Cockpit Chronicles: The iPad Flight Bag Is Finally Here (Video)

The long awaited, previously announced iPad Electronic Flight Bag (EFB) has finally been approved for most of our airplanes at the company. In fact, we’re the first U.S. airline to receive FAA approval for the use of the iPad as a replacement for all of our paper Jeppesen approach plates.

The process started in 2007 when we were allowed to use laptops to hold our company manuals. This meant we could leave three to four manuals at home that weighed about ten pounds. When the iPad came on the scene, we were allowed to use it as an alternative to the laptop. That left only our “Jepps,” two to three large manuals that weighed even more than the company books, for us to lug around.

Some airlines went a different route, investing in a built-in laptop solution called a Class II EFB that included Jepp support. This 2009 cockpit video by Gadling shows how Virgin America deployed that solution.

Later, our company worked with Jeppesen and the FAA to offer an iPad that would be provided to every pilot and a RAM mount that stays in the aircraft. In addition, the company also provided us with a Hypermac backup battery that’s capable of extending the life of the iPad for an additional 24 hours.

Since both pilots will be carrying an iPad, coupled with the extended batteries, the FAA feels this is as redundant as the regular manuals.

A few weeks ago we saw our first mounts in our MD-80, so I felt a video tour might explain how the setup works and just what it replaces.

So far American has approval for the 777, 737, MD-80 and is just awaiting approval for the 757/767 fleet. Hopefully, this will be just in time for my return to that airplane, as once you use this setup, you won’t want to go back to the paper.

To get that approval, American had to have the iPad tested in a hypobaric chamber to simulate how the device would handle during a rapid decompression. They also had to arrange for mount testing with the FAA, which is ironic since our manuals weigh far more than the iPad and aren’t secured in place. Many takeoffs have resulted in a book or two sliding off the side table and onto the floor.

Next up on the list are the reams of dot matrix printed paperwork we take with us on the flights that I covered in a previous video. Once that is accomplished, and weather is incorporated into the iPad, we can finally claim to be flying in the seemingly mythical “paperless cockpit” that has long been the goal since sometime just after the Wright Brothers took to the air and discovered how difficult it was to fold up their maps in the open cockpit.

[Photo/Video credit: Kent Wien]

Related: “Cockpit Chronicles: Paper Makes an Airplane Fly”

Cockpit Chronicles” takes you along on some of Kent’s trips as a captain co-pilot on the MD-80 757 and 767 based in New York. Have any questions for Kent? Check out the “Cockpit Chronicles” Facebook page or follow Kent on Twitter @veryjr.

Plane Answers: Three inexpensive ways to make flying safer

The culture in aviation has always been focused around how to make flying even more safe. The FAA, NTSB and even Congress are looking into ways to improve air safety after the 49 people were killed in the Colgan Air accident in February–the only fatal accident in the U.S. so far in 2009.

I’d be willing to wager that more money goes toward ensuring the safety of the flying public than to life saving procedures or infrastructure in any other industry or activity. I’ve likely benefited from that investment, with far fewer of my colleagues lost in airplane accidents in the past ten years than in any previous decade.

But it’s easy to become hyper-focused on ways to make air travel safer without considering the opportunity costs. As a society, we have a limited amount of resources we can use to save lives. And somehow we tend to overlook the fact that, on average, 123 people are killed every day in the U.S. while driving in automobiles. That’s equivalent to an airliner crashing every day. Clearly that would be unacceptable.

But there are still a few areas of low-hanging fruit that could make air travel safer at a relatively low cost. Here are my top three:

Airway Offsetting

Today airplanes usually fly between two published points, essentially creating a ‘road’ in the sky called an airway. When these airways were designed, they were given four miles left and right of the imaginary centerline. GPS equipped airplanes occupy just a few hundred feet of that width, since they now fly very close to the center of the airway.

Air Traffic Control does an amazingly good job keeping airplanes at different altitudes to prevent opposite direction traffic from colliding.

But because of the precision of GPS equipped airliners, if two airplanes were heading in opposite directions on the same airway at the same altitude, a collision is relatively certain.

Since we’re all human, mistakes can be made by pilots and ATC that result in this ‘loss of separation’. Fortunately, just prior to the widespread use of GPS in airliners, another technology was developed to save us from those situations; the Traffic Collision Avoidance system.

TCAS has been a savior, likely preventing dozens of midair collisions. Had GPS been prevalent in airliners before TCAS, we’d likely have had far more midair collisions in the past fifteen years. This is an an issue I’ve been closely watching since two close friends were involved in nose-to-nose situations that were averted solely because of their TCAS.

But there could be a third level of safety that would only take a software upgrade to implement. I call it airway offsetting.

