FAA: Own-ship Position Display on iPads Is a Problem

 - August 28, 2011, 1:10 PM

The FAA does not want pilots to use Apple’s iPad tablet computer for navigation. Yet pilots are using the iPad and the many moving-map applications available for the device to navigate and view approach plates, Sids and Stars, en route and sectional charts, aircraft documents and a lot more. While the FAA is sanctioning uses of the iPad not involving navigation, the rapid proliferation of the iPad into the ranks of corporate and light aircraft pilots has been nothing less than stunning. And that means that pilots are using the iPad to navigate, whether or not the FAA approves.

The FAA is clear in its opposition to display of own-ship position (geo-referencing) on the iPad and other devices that qualify as Class 1 electronic flight bags (EFBs). In fact, as iPad apps with moving-maps have proliferated, some now offer the ability to turn off the own-ship display. This seems more like a sop to the FAA’s desire that pilots use only certified avionics for navigation; after all, what pilot is going to turn that feature off unless there is an FAA inspector looking over his or her shoulder?

The FAA’s opinion on own-ship display on Class 1 EFBs is expressed in draft advisory circular 120-76B. “Own-ship position is not authorized for display or used for any application, for navigation or otherwise, on a Class 1 or Class 2 EFB in flight. Do not use this AC by itself to add own-ship position on moving maps on Class 1 and Class 2 EFBs.” The FAA is more willing to allow own-ship display on Class 2 EFBs for ground operations, but refers those interested to AC 20-159, which outlines procedures for design and production approval.

The recently released Mobile FliteDeck iPad app exhibits Jeppesen’s first approach to display of own-ship position on the iPad. Jeppesen’s first iPad app–Mobile TC–was for display of terminal charts only, but Mobile FliteDeck is a full Jeppesen Airway Manual, with worldwide terminal charts as well as en route charts and Airway Manual data for all world regions. Jeppesen has implemented own-ship position, but only for en route charts and airport taxi diagrams, not for approach plates. Jeppesen plans to add approach chart own-ship position in the near future. Mobile FliteDeck is free if users already have a Jeppesen subscription for avionics and remaining unused product keys.

Real-world iPad Use

Corporate pilot Stoney Truett uses an iPad for chart display. Because his company has been flying mostly in the U.S., he canceled the subscription to Jeppesen charts and bought two iPads, one for each company pilot. “We were paying $6,000 for the Jeppesen services,” he said. In the first year of using the iPad, including the cost of the iPads and the WingX app by Hilton Software, he said, “we saved over $4,000.”

Truett also uses the iPad when teaching student pilots, and he wanted to find out the FAA’s view on using the iPad to teach navigation tracking in airplanes not equipped with a VOR receiver. In researching the subject, Truett read FAA Information for Operators bulletin 11011, which outlines guidance used by Part 135 and 121 operators to seek approval for use of iPads as Class 1 EFBs as chart and document display devices in the cockpit. No such approval is required for Part 91 operators.

Truett contacted the FAA about InFO 11011 and wasn’t encouraged by the response. “I can tell you what the FAA’s position is on the iPad [for navigation],” Truett said. ‘No way!’” Truett added that the FAA’s attitude is that it will never allow use of iPads or other uncertified devices like handheld GPS units for primary navigation. And to bolster that position, he was briefed about a series of negative reports about iPads to NASA’s Aviation Safety Reporting System database as justification of the FAA’s position.

AIN reviewed 12 reports in the ASRS database containing the word “iPad” and 65 reports containing “handheld+GPS.” The majority of the iPad reports are for navigation errors while pilots were trying to figure out how to use their devices. Many of the “handheld+GPS” reports cite how these devices help prevent a lot of possibly serious situations when aircraft instruments or systems failed. “You have to practice [using the iPad],” Truett pointed out.

“My preference would be to see the FAA allow own-ship positioning as a reference, not [as] primary navigation,” he said. “[It is] just trying to keep you from using it as primary because [it doesn’t] have control over it. As far as own-ship positioning on the iPad, I’ll never turn it off. I’ve flown a dozen different aircraft types with the iPad to see how well it works in different situations. I have found it to be consistently stable, simple, easy to use and very, very safe. I think the iPad is as significant and important as Loran and GPS were when they came into the aviation world. Even if you turn own-ship off, you have all the charts you need in an eight- by ten-size device that’s simple and easy to assess. [But] own-ship position display is a huge enhancement in safety and situational awareness.”

Examples of accidents where more situational awareness could have helped abound. In many of these accidents, the aircraft equipment was not capable of own-ship display on approach charts, so an iPad could have helped.

On July 13, 2009, the pilots flying a Gulfstream IV-SP became confused about their position after a windshield cracked during takeoff from Kerry Airport in the UK. While trying to return to land via the ILS approach to Runway 26, the crew mistakenly followed a false localizer indication and began descending well away from the airport, to within 702 feet of the ground. After an alert radar controller at Shannon Center warned the tower controller that the GIV was low and well away from the localizer course, the pilots were instructed to climb immediately and subsequently landed safely.

There are other accidents, especially those involving controlled flight into terrain, such as the GIII that crashed during an instrument approach into Hobby Airport in Houston on Nov. 22, 2004. The GIII crashed away from the airport, after the pilots followed what they thought was the glideslope indicator but instead was the angle-of-attack indicator. That, of course, was well before iPads were developed and before most handheld GPS units with moving maps offered own-ship display on approach charts.