New EFB AC Disappoints and Delights Tablet-using Pilots

 - July 3, 2012, 6:00 AM

The FAA’s release of an updated Advisory Circular 120-76B covering electronic flight bag (EFB) guidelines is raising concerns about possible increased scrutiny of Part 91 Subpart F operators of business jets that weigh more than 12,500 pounds. The AC applies to Part 135, 125, 121, 91F and 91K (fractional) operators “who want to replace required paper information with an EFB.” Naturally, much of the interest surrounding the updated AC involves how it applies to tablet computers such as Apple’s iPad, which has gained a huge following among pilots in all segments of aviation, as well as Android devices. Companies that require an OpSpec for EFB use will need to follow the AC guidelines closely.

While there is no overt requirement that pilots flying under Part 91 must carry charts nor do they require authorization to use an EFB, Subpart F includes a rule (91.503) that mandates accessibility of “pertinent aeronautical charts.” Whatever form the charts are in must therefore meet FAA requirements, and this appears to be an avenue for FAA inspectors to be able to check that EFB-using 91F operators are complying with applicable standards as outlined in AC 120-76B.

The AC gets into more detail regarding 91F operators, pointing out, “Any Type A or Type B EFB application, as defined in this AC, may be substituted for the paper equivalent. It requires no formal operational approval as long as the guidelines of this AC are followed.” While this doesn’t mean that 91F operators need formal FAA approval, says Scott O’Brien, NBAA senior manager of finances and tax policy (and formerly part of the Operations Service Group), “It’s in your best interest if you’re 91F to make sure you’re complying with the [AC requirements such as] a battery maintenance plan, a backup, decompression testing and non-interference testing. Our position is there is nothing inherently wrong with the guidelines; it’s all to increase safety.”

O’Brien suggests that Part 91 operators using iPads or tablets in the cockpit “be prepared to document what your mitigation strategies are,” even though this isn’t required by regulation. “It’s in your best interest to document what your plan is. Using the guidance here, you can do that pretty easily.” Not having a documented EFB process could open the door to the FAA asking some tough questions during a ramp check, if a 91F operator is using only iPads or tablets to meet all aeronautical chart requirements. Of course, one could always simply carry a backup set of paper charts, but that eliminates the benefit of simple EFBs, getting rid of all that paper.

Industry Welcomes AC

Despite the possibility of increased FAA scrutiny of iPad-using pilots, industry experts are mostly happy about AC 120-76B. “It’s pretty reasonable guidance,” said O’Brien. “I think the FAA is moving in the right direction. This is an Advisory Circular; it isn’t a regulation. Certainly [operators] can come up with an alternative.”

“All in all we view AC 120-76B to be a major improvement over the former iteration,” noted Luke Ribich, managing director of Aviation & Systems Integration Group (ASIG), which helps commercial operators gain approval for iPad use.

“I’m impressed that the policy has moved in a solid, healthy direction,” Rick Ellerbrock, Jeppesen Aviation director and chief strategist, told AIN, “and give credit to [FAA] leaders Steve Morrison [since retired)], his replacement Brian Hint and Brad Miller, who have shepherded this document through a difficult process during a time of great technological changes and strong global user opinions and desires, across aviation market spaces. This is no small feat.”

Las Vegas-based corporate pilot Keith Gordon also appreciates the FAA’s efforts to help the industry keep safe. But he also worries that the FAA’s growing interest in applying the AC’s guidelines to Part 91F operators is going to obviate the reason that pilots use iPads, elimination of that heavy bag of approach plates. “In the final analysis, to go paperless, we’re going to need a lot of paper,” he said ruefully.

Considerations for Operators

Part 91F and commercial operators will have to consider a number of elements in adopting commercial off-the-shelf tablets as EFBs, among them:

• The iPad can be considered a Class 1 (not mounted) or Class 2 EFB (mounted and could be connected to a power supply, external antenna and data source). Class 1 and 2 EFBs can run only Type A and B software, although there is a provision to run Type C software per AC 20-159, to show airport moving-map display (own-ship on airport surface) information on portable EFBs. Type A software is non-interactive material such as manuals, weight-and-balance documents (not calculators), logs and so on. Type B includes more sophisticated applications such as performance and weight-and-balance calculating software, dynamic interactive electronic aeronautical charts “but without display of airborne aircraft/own-ship position,” datalink weather and so on. These are the apps that iPad and Android tablet users are flying with, such as Jeppesen Mobile FliteDeck, Aircraft Performance Group, Arinc, EFB-Pro, ForeFlight Mobile, WingX, Garmin Pilot and Flight Guide iEFB.

• The FAA wants users to evaluate the accuracy of Type B applications such as performance and weight-and-balance calculators to verify that they accurately replicate the original data. “Type B applications require a validation period to ensure the reliability of the EFB functions before the removal of the applicable paper documents,” the AC noted.

