iPad for aviators: only cellular-capable models offer GPS, but you don’t need a data plan to navigate aloft

If you’re considering purchase of an Apple iPad for aviation applications, you’ve undoubtedly run into confusion about 1) whether iPad has “real” GPS, and 2) whether cellular service must be activated to use it. Here’s the scoop.

First, only the “WiFi+cellular” iPads offer internal GPS capability*. Those models indeed deliver GPS location and groundspeed in the air, georeferenced to VFR and en route IFR charts in Foreflight and similar aviation apps. I know this is true, because I use it.

Secondly, you do not need wireless access or a cellular data plan to navigate via GPS using Foreflight or other EFB applications**. Again, I know this from personal experience.

So why all the confusion about whether cellular network access is required to use iPad’s GPS? Here’s my buddy Rod Machado‘s definitive explanation:

“It turns out that the folks at the Apple store didn’t realize the ultimate capability of the iPad 3G/4G. Here’s what I deduced. It’s true that the iPad 3G/4G has the GPS chips, thus it has a working GPS engine inside. To use that GPS engine with Google Maps [included with iPad], you definitely need an Apple data plan. This is so because you need a way to access the internet to upload those Google maps. On the other hand, with Foreflight, you download 6 Gigs of data/charts that are stored in iPad memory. This allows Foreflight’s data to access the GPS chip and plot the iPad’s true and accurate location on any of Foreflight’s moving maps. So there you have it. When the maps are already stored in the iPad you don’t need any cellular or Wi-fi connection for an accurate moving map display.”

Of course to obtain weather, NOTAMs, or any other online-derived data you indeed need a wi-fi or cellular connection.

Thanks, Rod!

Subsequent iPad/GPS updates and user notes:

  • Several pilot friends have reported iPads temporarily shutting down due to overheating. (Apple lists max. operating temperature as 95º.) Don’t cook your iPad on your cockpit dash!
  • When using the internal GPS, iPad’s geo-referenced aircraft position sometimes shifts a bit on the map when zooming the screen in Foreflight. Clearly this isn’t appropriate for standalone navigation where significant accuracy is required, such as skimming restricted or Class B airspace areas. See this NASA Aviation Safety Reporting System bulletin. (Takes a moment to load.)
  • Plug the tiny $99 Bad Elf GPS into your iPad or iPhone to improve GPS performance. (Also adds GPS functionality to wifi-only iPad models.) There’s also a compatible BlueTooth GPS device. See ForeFlight’s explanation.
  • **WingX software recommends turning off iPad wireless and cellular service prior to use in flight. This preserves battery life, and most importantly, minimizes the possibility of avionics interference.
  • First impressions are that the iPad with Bad-Elf GPS is rock-solid and quite accurate even in my high-wing airplane. No longer does the depicted aircraft position shift on the map with scale changes. Groundspeed and GPS altitude precisely agree with my panel-mounted GPS.
  • Be sure to activate Foreflight in your iPad ‘s “location services” preferences or it won’t recognize internal or external GPS. (Settings>General>Location Services>Foreflight.) Mine apparently reset to “off” during the recent OS upgrade. Took a while to figure out why it wasn’t working!
  • Read and watch Ian Twombly’s excellent iPad-in-the-cockpit summary. (You may need to be an AOPA member to access this.)
  • See MacWorld’s explanation of how iPhone and iPad “assisted GPS” works.
  • For more on this topic and much more including apps, see Ruhil’s “Romancing the Air” blog.

©2012, 2017 Gregory N. Brown

44 thoughts on “iPad for aviators: only cellular-capable models offer GPS, but you don’t need a data plan to navigate aloft

  1. Greg,
    This is really sweet! How much does the app cost? Also, how much “clear view” of the sky does it need to get reception. The KC-135 has pretty small windows in the cockpit. We have a GPS unit that attaches via USB to our laptops right now but this could be even better! Maybe I need to get you an incentive flight to test it out in our jet.

    1. Hi Adam! The app is Foreflight and it costs only $79 per year. Amazing! Works fine in our airplane, though obviously you have a lot more structure in the 135. Hey, I’ll ride along anytime, ol’ buddy!

