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Wave of the Future

The iconic leather storage cases seen piggybacking a pilot’s luggage in terminals worldwide are quickly becoming a thing of the past. Their contents, consisting mainly of navigation charts and manuals, are being transferred onto tablet devices called “electronic flight bags (EFB’s)”. EFB’s are the wave of the future for airlines, but yesterday’s news for General Aviation Pilots. Although today’s modern airliners are packed with advanced technology, they surprisingly lack many fantastic advances widely used by even the newest student pilots. Injecting new technologies into the airline world boils down to a concept in business known as ‘cost-benefit analysis’ – that is, the tipping point for corporations to justify the return from investments.

For those that don’t know, traditionally airline pilots have carried with them their own navigation charts, aircraft manuals, and operating procedures in paper form (hence the need for a storage case). Considering the vast list of destinations served by an airline, the complexity of aircraft systems, and the equally daunting operating guidelines pilots must follow, the manuals that facilitate a pilot’s repertoire typically weight in excess of 50 lbs. Case in point, as a Boeing 737 pilot at my airline, the aircraft-specific navigation charts I’m required to carry span every North American, Caribbean, and Central American city we serve along with any possible alternate airport in the event of a diversion. Although the charts representing these cities are printed on tissue-thin paper, they easily fill three 2-inch binders to their bursting point.

Alongside the burden of carrying these charts and manuals is the need for regular revision of their contents. For example, twice a month, revisions to our navigation charts are handed out. These revisions generally require individual pages to be removed and replaced with updated ones. Imagine if you had to revise your phonebook twice a month, removing random pages and replacing them with pages containing updated phone numbers, multiplied times hundreds of pages - that’s the tediousness I’m getting at. Forget about the tediousness, how about the potential errors that can be made? Is it possible to accidentally discard the wrong page? Sure it is. And how about trying to reference this vast array of data in a timely manner? Try finding “John Smith” in the phonebook - which one of these 50 Johns is the one I’m looking for? Exactly, it’s time consuming, but electronic searching quickly narrows that list down. As pilots, we’re all professionals that pride ourselves on a solid knowledge base. But with so many policies needing to be followed to the “T”, oftentimes we’re forced to refer to our manuals for an answer. Maybe we have a medical specimen in the cargo hold that is packed in dry ice. How much dry ice are we allowed to carry on board (yes there’s a limit)? “Hey Captain, do you know that off the top of your head?” And so ensues the challenge of finding that little gem of information buried deep in our manual somewhere. It’s sometimes a competition to see who can find it fastest. There must be a better way!

And on the seventh day, the EFB was born. Finally, a way to put all that ‘stuff’ at a pilot’s fingertips. No more time consuming hands-on manual revisions with vast room for error. Simply connect the tablet to the Internet and download the latest revisions for an error-free outcome. Electronic format also makes for faster referencing. “How much dry ice can we carry, Captain?” Type in the search window “dry ice” and a few seconds later, low and behold, the answer! And how about the weight savings that a tablet provides? Extra weight on an aircraft equals more fuel consumption, and fuel is pricey these days! Sure, the 50 pounds saved doesn’t sound significant on its own, but that’s 100 pounds saved between two pilots on one aircraft, multiplied times thousands of daily flights, 365 days a year. Quite significant in that context, wouldn’t you say?

In the airlines, safety and efficiency are priorities, but cost is also taken into consideration. There was a point where the cost of supplying each pilot with their own tablet device (my airline has close to 12,000 pilots) did not justify the perceived benefits. That balance has now shifted, but why? For starters, tablets , like all new technologies over the course of time, are now more affordable. Injury prevention is another factor. Upon entering the cockpit, pilots usually place their flight cases on the far side of their respective seats. Performing this simple action surprisingly places a great deal of strain on one’s back if done improperly. The result has been numerous on-the-job back injury medical claims, costing the airlines a great deal of capital. Additionally, consider the evolution of the airline industry. Increased fuel efficiency has spawned a broader range of aircraft utilization, mainly recognized by the longer list of destinations a particular model of aircraft flies. Also, mergers of two airlines into one (an industry trend lately) have consequently required the alignment of separate operating practices. All of these factors have driven the need for more navigation charts, regular procedure changes, as well as enhanced communication. Trying to facilitate these needs via paper is overwhelming and cumbersome. As a result, EFB’s provide the needed benefit of storage capacity for vast amounts of data without a weight penalty, as well as efficient updates to policies and better communication.

