Add-on hardware and software make cockpit work easier, but should be used with care.
By J Peter Berendsen
It’s getting dark, and the flight deck is equipped with carefully designed, type-approved instruments that, by regulation, must include a light dimmer for night flight and night vision.
However, the EFB displays, placed on both sides of the cockpit for each pilot’s benefit, are add-on equipment to our Boeing B747-8i, and are not included in these certification regulations that I will explain in this article.
The EFB display’s dimming function is not adequate – the screen is much too bright compared to all other (certified) flight instruments in our cockpit. It gets even worse when the same EFB screen is used to display the cockpit door access camera from the video surveillance system. Then it is almost daylight in the cockpit, and all night vision is compromised.
What’s in the old flight bag?
Sometimes, this reminds me of the old days, when everything was in paper form. Many of us remember – or even still use – the paper Jeppesen Airway Manual.
The dreaded corrections would arrive in the mail every week, and, depending on the size of your library, you could spend a whole afternoon sorting through the updates and inserting them into the binders. The good thing was that you looked at the updates and digested major changes at airports, and in airways and approach structures, right away.
At my airline, we had a personal copy of the manuals and one in the airplane that was updated by a dedicated department in the company. The manuals (more than 10 of them, plus forms, etc) were carried in a huge leather box called flight kit.
Despite its physical size, however, the flight kit contained very little information when it came to enroute emergency airports. These were just depicted on small simplified charts that we used to call “postage stamps.”
Functionality of the EFB
Today, a wealth of information is available in electronic format, and many times it’s displayed on just one screen that can assume different roles.
Some airlines and pilots just clip an iPad on their chart holder. The main application of the EFB is the route manual, with all the approach charts and low- and high-level enroute charts. Depending on screen size and manufacturer, the depiction of approach charts has become quite clear and useful, even though many pilots still print out the whole set of approach charts for a particular airport if they are not familiar with it.
A nice feature of the electronic approach charts is that some solutions also offer photographs or videos from the pilot’s perspective – for example, for visual or circling approaches that are uniquely challenging. That makes the recognition of landmarks and turning points easier. Enroute charts are a different story.
While fine for short-haul flights, I find the depiction of enroute charts in their electronic format for longhaul flights still lacking – details can only be seen when fully zoomed in, but then you lose overview and the big picture. The further you scroll out, the more information is not shown any more, such as airport or waypoint names.
I remember a Europe-to-South America flight where Dakar Oceanic ATC rerouted us via a number of oceanic intersections in the middle of the South Atlantic. We had no idea where all these points were. If we zoomed out, the waypoint names were not shown.
And, if we zoomed in, the area was too small and our waypoints were off the displayed chart. The search function only helped partially. So there is definitely room for improvement there. Other parts of the route manual, such as text-based regional regulations, work quite well in the electronic format.
Weight and balance
EFB or pilot devices (PDs) really shine in areas such as calculation of takeoff and landing performance to the standards required by aircraft and operator certification. Performance programs are usually certified and based on manufacturer data.
They don’t actually calculate the performance, but run through the manufacturer tables electronically and come up with a very precise result. This is really helpful when you get into contaminated runway operations or minimum equipment list (MEL) performance-limited flights, when you have to account for inoperative equipment.
The precision of the programs can also be used to derate the thrust for takeoff to just the amount actually needed, therefore reducing engine wear and reducing maintenance costs. The loadsheet application must be certified as well.
Instead of plotting your weights and center of gravity (CG) in a graph, you can enter your passenger, bag, cargo and fuel numbers into the PD, and it will give you an accurate loadsheet for your departure. Some applications even give you a nice graph with a curve that shows your takeoff situation, enroute situation as you burn fuel, and landing CG and trim.
It is important to remember that both takeoff/landing performance and loadsheet apps must be able to retain these records and create an audit trail. Your operator certificate will most likely require it, and your insurance will, too. Many solutions solve this by transmitting the data sets to a ground server before departure.
The weather overlay function becomes really useful if you have convective weather activity on your route. As these apps link up with weather radar servers on the ground, you can get a fairly good picture of what to expect. Of course, in US airspace we’ve had this service for many years, but in international airspace it’s fairly new.
