PDAs for Aviation

Aviation apps for Palm and Windows Mobile systems abound. Heres a review and analysis of what we think are the top drawer picks.

by Frank Bowlin

PDAs or personal digital assistants have become an all but indispensable business tool and, inevitably, theyve found their way into the cockpit. The list of PDA software seems boundless; one popular Web site (www.palmflying.com) lists no less than 40 different E6B calculator programs alone. Clearly, there’s a program out there for every purpose, some of which arent especially practical, whether youre PDA savvy or not.

In general, PDA software is a cottage industry sprinkled with a few major commercial providers. As you would expect in an evolving market, there are winners and losers, both in the shareware and commercial segment. So if youre interested in a PDA for flying, expect a Darwinian refinement as the market matures.

There’s so much stuff out there that in this article, we’ll only scratch the surface. Our intent here is to make you broadly aware of PDA capability, not to review each program in depth. Just as in desktop computers, there are two incompatible PDA platforms. The Palm operating system from 3Com-now the spun-off palmOne-was the first to thrive. The original device was called the Palm Pilot (no aviation significance) and these devices are commonly called Palms or Palm Pilots.

Microsoft, never a company to let a market go unexploited, jumped into the fray with Windows CE, now Windows Mobile. The iPAQ from Compaq-recently absorbed into HP-was the first popular Windows CE device. In general, the more ambitious programs are designed solely for Windows Mobile for use on pocket PCs or PPCs. Were not wading into the swamp of recommending either a platform or a specific device within that platform type. There are just too many to choose from. We recommend that you make a platform choice based on the available software and your own needs.

PDA software can do it all, from E6B calculations to full-up PDA-based EFIS or multi-function displays. In between, you’ll find features like flight planning, airport directories, checklists, timers, logbooks and so on. And the I-never-knew-I-needed-that award for ingenious if unlikely functionality goes to RPM from Sound. It can listen to your airplane and tell you the prop RPM. (Really, were not making this up.)

Most of the packages that purport to offer flight planning allow you to enter a trips waypoints, usually from a database, and the program will calculate all the standard stuff: wind correction, groundspeed, time, fuel and so on, for each leg. But these arent flight planners that will suggest a route between two endpoints, so were inventing a term to describe them: leg planners. For this review, were examining the E6B functions, leg planners and logbooks. In a future issue, we’ll take a look at moving map and flight display-type applications.

To flight test this software for Palm devices, we used an iQue from Garmin, a slick little PDA with a built-in GPS and city mapping software thats useful when driving. For the PPC software, we used a new HP iPAQ hx4705. At the time of this evaluation, this fast-processor, high-res screen PDA represents the cutting edge of PPC technology. However, since hi-tech devices have a half life barely longer than a carton of milk, the iPAQ hx4705 likely will represent mainstream capability soon-perhaps even by the time you read this. What follows are our top five picks in a field of dozens.

Pocket Aloft: PPC
Surprisingly, this is a unique program; the only stand-alone PDA logbook program we were able to find. There’s also a full-up PC version that you can keep in synchronization with Pocket Aloft. Supported data types are time, counter, decimal, money and number. Standard general fields include date, departure and arrival locations and times, role (PIC, SIC), student name, aircraft type and registration and FAR category. Standard day and night fields include flight time and cross country time and numbers of landings.

Pocket Aloft can be configured to keep time in decimal hours or hours: minutes. You can specify a default departure airport or instruct it to use the last destination airport and you can specify a default aircraft.Professional pilots can use Pocket Aloft to track duty times and show totals over the last 7 and 14 days. This is potentially useful but needs more versatility to accommodate the complex duty and rest time limitations of a typical professional pilot. While other logbook programs may offer more capability, were not sure what more you really need. For $30, this is a capable, impressive program.

FlightPal: Palm
FlightPal is meant for use in flight and because it has a pop-up soft-keypad thats large enough to use without the stylus, it can be. There are time functions-flight timer, time calculator, descent planner, simple up and down timers-that are unique in providing real-time progress data. FlightPal includes the typical E6B calculators for time/speed/distance, conversions, pressure/indicated/density altitudes and the like. It also has a simple waypoint database, giving only lat/lon. From that, it will calculate sunrise/sunset and moonrise/moonset data and leg data for a single leg, allowing for wind. There’s an excellent graphic holding pattern calculator, the best we tested. You specify the inbound or the outbound course and your approach course to the holding fix. It then draws the holding pattern and entry, properly oriented to north-up. The calculation and conversion forms work in any direction; enter the input data to see the results.

The weight and balance function is complete enough for most GA aircraft, but lacks more sophisticated capabilities such as zero-fuel and ramp/takeoff/landing weights. Tabular and graphic presentations show the results with planned and empty fuel. There’s also an interesting feature that weve not seen on any other handheld device. Ever wonder what your real TAS is? Fly a triangular course, enter your GPS groundspeed for each leg and FlightPal will calculate the wind and TAS.

Another unique function is a GPS-driven HSI. The programs documentation says this is a feature still in development with leg planning also planned. There are certainly more capable programs, but if you already own a Palm, for only $25, this is a good choice for a user-friendly E6B with emerging GPS capabilities.

CoPilot: Palm
CoPilot is a straight-ahead, easy-to-use leg planner. The aircraft configuration is extensive and consists of general information such as N-number/type, cruise and climb performance and fuel flows at various altitudes, to name a few, all of which can be stored and recalled.