The future of EFB’s in the airline environment is bright. Going forward, enhanced usage is expected with respect to Wi-Fi Internet. The birth of onboard Wi-Fi signals will allow pilots to monitor a real-time big-weather picture. As it stands today, flight crews print a snapshot of a weather screen during flight planning, as in-flight viewing is limited to the range of onboard weather radar. The ability to stay up-to-speed with a broader picture of what lies thousands of miles ahead of the aircraft will help pilots plan appropriately. Furthermore, future development of various EFB “apps” will surely present useful tools that I cannot even begin to speculate. It’s funny; I can’t imagine how I get through each day without a mobile phone, even though I’ve spent more than half of my life without one. I’m confident EFB’s will ultimately yield the same sentiment!

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misschristys 3
I don't want to be negative, but it seems all systems on airlines have backups. What form of backup is there for EFB's? Is the only backup for them the other pilots EFB? Don't get me wrong though, I am all for moving forward in the electronic world. Just wondering.
Daniel Fahl Staff Writer 4
That's a valid concern. Battery power is the biggest concern. EFB's used in the airlines are required to be supplied with either a backup battery or be hard-wired into the aircraft electrical system. Overall software and device stability is the next concern. Aside from having two or even three EFB's on the flight deck, the devices in question undergo detailed scrutiny to earn FAA certification. In the extremely rare event that all devices were to fail, the information contained in them is accessible through communication with ATC or airline operations directly from the cockpit.
Carole Hatcher 1
I'd be at least as concerned, if not more, about reliable in-flight Internet access.
PhotoFinish 1
Internet access not necessary. All the needed manuals and diagrams would be stored in memory on the device.
Carole Hatcher 1
@photo - thanks for that clarification... I misunderstood that at first glance, but see now that the updates would happen (ideally :-) outside of block time - just like the current paper system.
Greg L 1
boeing forgot to put a USB outlet into the cockpit xD
Carole Hatcher 1
@Greg - wanna place bets on how soon that will happen?!
Tim Duggan 3
The back-up is a bag of paper charts and approach plates assigned to each airplane, and stored on the flight deck. In fact, even before the EFB introduction, most International routes required so much paper that we already had a supplemental bag on-board to lighten the weight of the regular flight bag that we carried.

The supplemental bag could include a lot more alternate airports and little-used charts, and such.

These bags and contents updating and currency are the responsibility of the Flight Operations department, delegated usually to Maintenance department. Big airlines further break down Maintenance to sub-disciplines, so Avionics would handle the publications, for example, at large airlines. Spare full flight kits are kept at main maintenance hubs where the revisions are made, then bags are just swapped out as needed.
joel wiley 2
Getting back to the electronics, what about a separate system (independent power supply, computer and printer) to provide the backup? If it was independent of the primary EFB (including updates and maintenance), it would provide a needed 'second set of eyes'. It could provide faster service than thumbing thru unfamiliar volumes during one of those rare 'Oh S... what do we do now moments. One of the space programs had four separate on-board computer systems for backup. One of the fears was that they all used the same software- what if the software is wrong? A lot more money and prestige was riding on that, and a lot fewer souls on the average intercontinental flight.

In 20 years, maybe the systems will include a 3-D printer to build a broken part in-flight.

Just thinkin'
shawn white 2
They are thinking about doing that for Mars missions, so 3D printing in flight sounds like a smart and easy thing to do!
shawn white 1
It may be hard to re-attach most parts in-flight though! You can't just pop on a suit and float outside like in space...
Don't knock it until you tried it!!!
Jon Symes 2
What a fine professional article from a personal perspective of an airline pilot. I do hope that the EFB's can still be carried in the case though as there is still something reassuring about seeing flight crew wheeling their trolleys with purposeful gait and assurance; makes one feel that much safer.
PhotoFinish 1
I would feel no extra safety in Neanderthal carrying of encyclopedic diagrams and manuals that are much slower to use in practice when there is a need look sruff up quickly.
shane mcmahon 1
Most European Airlines have a set of Jepps and charts in each plane.Pilots are not required to have their own
John Hawrylak 1
thanks for the clear explanation.
Ian Ward 1
So all the paper manuals, charts, maps, etc are going to be loaded up onto a tablet device. I would doubt that you can do away with paper documentation completely, so the pilot's case will always be part of the pilot's kit. And in a lot of pilot cases, you will inevitably find one of those tablets.

