Cockpit Chronicles: Navigating Paris with an iPhone GPS

I’ve lamented on Cockpit Chronicles about my distaste of four-day trips. I’ve come to realize that I shouldn’t be flying such long trips after I came home once and I could actually see the growth in my two daughters.

But when a rare (for the Boston base anyway) six-day trip showed up on our bid sheets, I had to rethink my bidding preferences. The trip had a 24-hour stay in New York between two Paris layovers, and since my wife and kids were already away visiting relatives, I figured I may as well be working.

I’d be flying as a relief pilot working with Boston, Miami and New York pilots. The layovers in Paris and downtown Manhattan easily made up for the loss of stick-time since I wouldn’t be at the controls for any takeoff or landing. I would likely meet some new people from the other bases as well which can be nice.

The evening trip to Paris started off with a Boston crew that I’ve flown with before, and went without a hitch. We managed to catch a nice view of the high altitude (300,000 feet) noctilucent clouds, a spectacular phenomenon that I’ve written about before. It never gets old, especially since it’s visible for just two months out of the year.
Captain Mark flew a beautiful morning arrival into Paris, after which we piled onto the crew bus for the long ride to the hotel, near the center of the city. While the location is amazingly convenient for sightseeing, the bus ride on weekdays can take as much as 2 hours and 10 minutes to travel just 21 miles. I’ve often thought we’d do better on a bike.

On this morning though, we were lucky to keep a relatively good pace, arriving at the lobby just an hour and a half after we left the airplane.

While on the bus, I did a bit of sightseeing. Since my iPhone required a data connection to view the maps as we traveled, I couldn’t use the GPS function to get a better feel of where we were. Since the iPhone doesn’t store the maps by default, an extremely expensive roaming data charge would be needed to see where we were. In fact, as an experiment, I once checked my location on the map in Paris and racked up $6 in roaming data charges in less than a minute.

But then I remembered a really inexpensive iPhone app called GPS MotionX (itunes link) that allows you to cache maps just for the area you’re traveling to by drawing a circle and pressing the download button. With the fast WiFi network and an $8 a month Boingo account, I managed to download the maps back at the hotel.

So many times I’ve followed other crewmembers around the city, checking out museums, restaurants, shops and of course the bike tour through Paris and I would have loved to have known what our route had been between the sights.

With the recent ability to run apps in the background on the iPhone, GPS MotionX allows you to track your path through the city, and even take pictures along the way at each stop or at an interesting sight. For those without a privacy concern in the world, you can even share, in realtime but at designated intervals, your path via Twitter or Facebook.

It also lets you know the distance traveled, the current, average and top speeds, and the elevation that’s depicted in a profile view. The ability to snap a picture at certain waypoints would have given me a much better understanding of a city. Paris is probably the best example, since there’s just so much to experience.

It’s a big city. A GPS could come in handy.

So when the other two Boston pilots and I decided to meet up at 3 p.m. to venture out around the city, with no specific plans, I could tell this would be a good track to record on the iPhone.

Once I explained the function of the GPS app, the path almost became a quest itself as we proceeded. We stopped at a cafe to meet up with the flight attendants, but decided not to eat dinner there, since we had already made plans to go to Willy’s Wine Bar, a restaurant that I hadn’t been to before, which meant I could add it to my list of conquered Parisian restaurants.

Unfortunately we discovered a full house at Willy’s, so we continued on to another place the captain knew about. While it didn’t quite garner a spot in my address book of favorite restaurants in the city, it wasn’t bad, and the appetizer, raclette covered potatoes, may make me want to come back for another entreé.

At least I’ll have the GPS track to remember just how to get there.

By the time we arrived back at the hotel, the MotionX app told us we had walked for 3 hours and 16 minutes, covering 8.16 miles at an average of 2.5 miles per hour. Adding up all the hills we climbed totaled 477 feet, so I don’t feel nearly as bad about the Crepe Nutella we had from an outdoor vendor on the way back.

I sent our route to the captain and first officer, but the .gpx and .kmz files it creates only store one photo from each outing. In fact, even in the app itself, there’s no way to view the pictures taken at each waypoint without digging into a few menus. If only you could touch the waypoint and the photos would pop up. Perhaps in a later version.

A few days before this trip, my wife told me she had found a great way to keep the kids entertained on vacation. She had just discovered geocaching from a friend of hers, and so she took our daughters out to a spot marked near her hometown in Germany. The kids were so excited, since they managed to go right to it without a GPS. But they were having trouble finding the next location on their list.

“Can we somehow do that with the iPhone?” She asked.

“Yeah, I’m sure there’s an app for that.” I told her. And now I think I’ve just found it.

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? He’s on Twitter @veryjr.