a touchscreen half-laptop to view charts back when I started flying, my response would have been "yeah, eventually, but not any time soon."

It wasn't until 2010 that the first generation iPad came out, and even then the idea that you could use it for that purpose was still just a dream.  It's crazy to me that the iPad was released just over two years ago, yet it has already come quite a long way.  I jumped at the opportunity to get one earlier this year and ended up putting ForeFlight on that night.  I'm no Apple fanatic, but I have to admit that at least two of their products have revolutionized my life, and this is one of them (the other being the iPod).

Note the "No Fix"
I had originally gotten the iPad for work so that I could read and review documents at client sites when I wasn't allowed network access.  Since I'd be primarily using it where 3G data wouldn't be an option either, I opted for the wireless version.  When I tried to use ForeFlight in ground tests, I found out very quickly that the wireless version does not come with a GPS receiver like those equipped for 3G connections.  The lack of a GPS receiver in the wireless model isn't a secret to the industry, though, so there are a few products out there to feed all iPads with GPS data at somewhat reasonable prices.  While that was an unfortunate discovery, it didn't hit as hard as it would've if I'd bought the iPad specifically to be an electronic flight bag (EFB).

Even without the GPS function to show you exactly where you are in map view, the app is really great for not having to bother with the paper charts*.  Granted, I believe that you should still have some with you, but you don't have to worry about flipping or folding anything and punching your passenger or pilot buddy in the face while using the iPad.  The charts may also be cached at your discretion, in order to avoid wasting memory space that you could be using for in-flight audio.  Those caching selections are stored, so ForeFlight will only update those maps you've essentially subscribed to.  Furthermore, it will cache anything you view until it expires if it's not part of your normal selections.  As an example, I don't fly around Los Angeles so I don't cache the area through my settings.  If I browsed LAX's departures and arrivals, however, those charts will be cached until the next chart update.  It's not particularly useful for my regular flying, but it's a nifty feature to store single charts here and there when you fly commercially and want to follow along.

Beyond simply displaying various charts, ForeFlight also allows you to create chart binders so that you don't need to mess around with the airport information pages to see the relevant charts.  If I were to fly IFR from Leesburg (JYO) to Blacksburg (BCB), I could create a new binder with all of the charts necessary for those two airports, and perhaps an alternate or two.  If you fly the same routes often, you can save the binders and switch between them as necessary.  As you can see in the picture, I created a binder with the approaches I plan on flying during my long instrument cross country flight.  I have three different binders for the flight in the case weather messes with the plan, or if I have to change into an aircraft with different equipment.

In addition to chart binders, it also allows you to store various documents from the ForeFlight library.  This also has a binder feature like the charts so that you may group your documents.  In my case, I have a binder for A/FD supplementals, various books, and the chart legends.  In the binder with various books, I have all of the books they had available, including a copy of the AIM, Instrument Procedures Handbook, and the Pilot/Controller Glossary.  So, if you're in the middle of a flight and there's a disagreement on the proper way to enter and exit a traffic pattern, the pilot not flying can pull up the AIM and settle it on the spot.  Oddly enough, the FARs aren't in the library.

Weather is, of course, important to keep on top of both before and during your flight, and ForeFlight is just as capable there as any of the weather sources you may frequent.  Graphical AIRMETs, SIGMETs, turbulence, icing, Doppler radar loops, outlooks and significant weather outlooks, PIREPs, prog charts, satellite imagery and winds aloft are all at your fingertips.  Limited data is also available for Mexico and Canada.  If you're looking for weather during your flight, you can always enable the weather overlays in map view with the Stratus ADS-B receiver, which costs a pretty penny, but has some nice capabilities.  If you fly in the mid-west, though, make sure to check the coverage map as ADS-B receivers haven't fully covered the country.

Closer to departure, you can brief yourself and file your flight plan using your CSC DUATS account, which you add in on the Settings page of the app.  The File & Brief page allows you to view a history of your flight plans as well, so you don't have to create a new one every time.  Additionally, you can store the aircraft that you fly to make the filing easier.  When you add the aircraft, drop down boxes guide you through the process of selecting equipment codes, default altitudes, and even generating the aircraft color codes.  At the bottom right of the page, you can see both brief and file buttons, which will get you on your way.

