Eeek? My Chart App Tanked
Now that the iPad and tablet-type computers have become all but standard equipment in the cockpit, so are reports of their failures trickling in. I got a note from a former airplane partner last week reporting that a primary app on his tablet failed and wouldn't restart, killing access to charts and approach plates.
How often is this happening? Often enough, but I wouldn't call it commonplace. I've had one app fail and refuse to restart and many others just quit but come back with a restart or a reboot of the iPad. I haven't experienced the heat-related failures many owners have reported with iPads, but this was a known problem with earlier versions.
If you're a tablet user, none of this should be the least bit surprising and you should plan accordingly. Tablets were never intended for cockpit use and they probably have a mathematical fraction of the reliability of certified avionics. Think about that next time you start figuring that an iPad could easily substitute for a Garmin GTN 650. Although tablet hardware isn't exactly tender, it's not nearly as robust as panel-mount gear, but it's the apps themselves and the peripherals that may cause the most trouble.
What to do about all this? I doubt if I have to explain that if you're using an iPad for primary navigation in IFR, you're flying a fool's errand. That may even be true VFR, if you're venturing far enough afield to require actual navigation. In that case, you'd be well advised to carry along a sectional, unless you have a proper GPS aboard, meaning aviation specific.
And what about IFR? We used to suggest taking along paper as a backup, but that now seems so 2011. If you're paying for full chart coverage on an app, why would you continue to pay for paper and, worse, have it lard up the airplane for little purpose? If you're an obsessive belt-and-suspenders type, the paper is good backup, yes, but then the only advantage of the app is ready access and chart management and that might not be of such benefit as to be worth the cost of two chart libraries. You could go with expired charts, but you still have all the paper to haul around. Which way you go depends on how paranoid you are, I suppose.
So my current thinking is just forget the paper and rely on the tablet, whose current reliability is somewhere between might fail and probably won't. Backup? Carry a separate device with critical nav data on it. This could be a smartphone—my choice—or another tablet. The cheapest Android tablets are under $200 now and even an iPad mini, although overpriced at $329, is certainly not a bank breaker. Just make sure that your backup device is not using wireless or running some Bluetooth link; these are the things that may increase the likelihood of failure.
I arrived at this conclusion, by the way, by analyzing the consequences of suddenly having no chart access in the midst of a stratus deck. It's not a huge deal. Presumably, you've got database GPS aboard with all the fixes and navaids and probably approaches, too. You'd lack the vertical information—DA, MDAs and so forth—but in a pinch, you can get that from ATC. The probability of actually needing it, however, is small enough to justify not hauling around five pounds of newsprint in the backseat.
Of course, when IOS 7 arrives this fall, I may be singing a different tune. In the meantime, I'd be interested in hearing others' experience with tablet failures.