  2. I find it hard to believe that an external GPS receiver is not needed like the Garmin portables. I am interested but I skeptical. I want a moving map GPS overlayed on a VFR sectional or IFR chart. I live where AT&T does not have 3G in Northern Arizona

    1. As you know Sam, I live in northern Arizona too. With no 3G account whatsoever, I still get a moving map GPS overlayed on a VFR sectional or IFR low altitude en route chart using the iPad alone with $79 per year Foreflight app. (Instrument approach plates are included for the whole country, but no georeferencing on those.) You do need wireless or AT&T to get weather and NOTAMs, however, since those are delivered via Internet.

      1. I am surprised that the 3G has a GPS chip but the non-3G does not. I was planning on NOT getting the 3G version because At&T does not have 3G here and I can just use WI-FI for updates and weather. Can you confrim the NON-3G does NOT have a built in GPS chip?

  3. Greg,

    I have just started flying again after a twenty year absence. (Work got in the way). All of this is new to me. I can either buy a Garmain or an IPAD. Here are my questions:

    Does the Foreflight APP, using the sectional, highlight sensitive areas, such as towered airports so I know to stay clear or call.

    Or, are you simply looking at a sectional with a line on it? (like in the old days)

    Also, to that end, does it update every 2/3 seconds, changing the line so I know to stay clear?

    Does it have closest airport?

    What do you see as the biggest advantage of having a conventional GPS over a Foreflight?

    Similiarly, what do you see as the biggest advantage of having a IPAD with foreflight?

    Finally, if you were going to buy one, a garmain or the IPAD with foreflight, which one would you get?


    1. Hi Carl, Congrats on getting back to flying, you lucky guy! That’s a bit of a long discussion for comment boxes. Please drop me your phone number via the email I just sent, and we’ll chat about your excellent question… Greg

      1. HI Greg,

        I’m a newvbie to the iPad and would also be interested in your comments to Carl. Also, I have a Garmin GPS 100 bluetooth unit that I’ve been using for 5 years and it is bullet proof. Any chance it will work with the iPad?


        1. Dennis,
          I’ll help Greg out here since I am actively flying with an external Bluetooth GPS unit. First, to use that particular GPS unit, you will have to have an APP called “BTstack GPS.” Here’s where it gets tricky, that means you must jailbreak your iPad. Jailbreaking is completely legal and very simple to do (depending on your skill level with Apple’s iPad, iPhone, iPod products). BTstack GPS is a $5 app from Cydia (the “app store” for jailbroken iPad’s, iPhones, etc). Once you have a jailbroken iPad (wifi OR 3G), with BTstack GPS installed, Forflight will work with a 1 meter accuracy in flight. I bought a $20 bluetooth GPS off of eBay and it has a 40 hour battery life on it. Your Garmin will work like a champ but you’ll have to do the jailbreak and buy the $5 app first. If you need help or directions on obtaining the jailbreak software or navigating the process, send me an email and I’ll help you through it (adamt1000@yahoo.com). I bought my iPad because of this post from Greg and needed to jailbreak it or pay $160 for an Apple “approved” Bluetooth GPS unit. Necessity is the mother of invention (or modification in this case!).

        2. Dennis,

          If you buy the 3G version, the gps is built in. If you buy the wifi only, you will need an external gps. There are only 2 that have been approved by apple. The “Badelf” gps is WAAS rated and plugs in to the iPad charging port. Although I have the 3G version, I was still looking into the bad elf for better accuracy, but they are again out of stock

  4. Greg,
    I made the leap and bought a 64 gb 3g model and the year subscription to foreflight. We were out at Nellis AFB performing in the airshow and I got a chance to try it out. My observatios so far: you have to acquire a GPS fix before takeoff or else it will never find itself (as with any GPS), it must have a very clear view of the sky (KC-135 cockpit windows are tiny and I had to leave it up in the glareshield to keep the signal), it is as accurate as the KC-135 GPS solutions as far as altitude, groundspeed, track, etc. The guys on my crew were impressed, as was I. I also downloaded goodreader (a PDF reader) to manage my flight pubs and checklists. The combination of the 2 is a slam dunk as far as I’m concerned for pilots. I also bought a micro sim cutter off of eBay to cut my T-mobile sim card to size and I can swap it from my iPhone to ipad in order to get weather and NOTAMS at the jet. Now I just need to convince the Air Force to buy us ipads and the programs for flight. I have a window suction cup mount on the way and I’ll report back on how well it holds the ipad (and GPS signal). Cheers, Adam

    1. Hi Adam, Isn’t it cool, especially given the affordable price?! A couple comments: 1. Several friends have reported that the iPad shuts down if it overheats (but in their cases, without damage) and that it should accordingly not be left for extended periods on the dash.
      2. I just learned about two external GPSs you can plug into the iPad for much greater accuracy, including a bluetooth model allowing you to place a remote antenna on the dash, which sounds perfect for your application. See http://blog.foreflight.com/2010/11/09/external-ipad-gps-receivers-for-foreflight-hd/ for details.