Even if much of the original contents of a pilot's case is replaced with
e-versions, other bits and pieces of kit and personal effects will find their way into these iconic cases. There is still a future for these beautifully designed cases and I imagine that many, if not all, new pilots, will buy one of them.

And I believe some long distance truckers also have these cases, so there will always be a market for them.
PhotoFinish 1
If done right, pilots should be able to fly without any bits of paper. Any form or printout can just as easily be done electronically, once your entire workflow moves over to digital.

It's great. Pilots can spend less time managing bits of paper and data collection/reporting, and more time planning trip and/or actually flying it.
joel wiley 1
The chances of technology being done right seems relatively low in this day and age. Even with rigorous standards and specifications there always are nagging loose ends. Even simple technology implementations come up with issues.

I agree that lessening the paperwork load is a boon, and I would not be without some form of computer assistance today. Less time managing paperwork and more time managing flying is good thing.

(Can't resist tho... "If done right, pilots should be able to fly"... and land without damage to the A/C and reputation. If that were universally done, we'd have a lot less to blog about)
PhotoFinish 1
(Can't resist tho... "If done right, pilots should be able to fly"... and land without damage to the A/C and reputation. If that were universally done, we'd have a lot less to blog about)

LOL That's for sure.
ChrisMD123 1
Very cool stuff. I especially love the "Google-ify" angle of being able to just search for "dry ice" instead of having to (I assume) search through an index for "dry ice" and check each entry before you find the right one. Must do wonders for situational awareness!

(Sorry for the grammar Nazi thing, but it's "lo and behold" - as in "look over there, and behold.")
TWA55 1
They always have ATC if the impossible should happen
Jon Symes 1
My first point was regarding the fine balance of the article, the second part I must admit to being a little tongue-in-cheek. I am Irish and we can't help ourselves.
djmarcus 1
So let me understand. It's illegal for me as a passenger to have a tablet powered on (potential hazard to airplane electronics) but its OK for the pilots (who are closer to the instrumentation) to have theirs on?

What am I missing?
Matt Lacey 3
From a test perspective, it's very easy to demonstrate empirically that two units from a handful of models of tablets play well with the avionics in very close proximity to them. It's much harder to demonstrate that a few hundred units of any number of models of electronic devices distributed throughout the cabin do not interfere with command and data circuits throughout the aircraft.

Hence the abundance of caution. If the FAA is able to approve personal electronic devices in the cabin, it will be analytically - not by demonstration. The rationale will not be 100% certain, but the cost-benefit will be justified - just like every time we get on a plane or in a car.
Tim Duggan 1
lol!'s a secret. In all seriousness, the modern airliner is extremely unlikely to be adversely affected by consumer electronics. The "age-old" rule dates back for decades, was first implemented with the advent of small portable FM radios because those FM receivers interfered with VHF radio communications.

With the proliferation of cell-phones and other devices, the "ban" was expanded out of an abundance of caution. Again, there were (in early days) some instances of say a VOR antenna on the airplane being affected by a hand-held device, but only when in fairly close proximity, and since every airplane antenna location and passenger seat arrangement can vary, it was easier to just regulate and say "No".

The situation in the modern era nowadays has evolved, and there has been much study on the topic.
Tim Duggan 2
I should hasten to add, though, that the consideration of stowing these devices for the takeoff and landing portions of all flights is of paramount importance, lest they become flying projectiles obeying the formula F=MA in the unfortunate event of an abnormal occurrence, incident or accident.
djmarcus 1
Presumably you are referring to F=MA as applied to the plane experiencing catastrophic deceleration where by all loose objects become projectiles and once again invoking F=MA when colliding with a hapless soul on the plane.

Given that, aren't the pilot's iPads or old map books untethered? Doesn't that mean that they too are subject to F=MA with the understanding that in the cockpit these loose projectiles can wreck more havoc and be even more catastrophic?
Hey when everything goes "splat" does it matter?
Tim Duggan 1
The iPads are secured in some manner (if the portable ones are being used).

