This iPad app helps keep the Air Force from crashing planes. So why is no one talking about it?

By Carmel DeAmicis , written on July 3, 2014

From The News Desk

Every once in awhile you stumble across a company that’s doing something so important you can’t believe you haven’t heard of it before. Then you Google them to see how you missed it, and nothing comes up. And then you email the founder for an interview, after a very kind introduction from someone else, and they ignore you for weeks before they finally say, "Alright, fine, sigh" -- they’ll chat on the phone for a bit. But only on Thursday. And only at 4 pm. And only for thirty minutes. Because the founder is too busy the rest of the time.

That’s the story behind Houston-based ForeFlight, a company that has quietly transformed aviation practices in the last few years. It has taken a lot of complexity out of the process of flying, helping with runway safety, weather navigation, flight course planning, and in-the-moment decision making.

According to founder Tyson Weihs, ForeFlight is being used by the US Air Force, NASA, the Coast Guard, the Department of Homeland Security, the Frontier Airlines group, dozens of Fortune 500 companies, and countless (countless because they won’t release the damn numbers) individual pilots. I could find the government RFP’s for the Air Force, but not the other branches. Frontier also made a public announcement of the adoption. For the others, however, we have to rely on Weihs’ word.

Despite these high profile customers and the huge pain point it solves, one that potentially saves lives, ForeFlight has flown completely under the radar (sorry I couldn’t help myself there) of any media coverage -- tech, national, or otherwise.

When I finally wrangle Weihs for a phone interview, he says something along the lines of, “We don’t care that much about press. We don’t need it.”

I found out about ForeFlight by accident, telling a classroom of Tradecraft students that if they hear of any truly incredible product that’s revolutionizing an industry and somehow hasn’t been discovered, to please send them my way. Jeff Gilmore, a former member of the US Air Force, walked up to me immediately afterwards.

He said something along the lines of “ForeFlight is saving lives and no one has noticed.” He tells me that ForeFlight digitizes flight maps, allowing pilots to track where they are and monitor weather conditions in real time via an iPad.

Prior to that, many pilots were using paper maps of the sky — big unwieldy things that went out of date every 28 days thanks to shifting magnetic tides of the Earth (seriously), airport closures, and other elements. It doesn’t exactly fill you with confidence to imagine your pilot, navigating through clouds and fog, grasping a huge paper monstrosity covering his or her face. In fact, such thoughts evoke the memory of your dad on the family road trip through Nevada, refusing to admit he is hopefully lost as you nearly drive off a cliff.

The fact is, no matter how many aviation regulations are enacted and how much training as pilots go through, if their technology isn’t as excellent, up-to-date, and easy as consumer technology, it places aircrafts (and potential collision victims) at risk. This isn’t an unheard of problem. It was only in January that a Southwest airplane mistakenly landed at the wrong airport because the pilots were confused by the lights. It was a serious situation, given the runway was far shorter than at the originally planned airport and ended in a ravine. Fortunately everyone was ok.

One year prior, a massive cargo plane carrying Gen. James Mattis, former head of U.S. Central Command, pulled the same move in Florida, mistaking one airport for another simply because their runways were angled the same way.

Even when you’re flying a giant plane mistakes happen,” Weihs tells me. “The pilot may have clearance from the tower to land but be looking at the wrong airport.” Meanwhile, I internally swear to myself to never step on a plane again.

To Weihs, such unique moments are not the biggest problem ForeFlight is solving. He believes the real time weather and navigation data streaming is far more important. In the past, pilots could have perhaps tracked such weather and navigation conditions via a laptop, but that wasn’t an ideal safety situation, particularly in smaller planes.

“Imagine yourself sitting in a single seat race car with a canopy, driving down the road, trying to hold onto the stick,” Weihs says. “Now you want to open your laptop and get it connected to the Internet. It’s big and bulky. Imagine what that laptop looks like five to seven years ago. You gotta plug it in.” I get chill sweats just thinking about being a passenger on the plane where the pilot has one hand on a giant clunky laptop trying to check weather and location, the other on the joystick.

So then the iPad comes along. It’s small, it’s light, it has a ten hour battery life. You can turn it on instantly, you don’t have to wait for a program like Windows to boot up. “We overlay your current aircraft position over [the map] so you can see where you are. Just like GPS,” Weihs says. “That didn’t exist in aviation five years ago.”

It’s all about the joys of mobile in perhaps the most mobile of moments: zipping 500 miles an hour through the air. The mobile revolution came a little late to the aviation industry. It lagged behind consumer technology for all the reasons you might imagine: Stricter regulations, tougher technological problems to solve, specialized data. But in the last few years it finally caught up. “Ultimately these devices have made aviation much more safe,” Weihs says.

The US government must agree. This year it put two of its five Air Force commands on the ForeFlight system. Will the others come next? “Each one adopts at a different pace,” Weihs says.

As for the competitors, unsurprisingly Boeing is in the space. But Weihs says that Boeing charges far more, for a more specialized product. It builds distinct apps for each company’s needs, not a catch-all like ForeFlight. ForeFlight, of course, developed unique features at a higher price point for the U.S. military branches, but its personal pilot product is straightforward and the same price for everyone.

For all you investors out there, let me answer your unasked question. No, ForeFlight has not yet raised any venture. It has been bootstrapped since 2007, charges $150 a year per pilot for use, and Weihs is keeping his mouth mum on whether he’ll consider outside investment.

A lot of founders think they're changing the world, as if the amount of capital they've raised is somehow representative of their impact on society. But unlike these companies with delusions of grandeur, ForeFlight is the real deal.

[illustration by Brad Jonas for Pando]