The complexities of flight planning, weather routing, and navigation are easier to manage with pilot-centric apps.
By J Peter Berendsen
ATP/CFI. B747-8i, B737, MD11
The purchase of a Jeppesen leather flight kit was a rite of passage for many young aspiring pilots as we made our way through flight school.
Made from heavy leather and notable for its lack of wheels, it was made to carry a full load of Jeppesen flight manuals with charts and other relevant information. Of course, the binders were made from heavy leather themselves.
The gravity of a pilot’s responsibility was certainly made clear to us as we schlepped these bags through ever bigger airport terminals. But it was the only way to ensure that we flew carrying the most up-to-date information on our flight.
The ring binders were updated by hand about once a week. When the dreaded brown envelope arrived in the mail, we knew it was time once again to sit down, find out which charts needed to be replaced, and insert the relevant pages.
On the positive side, we stayed current with developments at many airports. While we could not read and digest all the new information provided, we did study the charts of the airports into which we flew frequently.
Electronic flight bags
When the first electronic flight bags (EFBs) were introduced at my airline in the late 1990s, we were all skeptical, especially when it came to takeoff and landing performance calculations.
And yes, these early software applications did have major glitches, especially when runway conditions were difficult, such as a contaminated surface.
Moreover, the electronic adaptations of the aircraft and flight operations manuals were also unwieldy. They were essentially assembled from scans, making them difficult to read and navigate, while images were small and could hardly be viewed.
But those days are long gone. My current flight kit has wheels, and it’s designed with pouches for tablets and/or smartphones, and most information provided to pilots comes in quite acceptable digital formats.
Types of EFB
The regulatory environment evolved accordingly with the introduction of better devices and software. Originally, EFB hardware/software systems were defined in 3 classes. Class 1 EFB systems did not require airworthiness approval. They had to be stowed for takeoff and landing, and were limited to providing supplemental information only.
Class 2 EFB systems required a limited airworthiness approval. They could be connected to aircraft power and to the aircraft’s data link port, and could exchange data with aircraft systems, enabling them to make interactive performance calculations.
Finally, Class 3 EFB systems were installed in the aircraft. These required a supplementary type certificate (STC). Depending on the model, it could connect to the Global Positioning System (GPS) or the aircraft’s flight management system (FMS). Class 3 EFB systems could combine “own position,” the locations and speed vectors of other aircraft, plus graphic weather information, into a single moving map display. Class 3 EFB systems were usually offered by the aircraft manufacturer as an option.
Today’s regulations (AC 120–76D – Authorization for Use of Electronic Flight Bags) consider the simpler concept of portable or installed equipment to accommodate increasingly complex systems integrating both installed and portable equipment.
According to its own literature, AC 120–76D is intended for all operators under 14 CFR (Part 91, 91K, 121, 125, or 135) who want to replace required paper information or use other select applications as part of EFB functionality.
In addition, it sets forth an acceptable means (although not the only one) of obtaining Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) authorization for the operational use of EFBs.
EFB equipment components supporting EFB applications are considered installed when they are incorporated into aircraft type design, or as a proper alteration.
All other components supporting EFB functionality are considered portable, regardless of how often they are removed from the aircraft.
Even portable installations will usually require mounting brackets, power supply, and data exchange arrangements with aircraft systems. It is important to keep in mind that airworthiness regulations only apply to these installed components. The actual portable device is not certified as far as airworthiness is concerned.
Types of EFB software
Applications that run on EFBs are classified according to their potential impact on safety.
Type A applications are good for document storage and retrieval only.
Type B applications are used for aircraft performance calculations, display of aeronautical charts without actual aircraft position, electronic checklists, aircraft operational communications, weather information, and aircraft video camera surveillance displays.
And Type C applications enable active control of the aircraft in flight, duplicate any certified avionics system, or are able to interact with other aircraft systems, displays, or controls. Type C applications would have to undergo full airworthiness certification. There are currently no Type C apps.
The apparent ease of use of aircraft performance apps should never let pilots underestimate the safety impact and significance of their calculations. Formal procedures must be in place to crosscheck entries and results. I know of several “near misses” when aircraft took off at heavy weights with wrong performance data – off sometimes by 100 tons or more. There are also some well-documented accidents where wrong EFB calculations were the major factor.
On October 14, 2004, a Boeing 747-200F crashed on takeoff from YHZ (Halifax NS, Canada), and was destroyed by impact forces and a post-crash fire. The crew had calculated incorrect V speeds and thrust setting using an EFB. And on March 20, 2009, an Airbus A340-500 operated by Emirates commenced a takeoff roll for a normal reduced-thrust takeoff on Rwy 16 at MEL (Intl, Melbourne VIC, Australia). Rotation for takeoff resulted in a tail strike and runway overrun. Insufficient thrust had been set based on an incorrect flightcrew data entry into the EFB performance calculation.
Useful pilot apps
For flight preparation and planning, FltPlan.com has been one of the most useful tools for pilots for years. Most FBOs have the shortcut to FltPlan.com on their pilot lounge computers. I am using it myself for my personal flights, and I am always impressed by the new features the FltPlan.com team introduces year after year.