  5. If the gps, “3G” model uses more battery power? Is there a accessory power cord that would plug into the airplane? 12 to 24 Volt? Is there a simple external antenna, “Like my Garmin” to improve gps reception?
    I have always used a pc, not a mac. Does the ipad have a usb connection? I assume this is how you add app’s to the I-pad?
    Also? If you communicate with foreflight? I watched the video with aopa re, foreflight. I feel real stupid trying to figure out how to bring up their web-site. Is it 4 flight? for-flight? four-flight? Well I just kept trying untill foreflight brought it up.

  6. Terry, the website is http://www.foreflight.com/. Like all Apple “Ip#d” products it syncs with your pc via USB cable. The foreflight app doesn’t chew up THAT much extra power. There are plenty of car chargers that will power your iPad from the aircraft’s cigarette power port (12 volt of course). In fact, Walmart has a $6 USB car charger which will power your iPad from a car or aircraft to avoid having to spend $30 on an Apple branded charger. I purchased a $20 NMEA Bluetooth GPS receiver that I can throw on the glareshield and links up with my iPad for 1 meter accuracy (better than the internal GPS is possible of achieving. In fact, if you jailbreak your iPad (wifi or 3G model) you can add on a Bluetooth GPS which could save you money if you want to only buy a wifi model. I have mine jail broken and running like a champ in the KC-135 cockpit with the Bluetooth GPS. The GPS has a 40 hour battery so you can throw it on the glareshield and forget about it until you are done flying. If you would like more info on jail breaking an iPad (which is completely legal and reversible) there are plenty of links on google. Also, the Bluetooth GPS was purchased on eBay, and there are tons of them for about $20. I also purchased a window suction cup mount for the jet, but they make kneeboard mounts for the iPad as well as yoke mounts. You can’t go wrong with the foreflight app and a good PDF reader program to put your aircraft publications on. I use Goodreader, but there are others. Let me know if you need help setting up an iPad to use a Bluetooth GPS or foreflight. I, like Greg, am excited about this new technology and it’s application for general aviation as well as military aviation. It’s very simple and effective.

  7. Thank you Terry and Adam for sharing this valuable discussion with the rest of us! A few added comments:

    1. We too bought a car charger for the iPad. Keep in mind that the iPad requires 2 amps for proper charging, while iPod/iPhone requires only 1 amp which is not adequate for the iPad. So be sure to get a 2-amp charger. We bought a higher quality 12V/24V charger from Gomadics that has replaceable tips for charging other devices. (Again, whatever anyone else says, be sure to request the 2-amp model!)
    2. See my notes above regarding Foreflight-compatible GPS devices. We bought the Bad-Elf model for ours, which seems to work great around the house but I haven’t tried it in the airplane yet.
    3. Adding of apps to your iPad is all done via iTunes on both Mac and PC. Seems to work pretty much seemlessly.

    Hope this helps, Terry!

  8. Greg and all,
    I took my setup on a sortie today to test it all out. I am running a jail broken iPad with the btstack gps program from Cydia and a $20 external Bluetooth gps (sits on the glareshield and gives a reported 1m accuracy in foreflight. I turned it on 40 minutes prior to takeoff and it drained the battery down to 20% after 5 hours of flight. Overall I’m pretty happy with the battery life considering it was using Bluetooth to get the signal and it was on the entire time. After that point I just shut it down because we flew a 6.6 and the last 1.6 was post air refueling and the descent home for the full stop. Now all that being said, I found a few battery cases that wrap around the iPad and contain a battery which doubles the life of the internal battery. My calculations with my setup would be somewhere around 11-12 hours of run time. My longest sortie was 13.5, but foreflight doesn’t cover the region of the world that my longest sortie was flown over. I also found many external batteries that could be hooked up (versus using a cigarette lighter or a/c or USB adapter to charge). I like the battery case idea for abut $100. Now I just have to convince everyone else that this little device and app should be purchased for us to use daily. Otherwise it is a solid device that followed me around the southwest US today perfectly aligned with the aircraft’s GPS and FMS systems. Greg, thanks again for turning me on to this product and app. A great excuse to get a new toy!!!

