Aviation apps find a calling on the iPhone

 - November 24, 2009, 4:09 AM

Apple hit a big milestone last month: its App Store officially surpassed 100,000 apps. That’s a mind-numbing number when you consider that the App Store didn’t even exist until July last year. Apple hit the 65,000-app mark a year later. The continued development pace is nothing short of amazing. And while some might argue that as a phone the iPhone leaves a lot to be desired, there’s no denying that as an application platform Steve Jobs’s wonder product leads the pack.

AIN polled iPhone users at October’s NBAA Convention to find out which aviation-specific apps they like best. An article on the subject that ran in the final day’s edition of NBAA Convention News (an AIN sister publication) generated much interest, so we decided to revisit the topic.

As it turned out, a lot of attendees at NBAA were talking on cellphones and typing on BlackBerrys, but hardly any of them were using iPhones–perhaps because many corporate IT departments forbid their use, citing security risks. Universal Avionics told AIN that the company’s entire executive team and sales staff use iPhones, but other companies we talked to, including Honeywell, don’t allow any iPhone access to the corporate VPN. In the button-down corporate world, the BlackBerry rules. (While there are apps for the BlackBerry, it’s a paltry few compared with the App Store–and there are hardly any related to aviation.)

With a little persistence we were able to track down pilots using their iPhones at the NBAA Convention and get some answers. Billy Derbyshire, chief pilot for Avitat Boca Raton in South Florida, showed us the apps on his phone that he says he uses most. His favorite is AeroWeather, a free application that provides Metar and TAF reports for any airport where reporting is available. “This is a great one,” he said, tapping on the phone’s screen as he demonstrated how the application works. Derbyshire said he also uses an app from Fltplan.com to look up airport information. “Mostly phone numbers. I wish they’d come out with an app that would actually let me do flight planning.”

Geoff Green, a Falcon 900 captain, said he uses AeroWeather, AOPA’s Airports Directory, the electronic logbook app LogTen and LiveATC (which lets him listen to ATC broadcasts at airports around the world). “That one’s just for fun,” he said.
Another corporate pilot told us his list of aviation apps includes AeroWeather, AOPA Airports, Checklist, two flight-tracking apps–Flight Track and FlightAware–and LiveATC.

There are hundreds of aviation-related apps on the App Store, many of them free and designed for private pilots while others are for serious aviators and cost more than $100. The highest-rated aviation application we found on the App Store was ForeFlight Mobile’s $74.99 “pre-flight intelligence suite,” a comprehensive resource that includes weather information, approach charts, airport diagrams, information on more than 9,000 FBOs and an airport-facility directory listing more than 27,000 airports in 220 countries. What’s more, it’ll let you create and file a flight plan.

Reader Michael Gibbs of Phoenix maintains a Web site devoted to the topic called aviatorapps.com, where he keeps a running tally of every aviation-related iPhone app he can find. Gibbs singled out CoPilot as a terrific flight planner and E6B app that can perform comprehensive route planning, performance calculations, graphical crosswind and holding-pattern depictions and one-touch flight plan filing. When we last checked, Gibbs’ site listed 236 aviation iPhone apps, from aircraft-specific POHs to FAA test-prep software and even a G meter (aptly named Gee Meter) that purports to show how many gs you’re pulling by using the iPhone’s built-in accelerometer.

Brian Snider, a product specialist for Aviation Supplies & Academics in Newcastle, Wash., told AIN that ASA has just released its first test-preparation iPhone app (called Prepware and available for $9.99) for those studying for their FAA knowledge exams. The private-pilot tests are currently available, and commercial, instrument, CFI and ATP versions will be available soon, he said.

We also spoke with James Spadaro and Sterling Brandt, the founders of a San Francisco company called FlightApps, which provides application and IT services specifically for flight departments that use iPhones to run aviation software. But rather than just create apps for the iPhone, the company allows iPhone users to connect to its remote servers for access to software that normally must be run on a PC.

One of the latest from FlightApps is the Flight Operations System flight ops software from Computing Technologies for Aviation based in Charlottesville, Va., which many corporate flight department pilots and dispatchers rely on for day-to-day operations.

“I was actually reluctant to buy an iPhone at first,” said company president and CEO Spadaro, an avowed PC aficionado. “But it has been the most productive thing I have done with technology.” He said the iPhone’s interface
is far superior to that of other smart phones for running hosted software.

One-year-old FlightApps has 22 business aviation customers, he said. All of them are corporate flight departments or Part 135 commercial operators.