Thursday, February 12, 2009


My friends and family were not surprised when I got an iPhone, considering the number of Apple ][s, classic Macs, Mac IIs, PowerBooks, MacBooks, MacPros, and iPods that I have owned or used over the years. The real cognoscenti also remember that for many years I used a NeXT workstation. I really learned Unix from the NeXT's version (called Mach), which evolved into Mac OS X.

My aviation activities, though, have either been analog (I owned a Taylorcraft, and now have a glider) or super digital (Collins 5 tube EFIS, Universal UNS-1 FMS, that sort of thing).

And while I have written about the value of a computer weather briefing, I haven't done that much with computers in the cockpit.

(I used to fly King Airs, alone, with my laptop in the baggage area. When the exploding battery news came out, I checked: I had one! A fire in the baggage area when you're alone in a King Air, 35 feet away, is ... you know what? I don't want to think about it. I was lucky.)

The iPhone is changing that. Here are a couple of hacks that I have worked out.

Weather A nice little app called AeroWeather keeps a short list of airports. It sniffs the ether for METARs for these airports, and if you click on one you get the TAF and a little airport information, too. I have always wrestled with how much weather I need to carry in the cockpit. I used to carry a printout of relevant METARs and TAFs, but I can't remember looking at them very much, even on long legs. I can remember calling Flight Watch a lot for updates.

When I flew Life Flight, I would begin the shift by getting the METARs and TAFs for the airports we served, and download them onto my iPod (which I enabled as an external hard drive). My rationale was that it was entirely possible to be someplace where there was no computer available and asked to fly someplace else. In retrospect, people were probably right to think this a little obsessive-compulsive.

So now I use the iPhone's screen capture to store a copy of my destination and alternate weather. I haven't had to look at them, yet, but it's nice to know they are available.

Another nice hack involves PICBrief is an OK website when you are at a computer, but the mobile version is very nice (it detects when you connect from an iPhone or Blackberry). You can look up NOSC instrument approach plates, and at first I thought it was too bad that you needed the internet connection to do so; wouldn't that make a great backup. But, using the screen capture feature, I can download and save the plates I need on the phone. The plates are a little small, but of course the iPhone allows you to zoom in. So now, instead of carrying the approach plate book, I just have the home approaches in my iPhone.

PICBrief also includes FARs, a little route planner (it's manual, but works out distances and radials), an N-number search, and basic information from the Airport/Facilities Directory, all available on-line. This is a little more convenient than's A/FD app, because you need to update the latter every 8 weeks. But I have both, because I can use in the air.

Alas, I am not happy with the iPhone's GPS. The antenna is tiny and buried, and I am not aware of any external antennas. So, you would have to hold the unit where it can see the sky. This is difficult enough in a car, but impossible in a high-wing airplane. The GPS works adequately for tracking runs and bike rides (I use RunKeeper).

During a recent trip as a passenger, I got the route from FlightAware, did a screen capture, and refered to the map to help with my sight-seeing.

And, finally, for those who object to breaking any rule at any time (Red Boarders, please raise hand), the iPhone has an airplane mode that turns it into a PDA. Southwest airlines, for one, says that it is OK to use it in flight in airplane mode, and above 10,000 feet MSL.

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At February 13, 2009 at 6:46 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Have you tried out the ForeFlight products? They have three for the iPhone as well as a mobile optimized website at


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