Van’s RV-9A builder explains usage of popular handhelds

By Adam Hunt


Flight 8 started off the New Year with a presentation by Alfio Ferrara on how he uses the ever proliferating number of handheld electronic devices available to fly with.

Ferrara not only uses some interesting devices, but he makes them work in the restricted real estate of his Van’s RV-9A cockpit.

Ferrara and his wife, Shirley Mackey, built their RV-9A over a period of five years, finishing it in December 2008. They have done some long trips in the aircraft, including to New York City, the Magdalen Islands and even Lakeland, Florida for Sun ‘n Fun.

In fact they were in Lakeland for the 2011 Sun ‘n Fun tornado, which caused some minor damage to their RV-9A, since repaired.

Ferrara’s presentation to Flight 8 focused on the use of the Apple iPad, portable GPS, handheld VHF comm radio, APRS and PLB, cell phones and ANR headsets. His theme in all cases was how to get and use these devices effectively, without spending a lot of money on them.

The iPad got the bulk of the presentation time. These have become popular in cockpits in recent years, because they are convenient and can be used for multiple tasks. Ferrara picked up a second-hand, first generation iPad on Kijiji for $540.

These are easy to find as many people want the latest version and are selling their earlier ones. His model came with 3G and GPS built in and with 32 GB of memory.

Ferrara added that the sunlight readability is acceptable if a matte screen protector is employed, an important factor when flying an aircraft with a canopy, like the RV-9A.

Ferrara pointed out that the iPad is a flexible device. Not only can it be used to aid navigation, display maps and airport directories, but on the ground most airport restaurants have wifi available allowing the pilot to check e-mail, get weather briefings and file flight plans, as well as file eAPIS for U.S. border crossing.

He also noted that when you are stuck due to weather you can always play games on the iPad too, just to wile away the hours.

Ferrara uses ForeFlight software on the iPad, which currently costs $75 per year and includes monthly map updates and airport directories for the USA. He notes that the price will go up as the FAA plans to start charging for data soon.

Ferrara mentioned that Fore-Flight is actually a good deal as, for example, their trip to Sun ‘n Fun would have required over $200 in maps and publications for VFR flying and would have expired not long after the trip. The iPad is also an easier way to handle maps, better than trying to fold the large paper sheets en route.

ForeFlight gets high marks from Ferrara, as he finds it easier to use than paper publications and cheaper as well. ForeFlight even provides information the official charts lack, like hotel and rental car data. It can also save and recall weather information downloaded at the last stop, although in-flight updating is not available at the present.

The iPad eliminates the need to carry a laptop on trips, too, which saves some weight.

The unit does have some drawbacks, however. Ferrara mentioned that electronic devices can fail and that has to be accounted for. Back-ups could take the form of old paper charts, an iPhone (with ForeFlight) and a DC charger for cockpit use.

The iPad can be challenging to use in turbulence, even though Ferrara has it mounted on a RAM mount on the passenger side which ensures it doesn’t become a cockpit missile. Even so the unit takes up cockpit space and that can be a challenge in the small side-by-side RV-9A. It could be impossible in an RV-4 though, for instance.

Another service Ferrara uses on the iPad is SkyCharts Pro.

This is $20 a year right now, but again may go up as the FAA starts charging for data in the near future. While it offers only very basic flight planning it does give more chart information than ForeFlight, including map margin information.

The biggest drawbacks currently to all the electronic charting services is that they provide U.S. maps only as Nav Canada still does not currently offer electronic charts and is unlikely to offer them for free or even inexpensively in the future.

Cell phones Ferrara moved on to discuss cell phones. These are used for emergencies, but also for getting weather briefings, opening and closing flight plans and calling customs. They also allow family and friends to contact you when flying on extended trips.

One of the main challenges is cell phone incompatibilities between the USA and Canada. Ferrara doesn’t use his cell phone for yakking endlessly, so he finds that a cheap second hand phone, with a Petro-Canada pay-as-yougo card provides the best value while in Canada, especially since cell phone service is so expensive in Canada compared to most other countries.

Because pay-as-you-go plans do not typically include U.S. cell phone service, or if they do are expensive, Ferrara has a second used cell phone he got on eBay for use in the USA, also, using pay-as-you-go cards, this time with Verizon. Because the U.S. phone can be used in Canada, albeit at a high rate of 65 cents per minute, he keeps it as an emergency back-up phone for use in Canada as well.

In total Ferrara spends about $130-150 per year on cell phone costs for both Canadian and American coverage.

Ferrara keeps a handheld VHF comm radio as a back-up for his panel-mounted unit. He sums it up as “poor range, awkward, but better than nothing.”

His RV-9A still has an older 121.5 MHz ELT, which is legal, but may not be the best way to summon help in 2012. To back it up he carries a 406 MHz Personal Locator Beacon (PLB). The PLB is really designed for use by hikers, so it is similar to an ELT, but without g-switch automatic activation, meaning that you have to turn it on manually.

He notes that it is light, small, waterproof and cost $325 two years ago. It has no inspections to pay for and no fees. The batteries are good for five years, too. In a ditching situation, when the aircraft’s ELT ends up underwater in the sinking plane, the PLB can be carried in your pocket and used to summon help.

Ferrara did mention that when registering the PLB on-line it is important to indicate that it will be used on an aircraft and to provide suitable contact numbers.

Moving onto the subject of GPS, Ferrara stated that he carries three of these devices. He has one in the iPad, an older, portable one he keeps as a back-up and his main GPS, an Avmap normallyportable unit that is mounted in the panel of his homebuilt airplane.

Ferrara is also an amateur radio operator and as such he makes use of APRS, the Automatic Packet Reporting System.

This uses amateur radio bands and GPS input to transmit location information which is then automatically put on a website, where his buddies can track where he is.

He uses a Byonics RTG APRS transmitter, which is hooked up to GPS and power and otherwise is tucked away behind the panel, where it works automatically and silently. It normally updates his position every two minutes.

The APRS unit cost him about $150, plus the antenna and has no other fees. He thinks it competes well against more expensive commercial equivalents like SPOT and SpiderTracks, both of which have annual fees for use. You need an amateur radio licence to use APRS, though.

Ferrara’s last item was noise attenuating headsets. He owns a pair of older David Clarks, but used kits from Headsets Inc. to modify these to become active noise reduction headsets. This does involve removing a good deal of the insulation, meaning that the active noise reduction needs to be on or they don’t give much sound protection.

At $169 to modify each headset Ferrara indicates that these give good results and are far cheaper than the current crop of ANRS headsets, which can run well over $1,000 each.

Ferrara concluded his presentation by showing how all the devices work to provide greater safety when flying. Especially how the APRS allows his flights to be tracked by friends, how the PLB covers off most of the deficiencies of the older ELTs and how the portable comm radio and cell phones can be used in emergencies. He also pointed out how by buying used devices you can save a lot of money over new, leaving more money for actual flying.

COPA Flight 8 would like to thank Alfio Ferrara for putting together this thoughtful and comprehensive look at one good way to use hand held devices in flying.