Eeek? My Chart App Tanked

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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.

Comments (24)

This is exactly why air carriers are required to have 2 working EFBs on board before takeoff when not carrying paper charts. There are also requirements for a mininum charge of the battery (30% for my company) along with the removal from the MEL of an inoperative cabin inverter (120 volt source). The IPad has been much more reliable than the older Windows based tablet computers, EFBs, but are not foolproof. IPads still occasionally lock up, requiring a reboot. And when the new software version comes out it will require a new approval from my company's FSDO.

Posted by: matthew wagner | June 12, 2013 9:33 PM    Report this comment

Well, we always need a fall-back, but it doesn't necessarily have to be a 100% capability backup solution.

ATC can generally get you where you are going and onto the ground, assuming you still have the good old VOR/ILS working, and in many cases an ASR approach will do the trick. Messy and may require some explanation of how you came to be in that fix, but it works. Air carriers of course need more.

Posted by: John Wilson | June 12, 2013 10:17 PM    Report this comment

I have experienced two kinds of failures. The first occurred when using an iPad mobile charger from a "big box" electronics store. The charger was advertised as being rated for 14 VDC. The iPad would randomly shut down the app (ForeFlight) irrespective of the iPad battery charge state. This problem went away when the charger was replaced with a more robust model that was marketed for aviation use.

The second problem occurred when the 1st generation iPad simply couldn't keep up with the demands of the app after connecting to the Stratus 1 ADS-B box. The screen refresh rate became extremely slow and eventually the app would lock up. This problem has not occurred with the 4th generation iPad.

Posted by: KENNETH MCLAUGHLAN | June 13, 2013 5:39 AM    Report this comment

There are two problems with tablets/smartphone/laptop and they are 1) hardware failure such as loss of power, getting wet and temperature differentials i.e. minus x to positive x degrees. Cockpits do have a variety of temperatures and one needs to ensure the device is ok with all temperatures ranges that can be expected especially where the device will be kept. 2) Software failures due to a) hardware glitches b) badly written apps c) viruses.

The new wave of viruses which will affect any operating system (Apple, Windows, Linux etc) is to attach something to a website such as those, that are attached to this blog when I transferred to it. the first one is a survey virus the other is an advertisement virus. These viruses are designed to stop you using your computer for a time until you have dealt with their request. Not what is required when flying.

Sorry about the bad news but I feel very upset by these perpetrators of viruses and their callous disregard for others living on this planet.

Posted by: Unknown | June 13, 2013 5:46 AM    Report this comment

Belt and suspenders as you call has keep me current and alive for almost 50 years of flying. Updating charts paper charts was and is time consming but it makes you aware that maybe somthng seriou has changed sincde you last shot that approach. I seriously doubt most I Pad usesrs really spend much time looking at an out of date chart or plate and the new one to regiester what has really chaged and why. My personal aircraft has dual gps and mfd I see no real use for this tablet deal however I do carry a handheld radio.

Posted by: Unknown | June 13, 2013 5:47 AM    Report this comment

Yet another reason I'll never get Instrument rated. The towplane I fly for the glider club is an old Pawnee, and it is a hoot. No vacuum instruments, no GPS, no VOR, and no iPad - just a good view and lots of landing practice.

Posted by: Scott Thomason | June 13, 2013 6:31 AM    Report this comment

If the developers of Foreflight and WingX7Pro tell me point blank to carry a second device with their apps on it for back up (and they do!) then, gosh darnit, that is exactly what I'll do. Actually, to hedge my bets I use a different app, on a different operating system, too. So far, so good on that. And you still have to remember to update everything before you go fly. It's a lot easier now, but without the updates you aren't legal.

