Not As Prime: An Evaluation of iPad Use in a CTSW

My local EAA chapter held an impromptu fly-in to the Texas Gulf Coast Regional airport (old name: Brazoria County), and I decided to use the opportunity to evaluate using an iPad on a kneeboard my wife had generously given me for Christmas.   Like most of the community, when the iPad first surfaced, I had high hopes for using it as an Electronic Flight Bag.  I still might; but as I examine the limitations of the device in the context of using it in my little CTSW, I’m finding that it is best used more as a contingency tool.  I’ll get to the reasons for that in a minute; but for now, let me talk about the kneeboard I chose to use it in.

The iPad Kneeboard I tried out is sold by Aircraft Spruce (under part number 13-08297) is a solid, one-piece, plastic extrusion that fits over your leg and has a single Velcro-strap that holds it to your leg.  The iPad snaps down into the outer edges of the kneeboard so that it is firmly held in place but its edge controls are still accessible.  Once the iPad is in place, it and the kneeboard become a single unit.  If you flip the kneeboard upside down and try to shake the iPad out, it won’t happen unless you somehow deform the kneeboard itself.  To remove the iPad, you simply pry it out of the case; but over time that means the security of the device will probably decrease as the plastic wears or deforms.  The other drawback to this particular design is that there is no cover for the iPad’s screen, so it can be scratched or gouged if not carefully handled.  In a small airplane like the CTSW, the whole unit becomes rather large, which is mostly what makes it unsuitable for every day use, though I suspect other CT pilots would disagree with me.   Despite Apple’s protestations about making a smaller tablet, for use in an aviation environment such as mine, a 7 inch tablet would be a more appropriate size.

I first tried mounting the iPad and its kneeboard on my right leg.  The first thing I noticed was that my immediate view of the Ignition switch and the Fuel Valve handle was blocked.  That was actually a minor inconvenience.  However, the CT’s control stick is only a little higher than the top of one’s leg; and I found that the edge of the iPad and the kneeboard tended to restrict stick throw with my legs in their normal positions.   I tried moving the assembly to my left leg; and while that was slightly better, it did not totally alleviate the problem.  In short, I feel that the iPad mounted on a kneeboard is best suited for an airplane controlled with a yoke or a side-stick controller and is not well-suited for an airplane with a small stick in between one’s legs.  A taller control stick set-up might work, though I suspect the stick would bang against the unit for during any hard maneuvering.

In the bright sunlight that streams into the CTSW’s cockpit, the iPad was barely readable.  While there is nothing new there, it became another reason not to use the iPad as my prime “flight bag”.

Does all this mean we won’t have the iPad in the cockpit when we travel?  No.

I have discussed with my wife putting the device in a RAM mount but she’s not in favor of that because of the obstruction it would erect to her own views.  So, we’re going to simply leave the device in its Apple case (a rubber book-like cover) and stuff it in between either my seat or hers and the center console.  It will still be available in the cockpit for use as an “EFB”or an emergency chart or procedure reference.  I still plan on using my small kneeboard and paper navigational logs (usually generated by the AOPA Flight Planner), sectional and terminal charts, and our Garmin 496 with its XM weather displays as my prime cockpit tools.  I’ll re-evaluate that position as new versions of the iPad surface, new tools for it appear, or new capabilities come into iPad applications I already own.  But, for now, the iPad in my cockpit will remain largely a reference or contingency device.  Based on my own evaluations and some NASA ASAP reports about the device’s limitations, that’s the best use of it for me, even if it bucks the rising tide.