The Scratchpad is a quick way to jot down information like frequency changes, clearances and so on.  I've found that it's best used with a stylus, but your finger will work almost as well.  There's a button at the top right that allows you to adjust the size of the text as you draw.  The picture shows the finest setting.  When it's bumpy, I normally revert to using the plane as my scratchpad (when I have a radio with a standby slot), or pen and paper.  There is also an option that allows you to type, if you'd prefer that.  Just keep in mind that the iPad's spellcheck isn't up to date with aviation shorthand.  It isn't perfect, and I liken it to writing on a whiteboard as you can't rest your hand on the writing area when writing, but it gets the job done.  The only other downside I can think of is that in order to erase, you have to clear the whole screen.  For the quick notes you'd be writing in the air, though, you don't necessarily need it to be pretty, so it's not a huge deal.

When it comes to plotting your flight plan on the maps, ForeFlight is capable of more than just airports, navaids, and fixes.  Airways are also understood so you can save time by entering the plan just as you would in your filed plan.  Beyond that, there are a few other features that will help you choose altitudes based on observed winds aloft, and see your estimated fuel burn and time en-route.  The NavLog will also break it down leg by leg, if you need the extra detail.  When it comes to overlays, you have options for radar, satellite, TFRs, AIRMETs, SIGMETs, flight rule indicators for the airports, airport temperatures, airport temp/dewpoint spreads, visibility, wind, ceiling, sky coverage, PIREPs, lightning, and fuel prices for both Jet-A and avgas.  The bottom panel also has four buttons that can display groundspeed, GPS altitude, track, signal accuracy, ETE to next, ETA to next, distance to next, bearing to next, cross track error, ETE to destination, ETA to destination, distance to destination, bearing to destination, current lat/lon, or Zulu time.  The amount of information at your fingertips is nearly endless.

Here are a few more screenshots of the ForeFlight interface:

The left screen is the altitude selection page.  Note the inclusion of the wind data to help you in your selection.  The right screen is the settings page, where you can set default units, among other options.  You can even change the position symbol on the map from a high wing, low wing, jet, fighter, or helicopter.

As mentioned earlier, for those of you who don't have your iPad on a 3G data plan, you don't have the built in GPS receiver and will have to get an external receiver.  There are a few different units out there, with the more notable ones being the Dual, Bad Elf, and Garmin units.  I ended up getting the Garmin GLO for Aviation because it was about the same price as the Dual and came with the accessories that I expected I'd need.  The non-slip pad clings to just about anything.  You can see I have it on wood in the picture at right, but even on that surface I have to pick it up by the corner, otherwise it stays suctioned in place.  The steady blue light means it's connected to the iPad via Bluetooth, and the steady green means it has picked up the required number of GPS satellites.  The button where the green light is serves as the power switch, and is the only button on the device.  In front of that is a USB port to charge the device.  After opening the box, turn it on, enable Bluetooth on your iPad, look for "Garmin GLO" in the list, and select it.  Done.  It's really that simple.

The whole setup really makes working in the cramped space of most smaller planes a breeze.  It also helps add in some situational awareness when compared to following along on a paper chart, or even certain moving-map GPS units.  If you're looking at the various EFBs available on the market, you should definitely consider it.  Some of the other EFBs are aimed more at the corporate setting, which you can see in the way they structure their pricing.  I'm not saying that they aren't useful to the GA pilot, rather I'm just attempting to point out that the target market might not be you in all cases.  Jepp does have their own version using Jepp charts instead of NACO for a comparable $76, and is aimed at the private and corporate pilot group.  Most of them have trial periods as well, so you don't have to worry about risking anything until you try it and like it.

Hopefully this helped you in your decision.  If you have questions, the best spot is the blog twitter account @TheLifeOfAPilot.

*A note on charts: it's a common misconception in many pilot circles that charts are required any time you fly.  Charts are only required when flying large or turbojet aircraft, or when flying Parts 121 or 135.  The official FAA stance may be found here.  While I don't condone flying without charts, I wanted to point out that you wouldn't be breaking regs by dispensing with paper charts.