SSSA Article

Information technology has invaded every aspect of our lives, and it is no surprise to see newer and more advanced avionics in flight panels of the latest gliders – flight computers, variometers, GPS and navigation systems, both sexy and costly.  For new competitive or cross country pilots, a PDA and flying software system has to date been an essential and expensive purchase.  Naviter brings out a fully contained system called Oudie with preloaded SeeYou software, and I am told this is the ‘least hassle’ system to buy, for at time of writing about R5000.

But the arrival of smartphones onto the market has made many of these functionalities readily available at a fraction of the cost of the original items, along with some other opportunities that are not presently considered by the most glider pilots. 

Here I have to make a disclaimer – due to a season of limited flying I have been unable to test many of these apps myself other than see how they work while driving around the hillsides at home, and most of them show surprising promise.

This article looks at what is available on the market for the smartphone owner pilot. Before we do, for the not-so-up-to-date, here is some basic information on smartphones.

A smartphone combines features of a hand held (PDA) computer and a telephony device.  A main feature is the ability to download applications off the web, and these run like any software program does on a PC, using the smartphone’s own hardware. Smartphones are ubiquitous.  Currently 16% of cellphone users in South Africa have smartphones, and the prediction is that this number will rise to at least 50% by 2015.

Some examples of smartphones and their operating systems are Apple iOS (iPhone), Google Android (Samsung, HTC, LG, Motorola), Microsoft Windows 7 (HTC, Nokia), Symbian (Nokia) and RIM’s Blackberry.  Many smartphone manufacturers offer models in a choice of operating systems. In the USA, Android dominates the market at 41.8% market share, with Apple’s iPhone at 27%.  Blackberry ranks third at 21.7%.

If you have a PDA and software system already a smartphone may offer some useful additional features.  But there are great opportunities for smartphones to take over most functions from PDA’s at limited or no cost, avoiding the need for pilots to make expensive investments, particularly those using older or club gliders.

For our purposes, a smartphone needs several essential characteristics – among them a wide, touch-enabled screen, and a display that can be seen easily in strong sunlight.  In my opinion, this removes the Blackberry from the list of contenders – the smaller keyboard and screen remove functionality for a pilot preoccupied with flying. An integrated GPS system is essential, a compass is helpful, and an accelerometer or tilt sensor is useful so you can use the device either in the portrait or landscape position.  (The iPod does not have integrated GPS.) The Samsung Galaxy 2 has the widest of all screens.  The smartphone also has to be able to run applications concurrently.  The iPhone 4 and later versions are able to do this, letting you run your GPS, logger, record some video, and take a call if you really have to.

Most important of all is the application software platform behind the smartphone system – the application store that permits developers to find a need, write software, and publish it for sale on that platform.  From this perspective only two platforms really matter, the Google Android, and the Apple iPhone/iTunes. 

When I looked at applications for soaring on the Android platforms, I could only find two dedicated to gliding – XCSoar, and GaggleXCSoar has been around for ages for the PDA market. The software is open source, designed specifically for glider pilots, is comprehensive, offering similar features to both SeeYou (Euro 129) and WinPilot ($125) and is free.  According to the WinPilot website, their software will be released fairly soon for the iPhone/iPad, but is likely to be similar in price to the PDA application. If you don’t have any other interests in smartphones other than for gliding and basic applications, there’s probably no better reason for getting an android device like the Samsung Galaxy 2 than XCSoar. Gaggle is a free app also on the Android market that is receiving rave reviews with GPS and logging functions.


So what follows is a review of what is available for iPhone alone.

GlidePath - $9.99


Of all the apps I found, this is perhaps the most useful for new competitive pilots, particularly those involved in the OLC.  GlidePath tracks your flight using GPS, stores your data, converts it into a flight map, and submits directly to the OLC.  All you have to do is enter your details into the Settings, provide your OLC username and password, select the track you have just flown, view the map trace if you want to, select ‘Submit flight to OLC’ and the application does the rest for you.  You could do it before getting out of the cockpit.  The convenience is considerable.



GliderGPS $9.99


GliderGPS has some interesting features, among them being a thermal track indicating the rate of climb or sink – you can navigate back to the indicated thermal if you wish.  Speed to fly and McCreedy calculations are included. Detailed maps have to be found and uploaded independently, and this limits its functionality.


Spoty - free

 Spoty.jpg  Spoty gives dates, tasks, competitors and results for pilots involved in international soaring competitions – useful if you are a top competition pilot.




Tracklog was one of the first apps for the soaring market – pretty basic but useful back up info.



Rasp – free. 


RASP provides up to date weather maps and meteorological data for pilots interested in meteorology, long distance flights and competitions etc.  I can’t even pretend to understand the information, but the pictures are pretty, and I’m sure it will be useful to some.




 – free.  Now on the iPhone as well, offering weather forecasts several days in advance


MotionX-GPS.  $0.99



This is a stand-alone GPS system that every iPhone user could use both in the air and on the ground.





Skylogger $5.99


This is the rising star amongst paragliding and hang gliding pilots – the customisable display includes a compass, variometer, and altimeter. It’s only failure appears to be the absence of an OLC submittable record, but in all other aspects it is my current favourite. It just looks good, with a high contrast display.






is a free app on the Android market that is receiving rave reviews with GPS and logging functions, with ability to upload files direct to IGC.


Photographic applications. My focus with recent flights has been in streaming live video from my iPhone camera either to the internet or to other smartphone users on the ground.  This has been successful to a point, with the limitation being the area of coverage of the wireless internet connection like 3G.  Apps like uStream and Twitcaster allow others to log in and see your flight in real time, as long as there is an internet connection.  3G towers have an effective range of about 5km, with the beams focused down, not up into the sky.  Nevertheless there is potential for bringing live flight down to a watching audience on the ground.

Security. Fixing your device in place is obviously important.  The best suction system I have found by far is the RAM range, with custom cradles for the iPhone and others.  These are solidly built using metals rather than plastic, can be adjusted to all positions, fasten securely, and have minimal vibration.  Best bet is to buy online via  Expansys offered the best value for money.  But even these can loosen and drop off, so make sure that if it does that the system does not interfere with critical controls.

iPhone mount.jpg

Second option is to use Velcro.  This is available in adhesive strips of different sizes and shapes, and is a cheap and practical alternative, using a sleeve or protector case for attaching Velcro onto the phone.  Some pilots sow adhesive patches onto their trousers at mid thigh level, and the phone sticks there, although out of line of sight.  Simple, cheap and practical, even though the velcro may look a bit funny in the bar afterwards.

Power.  The GPS systems chew power on smartphones, and all must be powered independently for use of anything more than an hour.  Most practical appears to be using a car charger system for the phone attached to a corresponding socket adapter, which is wired to the 12v battery system in the glider, although this may be a further drain on the integrated battery supply.  I wired a car lighter USB adapter to a standalone radio battery with a switch in the circuit, and this gives many hours of power.


Limitations.  None of these systems integrates into other standard flying computers, and as such are more suited to the pilot looking for something better than nothing, or for an additional function that the current systems do not have.  The built-in reliability of smartphone applications is never going to be the same as that of aircraft avionics, and can never really replace them.


But in smartphone and application design and development, the sky really is the limit.  Happy flying!