I really like the feature when returning from Europe to MIA (Intl, Miami FL), or on a hot and humid summer day to JFK (John F Kennedy, New York NY) or IAD (Washington–Dulles VA). Also, when crossing the Intertropical Convergence Zone (ITCZ) close to the equator on the way to the southern hemisphere, these displays are very helpful and enable early reroutings around cumulonimbus (Cb) clusters.
On the North Atlantic or close to mountain ranges, jetstream-induced turbulence is always a concern. Recent apps are able to display predicted turbulence, not only in a chart or overlay format, but also in a vertical flight profile that includes winds.
The vertical profile view of your flight is very useful when selecting flight levels, and the added turbulence feature works quite well in my experience. Now you can really switch on the seatbelt signs before the turbulence starts, and not after the fact.
Good solutions receive continuous updates about the latest winds, and offer renewed updates on the best flight levels to choose for fuel economy and the associated fuel gains or losses. The turbulence depiction on top of that gives you great situational awareness for good decision-making.
Aircraft position and traffic For aircraft that do not have taxiway charts integrated into the map display of their electronic flight instrument system (EFIS), add-on software solutions for the PD may offer detailed airport taxiway charts with plotting of own aircraft position and ADS-B symbols of other aircraft.
Some even interface with the takeoff data application and warn you if you attempt to take off on a runway for which you did not do the performance calculation.
While all these features are great, I must add a word of caution – aircraft avionics have to meet strict certification standards for most larger aircraft operating under Part 25. But EFB solutions come in different classes.
Only a Class 3 EFB is a real piece of avionics, fully certified and usually well integrated into the cockpit ergonomics and installed by the manufacturer of the aircraft. These types of EFB have been treated like any other aircraft equipment, but are also less flexible when it comes to new software applications.
For this reason, many operators have chosen Class 1 or Class 2 EFB solutions, since these types only need an operational approval by the respective authority, which is much more flexible and leaves the details to the aircraft operator.
A Class 2 EFB is a fixed installation, meaning its bracket and power supply are certified, but not the EFB hardware or software itself. A Class 1 EFB is handheld and not certified at all. The iPad that you clip into a bracket is a Class 1 device, but it becomes Class 2 if you connect it to the aircraft.
In this case, the bracket must be certified. The reason I mention this is because issues such as the inability to dim properly, as mentioned earlier, along with reliability and instability, are the result of lack of certification. Class 1 and 2 EFBs are flexible, and you can update them with new features quickly, but they are not as reliable and trustworthy as certified Part 25 avionics.
This brings us to 2 other issues – safety and security. As we all know, lithium-ion batteries are a serious fire hazard. EFBs should have special batteries installed that have hardened separation layers inside the battery in order to reduce the risk of fire.
In addition, a procedure should be in place, maybe involving the cabin crew – if available – on how to remove a burning EFB from the cockpit and store it in a dedicated empty waste bin away from the flight deck. The other issue is cybersecurity. Certified avionics should be completely separated physically from other IT infrastructure on board, such as passenger communication and entertainment systems.
This is a delicate subject, as more and more data is transferred from the aircraft avionics (flight management system, health monitoring system, etc) to entertainment systems and ground maintenance management. The separation of cockpit and cabin computer systems was an issue in the certification of newer airliner models, and still remains a hot topic.
Some very useful smartphone apps that you may already have installed run completely independently, such as those dedicated to crew rostering, crew duty times, flight planning, and ground handling. However, what I am still waiting for is a complete mental transition in the aviation industry to digital processes.
Notams, for example, are written in the same teletype format as for decades past and follow the 28-day AIRAC publishing cycle. So, even on your most modern EFB or PD, you’re still basically working with a paper format as you try to decipher text on a computer screen against the sunlight.
It would be nice if every chart a pilot pulled up on the screen, such as an airport taxi chart, was always up to date. After all, the current date is shown, so technically it would be possible to show all Notams about construction projects, etc, that are applicable on the chart, eliminating the guesswork and the switching between screens as you try to read the Notams and the chart at the same time.
This would improve situational awareness for flightcrews – and, after all, that is the main purpose of these software applications. There are more items on my wish list, for example, larger display screens, but airplanes, unlike ships, will always have a limited amount of space.