• Lithium batteries get significant coverage in the new AC. “The language allows the operator to pick from a few [options] to prove goodness, including reference to Underwriter Laboratories credentials as one option,” according to Jeppesen’s Ellerbrock. The FAA also wants operators to document lithium battery maintenance procedures. “All replacements for rechargeable lithium batteries must be sourced from the OEM and repairs must not be made.” (An iPhone 4 that burned during the landing phase of an airline flight in Australia had undergone an improper repair, in which a loose screw was caught between the battery and case.)

• Testing of tablet-type computers is another key issue for the FAA, which wants operators to ensure that they cause no electromagnetic interference and will not suffer a malady during a rapid decompression. An interesting change in AC 120-76B, however, is that the FAA now recommends representative testing, not a test of each unit to be used. Jeppesen has done decompression testing of each iPad model and makes the results available to Jeppesen customers so they don’t have to obtain costly testing elsewhere. Ellerbrock told AIN that Jeppesen sequesters tested iPads and doesn’t allow them to be used anymore, in case the decompression testing harms internal components. The AC recommends this.

Other sources of decompression testing include PaperlessCockpit, which sought donations to pay for the testing and provides the test results for a donation, and Aviation & Systems Integration Group (ASIG). Luke Ribich, managing director of ASIG, doesn’t agree with the FAA’s recommendation allowing representative testing. “If I were a traditional avionics systems manufacturer, I would be asking myself what the ramifications of this [recommendation] are as it relates to my current and future products. Or, at the very least, looking for ways to abate some of the FAA’s environmental testing requirements for my products. ASIG does not believe sampling in general to be an effective tool in mitigating failures; rather, we believe one-to-one testing is the safest form of rogue unit isolation,” he said.

• The AC emphasizes the advisory nature of datalink weather delivered on tablets, something that is important for pilots to understand and that is under growing scrutiny. The NTSB released a Safety Alert on June 19, warning pilots that Nexrad information can be as old as 20 minutes, yet the displayed time delay may be as short as a minute. According to the NTSB, “the age indicator displays the age of the mosaic image created by the service provider. Weather conditions depicted on the mosaic image will always be older than the age indicated on the display.”

• The contentious issue of display of own-ship position remains in AC 120-76B, and the FAA is adamant that own-ship display not be used while airborne. “In-flight depiction of own-ship position is classified as a major safety effect and cannot be formally authorized for use on a Class 1 or Class 2 EFB.” Most iPad apps include a means of switching off own-ship display on charts and approach plates, but the likelihood of a pilot turning that capability off if the FAA isn’t looking is slim. Pilots have a hard time understanding why the FAA considers datalink weather an advisory capability, but not own-ship display on an iPad. If own-ship display can add to situational awareness, then why should pilots not use it? “The thing I find tragically disappointing,” said corporate pilot Keith Gordon, “is not allowing own-ship to be displayed. A flight crew that is operating an aircraft with FMS in an Rnav environment, feeding their MFD in the panel, they have certified nav data being presented. I see no reason not to allow the supplement of moving maps [on an iPad].”

Comments

matt 's picture

Wait until a crash occurs that some bureaucrat from NTSB or the FAA blames on an EFB with the usual lawsuit ridden aftermath and then Apple and all the other EFB makers will dramaticly increase prices or simply advertise that their device is not for aviation use.

Also the FAA with their stand on own-ship display is nuts. I'm suprised that the NTSB hasn't said anything on this obvious safety and situational awareness issue.

Blake 's picture

You can't pull the Garmin GPS out of your car; and "suction cup it" to the wind screen of the airplane and use it for navigation. Thats basically what you're doing with the ipad. Lets be honest, the Ipad was never intended to be used in an airplane, for nav purposes. The Ipad uses an internet connection (wifi) which creates a delay. Its my belief FAA doesn't like the "own-ship" is because of the delay. If you're going 0.7 mach (roughly 7 nm a min.). It takes a min or two for the Ipad to refresh, you've already gone 7 - 14 miles. Not to mention its not installed, as part of the Aircraft Certification. The nav systems on airplanes use things like IRS, DME/DME, GNSS, systems to calculate its position down to a nats eye leash, instantaneously. Sure its not presented nice and neat on a moving map (older airplanes), but if pilots can't read lat and Long, they shouldn't be pilots.

Dave's picture

Own ship on the iPad is not wi-fi, wi-fi only models must use an external reciever to display GPS info, however the 3g versions all have an internal gps reciever. This technology is termed assisted GPS and GLONASS, the assisted portion only describes the fact that when available the unit will use wi-fi and cellular towers to enhance the speed of aquiring initial position. I don't think anyone is talking about using them as primary navigation, but mearly allowing ships position to enhance situational awareness. It's not that you can't lat/long or vor radial your position, it's mearly an ease of doing it thing.

Loren's picture

He's right, the iPad has its on GPS (unless it is wi-fi only). In two years of flying with certified Garmin GPS, the iPad and the Garmin never varied by more then 1 knot GS or 1 degree track and generally read the same.

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