    1. Revolutionary stuff, eh Adam?! BTW I see that Gomadic offers several compatible battery cases – just be sure they are 2-amp as noted above. You’re already eons ahead of me on this stuff!

  9. Great information Greg. As I have become more serious about purchasing an iPad I had been wondering if having the WiFi only version would prohibit me from using it in flight. Thanks for the tips. I look forward to enjoying Foreflight on a screen larger than my iPhone.

    1. Hi Mike, I bought the 64GB figuring that you can never have too much memory, and that the additional memory upgrades were relatively cheap. But even with the whole country’s charts installed in Foreflight, my entire iTunes library, and some (but not a lot) of other stuff installed, I still have 48.5 GB available. (Capacity shows 59.2GB.) BTW, I use iTunes in the aircraft by plugging into my audio panel music jack. You can see that although roomy enough for ForeFlight alone, 16GB would not have accommodated my current contents, much less anything additional in the future. (And who knows what other cool apps might be coming down the line.) With that in mind, and depending what else you plan to install, it looks like the 32GB would be a reasonable minimum. If you have the budget, however, I don’t see how you could go wrong with the 64.

    2. I second Greg on the size issue. Bigger is better since apps will only become MORE memory hungry in the future. You can also put your checklists, receipts, etc on your iPad, so more room is better!

  10. For those who have been awaiting Bad-Elf GPSs for their iPads (or iPhones) a batch of them apparently made it to Amazon this week, where you can buy one now.

    “The listing is first-come, first-serve — but we’re only notifying the folks who signed up to the notification list on or before Jan 11. We won’t make any other public announcements until this batch is sold out, so if you want one, please follow this link ASAP: http://bad-elf.com/store/jan-26-inventory-amazon/

    You can also sign up for future availability notifications elsewhere on their web site.

    PS: I have no connection to Bad-Elf other than owning one of their GPSs. Just know there’ve been lots of pilots trying to find ’em.

  11. Hello Greg:
    I fly a Grumman Tiger and when using my I phone (AT&T) in the plane i get a digital niose in the intercom system. I thin this is the phone reverting to the edge network.
    Is there anyway around this.
    Will the bad-elf gps work on the phone with the phone set in airplane mode?

    1. Hi Bob, I haven’t tried it on an iPhone myself yet, but my understanding is that so long as you are using an app like Foreflight that stores its maps directly on the phone, it should work fine in airplane mode. In fact, turning off wireless and cellular is apparently preferred for optimum performance. (See WingX link above in the main post.)

  12. Hi Greg – You were absolutely right on your post. Though the in-built GPS (and all Location services) shuts down in Airplane Mode (turned on), bad-elf will continue to function with Foreflight or WingX….

    Now Airplane Mode should be kept off to be able to connect with Bluetooth based GPS…..:)

    Might I also suggest to use the GPS Tracker app. in the background, it works like SPOT but keeps pooling the GPS locations in the phone and then dumps it out when it could connect to a 3G tower..

    Tailwinds :))

  13. I can always rely on you and Rod to provide accurate and on-point information, regardless of the venue. I looked all over on the internet and had almost pieced together the information you succinctly provided here. You answered every question I had and even backed it all with personal experience.

    I’ll look here first next time.

    Thank you!

    1. What a wonderful thing to say, Mike. Thank you! I’ll pass your kind words on to Rod. BTW, I am more impressed and delighted with iPad+ForeFlight every day. Please report your own experiences once you’re up and running!

  14. Greg,

    This info was very helpful in my decision to purchase the iPad2 and ForeFlight. I still have a couple questions for you though. First, if I buy the iPad with WiFi only, and purchase the Bluetooth GPS, it should work as well if not better than the iPad 3G? Secondly, is the Bad Elf better than the external GPS receivers for the iPad which cost the same? Third, which would you recommend for personal aviation use?

    1. P.S. Basically, I really want to know if the iPad w/ WiFi only will function properly with the XGPS150 or do I NEED to have 3G for the XGPS to work? Thanks again for your help!

