Packed with ca­pa­bil­i­ties, ForeF­light and Garmin Pilot have emerged as the top flight-plan­ning apps. Which one is right for you?

By Bret Koebbe


by your fa­vorite gen­eral avi­a­tion air­port and you are likely to find pi­lots in a spir­ited dis­cus­sion, de­fend­ing the mer­its of low-wing ver­sus high-wing air­planes, or north-up ver­sus track-up on a mov­ing-map dis­play. It didn’t take long af­ter the Wright brothers’ first flight for pi­lots to form strong opin­ions in avi­a­tion, and to­day you won’t find a more hotly de­bated topic than which iPad app is best for pi­lots: ForeF­light Mobile or Garmin Pilot.

Avi­a­tion-app de­vel­op­ers have come and gone since the iPad was re­leased in 2010, and there are just a hand­ful of sin­gle-so­lu­tion apps used by pi­lots to­day, with ForeF­light and Garmin Pilot at the top of that list. The mis­sion of both apps has also grown from elec­tronic chart dis­play to full flight plan­ning and sub­sti­tut­ing as an in­te­grated avion­ics sys­tem — and now they can do more than many cer­ti­fied avion­ics prod­ucts.

When you break it down, though, the real ques­tion you should be ask­ing is which app is best for you. Both apps have all the fea­tures and ca­pa­bil­i­ties to feel right at home in the cock­pit of a stu­dent pilot learn­ing to fly, while si­mul­ta­ne­ously meet­ing the needs of pro­fes­sional pi­lots fly­ing tur­bine air­planes. They’ve also grown to of­fer in­ter­na­tional chart and trip sup­port thanks to part­ner­ships with Jeppe­sen and Euro­con­trol.

To­day’s avi­a­tion apps pro­vide pi­lots with GPS, geo­ref­er­enced charts, traf­fic, datalink weather and much more at a frac­tion of the cost of ded­i­cated avion­ics.


Be­fore the iPad’s in­tro­duc­tion in 2010, pi­lots pri­mar­ily re­lied on hand­held GPS re­ceivers to pro­vide sup­ple­men­tal air­port data and a mov­ing map in the cock­pit. Garmin dom­i­nated this seg­ment with a va­ri­ety of hard­ware op­tions and screen sizes, with its prod­ucts sell­ing for as much as $2,500. These por­ta­ble GPS sys­tems were a nice-to-have ac­ces­sory in the cock­pit, but didn’t re­place pa­per charts or pro­vide much in the way of pre­flight weather or trip plan­ning. It also took some work and ex­pense to keep the nav data­bases cur­rent.

Then, when the iPad ar­rived on the scene, pi­lots in­stantly rec­og­nized it as the long-awaited con­sumer prod­uct that could trans­form how data was man­aged and con­sumed in the cock­pit. It was al­most too good to be true: a slim tablet with a bright, re­spon­sive 10-inch color touch­screen and a bat­tery life that would out­last a four-hour flight. And on the soft­ware side, ForeF­light was just as re­spon­sive and re­leased a sin­gle-so­lu­tion iPad app, build­ing on the pop­u­lar­ity of its iPhone ver­sion of the app. The pa­per­less cock­pit era had of­fi­cially be­gun.

While Garmin didn’t get as early a jump as ForeF­light, the Olathe, Kansas-based avion­ics-maker de­buted its full-fea­tured Pilot app for iPad, iPhone and An­droid two years later in spring 2012. Garmin might have been the largest gen­eral avi­a­tion avion­ics com­pany at that time, but it found it­self in the po­si­tion of play­ing catch-up in the mobile-app mar­ket.

Garmin con­tin­ued to add fea­tures over the past six years, which has al­lowed it to meet, and on some fronts ex­ceed, the ca­pa­bil­i­ties of every other avi­a­tion app avail­able to­day. Com­bined with its ex­ten­sive por­ta­ble and cer­ti­fied avion­ics con­nec­tiv­ity op­tions, Garmin is mak­ing the de­ci­sion tougher than ever when de­cid­ing on the best app for your needs.


ForeF­light’s de­sign in­cor­po­rates many of Ap­ple’s stan­dard iOS in­ter­face con­ven­tions, menus and con­trols, which eases the learn­ing curve. It takes just a few taps to get to any lo­ca­tion in the app, which you’ll ap­pre­ci­ate when you need to ac­cess in­for­ma­tion quickly, like find­ing an in­stru­ment ap­proach chart or airspace in­for­ma­tion. Fore Flight uses the fa­mil­iar iOS tab bar menu at the bot­tom of the screen to quickly switch be­tween screens with one tap. Al­ter­na­tively, the uni­ver­sal search func­tion, ac­ces­si­ble at the top of the Maps, Air­ports and Plates sec­tions of the app, al­lows you to search for any type of data (air­port info, chart, route and so on) and jump to its lo­ca­tion in the app.