The flights route is specified waypoint by waypoint, each of which must be available in the database. CoPilot doesnt include a meaningful database but an extensive data set is available from http://navaid.com.

Enter an altitude and wind data for each leg and CoPilot uses this to know when to apply climb versus cruise performance data and there’s also a button that replicates the altitude and wind data from the previous leg. The route form is tabular with each row representing a leg, with four columns of information for each leg. These columns default to distance, magnetic track, magnetic heading and cumulative ETE.

CoPilot includes a typical GA weight and balance calculator. Once youve configured the aircraft, you need only enter the weights for the current flight. The program then provides both numeric and graphical representations of the ramp, takeoff, landing and zero-fuel weights. Other programs tell you when youre either out of balance or overweight while CoPilot lets you see this by looking at the graphic of the envelope. (Better warnings for out-of-envelope conditions would be a nice feature.)

CoPilot is unique in this class of programs by summarizing the data needed to file a flight plan. Most of the data is automatically pulled from other places, if youve properly configured it. The only thing you need to do is review the data, specify IFR or VFR and the number of persons on board and file from the data shown. Finally, CoPilot will even estimate the cost of the flight based on the time and aircraft cost.

Most programs in this class offer a plethora of E6B-like functions but then limited leg planning. CoPilot is just the opposite – it offers a well-designed, integrated leg planner with all the calculations in the background. In fact, without using the leg planning capability, there’s precious little you can do with CoPilot. If you like this kind of detailed flight planning, CoPilot is an excellent aid.

FlyByE6B: Palm, PPC
This is a basic aeronautical calculator and is one of the few available for both Palm and PPC. We liked its live user interface – just enter data into the fields and it constantly calculates the results, even as you enter each digit. Conversions work the same way – enter the known units and it displays other units. To reverse the conversion, just enter the other units first.

When you pop up Mobile Windows data entry area at the bottom of the screen, instead of covering that part of the form, FlyByE6B shrinks the form to fit in the remaining space above the data entry area, a nice feature, although the results are often a bit too small for comfort. Also, it uses the standard Windows Mobile data entry instead of offering a custom pop-up numeric keypad with larger numbers, as do many of the other programs.

FlyByE6B has some useful functions the others lack. It will calculate critical point and point-of-no-return. It calculates descent rates and times for a non-precision approach to allow you to reach the MDA in a smooth descent from the FAF and a radius-of-turn calculator to compute smooth intercepts. (It doesnt take winds into account, however.)

The obvious missing functions are weight and balance and leg planning based on a waypoint database. The flight leg calculations are offered by a companion product, FlyByNav. At $15 and available in both PPC and Palm versions, this is an excellent value with some useful functions.

The companion software, FlyByNav Pro, automates the preflight planning of the sort you did as a student pilot and almost makes it fun again. You start by entering a flight plan, waypoint by waypoint. The software has a database that knows the location of common waypoints (airports, navaids) and based on aircraft performance and wind data, it creates a flight plan log for each leg.

By default, FlyByNav Pro enters the selected aircraft performance and wind values into all legs but allows you to individually change those values for each leg. So, although it doesnt know that fuel consumption for climb is higher and airspeed is lower, as CoPilot does, you can manually modify that data in the climb leg.

Many of the leg planners attempt to provide the summary trip data in a congested table. FlyByNav Pro improves on that with a simple summary page, then allows you to look at the detail for each leg in a page per leg. This approach is harder to get used to, but provides a better presentation. This program is we’ll suited for pilots who actively monitor their progress against the plan and can be easily updated in flight.

FlightCalc: PPC
FlightCalc is a complete E6B program. You want timers? Its got em. Timers are nicely arranged showing current time-of-day (in daylight savings time adjusted to local or Zulu) until you use them. You tap the start-up time and it freezes to record the time you started the engine. Tap the takeoff time to tell it youre taking off, likewise with the landing and shutdown. These capture the actual times-of-day and also show total time and air time display in hours/tenths or hours/minutes. Oh, and there are four general-purpose up/down/loop/down-then-up timers. Timer fans need go no further.

There’s a sparse airport directory that contains only the geo-data, runway data, frequencies and a crude graphic. It doesnt even list the state in which the airport is located. This database has been incorporated into the calculations so that you can directly ask it the distance, course and time from one place to another. The sunrise/sunset data show both local and Zulu times, but don’t correct for daylight savings time as the timers do. There’s a limited leg planner that uses the same performance and wind data for each leg.

FlightCalc has a capable weight and balance calculator that accommodates %MAC and max ramp, zero fuel, takeoff and landing weight limits. This is the most complete weight calculator that we tested. For renters, it even allows you to store different aircraft grouped according to type, sharing various station and total weight data, then individual aircraft within the type with their own empty weight and arm.

FlightCalc offers complete wind calculations, including wind vectors, where you enter your heading and the wind and it graphically and textually tells you the headwind/tailwind and crosswind components. This is handy for takeoff and landing calculations. It also includes a holding pattern calculator with a graphic. Unfortunately, the graphic is always oriented so that the inbound course is up on the display rather than north-up. Data entry is typically quite easy, with a pop-up numeric keyboard that can, with care, be used with only your finger.

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-Frank Bowlin worked in the computer industry before becoming a pilot for a regional airline. He lives in California.