  15. Jeremy, the wifi version will work with the Bluetooth GPS just fine. In fact it will have a tighter GPS signal than the 3G version, but it will chew up the battery a little faster since it will be running with the Bluetooth on. Read my posts above to see times for running the iPad in flight with a Bluetooth gps attached. Save the money on the 3G version and get the Bluetooth GPS (which you can also use on your iPhone to get a tighter signal as well).

    1. I’m afraid I don’t have the experience to answer that, Todd. I recommend contacting Foreflight (or other chartware supplier you’ve selected) with that question. Adam, do you have a recommendation?

  16. Greg and all,
    I’m using a $30 GPS module. It is the Wondex GPS-BT760Y (ebay), which works with the btstack program from Cydia (See my Nov 29 post above). To use just any old bluetooth GPS, you MUST have a jailbroken Ipad/Iphone. If that’s not your cup of tea, then the new Dual XGPS150 is the only one you will need. It has about an 8 hour battery (or you can plug it in to a lighter). The one I use has a 40 hour battery and is awesome for crossing the pond and our long Air Refueling sorties, especially TDY’s that I don’t want to worry about rechanrging it. But the Dual GPS has an app that you can download to monitor satellite status and ensure it is connected. Bluetooth will drain your battery faster, but allows you to make a WIFI only iPad have GPS, or a 3G model even better because you don’t need to keep the iPad in clear view of the sky (which is key in the KC-135 where windscreen space is limited). I can throw the bluetooth GPS on the dash and hand the iPad back to passengers who come up to say hi and show them where we are while they are up to 30+ feet away. It’s really awesome. In fact I flew home from a TDY on an American Airlines jet a few weeks back and stuck the BT GPS in the window and tracked the flight on my iPad all the way home. The other passengers were in awe, and it was fun to see the flight attendants look and wonder if it should even be allowed (prob not supposed to have BT on in the jet, but I do all the time in mine and no issues at all). It was a great way to teach my fellow passengers about jet routes and SIDS/STARS, and to show them home we navigate in general. Anytime I can teach something about flying, I’m happy! So choose your flavor of GPS (jailbroken iPads can use ANY BT GPS, non jailbroken stick with the Dual XGPS150). Either way, you will have an excellent situational awareness tool. Let me know if you have any questions. I use mine up to 600kts ground speed and FL470 and it works like a champ, reads the same info as the jet for a $30 GPS!

    1. Hi Adam, thanks for all the info! I am a brand new KC-135 copilot, just going through Altus right now. I was just curious if you could shed any light on what the current status of iPad use is in the 135 community. We were not issued paper pubs here, just a cd-rom, so I’m considering buying an iPad just so I can easily access pubs in the cockpit (instead of using my 3 yr old laptop). They don’t have enough iPads to issue them to us yet. Are most KC-135 bases issuing them to pilots now? If so, would I be better off just getting through Altus with my laptop and getting uncle sam to pay for my iPad once I get to my unit?

      If its better to go ahead and buy it now, I’m leaning towards a 16GB wifi only iPad 3, I can get almost new for a little over $400. For just 135 pubs and Foreflight, is 16GB enough or do I need to get 32GB?

      If you’d rather talk offline for opsec I can send you my phone number or .mil email address as well. Thanks!

  17. Greg- Is it necessary to have the 64GB model of the iPad2 to make good use of Fore Flight, or will the 32GB, or even the 16GB version suffice? Thanks!

  18. Get the 32GB with 3G. The Internal GPS works like a champ in my P28A. 16GB was too small for such an amazing device that you might stick a movie or two on. I sold my first 16GB Ipad2 to a friend. Foreflight with every CHART (VFR, IFR LOW and HIGH) in the country and every IFR PLATE I think was around 8-10GB. Maybe you might want to play with WINGX as well as FOREFLIGHT. So 16Gb really is a bit tight and who wants to be worried about space all the time?

  19. Can I use a stqandard cigaret lighter charger to charge my I Pad 2 withmy airplane 24 volt system . will it damage the I Pad

    1. Hi Roger, I haven’t personally tried one yet, but initial reviews indicate the mini not only works just as well as the full-size iPads, but offers the added benefits that you can easily hold it in one hand, and can mount it on the yoke without obstructing view of the instruments. (Google for reviews.) You should still purchase a cellular 3G/4G version to get built-in GPS.

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