Af­ter spend­ing some time with ForeF­light, you’ll find many thought­ful fea­tures de­signed to make life eas­ier for the GA pilot fly­ing sin­gle-pilot. The app ex­cels at tak­ing rou­tine data that we’ve been us­ing for years and pre­sent­ing it in a much more mean­ing­ful way. For ex­am­ple, when view­ing an in­stru­ment-ap­proach chart or air­port di­a­gram, ForeF­light dis­plays a short­cut on the screen to view all ap­pli­ca­ble no­tams about that pro­ce­dure. And when an air­port has a no­tam for a closed run­way, the app pre­sents a bold red ban­ner across the cen­ter of the air­port info screen to make sure it doesn’t get over­looked. An au­to­mated chart pack op­tion is avail­able when plan­ning a flight, al­low­ing you to press one but­ton to down­load all the VFR/IFR charts needed for the trip. Then, when new charts be­come avail­able for down­load every 28 days, ForeF­light will au­to­mat­i­cally down­load them when you open the app, re­duc­ing the like­li­hood you’ll ever get stuck with old charts in flight.

When it comes time to plan a flight, the Flights sec­tion of the app guides you through each step of the process, elim­i­nat­ing the need to bounce around to gather and en­ter data. For IFR pi­lots, ForeF­light of­fers a Rec­om­mended Route fea­ture to help choose the op­ti­mum IFR route. This rout­ing en­gine an­a­lyzes thou­sands of pos­si­ble op­tions based on your de­tailed air­craft per­for­mance pro­file and time/fuel sav­ings, while also ac­count­ing for your air­craft ceil­ing, pre­ferred routes and trending ATC-cleared routes.

There are just as many tools avail­able in flight when au­to­ma­tion can re­ally help. ForeF­light’s con­tex­tual alerts play the role of the dig­i­tal copi­lot, and will alert you on the ground with both vis­ual and au­ral mes­sages as you ap­proach and en­ter ac­tive run­ways. In the air, they’ll no­tify when ap­proach­ing a TFR or the Wash­ing­ton, D.C., spe­cial flight rules area. From a flight-safety stand­point, the app will alert you to cabin-al­ti­tude con­cerns, nearby

ter­rain/ob­sta­cles, high sink rates, de­scent through 500 feet agl and nearby traf­fic when cou­pled with an ADS-B re­ceiver. There are also con­ve­nience alerts, such as dis­play­ing the ATIS fre­quency for the des­ti­na­tion air­port dur­ing the ar­rival or dis­play­ing the nearby altimeter set­ting when de­scend­ing through FL 180.

Another stand­out ForeF­light fea­ture is its ded­i­ca­tion to pro­vid­ing a high-quality weather-brief­ing ex­pe­ri­ence. It in­cludes all the essen­tials, such as text weather re­ports, fore­casts and ba­sic weather im­agery, but then goes be­yond with the in­clu­sion of lesser-known forecast prod­ucts. For ex­am­ple, on the air­port weather screen, you’ll see a com­puter-gen­er­ated text MOS Forecast next to the TAF that is avail­able for more than 2,000 air­ports in the United States and in­cludes a 72-hour forecast pe­riod. You’ll also see a Forecast Dis­cus­sion op­tion that in­cludes plain lan­guage notes from the fore­caster who cre­ated the TAF, de­scrib­ing the weather fac­tors and con­fi­dence level that were con­sid­ered.

ForeF­light in­cludes a ded­i­cated Weather Im­agery sec­tion in the app that fea­tures a va­ri­ety of forecast graph­ics and is by far the most com­pre­hen­sive of any avi­a­tion app on the mar­ket. It ag­gre­gates data from a va­ri­ety of sources, in­clud­ing the Na­tional Weather Ser­vice, Avi­a­tion Weather Cen­ter, Storm Pre­dic­tion Cen­ter and Avi­a­tion Dig­i­tal Data Ser­vice in one well-or­ga­nized lo­ca­tion. Here, you can track lon­grange pre­cip­i­ta­tion, thun­der­storm, vis­i­bil­ity and cloud cov­er­age fore­casts with easy-to-read graph­ics. If you don’t mind leav­ing your com­fort zone and learn­ing some new weather prod­ucts, you’ll be re­warded with a bet­ter un­der­stand­ing of the weather be­fore each flight.

