E-charts’ acceptance is growing, even by FAA

 - May 9, 2008, 5:56 AM

As the FAA continues to wrestle with the issue of whether to allow portable electronic devices to be used for viewing approach charts during commercial IFR operations, pilots of Part 91 business jets who have been flying with the so-called electronic flight bag (EFB) computers for the past year are expressing generally favorable opinions of the devices.

Pilots who have flown with the computers say they like them because, at just over an inch thick, they are no bigger than a single Jeppesen binder, yet they have the capacity to store 30 or more binders on their hard drives. One pilot said his company’s Flite Guide 3500, a 500-MHz computer with a touchscreen and pen-like stylus from ADR Software in Auburn Hills, Mich., is mounted in the cockpit of the company’s Citation on a rigid ball joint, making it easy to operate even in turbulence.

The pilot said his flight department runs JeppView electronic approach charts on its office PCs and prints out the charts that are needed for a particular day’s flying. In the cockpit the flying pilot uses the printed paper charts while the pilot not flying (PNF) uses the Flite Guide 3500. Once the crew lands, the Flite Guide 3500 can be used to view operations manuals, flight logs, schedules and even for sending e-mail through the computer’s internal modem.

The unit retails for about $5,300, but can cost more depending on what peripheral equipment is purchased.

Among the few complaints about such devices is that they lose sharpness in direct sunlight. However, pilots have reported that the devices are readable in all lighting conditions.

Most pilots interviewed for this article said they would have a hard time putting an exact dollar figure on the cost saving of receiving chart revisions by CD-ROM rather than paper, but all were unanimous in saying that the portable computers represented a significant time saving.

Once the latest CD-ROM chart revision arrives from Jeppesen, all the user has to do is pop the CD into the unit’s CD-ROM drive and upload the revision. An entire revision, consisting of what would be dozens of Jepp binders and literally thousands of sheets of paper, takes only three to four minutes.

Fractional-aircraft operator Flight Options was among the first to make the switch to electronic charts when it bought 200 EFB computers last summer. Unlike other operations, it has placed two computers in each airplane (its fleet consists of 88 business jets) and completely removed paper charts (29 binders per aircraft), a move that has freed up baggage space and provided a weight saving of about 100 lb per airplane.

FAA Leery of Paper Eradication
At first Flight Options’ plan to eradicate paper did not sit well with some within the FAA, who saw the removal of paper charts from the airplane as a potentially serious safety risk. FAA officials posed numerous questions both to Flight Options and to the makers of the tablet computers and the software used to run on them.

“Early on the FAA really didn’t know what to do about electronic charts,” said Jim Miller, Flight Options vice president and a leading proponent of the EFB concept. “No one had seriously addressed electronic flight bags at that point. When Flight Options unilaterally said it was going to remove paper charts from its airplanes and use electronic flight bags, that finally got people thinking about it.”

Since Flight Options operates under Part 91, there was little the FAA could do under the regulations to prevent the fractional provider from using the portable computers in place of traditional paper charts. A decade ago, when the FAA rewrote the regulation that deals with navigational charts, apparently no one stopped to consider the possibility that handheld computers would become so small and inexpensive that they could reasonably take the place of paper. As a result, the word paper appears no place in the regulations.

Now that such devices are growing in popularity, the FAA is addressing EFBs. A draft advisory circular now in the works, titled “Guidelines for the certification, airworthiness and operational approval of electronic flight bag computing devices,” is expected to become an NPRM soon. Eventually it will provide guidance on exactly how operators may use tablet computers for the display of approach charts and other aeronautical data.

According to draft AC 120-EFB, handheld electronic devices would be used by pilots in Part 91, 135 and 121 operations for a variety of purposes, including display of checklists, approach plates, real-time weather, traffic information, data communications and Internet connectivity. The EFBs themselves would be split into five classes.

According to the FAA, Class 1 EFBs, encompassing devices such as the Flite Guide 3500 and Northstar’s $10,000 CT-1000, would be completely portable with no permanent connection to the aircraft. They could be temporarily connected to the aircraft’s electrical power system and to a one-way, passive-only databus connected to avionics systems such as TCAS or the FMS, but they could not become a part of the permanent cockpit installation.

Power of a Desktop PC
This month’s NBAA Convention offers pilots a chance for hands-on demonstrations of the various tablet computers that a number of corporate operators are now using to display electronic approach charts in the cockpit. Many of the computers, including the Flite Guide 3500, are based on a Fujitsu handheld device that has as much computing power as many desktop PCs.

All are compatible with Jeppesen’s JeppView and FliteDeck software on CD-ROM. In the case of Flight Options, revisions arrive at company headquarters every 14 days. Flight Options personnel then overnight the CDs to the captains who are scheduled to fly the airplane next. It is the captain’s responsibility to load the software once he or she gets to the airplane.

Miller said the Fujitsu computers had some reliability issues early on, which he described as “little annoying things that caused major distractions,” but said those problems have been remedied and the units now work nearly flawlessly. By having two units on each airplane, Miller said the effective MTBF for the computers is about 20,000 hr.

Miller also noted it is difficult to figure just how much money has been saved by doing away with paper charts, but he did say that the charts in each airplane are now updated more consistently, and that there is a palpable labor saving. While the computers Flight Options uses currently would fit the FAA’s Class 1 definition for EFBs, Miller said at some point Flight Options might upgrade to a higher class that would allow the computers to read information directly from the airplane’s FMS or download preflight information into the cockpit avionics.

For the future, Miller sees Flight Options perhaps installing onboard file servers, where the data would be updated remotely through a high-speed digital link such as the Internet. That way, the pilots could climb into the cockpit and simply push a button to start the process of updating the electronic charts. He said links such as DeCrane’s e-Cabin.Connect, an Internet server and antenna system that is slated to fly on the Global Express soon, would be perfect for larger airplanes because of its potential 512-kbps pipeline, but their high cost does not make sense for smaller jets.

“If you had a suitable pipe, say about 120 kbps, you could solve both data and telephony needs,” said Miller. “The pipeline would always be on, so passengers could surf the Internet, calls could be placed and cockpit data could be transferred, all at the same time.”

While there remain a number of questions regarding onboard cockpit computers and their future uses, Miller said one thing is clear–such devices have revolutionized the way pilots can fly.

“I’d hate to think of what we’d do without these computers,” said Miller.