Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Paper or Plastic?

So we're about to evaluate the electronic cockpit. That is have all the charts on an iPad. Eliminate the two boxes of maps in the cockpit, the express ordering of charts for regions we suddenly have to venture, the hunt for a vendor that has the new VTA in stock, and possibly the chore of checking the charts periodically to see if a new one has come out. (Canadian VFR charts do not have a predetermined expiry date: there is a website that lists the probable release date of updated versions, but that list is a bit like the to do list that indicates when I will clean my kitchen or get my hair cut: that is, almost never happens on time.

The proposal presents two contradictory reactions. The progressive, "hey cool stuff, think of all the things a computer can do that paper can't" is checked by "wait a moment, what about all the basic stuff paper can do that e-charts can't?" In this blog entry I'm going to ask the questions, kind of make myself a to-do list for research and experimentation. I'll start with the strengths and weaknesses of old fashioned paper because that's what I know best.

  • You can spread paper charts over the whole wall/bed/floor to get a big picture of where you are going. To be fair, this is also a weakness of paper. You have to have a large surface to see a long VFR trip in one go. Given that I can presumably scale in and out at will on the electronic one, I think the only thing I lose here is the physical scale, and to tell the truth I haven't done the multi-chart array thing for ages. Ooh, except that I had a couple of interns put together one on the wall of the office, and that's damned useful. But that won't go away.
  • Paper charts don't become useless when broken. Paper charts retain most of their usefulness despite being dropped on the floor, stepped on, ripped in half, slammed in the door, having water spilled on them (they're pretty good quality paper) and other indignities that they suffer regularly. The destruction of one paper chart does not eliminate access to everything else on board. The robust case Transport Canada requires for an iPad should partly address this, but is this concern founded or not? I've never heard anyone say, "Our iPad just crashed, in the missed approach." Does it happen?
  • Paper charts are temperature and pressure independent. (At least up to 451F). I have had electronic equipment fail for me because it got too hot or too cold, and I suspect my running computer stopped working because it was depressurized on a daily basis. We'll stress test one of the units (i.e. subject it to normal operations) and see how it does.
  • Paper doesn't glare or wreck your night vision. anyone who has tried to use a computer near a window knows how hard it can become to read in the sunlight, something my cockpit usually has no shortage of. Now the iPad has to score some points for being self illuminating during those times when the sun is not flooding the cockpit with light, but can it illuminate itself with a dull red light, making the chart visible, without reversing the up to thirty minute process my eyes eyes have undergone to make the optimum adjustment to darkness. Again, a point for testing. Perhaps the robust case can include an anti-glare screen cover.
  • You can write on a paper chart. The technique I was taught in low level mountain flying, and which I still use, despite all the augmentations of a terrain equipped GPS, is to mark with a pencil on the map where I am, and the time at each waypoint, so that if I ever get disoriented or discover I have taken the wrong valley, I have a track that tells me when and where I last knew where I was. Even without that particular navigational technique, it's useful to be able to write on paper. When the NOTAM says AMEND PUB, I'm supposed to actually amend the publication, to fix the incorrect frequency, the nav aid removed from service or the new restricted area. Does the electronic version support both 'pencil' (temporary, relevant to a limited number of journeys only) and 'ink' (permanent, to be retained until that chart is replaced) markings by the pilot? Done correctly, this could be a huge advantage for electronic: allowing markings to be searched, saved, scaled, and never obscuring map features. If Nav Canada would only update their NOTAM format (and I have faith that they will, someday) the NOTAMs could conceivably be applied directly to the electronic charts.
  • You can set up a series of paper charts to show the important stages in your journey. Let's say I'm departing Edmonton, flying through a mountain pass to stay out of icing, and then heading into Vancouver. Before departure I set up the Edmonton VTA to show the western portion of the zone. I fold the Edmonton chart to centralize the area of the pass I will be negotiating, I have the enroute charts handy opened to the correct area, and i have the Vancouver VTA opened up so I can just grab it as I descend into their complex airspace, to know whom to talk to and where. I need to find out how to bookmark certain 'views' on the iPad, for the same effect. I will be disappointed if it cannot do that, but the iPad scores points for its ability to scroll continuously from one area to the next without my needing to dig in the box for the next chart.
  • Paper is just paper, it can't do anything. A computer is a computer: it can compute. I imagine if I want to find Moose Creek airport I can do a search, rather than hunting all over the map for it, or looking up its lat-long in the CFS. If i want to know the distance and bearing from Moose Creek to Squirrel Pond, I expect the electronic product will draw a line on it for me, and tell me its bearing, distance and MEA. It would be nice if it could also line up the frequencies I should expect, but I'll be pleasantly surprised if it is that clever.
  • I've already mastered paper's sneaky tricks. The most hilarious thing paper does when you're trying to use it is be hard to fold, and take over the entire cockpit, or rip. Approach plates don't change, zoom, or close when you poke them. If i put my finger on the MAP, will I change my view?

I was in the field for the meeting at which this purchase was decided, so I asked if it was intended to be supplemental or replace the paper charts. I got one answer (supplemental) from the ops manager and the opposite answer (replacing) from the pilot who I think is spearheading the project. So it's the old busted versus the new hotness. Any experience, tips, or features I've not thought of?


Colin said...

My answers were too low for a comment, so I wrote blog post with them instead.

I'm happy to answer more questions as you have them.

amulbunny's random thoughts said...

