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?