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I would like to use an iPad for preflight planning. Can I also use the iPad to check weather while I'm en route?

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4 Answers 4

Can you? Yes, but service might be slow or spotty.

May you do so legally? That probably depends. The FAA doesn't specifically prohibit the use of any electronics in GA aircraft; they only state that under 14 CFR §91.21, those aboard an IFR aircraft can't operate electronic devices unless they are

  1. Portable voice recorders;
  2. Hearing aids;
  3. Heart pacemakers;
  4. Electric shavers; or
  5. Any other portable electronic device that the operator of the aircraft has determined will not cause interference with the navigation or communication system of the aircraft on which it is to be used. [emphasis mine]

It's possibly questionable that you as the pilot are an authority on whether or not your devices will cause interference.

The FCC, however, has banned the use of cellular phones in flight per 47 CFR §22.925:

Cellular telephones installed in or carried aboard airplanes, balloons or any other type of aircraft must not be operated while such aircraft are airborne (not touching the ground). When any aircraft leaves the ground, all cellular telephones on board that aircraft must be turned off.

Whether or not that can be interpreted to apply to an iPad's 3G connection is pretty iffy.

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To illustrate how old that regulation is, the next sentence talks about each cellular telephone installed in any aircraft (it's literally from the "analog cell phones that you install in a car because it weighs 10 pounds who's going to carry that?" days) –  voretaq7 Jan 31 at 19:43
    
@voretaq7, so you're saying I can't use my old bag phone? –  Magnetoz Jan 31 at 19:46
    
In the beginning of this answer you say that "it depends" but later you say that the FCC has banned the use of cell phones. That seems pretty clear to me (and doesn't really depend). –  Lnafziger Jan 31 at 19:47
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It depends because the iPad is disputably a "cell phone" based on the definition the FCC is using. –  egid Jan 31 at 20:00
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@Lnafziger in this case the iPad is clearly not a telephone (it can't make voice calls over its cellular connection), so the strict letter of the law doesn't apply to it, but my understanding from dealing with device certification is that the FCC has generally held that regulations that apply to cellular telephones apply to anything with a cellular radio. So the iPad falls into a gray area - Isn't legal ambiguity fun? :) –  voretaq7 Jan 31 at 20:22
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Unfortunately, in the US it is not permitted to use cellular service in flight because the FCC does not permit it.

On the bright side, the FCC just released a press release which says:

November 21st, 2013

STATEMENT OF CHAIRMAN TOM WHEELER ON FCC PROPOSAL TO INCREASE CONSUMER ACCESS TO IN-FLIGHT MOBILE WIRELESS SERVICES

Washington, D.C. – Chairman Tom Wheeler has issued the following statement:

“Today, we circulated a proposal to expand consumer access and choice for in-flight mobile broadband. Modern technologies can deliver mobile services in the air safely and reliably, and the time is right to review our outdated and restrictive rules. I look forward to working closely with my colleagues, the FAA, and the airline industry on this review of new mobile opportunities for consumers.”

-FCC-

That being said, even if it might work at low altitudes, I would highly recommend against it if you are flying IFR. I have seen videos of cell phones causing flight instruments to act erratically and they can cause major issues if the airplane isn't specifically certified for it.

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I have never had much luck with cellular data in flight.

This might just be a function of the kinds of locations where I fly, but in my experience the connection is never good enough to get reliable weather information. Once in a while you might get an update, but I wouldn't count on it.

A much better option (if you can afford it) is FIS-B, which has always worked reliably for me, especially when there really is weather out there (which is when you really need it to work).

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XM weather is a good alternative too. –  Lnafziger Jan 31 at 19:38
    
@Lnafziger I'm not sure what's more expensive - the ADS-B receiver, or the XM subscription for a year? :-) –  voretaq7 Jan 31 at 19:44
    
@voretaq7 Neither am I, but they are both good sources for weather. :-) –  Lnafziger Jan 31 at 19:45
    
Can you get XM on an iPad? –  Magnetoz Jan 31 at 19:47
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@Magnetoz There are a bunch of XM receivers that work with the iPad. See xmwxweather.com/aviation for some details, including a hardware link at the bottom that shows the multitude of vendors that you can use. –  Lnafziger Jan 31 at 22:27
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Yes....ish.

In the US up until recently the answer was an emphatic (FCC-mandated) NO, but the FCC is considering relaxing those rules, and if those rule changes go through you will be legally able to use your iPad's cellular data connection in flight (provided the pilot in command deems it's not a hazard to the flight - so remember to tell yourself it's OK to use the iPad).


Pretty much every CFI I've flown with has ignored this rule, and I'll admit to occasionally checking weather on my phone in flight too. It sometimes works, but in my experience only at relatively low altitudes (I typically lose my cellular signal somewhere between 2500 and 3500 feet AGL. There are long, boring technical reasons for this but basically the way the cell site antennas are designed the signal covers the ground below where cell site is - there's not much signal aimed at the sky above it).

Since it only generally works on climb-out (when my pre-flight weather briefing is still "fresh") or as I'm descending toward my destination (when I'm typically doing other things like talking to controllers or trying to get the field's weather on the radio) I've not found it to be particularly useful to use cellular data to get in-flight weather / information updates.
As Steve said, ADS-B equipment is a much better (albeit more expensive) option.

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Of note the FCC is generally talking about permitting use of the cellular radio above 10,000 feet (i.e. "In an aircraft equipped with a microcell") - I'm not sure where they stand on low-altitude use of the cell phone. Part of the reasons for that restriction is the amount of frequency clutter airborne cell phones generate looking for signal and pinging towers. –  voretaq7 Jan 31 at 19:41
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Also note that there's a maximum speed to allow handover between cell towers before moving out of range, which for GSM (IIRC, was a while back) is around 120-130 mph for ground vehicles. Higher up you should be able to go faster though (speed of divergence is lower). For inherently interruptible traffic like data (as opposed to voice calls) the handover issue shouldn't be a big problem though as you'll just reconnect in the next cell, if there's enough time. :) Other technologies have other specs of course, I know they've tested LTE data using jets in Sweden, so who knows. –  falstro Mar 1 at 19:01
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