The EFBs are categorized into three 'Classes':

Class 1 -- Off-the-shelf types of PEDs. Secured for critical phases if being referenced, or stowed securely if not. Critical phase = T/O & landing.

Class 2 -- Modified off-the-shelf for purpose-built use. Uses ship's power as primary source, and has dedicated mounting hardware. Requires appropriate STC and/or Type Certificate approval.

Class 3 -- considered "Installed equipment", also requires STC and Type Certificate, etc.

The really "whiz-bang super neato" installation is the MFD integration (Multi-Function Display) where the Approach Plate can be displayed on an MFD screen (the EHSI), with the airplane symbol superimposed to provide orientation awareness on the procedure. A 'moving map' type of display, similar (but more advanced) to a SatNav automobile display.
Flying projectiles do not obey f = ma, f = ma obeys flying projectiles.
djmarcus 1
They don't 'obey' it as much as they experience it. Once in motion, the projectiles remain in motion (the plane's velocity through the air). If the plane comes to an abrupt stop, the loose objects (which were stationary objects relative to the original motion of the plane) continue at the plane's original speed (Newton's first law).

It's when they encounter another object (like an instrument panel in the cockpit or a person such as the pilot or a passenger, that they experience a very large force that decelerates the projectile (F=MA, Newton's second law of motion).

When the plane decelerates gently, the normal surface frictional forces (the object resting on a surface that is part of the plane) are enough to also slow down loose objects (that's why on a normal landing loose objects in the cabin don't start flying).

But when the plane decelerates catastrophically, the loose objects accelerate equally catastrophically (relative to the decelerating plane). The results are, essentially described as: splat.
Ric Wernicke 0
I cannot see why the EFB cannot be made part of the airplane and be called up on the class cockpit screen. Anything to make the safe conduct of the journey should be part of the furniture. Every pilot marshaling his own flight bag made sense when replacing pages every fortnight. People are just more responsible for their own kit. While replacing pages, I often look at pages that perhaps I am not as familiar as I should be. (my flight bag is more along the lines of a paperback than the encyclopedia ATP's schlep about.)

Having electronic updates does not allow savoring the information as printed copies invite us to read. How many of us even look at the readme.txt file that explains what's new in software upgrades?
Daniel Fahl Staff Writer 3
Fair enough, RIc. Some aircraft do in fact have integrated EFB's, and it's a nice setup. The next best thing in aircraft without the real estate for additional integration is to mount the EFB on the side window chart holder (where paper was once displayed). It's quite ergonomic and not a problem.

I think the concern for staying apprised of changes is something that has been considered and weighed against the alternative of keeping things the way they've always been. Each change we get contains a "revision summary" file like you mentioned. If these changes are significant enough to warrant a commitment to working knowledge and/or memory, a tutorial that is followed by a pass/fail exam will also be required.

Myself and most of the folks I fly with, especially on long flights, typically look forward to new files to read and pass the time when workload is low. Responsibility for keeping up with the Joneses ultimately boils down to professionalism of the individual pilot.
Leighton Elliott -3
I love the utilization of more convenience to pilots to be able to perform more efficiently enhancing safety and performance. I have one question though. Is your EFB's jammed up with all those God damned stupid f**king advertisements that we the general public are forced to "observe" in order for us to complete a job?
joel wiley 1
Try buying the app rather than use the 'free with ads' ones.
Mike Harbour -1
So here's the big question: where are all those cool stickers you commercial pilots seem to love gonna go now? Those decorated flight cases are like the white-collar equivalent of the construction worker's hardhat! Tablet covers don't have nearly the real estate of a Jeppesen FC-102.
Real pilots don't need a "sticker" as proof of their respective capabilities. The only place that is needed is the cockpit. I think any pilot bag needs to be recognized by security as just that. Why does a pilot need to put a 427 badge on the side of YOUR 6 cylinder Chevy?
Mike Harbour 0
You mean TSA actually pays attention to those stickers? Heck, I figured crew just gets a once-over compared what we pax get!
Mike please don't subject us to your misinformed idiocy any more. ty.
joel wiley 1
For some reason "Physician, heal thyself" comes to mind. ;-)


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