We took a 4950 mile road trip and I was in charge of the maps. I was officially christened map killer because of my ability to cause rips along the seams of the map. We stopped at every States welcome center and got maps to supplement the AAA maps that couldn't stand up to my use. We had our smart phones for city use but the good old paper maps got us across the deserts and prairies and grasslands. I like my maps.

PPL Driver said...

I've been flying for 3 years in Germany almost only with a iPad and a GPS mouse. I use Air Navigation Pro as a moving map along with the AIP information (separately purchased) for the countries I visit. AirNavPro can also record the flight for playback later e.g. I passed over a lake today, I wonder which one it was... It also has a notes function to write on top on the map, write down freqs, etc.
W&B is done with another App. I load all of my needed weather, NOTAMS, additional information as PDFs and file them in a folder within Goodreader. I can always look up previous flights this way or be prepared for the dreaded (key Darth Vader music)... R A M P C H E C K!!
Checklists and flight logs are still in the paper form esp. checklists. I still prefer the flight log in paper so I can write down times. It helps me be more aware of time/fuel flow, etc. A paper checklist is easier to refer to in the air instead of sweeping between apps.

Brad said...

Have a look at and their FltPlan Go app. Its all free, including the nav canada publications. It's really easy to navigate between approach charts, cached weather, maps and CFS entries. Free means you can definitely try it out. Also has GPS features, such as a moving map, and gel referenced approach plates

If required, you can lock the entire screen so that a stray thumb won't change your page. It is an amazing supplement. As for replacement, I'm not so sure using this app, even tho it has all Current and legal American and Canadian publications. In any sense, it would be foolish not to have a backup iPad if you went on the route of replacement.

And just like the GPS in the airplane, the most likely cause for error is the user themself.

D.B. said...

Recently departing IFR from an airport in the Houston area, I was given clearance direct to a fix I'd never heard of, and that wasn't in the clearance I got before take off.

When I couldn't find it on my iPad, I gave up and just asked for a vector. ATC then asked me what departure I'd been given, and cleared me to a waypoint on that SID.

Once I got home I pulled out the paper and found what I was looking for - a VOR that appeared to be overlaid by a GPS waypoint for some reason I don't understand.

My point is that the iPad is fabulous, and much cheaper and lighter than paper. But paper is more reliable and easier to use for scanning for the unexpected.

Dave Bradley said...

I am reminded of a story in "Fate is the Hunter" by Ernest K. Gann. Ferrying a plane across South America he goes into the passenger cabin to fetch the next aerial chart. Leaning over and grabbing the chart he sees through the window the explosion of the engine oil tank. He explains that had he not seen the incident it was likely they would have crashed in the jungle.

An iPad wouldn't have helped there.

Josh said...

I moved recently (airline/corporate type environment) from paper to 2 ipads. We have 1 iPad we use between both of us for normal stuff, and the second in the cupboard. We also have a set of 3 paper bricks for absolute emergencies that live in the aircraft. Works well.

Only tip - don't leave the iPad in the glareshield in direct sunlight or it will overheat. That's the only time I've had to resort to the backup.

Erik Jonasson said...

Bonjour Aviatrix
Have been flying with Ipads the last two years. The upside is: You don't need to bring an extra bag with maps and binders. For me it is faster to do the flightplanning(VFR) on the Ipad. Specially to do the fuel calculations when we are at short airfields. And we don't need to leave a copy of everything on the ground anymore, since we just sync the Ipad with dropbox. When flying IFR they give you a hint(a cirle with an arrow in) of where you are on the approach plate, and you can draw on the plates, that is nice for taxi and parking. They tell you when there is an update available.

Some downsides: The scale is never the same, you looses the feeling for the distances. It is really crappy to take notes on the Ipad, we take notes on a paper and then transfer them on the e-copy when it is calmer.

During the time I have used them, we've only had 1 broken Ipad (we have 8 aircrafts with 2 Ipads each) and that one was falling of the roof of C206 but it was still possible to use it but with a cracked screen in one corner.


Mark Zacharias said...

I've been looking at options for e-charts as a private pilot and Canada seems to be woefully behind the times on this. Although recently a few companies have managed to get official charts for VFR. The iPad does seem to be the only viable platform when it comes to options.

What software are you using Aviatrix? From my research I've found ForeFlight seems to be the best one out there.

majroj said...

Computers are awesome, but not necessarily best once "the predictable has gone west.

The human eye can assimilate, and the trained brain digest, more data asynchronously (e.g., looking at a map or out the window) than it takes to get a computer to do it.

This means paper and wetware (skull contents and sensors) are better for planning and for making/using Plan B, whereas computers can enrich and gather data when things are ok, or help gather data when it is not otherwise available.

Card your maps, write on 'em, replace 'em. Keep the wetware sharp and current.

And watch out for an autonomous computer-piloted FEDEX DC-10 in a sky near you!

GC said...

We just launched our EFB program fleet-wide in June at my company, issuing 7500 pilots the newest iPad Air equipped with Jeppesen's charting software. Before that, I spent a little over a year as a system evaluator and beta-tester for the program, running the EFB concurrent with paper charts.

I can say without hesitation that I hope I never see another paper chart again.

Will said...

As a non-pilot, one of the clearest impressions I get from your blog is the "be prepared for anything" mentality of pilots: there is always a plan B, and usually plans C through Z, just in case.

As a software developer, I appreciate both what computers can do, their massive internal complexity (both at the hardware and OS level), and (sadly) the range of things that can go wrong with them, whether due to accident, unintended consequence, or deliberate attack.

By all means, go plastic for primary use. But keep the paper versions on the aircraft as well - because without them, your iPad has just become a safety-critical system. And it's not rated for that.