Laptop PCs and PDAs keep pilots connected on the road

 - August 11, 2008, 8:47 AM

Designed to facilitate productivity on the go, laptops and PDAs come in a variety of shapes and sizes to fit various computing needs. Some version of Microsoft Windows comes standard with almost all laptops, but if you’re a Mac user your only choices are Apple iBooks and PowerBooks loaded with Macintosh OS X. Options abound for most laptops, including CD and DVD players and recorders, portable printers, internal and wireless modems for Internet connectivity and more.

Screen sizes can be as large as 17 inches (diagonal), handy if you want to watch movies, or as small as 8.9 inches for a lighter and more portable laptop. Laptop weights range between a bulky full-size laptop of nearly 10 pounds to a sleek four pounds. Nearly any software that can be loaded on a standard desktop computer can also be loaded on a laptop.

PDAs by their nature are more limited in terms of computing power. Their smaller size and weight (usually less than one pound–my Compaq iPAC weighs just 6.6 ounces) make them easily portable, but can restrict functionality due to having less memory and lower computing speeds. Dozens of software applications are available for each of the two main PDA operating systems–Palm OS and Microsoft CE (available on Pocket PC models). The Palm OS is a cleaner and faster operating system, but cannot handle Microsoft applications as well as Pocket PCs, on which versions of Pocket Word, Pocket Excel and others can be loaded. PDA accessories include expansion slots for more storage memory, dial-up and wireless modems, GPS receivers and digital cameras, among others.

The Case for Laptops

Bruce Porter, chief pilot for Johnson & Johnson Aviation, the corporate flight department for the health-care giant based at Mercer County Airport in Trenton, N.J., had lobbied management for years to provide laptops for himself and the 15 pilots on his staff. About two years ago the company issued IBM ThinkPads to all of the J&J Aviation pilots as their primary computers, and Porter has been elated with the decision.

“The laptop is very useful to me both as a corporate pilot and as chief pilot,” he said. “From the pilot standpoint, I can check weather and do flight planning from my hotel room. As chief pilot, I use applications such as Microsoft Word and Excel for keeping track of pilot flight times and completing other paperwork.”

One application that Porter and his pilots often use on the road is Honeywell’s Global Data Center AFISCOM flight-planning software, which came bundled with the airborne flight information service avionics package on the department’s Gulfstream IVs. With AFISCOM Express v1.2 software installed on their laptops, the J&J pilots connect to the GDC computer system via the Internet to access flight planning and filing, weather reports, forecasts, and maps, aircraft messaging, flight following and airport reservation request services.

“The biggest advantage to using the laptop is that you don’t have to make numerous telephone calls to get weather and file a flight plan,” Porter said. “The only problem is that we can’t print out information on the road, so we still have to have flight plans faxed to the hotel.”

J&J Aviation uses Universal Weather & Aviation’s ground-handling and flight-planning services for international flights, and Universal’s FlightPak scheduling and data collection software at the flight department. Thus, one would think that the department would use Universal’s Internet-based UVflightplanner.com for domestic flight planning, but it doesn’t. The reason comes down to cost–Honeywell offers a certain number of flight plans free per month with its AFISCOM Express package, while Universal charges per flight plan.

More Flight-planning Solutions

Bruce Bressler, president of Frontline Aviation, a charter service operating King Airs and Piper Navajos out of Austin Straubel International Airport in Green Bay, Wis., said he uses his laptop mainly for “contacting home base” and for flight-planning and filing functions.

“We use flightplan.com [now Destination Direct at www.destdirect.com],” Bressler said. “They have a free service that is quite helpful, with a basic weather function.” In checking out flightplan.com, however, AIN found the demo database at Destination Direct quite limited; it contained airport information for Minneapolis, Milwaukee and other points around the Midwest (which is why it might be helpful to Green Bay operators), but I was out of luck when trying my local Phoenix-area airports. Purchasing the Destination Direct software costs approximately $295 for the IFR Professional version, with an additional $120 tacked on for the optional moving-map function.

Boyd Guayante, chief pilot for Phoenix-based Earnhardt Corp., uses a Toshiba laptop as his primary computer, logging on to Duats to obtain weather and file flight plans. A free service for all U.S. pilots, duats.com provides graphical temporary flight restriction data, weather briefings and graphical weather, flight planning and filing capabilities and airport diagrams, to mention a few.

