How a pilot uses the iPad

Foreflight takes a navigation chart and overlays current satellite weather imagery, in this case, fog in San Francisco.

It’s become somewhat controversial when and how air passengers use mobile devices. But the idea of pilots using them, specifically Apple’s(s aapl) iPad, is gaining broader acceptance. At least four major airlines are either testing or allowing pilots to replace their flight manuals and paper charts with the 9.7-inch, 1.5-pound tablet.

Most passengers probably don’t care what their pilot uses to fly the plane as long as they arrive on time and with as little turbulence as possible. But I can tell you as someone who lives with a pilot, using his iPad to prepare for flights is the best thing to happen to him in a decade of flying.

Just as contributor Mark Crump told us how he uses mobile devices and apps to re-learn guitar after 20 years, I talked to my husband Greg, a search-and-rescue helicopter pilot, about how his iPad 2 has become part of his daily work routine, what apps he uses, and why Apple’s tablet is beginning to catch on in aviation.

Q: I’m going to assume you’re not playing Angry Birds. What do you use your iPad for at work?

A: Well, in case my boss is reading this, I do not play Angry Birds at work. Zombie Gunship on the otherhand… But seriously, when I do pre-flight planning, I need to know what’s going on in our entire “area of responsibility” for the next 24-hour period we’re on duty. Before we assume the watch, we’re responsible for checking the current and forecast weather at our base and all major airports in our area. That’s in addition to knowing radio navigation aids that are inoperative and runways that are closed, FAA temporary flight restrictions (places we can’t fly) — these pop up at the last minute. There are legal and flight safety implications of us not knowing that.

And before the iPad, I’d have to sit down at a computer and go to half a dozen websites to know when the sun goes up and down, when the moon comes up, if it’s going to be overcast, direction of the winds. The reason it’s so life changing with the iPad is 90 percent of what I need for a day [of work] is in one app, Foreflight (free, but requires in-app subscription) — I click one app and can bring up aviation charts with overlays of cloud coverage, temperature, winds and other weather activity and TFRs (temporary flight restriction areas) on the picture of the map.

Because of restrictions by your employer, you mostly use the iPad for preflight preparations. How useful would it be in the cockpit?

Having Foreflight while flying would be an incredible situational awareness tool — in the same way a Garmin(s grmn) in a car is — it shows you where you are.

Foreflight's airport information tab shows the current weather at SFO all on one large screen.

The second reason is for carrying the litany of publications we’re required to carry in the aircraft. We could potentially have to fly any possible direction, including offshore. And no matter where we go we have to have VFR (visual flight rules) and IFR (instrument flight rules) charts, and we carry a bag full of these charts that cover every possible area — it’s probably like 20-something charts. And the big thing about the charts is they expire every 56 days — it’s a legal requirement that we have the current charts.

We also need approach-plate books for every state, we carry probably five to eight of these. And then we have to carry 4-inch thick aircraft flight manual and there are dozens of other manuals we aren’t required to carry but we may want to reference.

OK, so this is a lot of paper. What apps do you use to replace all of that?

The cool thing about Foreflight is it makes sure you’ve always downloaded the most current chart. And I use PDF Expert ($9.99) so that now I have dozens of pounds of manuals in this [1.5]-pound device and I can reference them wherever I am.

If you ever see pilots pulling their roller carts through the airport, that’s not all luggage — they might have a toothbrush in there but mostly those are flight pubs. In our aircraft 10 pounds equals about a minute of flying. More fuel equals more time equals more options.

So if I can get rid of 10 to 40 pounds of books, that could be several minutes over a flight, but when considering how many flights we do in a year, that adds up to a lot of time and savings.

Are most pilots on board with this? Or is this kind of change going to come slowly?

The biggest game changer is what I call “the grumpy old pilot” factor. Chances are, they already have an iPad and use it to show me pictures of their grandkids. So using it for flight prep is easy and natural — it’s why the iPad is so quickly being embraced by normally very conservative organizations.

Thumbnail image courtesy of Flickr user clicclic