Posted by: Unknown | June 13, 2013 6:50 AM    Report this comment

The be useful, your backup needs to be on a device that is used regularly so you know it is operational. That's why the best backup for an iPad is an iPhone. The downside of this is the mechanism that caused your iPad to fail is probably present on your iPhone. I have been using electronic charts on a tablet since 2005 and have had only one failure. It was my iPad that was running both AM and ADS-B weather. Switching between the two weather views managed to lock up ForeFlight. So I switched to my iPhone backup and proceeded to lock it up too using the same sequence. (I subsequently learned from ForeFlight that there is a proper way to change weather sources.) The soultion is to run the backup in minimal functionality to ensure it will be there when you need it. Also, stagger program updates for your primary and backup systems in case there are new bugs.

Posted by: Peter Cassidy | June 13, 2013 6:59 AM    Report this comment

As much as I love using iPad/Foreflight, it is definitely not 100% (or even 80%) reliable. My brother/co-pilot and I were flying from NH to the Hudson River VFR corridor and both our iPads had overtemp-shutdowns. The iPad's were basically paperweights until they cooled down - about 15 minutes later. This is due more to the GPS hardware than IOS/Foreflight related, but 200nm from home, who cares whose fault it is - you just don't have charts. We do fly with a Garmin 396 handheld, so we weren't completely without backup navigation. We have dual VORs to primarily navigate and of course, we had ATC as a last resort. On my next long X/C, I periodically (every hour) put the iPad in standby and placed it down near an open vent to cool it off for a couple minutes. Seemed to work. Hopefully Apple will fix these cooling issues in upcoming versions.

Posted by: Unknown | June 13, 2013 7:24 AM    Report this comment

I've been using an iPad/ForeFlight combo in the cockpit for probably 2 years now and have never had a problem. I keep my iPhone as a backup, but have never had to use it.

I've used it in IFR and VFR and along with a Garmin 430/530/G1000 in the cockpit, I feel that I'm AOK if something goes awry.

The scary thing is that for $150 and about $700 in Hardware, I can find information quicker and easier than the $500K CAP C-182 with the G1000 system

Posted by: R. Doe | June 13, 2013 7:54 AM    Report this comment

I've been using tablet based navigation since about 2000. (Yes, 13 years.) I started out using Jeppesen's JeppView on a Microsoft based tablet and continue to use them today. In all that time, I've had one problem. That being early on when the hard-drive flying 10,000' problem was first discovered. That was eliminated by converting to SSD's. In all this time, I've had to reboot five or six times. I've had more problems with my panel mounted avionics. (Steam guages, transponder & two radio replacements.)

I do carry a second tablet with 100% back-up, a backup GPS, and a separate battery pack that will provide 7 hours of run time.

I also use the primary tablet for all the normal PC based applications when traveling. So it's kept current with virus protection, and kept as clean as possible. (Clean as in clearing history files, defragmenting the hard drive, and keeping the registry files clean.)

Posted by: Jerry Olson | June 13, 2013 8:18 AM    Report this comment

One additional note, Jeppesen's JeppView updates include paper IFR Low Enroute charts which I keep in my flight bag.

Posted by: Jerry Olson | June 13, 2013 8:20 AM    Report this comment

In my own plane (and when I'm traveling more than ~100nm), I have two android tablets (a Nexus 7 and a Nexus 10), plus the Garmin 696 that came with the plane. I only had one issue early on when I was starting to transition to using electronic-only charts, but I haven't had any problems since then. However, I do have a number of friends who have had their iPads overheat and shutdown during flight.

One thing I have found is that the larger screens (such as my Nexus 10) tend to heat up quicker than the smaller screens. I would definitely recommend that your backup device be a smaller screen than your primary one. The other benefit is, I'll use the larger tablet for enroute navigation, while having the approach charts/etc up on the smaller one, just as if I were flying with paper.

Since Android is my chosen platform, my choices of software are more limited than on the iPad, but I have found Garmin Pilot to be very well designed, and more importantly, simple and intuitive to operate. I found WingX and ForeFlight to just have too many features, when all I wanted to do was replace dumb (as opposed to "smart") paper charts with electronic versions of them. And from a computer science point of view, less complexity should theoretically means more reliability.