As you get into your aircraft after flight planning, the FltPlan Go EFB app for pilots brings features from the website to your iPad, iPhone, or Android device. The app shows graphical flight plan routes and gives online, offline, and inflight access to nav logs, approach plates, weather briefings, high-resolution/zoomable sectionals, victor low charts, and jet high charts. You can view approach plates or maps with weather, metars, and wind layers.
The FltPlan Go app connects to most ADS-B receivers and multiple avionics systems, including many Garmin products. Other features include geo-referenced approach plates, taxi charts, airport diagrams for the US and Canada, SIDs and STARs with transitions, weight and balance, and aircraft checklists.
ForeFlight, another big name in pilot software, offers ForeFlight Mobile. Boeing owns both Foreflight and Jeppesen, which leads to a very nice integration of Jeppesen approach charts with the ForeFlight software functionality. Jeppesen’s worldwide library of charts is available as an option in all ForeFlight Mobile subscription plans, making it an all-in-one solution for planning, briefing, filing, flying, and logging flights.
ForeFlight offers flight planning, charts, weather, airport information, document management, flight logging, and more. ForeFlight also offers a wide range of VFR, IFR, and specialty charts, including ICAO charts, terminal area charts, VFR flyways, helicopter, and Grand Canyon charts. I personally like the global vector-based aeronautical map. Data-driven map layers provide information at every zoom level, including embedded airport diagrams. Global forecast wind speed, direction, and temperatures at multiple altitudes and times are shown in animated weather layers. US and global icing and turbulence layers display forecast weather along the planned route.
While you are sitting on the ramp waiting for your clearance, you can get a feel for the traffic flows as ForeFlight Mobile also intergrates with FlightAware to stream live global aircraft traffic directly. You can analyze airport activity or check on an active flight.
Just as in FltPlan.com, ForeFlight offers the ability to file IFR or VFR flight plans in seconds from within the app or on the Web. The company’s fixed connections to the Aeronautical Fixed Telecommunication Network (AFTN) ensure reliability in transmitting filed flight plans, even in international airspace. A global terrain database, checklist, and flight log functions make this a very useful tool for many pilots.
As many aircraft are fitted with Garmin navigational equipment, the Garmin Pilot mobile app may be a good choice due to its seamless integration with other Garmin systems. When connected with compatible Garmin avionics, the Garmin Pilot app transfers flight plans between avionics and your mobile device. Compatible systems can share traffic, weather, and GPS with the app. Engine data from appropriately equipped avionics can also be streamed to Garmin Pilot in flight, allowing a review of engine performance. A flight log function and weight and balance calculations with preloaded aircraft templates make this a very useful app.
Aviation is serious business, and safety regulations are written in blood and tears. The solid approach American Aeronautics brings to its iFly Weight & Balance app is therefore reassuring. The company has produced graphical weight and balance plotters for all aircraft since 1981. The plotters are manufactured on site from black anodized aircraft grade aluminum, and all the information on them is computer engraved. The graph paper can come in several formats. This classical vector method has been used and approved by FAR 91, 135, 121, 125, and 141 operators.
The iFly Weight & Balance app for iPad and iPhone takes the same serious but simple approach to a mobile device. American Aeronautics presets the starting weight and center of gravity (CG) of your aircraft, guaranteeing the correct starting point. Now you add your passengers, baggage, takeoff fuel, and landing fuel. If you are out of limits, a warning is shown, and you’ll have to reshuffle.
The software is licensed to you and your aircraft serial number, so there are no CG limits to program, and no fuel data to enter. All this is done by American Aeronautics before delivering the app.
Bizjet OEM apps
Aircraft operational and technical documentation itself is already a heavy load, and keeping it updated in paper format is tiresome and prone to error. This is why business jet OEMs have started to offer their documentation as apps – some integrating other useful functions for pilots in the process.
Dassault introduced FalconWays to allow Falcon pilots to select the most fuel efficient route using updated global wind data and bizjet model-specific performance. FalconWays is an app on Dassault’s FalconSphere iPad EFB, and is compatible with Jeppesen and Universal flight planning tools.
FalconWays allows pilots to download worldwide wind information and combine it with imported operational flight plans, in-house performance tools, and vertical, lateral and Mach number optimization data in order to recompute the flight plan. Falcon jets equipped with satcom can update the database enroute on long flights to further optimize the trajectory. Vertical and lateral trajectory optimization can be carried out before or during the flight.
Dassault first rolled out FalconWays on the new Falcon 6X twinjet. The app will be available on the Falcon 8X and 7X before the end of 2024, and on the Falcon 2000LXS/S by early 2025.
While the Gulfstream PlaneBook app offers all aircraft and technical manuals as well as the MEL, the OEM’s PlaneBalance app allows pilots to compute a weight-and-balance report and elevator trim setting before each flight. The app is configured to work with most Gulfstream large cabin aircraft, including the G-IV, G-V, G450, G550, and G650.
The Textron 1View, Bombardier Flight Deck 3, Pilatus Customer Service, and Embraer TechPubs apps are useful for flightcrews and technicians. These apps focus on aircraft operating and technical manuals. Having all official aircraft documentation at your fingertips is certainly a big improvement over carrying a heavy leather flight kit across the tarmac.
Just remember – flying is only as safe as the effort you make to get the right information and the sound decisions that follow a solid data analysis.