“Duats will pretty much do all the flight planning for you,” Guayante said. “You have to enter aircraft profile information, but once that’s in, it will do the flight planning. It’s very thorough in its briefing, although I would like it to
be able to do more detailed performance profiling.”

Not everyone is hooked on using laptops for flight planning, however. Jerry Dixon, a contract charter pilot and instructor in Tulsa, Okla., flying everything from twin-engine piston Pipers to a Cessna Citation CJ1, uses Jeppesen’s JetPlan.com from his IBM ThinkPad 600X, but rarely takes his laptop on trips.

“I’m from the old school,” Dixon said. “I still like to talk to flight service to file flight plans and get their synopsis on the weather. There have been a number of times where individuals have filed their flight plans on their computers, gone out to their aircraft ready to copy their clearance and it was never filed.”

One reason that Dixon doesn’t take his laptop on trips is that he has had problems with his ThinkPad that IBM has been unable to fix. Still, even Dixon admitted that laptops can be useful for long trips, like the week-long layovers he periodically spends in Mexico or Las Vegas. “There are a lot of advantages to using a laptop, especially if you have one that’s reliable,” Dixon said. “Like getting your e-mail as you’re traveling and keeping records updated. As an instructor, I’m updating my training folders all the time, so I could sit in my hotel room for days and do a bunch of work.”

Once the flight planning and filing is done, the laptop can be more than just a heavy carry-on. Both Guayante and Porter mentioned using their laptops to provide entertainment solutions for themselves and their passengers.

“I have DVD capability on my laptop that we can utilize as a movie player in the back of the airplane,” Guayante told AIN. “Though our passengers frequently bring their own laptops with similar capabilities, if they forget theirs we can hook up mine so they can still watch movies. Likewise, if you’re on an overnight trip you can rent a DVD and watch it on the laptop.”

According to Porter, J&J Aviation also keeps DVDs available in each aircraft that the passengers “could play on the laptop” during long flights, and he watches DVDs on layovers as well. But he admitted that the type of laptop recreation he likes best is playing solitaire. “I’m hooked on Freecell,” Porter said. “I can spend hours playing if I’m waiting for my passengers or on an overnight trip.”

Porter also uses his laptop to get his e-mail on the road, a somewhat tricky proposition due to J&J’s high level of security. “Our company is very security conscious,” Porter said. “There’s a security key code that changes every three minutes. You have to enter the correct code to get into the company’s [Intranet] Web site, and sometimes you end up waiting to make sure the dial-up modem will connect before the code changes. Once you’re connected, you can access your e-mail and surf the Internet, but many company Intranet functions are still locked down.”

Most other pilots don’t have to play James Bond to get connected to their e-mail, which makes toting a laptop a little more palatable. Nearly every pilot interviewed who used a laptop mentioned access to e-mail and/or the Internet as a primary use of the portable computer.

“I used an older laptop when I flew with an airline to check weather and e-mail, and it was bigger, bulkier and more cumbersome to carry,” Guayante said. “And it was heavy. But now the laptops are small and lightweight, not to mention easy to pack. If you can afford it, I think every pilot should have a laptop. I know a lot of pilots who use Microsoft Excel to do weight-and-balance computations. If you have a laptop, you can do those kinds of things, which is a big time saver.”

To PDA or Not To PDA?

As passionate as some pilots are about their laptops, AIN found pilots to be lukewarm on PDAs. Guayante, for example, has a Hewlett-Packard Jornada PDA but “doesn’t find it effective.” One complaint heard from several pilots is the fact that most PDAs must be charged or synched nearly every day to prevent battery drain and data loss–a fact I can corroborate since I’ve lost data twice on my Compaq iPAC due to inadvertent battery drain.

“If a pilot is dedicated and uses it religiously, then it would probably work fine,” Guayante told AIN. “You have to be able to dock and back up the information daily. If you don’t, you run into problems with battery life, losing information due to waning battery power.”

