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5 Answers

Handheld GPS or iPhone for backup navigation?

Asked by: 3606 views , , ,
Aircraft Systems, General Aviation, Light Sport Aircraft, Private Pilot, Student Pilot


I'll be transitioning from a G1000 aircraft into an older plane with only a single VOR for navigation. Aside from the radio and looking out the window, I'd like to have a more solid backup plan for assuring I'm on the right path.

I have an iPhone but I honestly don't know much about iPhone apps and aviation, are there any simple apps that don't cost a fortune in subscription fees to just verify my position or should I buy a used, handheld GPS? (It wouldn't need to even display a sectional, weather, etc...)

Again, it's just for backup purposes and piece of mind. I can't find much on regulations on phone usage other than of course no talking...but I'm assuming data is a different story with the iPhone/iPad apps out now.


[Edit: Will be flying VFR, with paper chart, just looking for a simple iPhone solution for backup purposes]

5 Answers

  1. Bob Watson on Jul 26, 2012

    Are you considering IFR or VFR? If VFR, what’s wrong with a paper map and looking out the window? I hate to say it (because it makes me sound old 🙂 ) but I flew for about 20 years without a GPS and always managed to find the airport, even when IFR!
    That being said. in a pinch, you should use all the resources you have at your disposal. For everyday flying, however, the iPhone should stay in your pocket (and turned off or in airplane mode if you want to comply with FCC regulations). I know how it feels to go from a well-equipped airplane to a more basic one, but I think once you get used to it, it’s alot more fun (IMO).
    So, I don’t think you NEED a handheld GPS, but they do come in handy and an aviation model is much easier (and safer) to use in-flight than an iPhone, or a non-aviation model.

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  2. Heather H on Jul 26, 2012

    Hey Bob, Thanks for the reply. It’s for VFR and I’ll primarily be looking out the window and using VORs for backup but I just want a little extra piece of mind since my phone will be with me anyway. 🙂
    I love technology but actually prefer the “basic” plane, it feels so much less stressful and less like I’m just operating a simulator…if that makes sense. 

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  3. John D. Collins on Jul 26, 2012

    There are applications that will work on your iPhone or iPad that will display your position on a sectional. They may always be used for situational awareness and for VFR navigation.  They are a good backup to your other navigation equipment.  i use the ForeFlight APP ($75 per year covers both an iPhone and an iPad) in lieu of carrying paper charts, although I still carry some, particularly my primary and alternate approach charts.  I flew up to Oshkosh from the Charlotte, NC area and back, Sunday goping up and Wednesday for the return.  Coming back, I had planned on the short route over Lake Michigan, but severe weather intervened, so I had to reroute well to the west of Chicago.  The extra distance and the winds initially a headwind while I was going west, instead of southeast, used up most of my fuel reserves, I was down to just less than one hour of reserve, so I diverted to Lexington Kentucky for fuel and a pee break. I used the approach charts from the ForeFlight as I did not have hard copy on board.

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  4. Jim Post on Sep 04, 2012

    Bob, If you think you sound old, I have flown 50 years without a GPS and have lots of xc time without VOR or ADF and I have always managed to get where I was going. I’ve even used a road atlas and binoculars to read water towers, but I have started to learn these GPS’s and I like what I see. I don’t think redundant nav aids hurt from a safety aspect.

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  5. Alex Censor on Jul 14, 2014

    Bob wrote, in part —
    “I have an iPhone but I honestly don’t know much about iPhone apps and aviation, are there any simple apps that don’t cost a fortune in subscription fees to just verify my position or should I buy a used, handheld GPS? (It wouldn’t need to even display a sectional, weather, etc…)”

    In consumer electronics (and I count handheld GPS and iPhone and iPad apps for aviation as “consumer electronics”) things change very fast …. mostly in the direction of “better and cheaper” so perhaps my two cents by way of a bit of an update for Bob and others looking for inexpensive aviation GPS backup:

    Anyone in that situation might do well to check out iFly GPS options:

    Although everyone has their favorites many consider the iFly GPS the hands down favorite and easiest to use of all under $700 aviation GPS.

    In addition to dedicated portable mount-on-aircraft-dash units ranging from $300 t0 $700, they offer a fully capable virtually identically functioning aviation GPS app for use on iPads and Android tablets (and as of March said they would soon come out with on for the iPhone.) The app is free with a free 30 day subscription to weather and sectional updates.
    After the 30 days expires it’s about $70 per year to keep the subscription service live; but the app does not stop functioning. The sectionals just eventually become dated.
    Dated sectionals and AFD data on a GPS totally unsuitable for a primary navigation device; but for Bob’s use as a last resort (“where am I and where am I going”) a stale sectional on a moving map GPS IMO is a heck of a lot better than a paper current sectional which is totally silent on telling you were you are relative to the map.
    So one cheap option if you have an Android or iPad tablet is download iFly GPS app, update all the sectionals during the free trial, and run it that way.
    (They count on users liking it so much they’ll subscribe, and IMO that’s a good bet on their part.)

    Back in March the makers of iFly GPS said they’re working on a full featured version for the iPhone. Imagine it’ll be out by end of year.

    Other option since Bob mentioned buying a GPS. For $300 he can have a new state-of-the-art color moving map aviation GPS from iFly, or for as little as $100 on ebay a variety of older used handheld aviation GPS units. Almost any aviation dedicated GPS …even some of the older ones …. better than any handheld street/trail GPS.

    As for the discussion about older pilots maybe being stuck in pre-GPS navigation methods: I’m over 70 and although my iFly GPS pops up lawyerly language saying essentially “do not use this as a primary navigational instrument” IMO any pilot who has this mounted in their cockpit who says they don’t use it as a primary navigation tool is very likely being less than forthright.
    Sure I CAN use compass, pilotage, and dead reckoning as primary, but (aside from flying my familiar routes local routes) in reality I consider _those_ the “backup” and the GPS primary.
    I would simply not takeoff on any extended unfamiliar route without the GPS.
    Why would I want to not have such precision naviation, automatic on-the-fly adjustment for wind-drift, airspace, TRF, obstacle and terrain warnings, and an altitude readout that is usually more accurate than the altimeter?


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