Since airways are still eight miles wide, why can’t our flight management system (FMS)-the box that contains the waypoints our GPS needs to fly the route-include a predefined offset to the right of course of, say, .5 miles? This would essentially create a two lane highway system in the sky, something done shortly after the first automobile was invented. It would also add an inexpensive third level of safety to our Air Traffic Control system.

Since greater precision is needed on an arrival and opposite direction traffic isn’t a problem between those points anyway, airplanes entering the arrival portion of the flight would lose the 1/2 mile offset. This could all be done without any input or concern from the pilots or ATC. All it would take is a software change to the on-board FMS computer of each aircraft.

And this third level of safety would have prevented the tragic mid-air collision in Brazil in 2006.

Engineered Materials Arresting System

An Engineered Materials Arresting System (EMAS) is a vehicle arresting bed that is installed at the end of runways to prevent aircraft overruns. It’s made up of cellular concrete blocks that start at nine inches deep and progress to as much as thirty inches. It’s a bit like an arresting hook for airliners, but the blocks are designed to slow an airplane down rapidly without doing damage to the aircraft or its passengers.

This technology is currently in use at Boston, New York and Chicago, and on a few of the runway ends at 25 other airports around the country. The FAA is aware that a number of aircraft accidents could have benefited from this relatively low-tech solution. The most recent was the only fatality in 2006; a Southwest jet that landed long and fast at the very short Midway airport that could have been prevented with EMAS.

Fortunately, the FAA appears to be committed to EMAS with plans to install four more of the concrete overruns this year and two in 2010. After that, hopefully more runway ends, especially at runways shorter than 8,000 feet, will be updated with the EMAS system.

Enhanced Class III Electronic Flight Bags

The next improvement to air safety contains at least two life-saving technologies with a single upgrade.

A Class III Electronic Flight Bag (EFB) is a device that offers tremendous situational awareness to pilots. It’s built into the map displays of the airliner, which allows it to incorporate GPS data and datalink communications to bring airliners up to the same level of technology that’s been in four-seat Cessnas for nearly a decade.

Specifically, three features of the Class III EFB will go a long way towards improving safety:

Taxi diagrams can be displayed with the aircraft’s position while maneuvering on the ground, much like an automobile GPS. During low visibility operations, this can easily save lives. In fact, the world’s worst airline accident was caused by two 747s colliding on the surface in Tenerife.

To really understand how important this feature is, take a look at this sobering video that uses actual ATC conversation with a pilot unsure of his location on the runway:

The FAA considers runway incursions to be one of the most pressing safety concerns for air travel.

The other benefit of a Class III EFB comes with real-time weather updates. As airlines add internet access to their airplanes, passengers now find themselves with more accurate and up to date weather depictions in the back of the airplane than the pilots have up front with their myopic weather radar.

Many Class III EFBs are capable of receiving satellite weather radar updates that can display the height of thunderstorms, the winds aloft, the current weather at the destination and turbulence reports that are all depicted in an easily readable format on the map display.

In an effort to keep the costs of this technology under control, perhaps the Class III EFB should be mandated only for aircraft delivered after a certain date. Boeing has already stated that the new 787, scheduled for its first flight next month, will come with a Class III EFB as standard equipment. Let’s hope the same advancements make their way into the smaller Boeing aircraft.

Do you have a question about something related to the pointy end of an airplane? Ask Kent and maybe he’ll use it for the next Plane Answers. Check out his other blog, Cockpit Chronicles

Plane Answers: A closer look at technology in the Northwest overflight

I’ve had a few questions come in concerning the rather egregious error made by the Northwest pilots last week. I hesitated to discuss the incidents, since there’s absolutely no defending what they did.

But when my own sister Kim, asks:

“I would love to hear your opinion as to what the NWA Pilots were really doing when they “missed” MSP.”

Well, for you, Kimmie, I just can’t say no.

It’s the topic of the week among pilots.

Speculation has been rampant, but the NTSB and FAA released some preliminary information from the pilots that has all but squashed any speculation on what exactly they were doing. The more pressing question has been, “How could it happen?”

The conversation among pilots so far has ended with claims of dismay. How did they disconnect from flying enough to lose that kind of situational awareness?

By coming clean and explaining their story, the pilots admitted to something essentially no better than falling asleep; something that took their attention from flying the airplane. And they sought to set the record straight, confess and explain what diverted their attention; I can appreciate that.

As a result, the FAA has immediately revoked their certificates.

Most notable in their story was the fact that they had their laptops out inflight. Many airlines encourage the use of laptops to access an electronic version of their flight manuals. These “EFBs” are more useful than their paper counterparts because of the quick searching capabilities a laptop offers. However, it’s my understanding that Delta and Northwest don’t use any EFB on board their aircraft. Regardless, the pilots admitted that they were discussing new scheduling procedures that were to take effect with their laptops, something that’s prohibited even at airlines that use Class I (laptop) EFBs.
According to the NTSB, the co-pilot was more familiar with the new bidding system, called preferential bidding, which involves choosing the types of trips and the day and time of departures in a general sense instead of simply picking a month of flying from the company constructed bid sheet.

