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The iPad Is The Pilot's Best Friend [Updated]

ipadpilotDelta Airlines has deployed 22 iPads into its global pilot workforce, as a preliminary trial of the iPad's ability to act as an electronic flight bag. They're not the first to do so, with American Airlines bagging that title after they gained FAA approval back in 2010, but Delta's move points to a growing trend among fliers—if your job or pastime involves gliding through the air, then the iPad is about to revolutionize the experience.

For Delta, the iPads act as a lighter, more efficient and more up-to-date version of the little leather trolley case pilots usually have to haul around with pounds of flight plans, weather charts, and other paperwork they need to fly airliners. It's part of a bigger digital overhaul for Delta, which has integrated Gogo's in-flight Wi-Fi to its domestic fleet, enabling pilots to get up-to-date information and even company emails as they fly... and Delta's also experimented with loaning iPads as entertainment units to customers. 

All Delta's pilot's tablets have the same core software, which contain charting apps, company flight manuals in PDF format, a custom meteorology app from Delta which includes the company's own real-time radar data, an app for writing notes, and crew rest calculators for longer flights. The company can also push real-time security updates to all its iPad crew in-flight, and even direct them into new re-routes as they fly.

But while Delta is going down the custom app route, the huge suite of apps for pilots in the App Store proves that it's a massive industry. ForeFlight Mobile HD is a good example, claiming to be the "perfect pilot-companion: in-flight or on the ground," it's typical of the more full-featured apps. In addition to offering flight planning that's infinitely easier than is usually required—it integrates routing information and weather into a single display that you simply have to touch ("drag your route line around weather")—it also incorporates downloadable packages that report airport procedures and maps, it also lets you check fuel prices, airspace restrictions, and weather forcasts are presented as interactive maps before you fly. Because it's a real-time service, it's actually a subscription app—and there's a more expensive Pro edition that actually tracks you in-flight, keeping "tabs on groundspeed, tract and geometric altitude" all with the "standard pinch to zoom and panning gestures."

Back in July 2010, Plane And Pilot Mag profiled 20 apps that were useful for pilots, ranging from the free and simple AeroWeather to Jeppesen, a professional grade app that details the approach procedures for airports around the globe, and one that Delta is using as part of its trial.

Everything from pre-flight planning to in-fight emergency weather updates can be delivered via the iPad—and if there's an emergency, the manuals are all electronic and searchable, potentially saving vaulable time instead of having pilots flick through a paper copy.

Proof positive that the iPad's innovation is also changing the entire flight industry comes from British Airways: It's trialing them as dynamic, real-time data tools for senior flight crew—helping them move passengers to connecting flights and replacing the paper-based manifests that have been law since commercial flying began.

Bonus: American Airlines, during its iPad trial program, suggested that by ditching the heavy paper-based pilot flight bags for iPads, they'd save enough weight to reduce their annual fuel bill by $1.2 million. Which also means less polluting fuel is burned.

Updated: This is now very much a trend—United Airlines is deploying 11,000 iPads to all its United and Continental pilots to make their cockpits paperless environments. The fuel and paper savings are significant, and the advantages of having "essential and real-time information at their fingertips at all times throughout the flight" are undeniable.

[Image: Flickr user mike_miley]

Chat about this news with Kit Eaton on Twitter and Fast Company too.

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  • Dean Laffan

    Replacing paper with electronics is fine, but in aviation (especially commercial aviation) if you need one, you need two. Or three.  I bet Apple hopes this idea takes off (sorry) because redundancy will ensure each plane needs not one, but three iPads.

    Paper doesn't crash, lock up or run flat.

  • Norman C John Tate

    I fly Ultralights in Canada. Not sure why a pilot would use polarized sunglasses. The glint/reflection off another aircraft may save your life. Fly non-polarized, the iPad works fine.

  • Alan Kinback

    Actually the iPad's polarization is a non-issue for the airlines. Most transport category aircraft have heated windscreens composed of multiple layers of glass and plastic. Using polarized glasses in the cockpit causes really weird optical effects looking through the windshield

  • Palmer Woodrow

    The problem with the iPad is that Apple polarized the screen in the wrong direction; the screen is only visible through polarized sunglasses in the landscape orientation, which is not suitable for pilots.  You can get a kneeboard to hold the iPad, but it's oriented portrait-mode (as one would expect) and thus presents a blank screen to anyone using good sunglasses.  I don't know any pilot that flies without sunglasses.

    If Apple fixes this error in the next iteration, the iPad could be a great tool for pilots.

  • Dan Brantley

    I always get a kick when I read that American will save so much money by reducing weight. The classic example was reducing the olives in salads from 7 to 5... however when I flew American from Miami to Guatemala City recently, the plane was equipped with about 20 heavy, old CRT displays for in-flight entertainment and information. I was worried we would have enough fuel, and olives, to make it all the way. Maybe this flight crew used iPads and THAT made all the difference in weight!

  • Palmer Woodrow

    Yep, that's the first thing I think about when I see those ancient CRTs: airline hypocrisy.  They bitch about every margin being razor-thin and weight is such a big deal, but they fly CRTs all over the country.  Oh, and they have the resources to plant "stories" vilifying small airports and general aviation in USA Today and morning news shows.