For those who pre­fer the stan­dard Flight Ser­vice weather brief­ing, ForeF­light is the only app to of­fer a graph­i­cal weather brief­ing op­tion, in the Flights sec­tion of the app, sim­i­lar to what you’d find at 1800wxbrief .com, full of use­ful color graph­ics and im­ages. This is a sig­nif­i­cant up­grade to tra­di­tional Flight Ser­vice brief­ings, which were com­monly re­ferred to as the “wall of text” — use­ful in­for­ma­tion, but time-con­sum­ing to put into con­text.

ForeF­light’s lat­est push has been into the tur­bine and pro­fes­sional pilot seg­ment, of­fer­ing an ad­di­tional level of ca­pa­bil­ity de­signed for the needs of high­per­for­mance op­er­a­tions. It in­cludes cus­tom air­craft per­for­mance pro­files for hun­dreds of air­planes, rang­ing from pis­ton-en­gine train­ers to Ci­ta­tions and Boe­ing 737s, which makes long-range flight plan­ning nearly ef­fort­less. These pro­files were cre­ated us­ing data col­lected di­rectly from the man­u­fac­turer’s per­for­mance tables, pro­vid­ing highly ac­cu­rate ETE and fuel cal­cu­la­tions when plan­ning a flight. The app will mon­i­tor your struc­tural weight lim­its for each phase of flight, and of­fers var­i­ous fuel pol­icy op­tions to as­sist with fuel plan­ning. And since JetFuelX is a ForeF­light com­pany, this free fuel card man­age­ment pro­gram is nicely in­te­grated into the app, al­low­ing you to view con­tract fuel prices and re­quest fuel re­leases di­rectly from the Air­ports sec­tion.


Com­pared with ForeF­light’s start as a chart­ing and weather app, Garmin’s roots have al­ways been in GPS nav­i­ga­tion, and that’s where this app re­ally ex­cels. Pi­lots fa­mil­iar with other Garmin nav­i­ga­tion prod­ucts, in­clud­ing the GTN 650/750 nav­i­ga­tors, Aera porta­bles and G1000 in­te­grated flight deck, will feel right at home us­ing Garmin’s datadriven mov­ing map.

The app has a cus­tom feel to it and doesn’t rely much on Ap­ple’s stan­dard iOS con­ven­tions and de­sign. The icon-based main menu looks very sim­i­lar to the home screen of the GTN 750 and FMS con­trollers used in Garmin’s OEM in­stal­la­tions, again bring­ing an ad­di­tional level of fa­mil­iar­ity to those with pre­vi­ous Garmin ex­pe­ri­ence. Sim­i­lar to what you’d find on other Garmin nav­i­ga­tion sys­tems, there are nearly end­less cus­tomiza­tion op­tions for the mov­ing-map dis­play, pro­vid­ing a high de­gree of con­trol. The down­side of this de­sign is that it can lead you to over­look some key fea­tures and set­tings when first us­ing the app, but its noth­ing that can’t be sorted out with a lit­tle ex­tra arm­chair fly­ing.

The first ma­jor dif­fer­ence you’ll find on the map screen is the abil­ity to launch a split-screen view with 11 dif­fer­ent op­tions to dis­play along­side the map. Garmin’s im­ple­men­ta­tion of these op­tions is very well done, and al­lows you to keep an eye on your po­si­tion on the chart graph­i­cally while si­mul­ta­ne­ously show­ing im­por­tant items like taxi­way di­a­grams, in­stru­ment-ap­proach charts, a flight-plan screen, ded­i­cated traf­fic dis­play or ter­rain.

Flight in­stru­ments can ei­ther be dis­played with the mod­ern glass-cock­pit lay­out or Garmin’s unique round in­stru­ment dis­play. The syn­thetic-vi­sion dis­play is vis­ually ap­peal­ing and uses the same graph­ics as Garmin’s cer­ti­fied PFDs.

Sim­i­lar to Garmin’s panel-mount nav­i­ga­tion sys­tems, the Pilot app of­fers ded­i­cated Di­rect-To and Near­est func­tions, which are al­ways in view in the top menu bar. Pi­lots have learned to love the ded­i­cated Di­rect-To but­ton on just about every other avi­a­tion GPS de­vice, so it only makes sense that it should be front and cen­ter in the app too.

The Near­est func­tion high­lights the nearby air­ports on the mov­ing map that meet your pre­set cri­te­ria for run­way sur­face type and length. It will also dis­play a list of the near­est air­ports across the top of the screen — tap one of the sym­bols, press the Di­rect-To key and fol­low the ma­genta line to that air­port.