Preferential bidding takes some time to get used to, and the pilots who figure it out early are likely to enjoy an advantage for a few months over those who don’t. The co-pilot was simply trying to get the captain up to speed, and this apparently was enough of a distraction to cause the crew to lose contact with ATC for well over an hour.

Missed signs

Media reports have suggested that the pilots missed repeated calls from the company and that ‘bells and chimes’ were sounded as the company and ATC desperately tried to contact the flight.

Those descriptions aren’t entirely accurate. When the company tried to contact the pilots via ACARS there wasn’t actually a chime associated with the message. There was simply a 1/4 inch tall notice on one of the forward displays on the instrument panel that a message has been received. There was no AOL style “You’ve got mail!” chime. Some airplanes also print any message automatically on a small and rather quiet printer.

Losing contact with air traffic control is something that can happen to any pilot. A missed radio call is followed up by another call or two before the center switches to the 121.5 emergency frequency that pilots monitor on a second radio. If both attempts fail, ATC will then call another aircraft of the same airline to have them relay a message through ACARS for the airplane to re-establish contact on whatever frequency is in use.

If no contact is made, the chatter on the radio suddenly stops, so instead of hearing bells, chimes and calls, the Northwest pilots likely heard nothing at all. Similar to parents of toddlers, pilots should recognize this ominous silence as a possible problem.

They could have received a VHF SELCAL, a tone loud enough to make you jump out of your seat if activated by ATC. However, I suspect it wasn’t used in this case, since it was a similar flight attendant call that eventually led to the discovery of the gross error.

On a related side note, a small number of the airplanes I fly do have a chime sound that activates when an ACARS message is sent. But that chime is identical to the flight attendant chime, the route uplink chime, the winds uplink chime, the HF SELCAL Chime, etc… In the future, ATC instructions sent via CPDLC will even use this same chime. It becomes easier to disregard or miss those particular chimes when they’re constantly being used to announce other unimportant or nuisance notices.

The Boeing engineer in charge of designing this system explained to me years ago that humans were unable to differentiate the meaning of more than five different sounds, so they elected to keep those chimes the same and rely on an added cue such as a light or message that tells the pilots what the chime represents.

Will it happen again?

Congress is already talking about measures to restrict laptops in the cockpit. These rules were already in place, and may serve only to remove the official uses of a computer, requiring pilots who currently use a Class I EFB to go back to carrying nearly twenty pounds of books in their kitbags again; a move that still won’t prevent some pilot from pulling out a laptop to check their schedule.

I’ll leave you with a look at the Class II EFB that Virgin America uses on their flights. Eliminating these tools would be a step backward for the industry.

Do you have a question about something related to the pointy end of an airplane? Ask Kent and maybe he’ll use it for the next Plane Answers. Check out his other blog, Cockpit Chronicles and travel along with him at work.

Cockpit Chronicles: Paper makes an airplane fly

Looking back on the accomplishments of the Wright brothers in 1903, I find it a miracle that they were able to get into the air while lacking a critical piece of material. Something so important that the FAA, JAA and CAA would ground any airplane today that tried to lift off without it.

You see, the Wright brothers lacked the paperwork to fly. They had no airworthiness certificate, no weight and balance data, no flight plan or even a license in their wallets. It’s truly astonishing that they ever left the ground.

Today we need this paperwork to fly and despite efforts to create a paperless cockpit, we’re carrying reams of additional information that’s still printed with a dot matrix printer at the airport before each flight.

To give you an idea what’s needed before a typical transatlantic crossing, I took a moment before beginning the preflight inspection and sat down to go through the trip paperwork for our recent flight from London to Boston.

This didn’t include the customs and immigration paperwork that the purser, or number one flight attendant, handles. Nor did it show the volumes of books that we carry with approach plates, checklists, procedures and aircraft manuals that I’ve described before.
Boeing and Airbus have done their part to offer a Class III Electronic Flight Bag (EFB) in their newer airplanes that promises to eliminate the need for these books and manuals and some of the paperwork shown in the video above.

The 787 even includes a Class III EFB as standard equipment. But it’s up to the airlines to retrofit their older cockpits with this technology that will not only save weight, but promises to give us better situational awareness when taxiing around the airport and maneuvering to avoid thunderstorms since airport diagrams and real-time satellite weather can be displayed on the newer EFBs.

Maybe then we could get away from paper depictions of weather phenomena along our route of flight in favor of real time information that just might keep us away from unforecasted headwinds or areas of moderate or greater turbulence.

Even Orville and Wilbur could see the benefits in that.

Cockpit Chronicles takes you along on some of Kent’s trips as an international co-pilot on the Boeing 757 and 767 based in Boston. Have any questions for Kent? Check out Plane Answers.