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Summary:

Mobile devices are finding their way into the workplace faster than ever. But it’s not just office jobs. We talk to a pilot about the devices and apps he uses to prepare for flights and replace pounds of flight manuals and stacks of paper charts.

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Foreflight takes a navigation chart and overlays current satellite weather imagery, in this case, fog in San Francisco.

It’s become somewhat controversial when and how air passengers use mobile devices. But the idea of pilots using them, specifically Apple’s iPad, is gaining broader acceptance. At least four major airlines are either testing or allowing pilots to replace their flight manuals and paper charts with the 9.7-inch, 1.5-pound tablet.

Most passengers probably don’t care what their pilot uses to fly the plane as long as they arrive on time and with as little turbulence as possible. But I can tell you as someone who lives with a pilot, using his iPad to prepare for flights is the best thing to happen to him in a decade of flying.

Just as contributor Mark Crump told us how he uses mobile devices and apps to re-learn guitar after 20 years, I talked to my husband Greg, a search-and-rescue helicopter pilot, about how his iPad 2 has become part of his daily work routine, what apps he uses, and why Apple’s tablet is beginning to catch on in aviation.

Q: I’m going to assume you’re not playing Angry Birds. What do you use your iPad for at work?

A: Well, in case my boss is reading this, I do not play Angry Birds at work. Zombie Gunship on the otherhand… But seriously, when I do pre-flight planning, I need to know what’s going on in our entire “area of responsibility” for the next 24-hour period we’re on duty. Before we assume the watch, we’re responsible for checking the current and forecast weather at our base and all major airports in our area. That’s in addition to knowing radio navigation aids that are inoperative and runways that are closed, FAA temporary flight restrictions (places we can’t fly) — these pop up at the last minute. There are legal and flight safety implications of us not knowing that.

And before the iPad, I’d have to sit down at a computer and go to half a dozen websites to know when the sun goes up and down, when the moon comes up, if it’s going to be overcast, direction of the winds. The reason it’s so life changing with the iPad is 90 percent of what I need for a day [of work] is in one app, Foreflight (free, but requires in-app subscription) — I click one app and can bring up aviation charts with overlays of cloud coverage, temperature, winds and other weather activity and TFRs (temporary flight restriction areas) on the picture of the map.

Because of restrictions by your employer, you mostly use the iPad for preflight preparations. How useful would it be in the cockpit?

Having Foreflight while flying would be an incredible situational awareness tool — in the same way a Garmin in a car is — it shows you where you are.

Foreflight's airport information tab shows the current weather at SFO all on one large screen.

The second reason is for carrying the litany of publications we’re required to carry in the aircraft. We could potentially have to fly any possible direction, including offshore. And no matter where we go we have to have VFR (visual flight rules) and IFR (instrument flight rules) charts, and we carry a bag full of these charts that cover every possible area — it’s probably like 20-something charts. And the big thing about the charts is they expire every 56 days — it’s a legal requirement that we have the current charts.

We also need approach-plate books for every state, we carry probably five to eight of these. And then we have to carry 4-inch thick aircraft flight manual and there are dozens of other manuals we aren’t required to carry but we may want to reference.

OK, so this is a lot of paper. What apps do you use to replace all of that?

The cool thing about Foreflight is it makes sure you’ve always downloaded the most current chart. And I use PDF Expert ($9.99) so that now I have dozens of pounds of manuals in this [1.5]-pound device and I can reference them wherever I am.

If you ever see pilots pulling their roller carts through the airport, that’s not all luggage — they might have a toothbrush in there but mostly those are flight pubs. In our aircraft 10 pounds equals about a minute of flying. More fuel equals more time equals more options.

So if I can get rid of 10 to 40 pounds of books, that could be several minutes over a flight, but when considering how many flights we do in a year, that adds up to a lot of time and savings.

Are most pilots on board with this? Or is this kind of change going to come slowly?

The biggest game changer is what I call “the grumpy old pilot” factor. Chances are, they already have an iPad and use it to show me pictures of their grandkids. So using it for flight prep is easy and natural — it’s why the iPad is so quickly being embraced by normally very conservative organizations.

Thumbnail image courtesy of Flickr user clicclic

  1. Michael W. Perry Tuesday, April 17, 2012

    All this (and more) suggests the need to develoo a Bluetooth protocol to send accurate GPS data to iPads. In aircraft, that’d let the highly accurate avionics GPS inform the pilot’s iPad. In a car, it’d let us put our iPhone on the front dash, where it has a good view of the sky, and use its GPS data with an iPad held in the front-seat passenger’s lap, where the view of the sky is limited.

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    1. Way ahead of you… we’ve bringing something to market shortly for just that.

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    2. There’s several external GPS units out there that integrate seamlessly with Core Location on iOS, like this one: http://www.amazon.com/Electronics-XGPS150A-Universal-Bluetooth-Smartphones/dp/B006M49G80/ref=sr_1_4?ie=UTF8&qid=1334692637&sr=8-4

      There’s also a couple of combination datalink weather / GPS receivers out there that work with specific apps like ForeFlight, either getting weather from XM or ADS-B ground stations.

      Lastly, Aspen Avionics has announced their Connected Panel device which would let ForeFlight get position data from the installed certified panel-mounted GPS receivers already in the plane, but they aren’t shipping yet.

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    3. http://www.sportys.com/PilotShop/product/17165
      Stratus does that with WAAS precision, supposedly. Two more weeks.

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  2. Kristen Isaacs Tuesday, April 17, 2012

    Omg tech love!

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  3. There are a lot of pilots (like me) that love the iPad and iPhone for various aviation functions. Besides Foreflight (great app!) I also use that company’s Checklist app for pre-flight inspections. I use LogTen Pro for my logbook and WnB for checking weight and balance of the aircraft prior to departure.

    As for GPS, there are indeed Bluetooth versions that work very well but also ones that plug into the iPad’s standard connector like the one from Bad Elf. All of these work great in the cockpit and I’ve experienced no issues with them.

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  4. John Harrington, Jr. Wednesday, April 18, 2012

    Been meaning to get a post up about this, thanks for the information Erica. Worked your husband’s comments into a post about MDM in the sky: http://bit.ly/HTZgaa

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  5. Something is missing in the statement ’10lbs is equal to 1 minute of flight': is that 1 min more for each flight (regardless how long … probably not), per year (certainly not) … maybe per hour?!

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    1. The 10 lbs is equal to 1 min is per flight.

      All aircraft have a maximum takeoff weight (or MTOW since we love acronyms so much…)By shedding 10 pounds of paper that is carried, we can carry 10 more pounds of fuel/people/equipment. It also means that we can use slightly lower power settings during flight, which means the engines don’t burn as much fuel.

      Shaving 40-50 pounds of weight not only allows more flight time per flight since more fuel can be carried, it also can lead to savings over time since less fuel is used to complete the same flight as before (granted, this figure is usually measured over the course of a year…)

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  6. Great read!! Apart from all the benefits stated above, one more advantage of having iPad onboard is the use of accelerometer and gps. Pardon me if I sound lame, but an iPad can also tell roll and pitch angles apart from giving Gps computed speed, direction of flight, etc. While not excatly precise as onboard equipments they can serve as good backupn incase of an emergency/difficulty. My view comes from the fact that so many accidents have been attributed due to these minor but critical instrument failures as has been depicted on a popular tv series.

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