New for Pilots: The Electronic Flight Bag
iPads in the cockpit put information at pilots' fingertiips.
Rumors had been prevalent at my airline for months before the announcement made its way into an official press release. The big secret was that every pilot would be issued some type of tablet computer, or electronic flight bag, to replace the cumbersome flight bags we had been struggling with for so many years. We are exiting a stodgy paper past and are propelling ourselves digitally into the 21st century with the iPad.
Until a year ago, pilots at my airline were required to keep their own personal 40-pound flight bags current and up-to-date. It was tedious to shuffle pages in and out, a task that was performed at least twice a month, sometimes taking hours to complete. A year ago the airline got smart and put a flight bag on each aircraft, instead of having pilots carry their personal bags.
The introduction of iPads takes this one step further. Now my one-and-a-half-pound iPad can be updated in seconds, saving me precious time and increasing the accuracy of updates to perfection. Electronic updates to the iPad are limited only by download speeds and can be set to update automatically. Timely updates are crucial because small changes to procedures and systems, or the status of airports themselves, can pose serious impediments to safety.
Anyone who has had the chance to play around with an iPad knows how truly revolutionary the product is and how the utility of its many applications appears to be limitless. The value of the iPad in aviation has expanded rapidly since its introduction early last year. Every manual we are required to carry has been converted to PDF files and easily fits into the iPad’s spacious memory. Other software suppliers have digitized charts, airport diagrams and flight-planning software into their own apps for easy download and access.
Eventually, the iPad will be synced with internal GPS units inside the aircraft’s avionics bay, providing extremely accurate position data on the tablet. (While iPads have internal GPS receivers that allow basic navigational functions, they’re not effective when moving as fast as an airplane.) Add-on aftermarket GPS units can be attached at minimal cost and will provide pilots with a true moving map. The moving map is much like the one in use with the iPhone, with your position referenced by the little blue ball moving along your route. In this case, however, the ball will likely be replaced by a triangular aircraft symbol. Currently, this level of accuracy is not good enough to use as a primary flight instrument. It can, however, be used as a backup in case of an emergency (complete electrical or navigation unit failure).
iPads will also enhance pilots’ capabilities by accessing weather and area radar information in real time, since the iPad can connect to the Internet through the same Wi-Fi signal that passengers are using. We’ll be able to see actual radar depictions at the destination airport or any location along the route, far exceeding the 320 nautical mile limit of conventional onboard weather radar. In this application, one picture is truly worth a thousand words.
Also, using the iPad at night will eliminate the need for the overhead light used to read maps. Map lights are a pain to use because they sometimes burn out, never seem to be at the right intensity when you need them and can adversely affect one’s night vision. The iPad is lit internally, so these overhead lights will not be needed.
There are several ways the iPad can be secured in the cockpit. Some pilots will opt for a kneeboard setup where the iPad will be physically strapped to his or her thigh. Others might mount it on the yoke, while some airlines will provide brackets on the sidewalls with electrical power. The powered brackets will be especially important on long-haul flights where flight time exceeds battery life.
Initially, one old-style flight bag will remain in the cockpit as a backup to the iPad. Eventually, that will be eliminated when the electronic flight bag is certified as a stand-alone resource by the FAA.
All pilots are judged by the amount of situational awareness they accumulate and maintain throughout a flight. The iPad is a resource that can increase a pilot’s situational awareness exponentially. Show me a pilot with good flying skills, exceptional eye-hand coordination and high situational awareness, and I’ll show you a great pilot.
Did You Know?
United Airlines estimates that it will save 326,000 gallons of jet fuel a year and 16 million sheets of paper by replacing flight bags with iPads.
On Your Mind:
Readers pose their questions on air travel.
Q: What’s safer in turbulence: autopilot or pilot?
Alison Andres, St. Louis
A: That’s a great question and depends on the level of turbulence. Turbulence can be categorized as being light, moderate or severe. These categories can be further modified with the terms chop and then turbulence. For example: Light chop is less severe than light turbulence. Moderate chop is less severe than moderate turbulence, etc.
The autopilot does a great job up through moderate turbulence, but starts having trouble after that.
Two systems, auto-throttle and autopilot, are usually already engaged when the aircraft encounters turbulence. If heavy turbulence is causing severe airspeed variations and drastic movements in the throttles, it is often best to disengage the auto-throttles and set the throttles to a fixed setting to allow the engines and airspeed to stabilize. If the turbulence is causing extreme variations in altitude, it’s best if the flying pilot disengages the autopilot (which often happens automatically anyway) and hand-flies the airplane while the other pilot adjusts the throttles. The teamwork approach works best in this situation.
Chris Cooke has been a pilot with a major domestic carrier for 20 years and currently flies long-haul routes on the 777. He began his career with the U.S. Marine Corps, received Navy flight training and was a Top Gun graduate. This year he will log more than 300,000 miles, all in a window seat.
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