Then there’s Garmin Pilot’s Emer­gency Mode, which is ar­guably the most use­ful of any app if things go south. When you need to take ac­tion quickly (due to en­gine fail­ure, in­stru­ment fail­ure, med­i­cal is­sue or what have you), tap­ping this but­ton will ac­ti­vate a mod­i­fied ver­sion of the Near­est func­tion, high­light­ing all the air­ports on the map within glid­ing dis­tance of your cur­rent po­si­tion. It also ac­ti­vates the splitscreen view and dis­plays the emer­gency check­list for your air­plane. Well done, Garmin.

Pi­lots fly­ing with ADS-B re­ceivers will re­ally ap­pre­ci­ate the ded­i­cated traf­fic screen, ei­ther in the full- or split-screen view. This helps to keep the mov­ing-map screen de­clut­tered and al­lows you to bet­ter iden­tify nearby traf­fic when in busy airspace.

This uses Garmin’s sig­na­ture Tar­getTrend tech­nol­ogy to show you where the air­craft will be in a user-con­fig­urable amount of time (say two min­utes) de­picted with a green trend line. You can eas­ily fil­ter tar­gets based on rel­a­tive al­ti­tude, and you can tap one to view its ground track, climb/de­scent rate, ground­speed and rate of clo­sure.

Garmin Pilot has its share of smart fea­tures too, which pro­vide con­tex­tual alerts. While these may not be as ob­vi­ous as ForeF­light’s large pop-up dis­plays and au­dio warn­ings, they can be very help­ful once you know where to look for them. Start off with pre­flight plan­ning — the app will con­stantly com­pare the weather re­ports for your planned de­par­ture and des­ti­na­tion air­ports to the per­sonal min­i­mums you set in the app (max­i­mum sur­face wind, min­i­mum vis­i­bil­ity and ceil­ing) and dis­play a yel­low tri­an­gle next to an air­port ID on the Trip Plan­ning screen when these will be ex­ceeded, based on the near­est TAF.

For IFR flights, it will dis­play a sim­i­lar cau­tion sym­bol in the same lo­ca­tion when the weather dic­tates an al­ter­nate air­port is needed, and dis­play a help­ful Al­ter­nate Air­port Selec­tion Guide to help you find an op­tion that meets the re­quire­ments of FAR 91.169. You will also be no­ti­fied when your se­lected al­ti­tude is too low for ter­rain, when in­com­plete air­craft data is en­tered for fil­ing a flight plan, and on the mov­ing map when ap­proach­ing con­trolled or spe­cial-use airspace.


An im­por­tant el­e­ment to con­sider when choos­ing an app is con­nec­tiv­ity. On the most ba­sic level, you’ll want some type of GPS po­si­tion source, and both apps are fully com­pat­i­ble with the in­ter­nal GPS found on iPad mod­els with the cel­lu­lar data op­tion and third-party GPS ac­ces­sories from Bad Elf and Dual.

The next up­grade is adding a por­ta­ble ADS-B re­ceiver, which pro­vides sub­scrip­tion-free weather and traf­fic. Both apps are only com­pat­i­ble with a few se­lect ADS-B re­ceivers, which guar­an­tees a re­li­able user ex­pe­ri­ence and tight hard­ware/soft­ware in­te­gra­tion. Garmin is com­pat­i­ble with the Garmin GDL 50 and GDL 52 ADS-B re­ceivers, while ForeF­light works with the Scout, Sen­try and Stra­tus lines of re­ceivers. The key take­away here is to choose your app first, and then buy the com­pat­i­ble ADS-B re­ceiver since they all of­fer ex­cel­lent per­for­mance.

Both apps are also com­pat­i­ble with Sir­iusXM satel­lite weather, which of­fers im­proved cov­er­age over the ground­based ADS-B net­work. Garmin Pilot is com­pat­i­ble with the Garmin GDL 51 and GDL 52 re­ceivers, while ForeF­light is com­pat­i­ble with the Sir­iusXM SXAR1 re­ceiver. The GDL 52 gives Garmin one ad­van­tage here by de­liv­er­ing both ADS-B weather/traf­fic and Sir­iusXM weather from the same por­ta­ble de­vice. ForeF­light users would need two sep­a­rate re­ceivers to ac­com­plish this.

The big ad­vance­ment in re­cent years has been in con­nect­ing the iPad to the avion­ics in the panel, pro­vid­ing two-way flight-plan trans­fers and an in­stalled source of GPS, weather, AHRS and more. Garmin’s con­nected-panel sys­tem is called Con­next and was ini­tially de­signed to work ex­clu­sively with Garmin Pilot, but is now com­pat­i­ble with the ForeF­light app as well. Garmin avion­ics that of­fer this con­nec­tiv­ity in­clude the Flight Stream 110/210, GTX 345 ADS-B transpon­der, G3X ex­per­i­men­tal flight dis­play and most of the new Garmin glass-cock­pit sys­tems in­stalled in new air­craft.

