by Chuck Kissner
Why is it that filing approach charts seems so tedious? Even if you didnt think it so bad in the past, the creeping volume of new charts is sure to push most of us to the breaking point. The bad news is that things arent getting much better. With GPS approaches proliferating, there are more charts than ever these days. And while were all grateful for the advances in GPS, the new approaches have generated yet more paper. Its impossible to keep all this stuff in or near the cockpit, so we have to rearrange things for each trip to ensure we dont come up empty-handed.
Cant technology solve this nagging problem? The promise is there but, alas, it remains unfulfilled thus far. Jeppesen, to its credit, has pioneered the dissemination of approach plates electronically with its JeppView software for desktop computers and FliteDeck, meant to be the airborne version of plate and chart management for the cockpit. Thats fine, as far as it goes. But what about those sophisticated pen-based tablet computers being pitched to pilots? A new one seems to turn up every couple of months. Do they represent a once-and-for-all solution to the cockpit paper hassle? We decided to find out by surveying the market and trying the relevant machines.
The effort yielded results best described as unimpressive. The companies who are trying to crack this market are mostly VARs (value-added resellers) who either use proprietary hardware or general-purpose computers to put together a package specifically for pilots. In general, the prices are high, the equipment rarified and theyre sold in microscopic volume compared to panel-mount avionics.
At least one company-Northstar-has been in this cockpit computer business for quite awhile while others are relative newcomers. But Northstar didnt even return our calls asking for product info and a demonstrator and the maker of another product-eFlightPad-told us a demo unit wouldnt be available for the foreseeable future. In other words, dont call us, well call you.
This combination of unreturned calls and inability to supply a demo unit gave us the impression that things havent progressed much in the tablet computer world and that these proposed suppliers were either early in the learning curve or capital constrained as they say in the investment world.
One bright spot in an otherwise dismal field is a product called the Paperless Cockpit. These guys actually seemed eager to ship us a unit for trial, even if it required a lot of to and fro paperwork to secure a short-term demo agreement. Fortunately, Jeppesen seems to have its act together on the software, but they depend on outside vendors to come up with the hardware.
Paperless Cockpit, besides having an appropriate name, is a company that utilizes a couple of the most popular hardware platforms suitable for the Jeppesen in-cockpit chart software.
Both platforms are manufactured by Fujitsu, long a leader in pen-based, small and light PCs. An exception to our other experiences, Paperless Cockpit was professional in handling our request for an evaluation unit, although we thought obtaining one could have been more streamlined.
The unit evaluated was a Fujitsu LT P-600 pre-loaded with Jeppesen FliteDeck software. Also included is a copy of Jeppesen JeppView software. FliteDeck is tailored for display of charts on a computer screen for use in the cockpit.
And while JeppView can also be used this way, its more applicable for flight planning and printing of charts from the desktop, tasks which FliteDeck doesnt handle. Cost of the unit as tested was about $5000, plus an $839 annual charge to keep the plates up to date via CD-ROM. You can nibble that annual fee down by buying smaller coverage areas.
The computer was also optionally configured to run on Microsoft Windows 2000, rather than Windows 98. We liked the combination of the two Jeppesen programs and the relatively stable Windows operating system.
This also permitted the loading of other programs, such as flight planners, word processing, e-mail, and other applications one could use while traveling. However, as with all pen-based computers, if you wish to use this device as a conventional computer, youll have to lug around a remote keyboard and, if you want one, a mouse. Theres an easy-to-use and reliable infrared port for the keyboard and a bracket to prop up the screen so it can be used on a desktop.
If you have a portable GPS-or any GPS, for that matter-you can feed position data into the computer and since the plates are geo-referenced, your position along the approach will be depicted right on the plate.
Our trial unit was used on a fairly intense trip over several days which involved stops at a number of airports in several states. We were pleasantly surprised at the ease and the intuitive nature of the operation of the Fujitsu computer and the Jeppesen software.
We initially tried the combination without reading the instructions and were completely successful in pulling up the proper charts for our first arrival airport.
Menus are arranged in a logical manner and require very few keystrokes. Well, actually it doesnt require any keystrokes at all. This is a pen-based computer, so using one of the supplied pens to tap the screen in the appropriate area effortlessly commands all operations. In a pinch, you can also use a fingernail. Honest, the instructions say its okay to use your fingernail.
Getting That Chart
There are a few ways to get to the chart you desire but the most straightforward is to select a screen to search for airports. Another screen appears with a touch-screen keyboard from which you tap out the airport code or name. Then a screen pops up with a complete selection of all charts for that airport. You then merely tap on the icon for the desired chart and it pops up in a few seconds. When we tried this, we were somewhat stunned: it worked perfectly the first time. This obviously couldnt be a true Windows-based computer. Certainly, there must be some mistake.
