Break the error chain with your iPad

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6 min read

The day you have been preparing for the past 3 months has finally come couldn’t have gone better; you passed your Private Pilot checkride and can now start taking advantage of the freedoms offered by your new pilot certificate. The learning doesn’t stop there though, and today there are more online resources available than ever before to help expand you continue to expand your knowledge and grow as a pilot.

I personally enjoy watching, listening and reading accounts from other pilots who have experienced out-of-the-ordinary events during their own flights and how they managed the situation to return safely back to the ground. Some of my favorites are the AOPA Air Safety Institute Accident Case Studies video series on YouTube and Flying Magazine’s “I Learned About Flying From That” podcast.

These real-life accounts provided the opportunity to armchair fly with other pilots who experienced actual emergencies and to learn about the series of events that led to the problem and how they recovered.

One of the big takeaways when reading or listening to these scenarios is that no one gets up in the morning and plans to get into a dicey situation, just so they can come away with a good story to tell. It takes a combination of unlucky and unplanned events that happen in just the right sequence that lead to an emergency. This is referred to as the accident or error chain in the academic world of human factors.

While accident statistics prove year after year that it’s impossible to completely prevent these occurrences from happening in general aviation flying, it’s our job as pilots to be as prepared as possible and use all resources available to break the error chain early on. Outside of the airplane, we routinely rely on calendar apps for meeting reminders, map apps for highway traffic delays, and weather apps for severe weather alerts. The stakes are much higher at 10,000 feet, so it would only make sense to use the same technology and contextual alerts to keep us equally informed in the air.

Pay attention to the Messages from your GPS navigator. Most provide alerts when approaching Class B, C, D and Special Use Airspace.

The first time I recognized the benefits of this in aviation was in the mid-2000s, several years before smartphones and tablets were available while flying a Cessna 172 equipped with a Garmin 430 panel-mount GPS. I was flying to an airport located under the shelf of busy Class B airspace when an alert popped up on the screen of the Garmin GPS: “Airspace Ahead in 10 Minutes.”

That simple message was just enough to make me realize that I had misread the Class B airspace altitude label on the sectional chart and a change was needed to avoid entering the Class B airspace without a clearance. I immediately began a descent to a lower altitude and continued the flight without further issue.  Embarrassment and potential FAA enforcement action averted.

Fast-forward to today, where pilots of all airplane shapes and sizes have the ability to bring this same smart technology into the cockpit for less than the price of an 80-gallon avgas fill-up. All it takes is an iPad or smartphone with an app like ForeFlight or Garmin Pilot installed, and 10 minutes of setup time to configure and familiarize yourself with all the alert options. While not foolproof, it’s the next best thing to having another pilot sitting in the right seat and it might help you break the error chain should unexpected circumstances arise.

Before your next flight, spend some time and review the alert options in your aviation app –  several of which are customizable. Here are examples of some of the key alerts in ForeFlight as an example:


  • Flight Notifications: new or updated hazardous weather reports/forecasts and TFRs issued after filing your flight plan

Ground Operations:

  • Approaching an active runway
  • Entering an active runway
  • Runway distance remaining for takeoff


  • Traffic conflicts
  • High cabin altitude (pressurized aircraft)
  • Final approach runway confirmation
  • Excessive sink rate
  • Descending through 500’ AGL
  • Approaching terrain or obstacles

I can look at each one of these alerts and identify an accident in the last 20 years that may have been prevented if the pilot’s attention was drawn to the condition early enough to direct them to make a change.

The other key component to add to your technology toolkit is ADS-B traffic and weather in the form of a portable receiver on the dash or installed in the panel. A five-year study from AOPA between 2013 and 2017 took a look at the accident rate for flights equipped with ADS-B In technology versus those that were unequipped, to identify its effect on safety. The study focused on three specific accident causes: mid-air collisions, weather-related, and controlled flight into terrain (CFIT). Over the five-year period, the accident rate for each cause was significantly lower for flights equipped with ADS-B In traffic and weather data by a large factor. There was a 50% overall reduction in the accident rate and a 90% reduction in the fatal accident rate.

I think it’s safe to say that pilots flying with ADS-B In equipment in this study also had the advantage of having access to advanced avionics or iPad app features which contributed to improved situational awareness like terrain awareness and contextual alerting capabilities. Some say that all the extra information from digital displays are a distraction and lead to too much head-down time, but the stats prove otherwise.

Don’t forget that your iPad or iPhone is more than just another screen in the cockpit – if you have an aviation headset (or installed intercom) that supports Bluetooth audio, pair your iPad to your headset and take advantage of aural alerts if they’re supported by your aviation app. Preparation is key here so grab your headset and iPad when you have some free time and test this feature. Take a look at your iPad app’s settings page as well, to review the alerts and verify they are both enabled and that the alert audio option is enabled.

It’s important that you use this technology on every flight for it to make a difference. I recently identified a bad habit in my personal flying related to this where I was approaching recreational VFR flights in a 172 differently than professional IFR flying in twin-engine airplanes.  I was leaving the iPad and ADS-B receiver zipped in my flight bag on these local flights with the mindset these tools were overkill for a local flight in familiar airspace. I’ve since changed my approach and always fly with the iPad on my kneeboard and ADS-B on the dash regardless of flight mission, weather conditions, or airplane performance. In-flight emergencies don’t discriminate and the supplemental weather/traffic data and alerts are equally important on what may seem like routine local flights.

Bret Koebbe