Posted by: Gary Baluha | June 13, 2013 8:37 AM    Report this comment

I formerly used my Kindle DX for my approach plates(large screen, easy to see entire plate, no backlighting, so no heat problem). Unfortunately, with the changes in the FAA policies, the sources for bundled IAPs dried up. Sever sources supplied downloads for individual plates, but it's too tedious to download individual IAPs when planning cross-country flights--and you can't be sure you will have what you need if the weather forces changes to your route. I bought an iPad and a Stratus and switched to ForeFlight, and I couldn't be happier.

I've been a little concerned with the lack of a backup source of plates. I have a Garmin 430W in my panel, so with altitude and other information from ATC, I have the means to follow an IAP, but I'd like to be able to see the plate itself. I recently found a web site, chartbundle.com, that presently supplies files for various e-readers (MOBI files, in my case), packaged by state or region, and nicely indexed. The service is free, but they request contributions through Amazon or PayPal, which they certainly deserve for maintaining the site and doing the necessary work.

I had heard rumors that the Kindle DX was no longer available, but I just checked the Amazon web site and see that it is still in stock, for $299.

Posted by: NEIL CARLSON | June 13, 2013 11:03 AM    Report this comment

All very interesting. I'm just getting into electronic charts, with a yoke-mounted iPad Mini and Foreflight Pro. So I'll be looking for glitches, before I cancel my subscription to paper.

However, I've learned not to panic when I don't have what I need. Flying to Pocatello years ago, I thought I had the approach plates and didn't discover that I didn't until about 30 miles out. Pokey was socked in, so ATC read me the ILS info, and the approach was uneventful.

Cary

Posted by: Unknown | June 13, 2013 1:20 PM    Report this comment

I love my iPad. I'm not too worried about a failure. Primary navigation is by a 530W and dual VORs. I plan on backing up Foreflight on my Android phone. In the meantime, I can print out all the plates for several airports around my destination prior to the flight. Worst case, in the unlikely event that the 530 and the iPad fail simultaneously, I can always get a radar approach. I haven't had a heat related failure on my iPad4, although I haven't carried it through a summer. I have had an iPad1 all summer and haven't had that problem with it, although one winter, it got very cold before I got it in the plane and it got really slow. In any case, my Cherokee 6 has AC.

Posted by: Unknown | June 13, 2013 3:22 PM    Report this comment

It's getting to the point where the backup to the iPad Mini is the 430W . . . .

Posted by: Unknown | June 13, 2013 7:30 PM    Report this comment

I don't disagree with most of the voiced concerns. Just want to remind people the certified units have software and even the Garmin box has failed because of software issues. Garmin does not appear to have a notifcation service for software upgrades, you need to check with your dealer to find out about updates.

Posted by: james rice | June 14, 2013 10:32 AM    Report this comment

Android. Google play store. Avare. Good app, intuitive, bare bones, responsive developer. Free, so donate as your conscience directs.

Posted by: MICHAEL MUETZEL | June 15, 2013 12:43 AM    Report this comment

Great article Paul. I print off IAP/SIDS/STARS/AFD and enroute so I have the paper backup. It's free and easy.

Posted by: David Perdue | July 10, 2013 7:27 AM    Report this comment

I've been flying with an iPhone for about 4 years now and an iPad for about two. I've had my share of inflight issues, but they have all been directly related to the software I was using. I moved to foreflight and for about the last year I haven't had a single issue.

That doesn't mean I'm not prepared for the issues to resurface. Based on my past experience an app restart or reboot usually clears the problem. What if the database mysteriously disappears? (It's happened twice). I deal with that by having a backup app, sky charts pro, $20. And if its a hardware issue I've got foreflight on my iPhone. Not fun to use in ifr, but it gets the job done.

A backup is absolutely necessary, and to fly without something is just crazy, but I do agree that paper may not be the best solution for most situations.

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