External GPS Options for Pilots Using the iPad


I hate flying commercial. Pilots are a unique breed. We must be in control of our own destiny rather than be relegated to seat 22-E. But occasionally we must fly commercial and find ways to entertain ourselves while enroute. The iPad and ForeFlight are great tools for that.

I have been flying since May of 2010 with the 3G/GPS version of the Apple iPad in the A36, using the ForeFlight Mobile HD and WingX 7Pro apps as EFBs. In that time there have been no issues with internal iPad GPS reception in my Bonanza. Both GPS accuracy and reliability have been better than expected. However, there have been other complaints that GPS reception in high-wing aircraft has not been as good. Also, the iPad’s internal GPS chip does not seem to work on jet aircraft or commercial airliners.

Back in November of 2010, ForeFlight announced that two External iPad GPS Receivers for ForeFlight HD were approved for the iPad and were compatible with their navigation and EFB software. One of those approved external GPS units is the compact GNS 5870 MFI, which I recently purchased. This unit is a Bluetooth enabled GPS receiver specifically designed for the iPad and other smart technology devices. It is about the size of a credit card and about 1/4 inch thick.

GNS 5870

The other external GPS unit is the Bad Elf, which docks directly to the 30-pin connector on the bottom of the iPad. Either of these units will work well for situations where the built-in GPS receiver is not reliable enough, or for adding GPS capabilities to devices without a built-in receiver, like the non 3G version of the iPad. The cost of each unit is around $100.

There are other very good external GPS units on the market, but the remainder require that you jail-break your iPad in order to use them.

From all accounts, the Bad Elf unit is a fine product. For one thing, it has a 66 channel receiver, an advantage over the GNS unit. But the fact that it must be physically connected to the iPad was a problem for me because I use the RAM iPad yoke mount. Also the pin connector seemed fairly fragile, and could easily be broken if bumped. A docking extension cord may help with this. Unlike the Bad Elf, the GNS 5870 has its own built-in LI-ON battery, with a separate charger. It does not draw on the iPad’s battery power in order to operate as does the Bad Elf. Although I have not tested it, the manufacturer says it will run about 10 hours between charges.  

The one complaint I keep hearing about the GNS 5870 is the virtual touch sensor on-off switch that you activate by sliding your finger. This does take some getting used to, but once you have the right touch it is fairly easy to use.

I had an opportunity to try out my recently purchased GNS 5870 MFI while flying “low-class” on some commercial flights between MCO and DFW. Out of the box, the Bluetooth paired up with the iPad within seconds. The GPS did take a few minutes to “find itself”, but the error was never more than 10 meters, and the signal never dropped off-line. It was interesting looking down on the landscape from FL350 and being able to identify landmarks using ForeFlight rasterized VFR or IFR charts. The GNS works equally as well with WingX.

One of the things that struck me out was how fast the aircraft icon moved over ForeFlight’s moving map. Of course, at 520 knots it covered a lot of ground much more quickly than the 170 knots I am used to seeing. The other thing that stood out is how far away landmarks actually are when viewed from the flight levels, on a clear day. That large lake, or city, just beyond your airliner’s wingtip, is likely 60 miles away from your position.

Below are a few iPad screen grabs of ForeFlight and Flight Aware from my commercial flight, using the GNS 5870. Some of these captures, like the one of the RADAR plot and Flight Aware, required a Wi-Fi connection, which was available courtesy of American Airlines that day. Just right-click on any thumbnail for a larger view.

To display the routing, I copied American’s filed flight plan (DFW MEI OTK PIGLT2 KMCO) from Flight Aware into ForeFlight, and generated the course lines shown on the images. The small blue jet aircraft icon indicated our actual position at that point in the flight, and telemetry data is at the bottom of the screen. ForeFlight and WingX both  support SIDs and STARS, and they are depicted very accurately on either the Hi or Low IFR, or VFR charts.

In my aircraft, I depend on the Garmin 430/Avidyne EX500 for primary navigation. But having the iPad and ForeFlight as a backup in the event of a total electrical failure is assuring. Both ForeFlight and WingX have proven that geo-referenced terminal procedure plates are a better option than most panel mount charts.  

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4 Responses to External GPS Options for Pilots Using the iPad

  1. Anonymous says:

    I fly a Challenger 604 and the GNS fails to establish a consistent satellite connection. It also seems to quit when it gets hot. Any comments.

  2. V35jqmes says:

    Your challenger has a thin metal film in the windshield for heating. Blocks GPS signals. Try a side or cabin window.

  3. Ken shelton says:

    This is a question. New to fore flight and rarely fly cross country. However on the way from Toledo OH to Gatlinburg, TN, my standard fore flight subscription with cell phone service for iPad 1with 3G would not continually show my downloaded sectionals! Is this normal or would the bad elf gps be helpful? Next, Is there a way to get weather radar all the time while above standard cell service?

    • bonanza36 says:

      If you download all of the sectionals in FF that you want to use in flight, you do not need a data connection. As far as weather is concerned, the latest update to FF has the ability to get ADS-B weather, but you need another box with and ADS-B antennae with a built in wi-fi connection to access it during flight. The service is free, but the box, from Baron I think, costs about $800.

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