Alton Brown, the techie’s cook show host on The Food Channel’s Good Eats, always opts for the best multipurpose kitchen gadget. The same rule, I think, applies in all walks of life, flying included. If there is a gadget that will fit in my flight bag — or better still in my wife’s pocketbook — and permit her to listen to tunes or watch a movie inflight, while permitting both of us to check email once we get to our hotel, or check our calendars, contacts, read a magazine, or the newspaper, or listen to radio programs, and also helps me prepare for flight and maybe gives me some backup inflight, that’s the gadget I am bringing on trips.
That gadget is a 3G iPad running ForeFlight. My wife calls it a Swiss Army knife for pilots. The iPad has redefined the tablet market , miles ahead of current competition, as the traffic in the Apple stores attests. Putter around with it for a few minutes and you are likely to become intrigued by how quick and easy things go on it in contrast to a laptop or other mobile device. After a few hours playing with it, you are likely to be one of the 28 million projected to purchase one by the end of 2010.
The four young principals at ForeFlight, Jason Miller and Kristin Miller in South Carolina, and Tyson Weihs and Adam Houghton in Texas, have had their ForeFlight mobile flight planning app on the iPhone for a while, where it enjoyed some popularity. But when they ported to the iPad this year, with its gorgeous big screen, suddenly they were mobbed with orders. They barely had time to go to the bathroom the entire time they spent at Oshkosh this summer. I wondered why until I got my iPad last week, and now I get it.
The app downloads and installs from the iTunes App Store in seconds. Open it on a 3G iPad, and it almost instantly shows you nearby airports, with frequencies, weather, runways, procedures, NOTAMs, FBOs, and an airport diagram. Touch the map icon in the row of buttons along the bottom of the screen and up pops a seamless sectional or IFR enroute chart. Use what have become the standard touchscreen “gestures” to zoom or scroll along your proposed route, selecting waypoints from location-sensitive pop-up suggestions. Touch buttons in a map option pop-up menu to see airport flight rule status, current radar, winds, visibility, ceiling, sky coverage, temperature, dewpoint, and lightning graphically represented on the map. Touch the Imagery button to select from a full set of graphic weather products such as prog charts, winds aloft, forecast icing, airmets/sigmets, freezing levels. Press File & brief to bring the route you have specified over to a flight plan form and allow you to specify aircraft information and the rest of the data required for filing. Press File, and within seconds see a confirming email from ForeFlight including a textual weather briefing.
Last week, Oct 4 to 9, 2010, my wife and I brought our iPad on a trip from N07 to CLT to CHS and home, a total distance of 1100 nm. The night before the flight, I downloaded all charts and plates for the states I was passing through so I would have them available without a datalink enroute. On the first leg, touching the map icon displayed an airplane icon tracking along our route, with accurate GPS-derived groundspeed, altitude, and track displayed along the bottom. I had the same good results with the GPS on the second leg, but on the third leg we got no position until RIC, then erratic indications until we were near PHL, leading me to conclude that the backup capabilities of the GPS enroute are limited. Perhaps a plug-in GPS antenna could help. You can turn off cellular data in the iPad settings if you want to lengthen battery life. You can also plug a charger into ship power of course, and battery life is remarkably good on the iPad, even with the cellular receiver turned on. We tried leaving it on to see if we could pick up fresh METAR data as we approached our destinations, but were unable to do so. However, it was easy to refer to ForeFlight for ATIS and other frequencies at our destination, as well as to review arrival and approach procedures, and airport diagrams. We wondered if there might be some way to leverage the availability of METARs and other weather data via XM satellite on future iPads.
In the big software scheme of things, ForeFlight is a data consolidation tool, with a well-designed user interface, running on an extraordinarily practical portable gadget. Here are the top four items on my wish list for future versions:
A better automatic route selector.
There are sources of preferred routes and recently issued clearances out there that Jason, Tyson, Andy, and Krista need to mine and present to the ForeFlight user when she is building a flight plan. DUATs does a marginally acceptable job of this, and so does Fltplan.com. But I hope the ForeFlight team can develop an auto-route tool that reaches a higher level of utility by filtering routes through airplane performance data and selected cruise altitudes to cut down on errors.
A better route-specific graphical weather briefer.
There is an enormous body of weather data available to the ForeFlight team, and they can do us users a big favor by distilling that data and presenting everything that is germane to our flight, and presenting it graphically wherever practical. I introduced Jason Miller to former National Weather Service software engineer and prominent aviation weather expert Scott Dennstaedt to help them with this. The current team at the National Weather Service have shown the way with their new Flight Path Tool which permits a user to layer pertinent data on a map that provides a route overview, including wind barbs, temperature aloft, FIP icing forecasts, PIREPs, AIRMETs and more. The user can switch to a profile view, slicing along various potential routes, various possible altitudes, and flight times.
Get ready for new gadgets.
The two major players in the current contest for dominance in the market for multipurpose electronic gadgets appear likely to be Apple and Google. I carry a DroidX running on the Verizon network, and turn to it for help on the frequent occasions when the iPad’s AT&T connection slows to a crawl or gives up entirely. It will be interesting to see what the iPad will look like running on Verizon and what the Android tablet will look like. I have a hunch we may not have to wait long to find out, and as smart as the ForeFlight team is, I have a further hunch they are planning to be prepared for these likely changes.
ForeFlight crashed several times, although it never took more than restarting the app to get it functioning again, and that only took a few seconds. None of the other apps we are using regularly have crashed including iTunes, Google Mail, Google Calendar, Maps, iBooks, NPR, The New Yorker, WIRED, Kindle, GoToMeeting, and the native Safari browser.
(Two notes on these other apps: Kindle works better on our iPad than it did on my Kindle, which is now in a closet. WIRED is the best conversion I have yet seen from old-fashioned print magazine format to electronic magazine format. I have a hunch that elegant tablets like it have a good chance of saving the magazine industry.)
You hear a lot of worry about productivity drying up in the U.S. We need to get manufacturing going again, the worriers say. The ForeFlight team epitomizes the thousands of smart young engineers we manufacture in this country. We maintain the best environment in the world in which these smart engineers can find financial backing and reap rewards for their ingenuity.
Jason and Krista, now married, living in Rock Hill SC and the proud parents of two little boys, met at Clemson University in Clemson SC and joined a start up that spun off that campus called Incogen, which built data mining and interpretation tools for medical researchers. They are both pilots and owners of Cirrus N417MM.
Tyson Weihs started writing ecommerce and electronic catalog software while he was still an undergraduate at Trinity University in San Antonio TX, and went to graduate school at my alma mater, Rice University, in Houston TX. A spark of interest in aviation was fanned to flame by Doug Moreland, a pilot he worked for at BenefitFocus, who handed him the controls of Mooney N205CC. Before long he was a private pilot working on his web-based MyMetar.com. He found Jason and Krista, and together they targeted the Apple iPhone, then the iPad. It looks like the beginning of a promising new company.
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