Porter was issued an IBM WorkPad C3 PDA, which runs on Palm OS, that syncs with his IBM ThinkPad. He generally uses the WorkPad only on short trips as an electronic notebook. “I keep addresses and telephone numbers in the PDA,” Porter said. “Sometimes I’ll sync my e-mail too, but usually if it’s going to be a long trip that would allow me to do some e-mailing, I’ll bring the laptop.”

The number of programs available for pilots to download to the Palm or Pocket PC PDAs suggests that software vendors believe there is an untapped market. Certainly the extreme portability of PDAs makes their use more attractive, even compared to a lightweight laptop. Applications that can be downloaded to PDAs range from address book and contact software to electronic books (eBooks) and games to pilot-specific applications such as electronic logbooks and GPS moving-map displays.

“One of our pilots purchased his own PDA and uses Logbook Pro on it,” Porter told AIN. Logbook Pro, available from NC Software (www.logbookpro.com) in PC, Palm OS and Pocket PC formats, allows pilots to enter flight data on their PDAs and sync to their fully functional electronic logbooks on their PCs. “He finds it useful to be able to enter the data on the road and then sync it to the computer so he doesn’t have to enter it twice” said Porter.

Software developers are continually finding more ways to expand the usefulness of PDAs. For example, Sporty’s Pilot Shop recently launched E6B flight computer software for the Palm OS that provides calculating assistance for 19 aviation functions and 14 standard conversions. Converting a Palm-based PDA into an E6B flight calculator, the software can compute pressure and density altitude, and flight plan true airspeed (TAS), heading and groundspeed, leg time, fuel required and other required numeric data. The $19.95 software is not yet available for Pocket PC-based PDAs.

Palm OS-based software garners the lion’s share of the aviation PDA market, as evidenced by the links available on www.palmaviation.com, a Web site that lists links to software for Palm, Pocket PC and Windows operating systems. While this is not a complete listing, the site listed 31 applications for Palm OS and only four for Pocket PCs. The popularity of the Palm OS with users in general is evidenced by the number of applications available only in Palm OS, including the Airport eDirectory from the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, Auman Software’s Airline Pilot’s Daily Logbook, Cupitt Aviation Mobile Weather (for AvantGo users only), Fly v5.05 flight-planning and moving-map (for users with GPS capability) software and others.

Cellphones as an Electronic Option?

Dixon doesn’t intend to invest in a PDA, but has his eye on another type of electronic gadget that would take the place of a PDA–a Web-enabled cellphone.

“I’ve been watching the cellphones advertised by Sprint that have e-mail capability where you can take a photo with the cellphone and send it via e-mail to someone else,” Dixon said. “You can do things with the cellphone, then bring it back to the docking station and put the information on a CD.”

Although the particular digital camera cellphone advertised in the Sprint commercials (the Sanyo 8100) might be fun for sending pictures of the kids to grandma, usefulness to the corporate pilot beyond that is questionable. However, more cellphone and PDA manufacturers are getting together to fashion hybrids that combine these functionalities into one portable solution, and it may take something like the T-Mobile Pocket PC to entice pilots to take a second look at PDAs.

The T-Mobile Pocket PC, as the name implies, combines all of the functionality of a Pocket PC PDA, including Pocket Word, Pocket Excel and Outlook, with an integrated cellphone and wireless modem. While it might look funny to be talking into your PDA, a hands-free headset option will take care of that, and obtaining e-mail and surfing the Internet on the wireless modem would relieve a user of finding a dial-up connection. The unit costs $399, so price isn’t outrageous but the cellphone runs on the currently limited GSM network. If you live in New York, Los Angeles or one of the other top-10 major U.S. cities, it will work fine, but if you’re in “flyover” country you can’t even get a signal until the GSM network is as widespread in the U.S. as it is in Europe.

Are You Using that Electronic Gadget?

Laptops have proved their usefulness among some corporate pilots, while most remain skeptical about using PDAs. Combination cellphone/PDAs may stimulate that market, especially since there are dozens of applications available for download onto PDAs that seem, on the surface at least, likely to ease the corporate pilot’s paperwork burden.

“In today’s world, if you aren’t using a computer, you’re way behind the curve.” Guayante said. “Having one with you while you’re working and on the road puts you that much more ahead of the game.”