There are a few Garmin con­nected-cock­pit fea­tures that work ex­clu­sively with the Garmin Pilot app. First, you can only send Sir­iusXM satel­lite weather to Garmin Pilot us­ing the Flight Stream sys­tem and an in­stalled GDL 69 Sir­iusXM re­ceiver (Flight Stream will send ADS-B weather to ForeF­light though). There’s also a time-sav­ing fea­ture, Data­base Concierge, that al­lows you to wire­lessly up­date the data­bases on the GTN nav­i­ga­tors from your iPad us­ing the Flight Stream 510. This can only be done with the Garmin Pilot app.

Garmin Pilot also in­ter­faces with the Aera 660 por­ta­ble GPS, D2 smart­watch col­lec­tion, Virb cam­era, in­Reach mes­sen­ger and GSR 56 Irid­ium datalink for satel­lite calls and mes­sag­ing. ForeF­light users, on the other hand, have the op­tion to con­nect to ad­di­tional avion­ics, in­clud­ing the Avi­dyne 550/540/440 nav­i­ga­tor, Dynon SkyView panel and ADS-B transpon­ders from L-3, FreeF­light and uAvionix.


When choos­ing an app, there’s more to con­sider than just how it looks and works on your iPad. Both these apps in­clude ac­cess to a ver­sion specif­i­cally de­signed for the iPhone’s smaller screen, which of­ten serves a com­pletely dif­fer­ent pur­pose than the iPad. Many pi­lots pre­fer to use the iPhone ver­sion when away from the air­port to look up air­port and FBO info, weather and for route plan­ning, so spend time with this ver­sion while eval­u­at­ing which app is best for you. It’s a great backup for charts in the cock­pit too.

You might pre­fer an An­droid phone but use an iPad in the air­plane — Garmin has you cov­ered since it also works on An­droid and a sub­scrip­tion pro­vides ac­cess to three sep­a­rate de­vices. An ad­di­tional con­sid­er­a­tion is whether you pre­fer to use a Web browser on a com­puter for pre­flight plan­ning. ForeF­light is unique in that it of­fers a full-fea­tured Web in­ter­face to plan a flight, view charts and eval­u­ate the weather. This in­for­ma­tion syncs with the app on your iPhone and iPad.

You can’t go wrong with ei­ther app since both pro­vide the core func­tion­al­ity to say good­bye to pa­per charts, but there are enough dif­fer­ences that it’s worth per­son­ally eval­u­at­ing both ap­pli­ca­tions to see which is a bet­ter fit for your pref­er­ences and type of fly­ing. There is no risk in mak­ing the wrong choice, since you can try out both apps free for 30 days. An­nual sub­scrip­tions start at less than $100 — which is the same amount you would spend on pa­per charts for a 200-mile IFR cross-coun­try flight.

Try both apps, and you’ll likely find that one will ul­ti­mately feel right to you. Yes, you need to com­pare fea­tures, con­nec­tiv­ity and pric­ing for premium fea­tures, but also spend some time think­ing about which app you’ll feel com­fort­able with on your lap while fly­ing a low-ILS ap­proach in tur­bu­lence and driv­ing rain. That’s what re­ally mat­ters.

1 You’ll see a ded­i­cated hazard-alert screen in ForeF­light when the app de­tects threat­en­ing ob­sta­cles or ter­rain along your flight path.2 The Route Ad­vi­sor in ForeF­light makes IFR route selec­tion ef­fort­less by show­ing re­cent routes is­sued by ATC to other air­craft fly­ing be­tween the same air­ports.3 ForeF­light’s au­to­matic airspace-high­light­ing fea­ture will get your at­ten­tion as you fly near con­trolled and spe­cial-use airspace. 4 The Air­ports sec­tion of ForeF­light in­cludes ad­di­tional weather ser­vices such as MOS fore­casts and Avi­a­tion Forecast Dis­cus­sions. 3



31 Garmin Pilot’s Al­ter­nate Air­port Selec­tion Guide helps pick a le­gal al­ter­nate air­port based on the weather forecast when fly­ing IFR.2 Split-screen view in Garmin Pilot can dis­play a va­ri­ety of screen op­tions next to the mov­ing map. 3 Garmin’s Emer­gency Mode high­lights the near­est air­ports, pro­vides a glide range ring and dis­plays the emer­gency check­list.



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