If you want to see another chart for the selected airport, you back up to the previous screen and select from the list. You can also save the airport selection while you fly off to another airport, allowing a quick return back to the first selection.
One nice feature is the ability to zoom in on any part of a chart to see it more clearly. This is a must with the more complex airport layouts, especially the aerodrome diagrams, where detail is otherwise lost in a jumble of numbers and symbols. If GPS position data is shown, you can see your position relative to taxiways, a real plus.
We found that battery life was three to four hours, so we decided to run the unit on ships power at all times. We suggest that if you dont have ships power, youll want to add it. The computer will operate on 120 volts AC and on 14 to 30 volts DC.
Life is full of compromises. And so is computer design. Despite how well the unit works in most conditions, before you spend your money, know about a couple of issues that arose during our testing.
When you pull up a large multi-page chart, youll initially see only a portion of it on the computer screen. Lots of arrival and departure procedures fall into this category.
The software has ingenious ways of handling this. The pen can be used to drag the chart across the screen so that you can view any part of it (but not all of it) at one time. You can also rotate the chart, which allows more of it to be viewed depending on the chart orientation.
You can also shrink the chart so all of it shows at once, but this doesnt work well since the text becomes less readable as it shrinks in size. We never really got comfortable with the multi-page charts. Despite the clever ways devised to handle them, we found this aspect of this system difficult to use.
This was especially true of the departure procedures; fiddling with the computer was the last thing we had time for while executing a complex departure.
Our suggestion is that if you really rely on the electronic charts for arrival and departures, plan on flying as a crew so your copilot can mess with reading the chart. It will take that much effort to run the machine and interpret the chart.
For that reason, these things wont be a good fit in every cockpit, neither physically nor in terms of division of labor. Speaking of the units size, we did our trials in a Citation II and while its not the roomiest cabin, its hardly cramped when compared to light aircraft. We struggled to find a location that didnt block something important and which allowed us to see the screen.
The Fujitsu LT P-600 was about as large a unit as could be handled in this cockpit. The larger ST-3500 is also available but were sure it would be a burden as its both larger and heavier.
Seeing is Believing
One thing we were particularly interested in was the readability of the computer screen in bright sunlight. We figured that the display of a general-purpose computer-which the LT P-600 certainly is-would wash out on a bright, sunlit day.
Actually, it turned out that the reflective (transflective, its called) screen on the LT P-600 was at its best when the sunlight was brightest. In fact, we found that positioning it right in direct sunlight was best. At night, the backlit display was adequate, but we needed to set brightness at its highest level to read the display without effort.
The worst condition was actually moderate light, because the computer backlighting was too weak and the reflective screen lacked sufficient contrast.
Generally, we were surprised at how well it worked, but if your medical says you must wear corrective lenses, youll need em. Its not perfect.
Finally, the bad news about those paper charts. Products like this arent going to make them go away yet. Youll have to carry paper unless you have two computer systems. According to Part 91, instrument plates are required only if youre flying an instrument approach procedure and the provision for carrying up-to-date charting in general applies only to larger aircraft or for-hire flights.
Legally, these things occupy a gray area, since the regulations dont specify paper charts. As for practicalities, one solution is to carry the NACO booklets up to date to whatever degree you deem appropriate. For-hire operations will have to work the details through local ops inspectors and FSDOs.
One of the greatest skills a pilot can possess is the ability to rationalize anything. Which leads to the primary axiom of aircraft ownership: if you wanted to save money, you wouldnt be a pilot.
Perhaps you can see where were going with this. The Paperless Cockpit is a great gadget which works mostly as advertised. If you have a spare $5000, youll definitely want one and the fact that it works as a superb general- purpose computer completes the rationalization.
We liked what we saw. The computer is easy to use, robust and seemingly reliable. But, alas, at five kilobucks and given the warts the system has, we dont think it represents a good value. Its too much money for too little payback, in our view.
Further, were put off by the lack of response we got from this niche of the industry in general. That suggests to us that, at best, this is a trial-balloon market.
Even Paperless Cockpit required a contract to borrow a demo. Other avionics companies merely ask for a shipping address. If the response before the sale is weak, whats after-the-sale support going to be like? We think its a fair question. In the end, we would take a pass on this technology. It may improve in quality and decline in price but for now, we just dont think its there yet.
Contact- Paperless Cockpit, 901-751-2687, www.paperlesscockpit.com; eFlightsystems/eFlightPad, 972-742-8441, www.eflightsystems.com; Northstar Technologies, 800-628-4487, www.northstarcmc.com; Jeppesen, 303-799-9090; www.jeppesen.com.
Chuck Kissner flies a Citation II out of San Jose, California. He hates filing charts.