Tuesday, January 24, 2012

iPads in the cockpit

The next time you get on an airline flight, don’t be surprised if you see the pilots carrying iPads into the cockpit. Don’t worry. They won’t be planning to catch up their ebook reading or play Angry Birds while enroute. Instead, iPads are replacing paper maps and charts for an increasing number of pilots.

When you see an airline pilot walking through the terminal carrying a rolling suitcase with another smaller bag strapped to its back, it isn’t because he needed more room for his clothes. The smaller bag contains maps, charts, the aircraft flight manual, and company operating procedures. These chart cases often weigh as much as 50 pounds, almost all of which is paper. That is a lot of dead trees.

Now new technology available in the iPad allows all of these maps and books to be contained in one small, lightweight package. The iPad can replace an entire suitcase of books.

IPads have been used by private pilots for years, but were only recently approved for airline use by the FAA. In December 2011, American Airlines became the first of the major airlines to receive FAA approval to replace its paper charts and manuals with iPads. It was quickly followed by United.

IPads are also easier to update than the paper charts they replace. Maps and charts are typically revised every two weeks. Under the old system, pilots were required to thumb through their map binders to find the outdated charts, remove them, and then replace them with the new charts. For companies that fly all over the country or world, this was a time consuming process. Updating outdated pages in the manuals was a similarly lengthy process. With an iPad, updates can be accomplished in a matter of minutes with the push of a button.

Ipads have additional uses for pilots as well. Paperwork can be transmitted via text message or email, rather than carried by hand. When a maintenance problem or broken item is discovered, it may be easier to simply take a picture and send it to the mechanics than describing the problem in detail over the radio. Pilots can obtain weather updates easier with an iPad than through the old process of calling their dispatcher and having him check the weather reports at the destination. This is especially useful when looking at the radar images of a line of thunderstorms. Sometimes a picture really is worth a thousand words.

Even though many airliners are equipped with in-flight wireless internet, many companies will probably be reluctant to allow their pilots to use the internet in flight. Memories of the Northwest Airlines crew that overflew their destination while looking at a computer are probably still fresh in the minds of many airline policymakers and chief pilots.

Nevertheless, as the internet becomes more ubiquitous and it’s utility to airline flight operations is shown, this will likely change. It would be useful for pilots to have a big picture of weather systems from composite radar rather than relying on the head-on view currently provided by airborne weather radar installed in the airplane even though there is a slight lag in the radar information provided by online weather sites. Airline scheduling departments would also appreciate the ability to notify crewmembers of schedule changes while the airplane is still in flight (although crewmembers might not be so appreciative).

Ipads and similar devices are the future of aviation charts and manuals. The possibilities are limited only by the imaginations of pilots and programmers. With the FAA already considering whether to allow mobile phones to be used in flight, in the not-too-distant future flight crews may never have to put their iPads into airplane mode.

This article was originally published on Examiner.com:


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