Smartphones have only been on the scene for a little over twenty years. That’s less than the average person. Yet, smartphones have changed the world. Aviation’s changing resulting from smartphone capabilities and aviation apps is undeniable. For better or for worse, smartphones are in almost every pilot’s hand. How pilots use this resource varies with technological savvy. Flight planning, training, navigation, logbooks, and regulations are forever changed with the introduction of smartphones and aviation apps into the aviation industry.
Last year, my boss was standing in a group having an engaging conversation about a new product. The four of us were just outside a large hangar enjoying the cool breeze. His phone gave a buzz and he glanced up at the sky which was mostly obscured by the large hangar next to us. Though I saw no clouds, I followed when he said, “Let’s move inside to stay dry,” as he ushered us into the building. Less than two minutes later we could hear the rain pelting the rooftop of the metal hangar. He convinced them to try the new product. Me, however, he convinced to download the app which notified him that rain was imminent at his location.
Once, radar was only viewable on the local news or weather broadcast. Weather briefers and controllers with radar could only tell pilots what they saw. Now, with the touch of your hand, radar is immediately at your fingertips on the smartphone. Developers have created aviation apps that track rain’s radar return and notify you if rain is less than a few minutes from your GPS location. In aviation, thunderstorms can be extremely dangerous. Knowing where they are and where they are going improves safety beyond measure.
Computerized flight planning came along before smartphones. No longer were pilots bound to using E6B calculators and plotters paired with weather reports to find out how long it would take to get from here to there. Computerized flight planning brought with it speed and convenience. Smartphones took this a step further making flight planning mobile and in some cases, seamlessly transferable to cockpit navigation equipment. Simply plan your flight on your phone, hop in your aircraft and Bluetooth will allow you to load that flight plan right into your GPS. No reprogramming necessary.
Smartphones have also begun to replace costly aircraft equipment in private aircraft. In the past, aircraft owners might have invested several thousand dollars on installing multiple receivers to be able to see things like weather and traffic in the cockpit. An iPhone, for instance, coupled with one mobile receiver now can display radar as well as aircraft operating nearby simultaneously. All this awareness information is overlaid onto a moving map of your route on your smartphone so you have the greatest amount of situational awareness possible.
For fear of low return on investment, aircraft owners have long lamented installing costly avionics equipment in an aircraft they may not plan to keep more than a few years. With the advent of smartphones making luxuries portable, more owners will choose to invest in equipping themselves with these awareness tools such as traffic and weather reporting systems. Increased situational awareness on an individual level improves overall industry safety.
Smartphones have also provided a way to ease the manual burden of completing logbook entries. When paired with an electronic logbook, a smartphone acts as an immediately available recording tool in the cockpit. Carrying a large logbook on several flights is not only cumbersome but doing so increases the risk of lost logs. That’s why some pilots carry smaller, pocket sized, crew logbooks along on multiple day trips. An extra crew log introduced a data transfer step into the already manual process of logging flight experience. The convenience of the smartphone helps pilots bypass the transfer, risk of loss, and cumbersome book shuffling by allowing electronic record entry in a device which is already a part of everyday life.
Smartphones have changed aviation by making flying a more social activity. Popular among today’s flight students, sharing training flights via social media is bringing pilots and their loved ones closer together. Families, friends, and spouses are taking an active and supportive role in flight training by using these tools. Therefore, bridging the once crippling gap between the aviation and non-aviation worlds. No longer does a flight student spend the day away training without any significant method to show or tell loved ones about the wonderful training experience. Now, friends and family might follow along via social media or experience a narrated playback of the recorded flight route as the pilot shares it.
While most of these changes can be viewed as positive, in some ways smartphones have caused a decline in safety. Separating from the constant communications of a smartphone is necessary to maintain awareness during flight activities. Some find putting down these devices more challenging than expected. Display induced attention tunneling is one factor cited by the Federal Aviation Administration to justify new regulations restricting the use of smartphones by pilots when flying. Some also blame technology for complacency. Pilots must maintain redundancy to overcome the looming battery or hardware failure.
Overall, the positive aspects of smartphones and aviation apps far outweigh the drawbacks. Flight planning, weather reporting, traffic awareness, logbooks, flight training communities, and many other aspects of aviation greatly improved with the introduction of smartphones. When used properly, these devices make flying easier and safer.