With computers finding their way into the cockpit, youd assume that the days of paper charts and instrument approach plates are numbered.
That may be true but the paperless cockpit is still far from reality, at least based on my experience with Jeppesens JeppView, an innovative Windows-based program that stores Jepp plates on CD-ROM for immediate access.
Ive been a paid subscriber to JeppView since its inception about two years ago. Like other subscribers, I receive bi-monthly CDs containing all the approach plates for the U. S.
Not There Yet
Now Im not nave enough to think that a CD-ROM-based program would immediately supplant my paper charts. But I have to confess to some disappointment with Jeppesens initial efforts.
My experience with the system highlights the problems of integrating electronic data in a general aviation aircraft cockpit. (Even many airlines balked at Boeings offer of an electronic library for the 777, so were not alone.)
Still, I was hoping that if I kept current approach plates on CD, I could do away with at least some of Jeppesens paper charts. Unfortunately, this goal has eluded me.
I still cart around eight Airway Manual volumes-it used to be only six-in my airplane, as well as the current JeppView CD in my laptop computer. Why hasnt the CD system supplanted paper? The reasons are several.
Problem one is the computer operating system. In the ongoing anti-trust suit against Microsoft, even the experienced nerds from Redmond embarrassed themselves in court trying to tame Windows 95s unpredictable antics. What chance does a lowly user have?
Windows 95 on my computer is simply not a stable operating system. My computer-literate friends working in Unix and NT agree and they wonder why everyday users put up with Windows. My computer often needs to be rebooted and sometimes locks up. I certainly cant depend upon it to rapidly display a plate I might need in flight if the wind should shift and Im cleared for a different approach.
It takes several minutes for the thing to boot up, then open JeppView and retrieve a specific approach plate. Clearly, this is just not a workable way to do business. I dont believe anyone with computer experience is willing to bet a flight on a PC with Windows 95. NT is touted as the more stable operating system but how much trouble should a customer have to go to simply to get a program to work correctly?
Put It Where?
The second problem is a longstanding one: Where to put the PC in the cockpit. Simply displaying a plate on a PC screen doesnt mean its readily accessible to the pilot. Most laptops dont have sufficient contrast in bright sunlight. And where do you put it in the airplane? What will happen to the computer in turbulence?
The best solution Ive found is to put it on the copilots seat-assuming I dont have a copilot or my wife aboard. I still have to turn uncomfortably to the right to see the screen, which is not something recommended during flight in instrument conditions. If the seat is occupied, theres no practical place for a laptop aboard.
Unless its substantially magnified, an instrument approach plate needs to be at reading distance, not at panel distance. If you dont believe that, tape a plate to your panel and try to read the critical details. Unless your intermediate vision is very acute, you probably cant read most of the information. Therefore, a reduced Jeppesen plate, as might be displayed on a typical aviation-size radar screen, is essentially illegible. So until cockpits have wide-screen displays allowing the presentation of magnified plates, a panel display wont be practical.
Print It Out
Jeppesen suggests that you carry a portable printer and print out the plate you need ahead departing on a flight. You then use the paper plates as you normally would, clipped to your yoke or lapboard. It takes a high resolution printer with extra memory to handle an approach plate.
Before I added an additional 6 MB of RAM to my HP Laser printer, for a total of 8 MB, it couldnt print the entire airport diagram for a complex airport layout, such as OHare. And there was a considerable delay printing other less memory intensive plates. Worth mentioning is that this isnt my first experience with printing things in the cockpit. About 10 years ago, I flew with a demonstration model of a product called LaserTrack. It was a cumbersome device that included a rudimentary computer, a four-line LCD display, a thermal printer and a CD reader, all powered by a rechargeable battery.
For a short while, the company supplied CDs containing all Jeppesen plates for the entire U.S. I had my aircraft wired to supply the device, in case the battery ran down. It cost about $4000, not including the CD subscription and ate up expensive thermal paper. When all was said and done, it produced mediocre approach plates on shiny paper that spindled terribly and were utterly annoying to use. The size and weight of the LaserTrack exactly matched the valise containing my Jeppesen coverage. Bottom line: Net loss.
The decreased cost and increased capability of computer equipment and better displays gives JeppView a leg up on the old LaserTrack system, especially with regard to printing.
On the plus side, the quality of JeppView plates reproduced on a laser printer is excellent. The plates are as good as if printed by Jeppesen. You can purchase pre-punched paper from Jeppesen so the output rivals the printed plate. JeppView also offers the option of printing two plates per page, or you can purchase a hole punch so you can make your paper printouts match the rest of your plates.
As I learned with LaserTrack, portable printers raise a whole slew of problems. Many arent powerful enough or are very slow, much slower even than the time it takes to find a paper plate manually. Its not easy to boot up a computer, attach it to a printer, plug the printer into the cigar lighter-or hope the printers battery doesnt deplete before the needed plate is printed-load paper and print. Dont try this if youre single-pilot IFR. And if you have to print charts for an unexpected alternate, forget it.
