Jumpseat: My New Antique

Is it time to say goodbye to paper?

Charts Les Abend

Charts Les Abend

** The iPad: an FAA-approved addition to the
777 cockpit.**

I gazed at the pile of Jepp binders that were scattered across my desk: United States, Europe, Latin America, Pacific, Far East, 777 ops manual, company manual. I sighed with a wary smile.

Was it possible that I would never again have to clack open metal rings and replace pages upon pages of approach plates with new revisions? Would I never again be faced with the acrobatic juggling act of opening the last index and spilling out the binder’s entire contents?

I had just removed all of the 10-1 terminal chart foldout pages and placed them in a separate binder. Other than the appropriate division high/low en route charts, that was all I was required to carry — well, except for our emergency procedures manual. A thin electronic tablet would take the place of everything else.

I peered into my open flight kit bag: What had once been a jammed display of organizational anal-retentiveness now appeared to be a haphazard storage container. It was cavernous. Do I try to consolidate the remnants into my overnight bag and give my old friend a rest? Naw, I’m just not ready to completely cut the cord. Besides, now I’ll have more room for my hot sauce.

The evolution that resulted in the tablet entering the flight deck of my airline began a little more than six years ago. The EFB (electronic flight bag) concept had already become part of the vernacular in the GA world. Corporate flight departments had begun integrating some form of EFB into their operations either through a laptop computer or directly into the installed equipment on board their sophisticated jets. Companies like Garmin and Avidyne were designing EFBs into new-generation airplane production or offering aftermarket installations for older airplanes.

The FAA developed requirements for EFBs. The agency divides the devices into classes. A Class I device is strictly portable, as in a laptop or electronic tablet. A Class II device is portable also but requires a specific mounting and/or interface connection, usually to aircraft power. A Class III device is a permanent installation, integrated with aircraft design. A 787 is a good example. The 787’s EFB is installed at both pilot positions as standard equipment.

In order for an airline to utilize a given class of EFB, it has to be approved through the carrier’s ops specs. Once the testing process proves successful, usually after a six-month trial period, the approval is granted. For an airline fleet with hundreds of airplanes, supplying EFBs can be an expensive proposition.

Initially, the expense aspect for our airline was already covered. Hank Puteck, one of our astute pilots with a computer science background, realized that, like me, most of my colleagues traveled to work with their own personal laptops. He converted our entire 777 operating manual into PDF form. He presented the PDF version of the manual to our then VP of flight. Why not make all reference manuals available for electronic download to those pilots who choose the option? Hank was given the green light as the project manager. The FAA approved almost immediately. The caveats were that a spare battery was required, the laptop operating system must be compatible, and the hard drive must have a given minimum storage capacity.

In addition, use of the EFB was only allowed on the ground if the aircraft was not taxiing. And if the airplane was taxiing, only a crew member in a nonflying seat could operate the EFB. In flight, the EFB could not be used below 10,000 feet — the sterile period for all operations. It was all common-sense stuff.

An example for use of the EFB: Our MEL (minimum equipment list) for any given airplane is the size of an average English dictionary. It’s cumbersome to carry. When the EFB was approved, the ability to tap the cursor on an index page number and have the appropriate MEL item instantly appear brought smiles.

Once the iPad made its debut, Hank worked with the company and the FAA to allow its use. As various software companies developed aviation charting apps, the electronic tablet was rapidly proving to have even greater potential. Charting was the next step. But the chart function would require approval to operate the iPad through all phases of flight. Larry Lenamon, a pilot with an engineering background, joined Hank for the next stage of the iPad evolution.

First, the device itself had to demonstrate its reliability in the cockpit. The iPad was successfully tested under depressurization circumstances. Electromagnetic interference was also tested. And the design security of the hard drive and operating system was scrutinized for reliability.

Once the machine itself proved airworthy, a compatible charting program had to be selected. Although other software developers were considered, Jeppesen won the battle, but not without resistance. Boeing, the parent company of Jeppesen, had developed an aftermarket Class III EFB for the 777. It was offered to my airline. Let’s just say that, at a few hundred thousand dollars per airplane, the EFB wasn’t quite within my company’s budget. Boeing had to forgo that revenue in exchange for a smaller profit as our chart supplier; it’s a relationship we’ve had for about 50 years.

One question remained: How is the device to be secured for all phases of flight, and where is it to be located? The 777 had been considered first because it was the most technologically advanced airplane in the fleet (notwithstanding the fact that Hank flew the airplane). In place of an integrated EFB that was available at the time of purchase, a compartment used mostly for storing Kleenex is situated just in front of the steering tillers on both pilot sidewalls. (I reserve comment.) The door of the compartment is the perfect size to mount an iPad. The mounting device? Velcro. And not just any Velcro — FAA-approved 9G-capable Velcro. The material has to be affixed to the back of the iPad at two very specific spots, a circumstance that required a special bulletin be issued in our operating manual. Other airplane fleets have a RAM mount system.

The useful life of the Velcro affixed to the back of the iPad had to be determined, since it would become part of the airplane operating systems. The fact that nobody would be on the seniority list by the end of its estimated TBO was not quite satisfactory to the FAA. In the spirit of scientific engineering, with stocking feet placed strategically on the iPad from within his garage, Larry Lenamon attempted to remove the Velcro. The iPad began to bend, but the Velcro remained secure. Useful life? Anybody’s best guess.

Although the economics of supplying approximately 10,000 pilots with iPads appeared expensive, other costs were higher. What costs? Revision distribution costs. Carrying a pilot’s 50-pound kit bag full of paper charts multiplied by at least two crew members per flight per year translated into fuel costs. Medical expenses paid by the company for back and shoulder injuries caused by kit bag carriage were additional costs, along with sick time usage as a result.

Once all of the logistics were addressed, a six-month limited line test began on the 777. When the line test proved successful, the company implemented a plan to distribute the iPads and the Velcro. In addition, an online training program became available. Upon completion of the online training program, a 30-day requirement to maintain and carry traditional paper charting while gaining experience with the iPad was instituted. Each fleet was required to complete the line test.

As we prepared to depart São Paulo, Brazil, I tapped and swiped my fingers across the iPad. It was my first trip without paper. Although I fumbled now and again trying to develop my own organizational system, the convenience of not having to dive into a crowded kit bag was bliss.

At one point, we questioned a new operational change in an approach procedure as we began our descent into JFK. A pause ensued. In a collective moment of revelation, we began to tap on our electronic tablets (individually, of course). Within seconds, we had our answer without one page being turned.

I said to my crew, “I think we just had our first iPad moment.” No tears, but it was memorable.

Despite some flight administration naysayers and a resistant IT department, the endorsement of our current VP of flight helped to make Hank's project a success. Hank and Larry were nominated as finalists for Aviation Week & Space Technology's laureate award in the IT category.

Because of my fellow pilots’ dedication, ours was the first airline to be approved for use of the iPad during all phases of flight. I look forward to the day that paper en route charts are no longer carried.

Is my flight kit bag an antique? Not just yet — but very soon.