Jeppesen, of course, realizes this and recommends charts be printed on the ground before the trip. The JeppView program facilitates printing a full trips worth of instrument Plates, including a wide swath of en route airports.
You thus take aboard a fistful of freshly printed plates that hopefully cover all contingencies. When you get home, just toss the stuff and print out new ones for your next trip.
Then again, with little additional effort-and less cost-you could do the same by taking only the paper plates you think youll need, leaving the unneeded volumes at home. But wait. Now you have re-collate the plates when you return. Its just easier to drag all the paper around with you in the first place. One advantage of JeppView printouts is you can print approach plates magnified nearly twice normal size. The larger plate is a definite nice-to-have, especially on night flights.
A college classmate who recently joined me on a flight admitted that he kept a large magnifying glass in the cockpit to read his plates, especially in poor light. Notice a patternhere? Were still singing the praises of paper.
Jeppesen is testing several portable screens and may soon offer or suggest ones that seem cockpit friendly. Unfortunately, none are likely to circumvent the dual problems of legibility and cockpit location.
I have seen several cockpit prototypes that simply project Jeppesen plates on a computer screen embedded in an instrument panel. Even this may not be ideal until the electronic format of the approach plate has been changed. Speaking of which, why rely on conventional plates in the first place? This gets into the philosophy of how instrument procedures are converted into an electronic medium to begin with. There are two methods: One is simply to digitize the paper plate as is, which is Jeppesens current strategy. The thinking here is that pilots will more readily accept the familiar.
Jeppesen is justly proud of its efforts to make instrument plates as user-friendly as possible and the ongoing conversion to the ATA briefing-strip format is typical of such pilot-friendly improvements.
However, this doesnt mean that storing paper plates on a CD for projection on a PC screen is the best solution. It could very well be that the better strategy is to merely present the relevant approach data in a tabular format of some sort.
Practically, only about half of a Jeppesen plate can be viewed at a time. To access all the information for an approach, you must scroll up and down the screen or view the upper and lower halves separately. Once again, too awkward. Paper is far superior.
Which raises the additional issue of en route and visual charts. How can they be best integrated into the cockpit? The same problems of format, size, display and location arise and thus far, no one has proposed an attractive solution, in my view. While I expect these problems will be solved, paper remains the medium of choice for most general aviation pilots.
I believe Jeppesen should consider a different solution and thats to present approach information rearranged to fit on a single computer screen. This may require a side-to-side configuration or a complete redesign of the approach plates to landscape architecture.
A pilot should be able to choose the information needed and reconfigure the chart within safe parameters. (In fact, you can now do that with JeppView. But its a force fit. Turning the computer sideways makes access to the keyboard awkward. )
A pilot might begin by removing information superfluous to a particular operation. If youre an approach category B aircraft, for example, theres no reason to clutter the display with minimums for categories A, C and D. If a local altimeter setting is to be used for the approach, theres no reason to depict the minimums used with a distant altimeter setting. If the glideslope is out of service, the glideslope-related information should be stripped from the depiction to accentuate the localizer data. Ultimately, could all of this be done via a softkey menu set-up? It would seem so.
Once youre on the road to a true electronically based depiction, you can begin to see some interesting enhancements. For example, why display frequencies at all?They should be electronically sent to the communications and navigation radios. Published minimum altitudes could be communicated to an altitude alerter and so on.
Of course, the final integration is simply to place all of the instrument approach information directly in front of the pilot on the primary electronic attitude and horizontal situation displays. That would make paper approach plates superfluous.
Youd insert the CD directly into the panel and all of the information would appear pictorially on the flight instruments; altitudes, approach course, holding and missed approaches.
Flying the procedure would simply become a matter of following an enhanced moving map. At that point, I will happily leave my eight Jeppesen binders at home.
The JeppView subscription comes with a full binder of printed information, including a manual for the CD, notams, bulletins, chart legends and so on. Jeppesen was late in committing some of this to CD format and the information provided doesnt quite match the paper coverage yet.
I suspect that most subscribers have simply added the CD subscription to their existing paper subscription. Jeppesen makes some allowances for combined services but CDs arent a big bargain compared with paper coverage. And they still arrive and must be dealt with every two weeks.
I am now using my JeppView CDs in the reverse manner intended. I leave my paper plates in the aircraft and take my PC and JeppView home, using it to brief for the flight, or when my writing requires review of a particular plate. The major benefit is that I no longer carry 40 pounds of charts to and from the airport.
Jeppesen deserves credit for its efforts to supply electronically based chart products. But as with so much transitional technology, the ultimate solution-if it ever arrives-maybe a long time in coming. For the short term, at least, the old way-paper-is still the better way.
-by Ian Blair Fries
Ian Blair Fries is an Aviation Consumer contributing editor. Contact Jeppesen at 800-621-5377 or www.jeppesen.com.