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Connected flight decks

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PEDs and connectivity promote efficiency and safety.


By Shannon Forrest
President, Turbine Mentor ATP/CFII. Challenger 604/605, Gulfstream IV, MU2B

ForeFlight can display ground and airborne traffic using ADS-B or an Internet-based signal. The output can be delivered to an iPad or other portable device in the cockpit.
Commonly, connectivity and Wi-Fi are used as interchangeable terms. However, they have distinct meanings. Connectivity is the link between the aircraft and an Internet service provider (ISP). The service consists of an uplink and downlink sent through a ground-based antenna or beamed to and from a satellite.

Once the signal reaches the aircraft, it is processed by a router which serves as a centralized communications hub for a myriad of devices. And Wi-Fi, on the other hand, is one wireless way the router connects a peripheral device to the signal provided by the ISP.

Flying without PEDs

The Apple iPad is the most ubiquitous Wi-Fi portable electronic device (PED) used for accessing the Internet from the cockpit. The iPad – and the requisite connectivity – are so beneficial that it’s hard to imagine our world without it.

But pilots who obtained their commercial certificate well prior to 2010 – the year the first iPad entered the marketplace – remember the days of manually removing expired paper terminal charts from a binder and replacing the old ones with updated versions.

Pilots always dreaded seeing the thick envelope from Jeppesen arrive in the mail because they knew what it meant. It was a required update, and a time-intensive cycle of remove, replace, and reorder was about to repeat itself.

In the corporate aviation world, some pilots didn’t give this job the attention it deserved, and inadvertently violated the alphabetic order rule when placing new charts back in the binder. The next pilot to fly the aircraft had the potential to become irritated when he couldn’t find the chart for the ILS 35R 100 miles from APA (Centennial, Denver CO) because someone had erroneously filed it under DLH (Duluth MN).

Just stuffing the entire envelope in the binder without removing the updates was more egregious. Even if it’s unlikely you’ll ever fly the LOC RWY 35 (ADF required) into CKV (Clarksville TN), you’re still required to do all the updates to be legal.

Planning a last-minute corporate flight without a dispatcher used to mean laying a series of enroute charts across the table in the flight planning room at the FBO. Some FBOs had an enroute chart plastered to the wall, with a kite string dangling from the home airport, and rings appearing from the airport at 100-nm intervals.

To get a rough idea of the enroute time, pilots placed one end of the string on the destination and measured the length of the string using the rings to come up with an educated guess on groundspeed. Then they divided the string distance by that number.

The last step was calling the flight service station (FSS) on a land line and talking to an actual human to obtain a full weather briefing and file a flight plan. Weather briefers have a way of putting their own slant on raw data.

During the heyday of getting weather briefings over the phone, subjectivity could work its way into the briefing. Experienced pilots will attest that, if they called back 5 minutes later and got another briefer, the “doom and gloom” scenario portrayed by the previous briefer might be “sunshine and daisies,” or vice versa.

Sometimes the quality of the briefing depended on the clarity of one’s penmanship. For example, if the responsible pilot had illegible handwriting, it could be hard to tell if the alternate was forecast to be “600 scattered” or “600 broken.”

ARINCDirect simplifies flight planning by using intuitive electronic charts that can be customized by adding layers of information.

Computers and DUAT

Early attempts to simplify flight planning and weather briefings were all computer-based, and few pilots at the time used a laptop in the cockpit. Most FBOs eventually installed a communal desktop computer and connected it to the direct user access terminal (DUAT) system.

Designed in 1989, DUAT could deliver a digital weather briefing and file flight plans electronically. It could be used in lieu of calling the FSS, so it was considered a legal means of obtaining weather. The DUAT system, although state of the art at the time, could never keep up with the appeal of 3rd-party applications, and shut down in 2018.

FSS can still be accessed online (for free) at 1800wxbrief.com, but it simply lacks the “wow” factor that’s perceived as important to a generation of pilots raised on a regimen of constant connectivity and social media.

The game changers

The cockpit revolution started by the iPad is a result of combining the latest technology, continuous connectivity, and an intuitive approach to flight planning and monitoring. Coupled with electronic enroute and terminal procedure charts, PEDs see widespread use by the airlines and corporate flight departments.

Jeppesen FliteDeck Pro X and ForeFlight are the 2 most common applications used to manage charting and flight planning. Jeppesen is owned by Boeing, which also acquired ForeFlight in 2019. The applications are remarkably similar, with FliteDeck Pro being more geared to airline operations.

ForeFlight, on the other hand, was developed initially for general aviation (GA), but has grown precipitously into a versatile tool for corporate flight departments. Integrated Jeppesen charts are a given, as well as multiple layers of weather (radar summary, winds, satellite imagery, and turbulence) that can be overlaid on a chart or map.

Once a pilot gets used to Internet-based weather delivered to the aircraft, they wonder how they ever managed to get around cells using conventional aircraft weather radar alone. One of the most useful tools for pilots in a digital cockpit is the ability to request additional information, or “deep dive” into a topic.

For example, most icons are “hot linked,” in that tapping on them brings more depth and detail. In the case of weather, intuitive and unambiguous depictions aid with decision-making and allow objectivity not always possible when receiving a weather briefing verbally.

Charts are updated, removed, and replaced simply at the touch of a button.

The Viasat network covers more than 90% of the airways most preferred by business aircraft operators. In the future, the ViaSat-3 constellation will add more coverage.

Safety first

Arguably, the best safety feature to come out of cockpit digital applications is the moving map with current aircraft position displayed continuously along with approaching hot spots.

In addition, runway incursion prevention has always been an issue, and these apps are a tool to prevent inadvertent crossings without a clearance. Internet-savvy pilots know there are a few prominent websites that broadcast aircraft position.

FlightAware, through an agreement with ForeFlight, can overlay the position of other aircraft directly onto the ForeFlight displayed map. Rather than having to go to a web page to view traffic, a pilot can merge the website information with the current page on the iPad.

Traffic position is derived via automatic dependent surveillance – broadcast (ADS–B), but when an ADS-B signal is not received, the application will use Internet access to denote the position and other relevant info of aircraft nearby, like speed, heading, altitude, and callsign.

The connectivity portion currently works with the GoGo Air-To-Ground (ATG) network, or satellite service from Satcom Direct.

Bizav-oriented features

ForeFlight has some additional options that corporate flight departments may find useful. JetFuelX, for example, is a search tool that finds the lowest fuel price available.

This information is accessible on the Internet, but the unique feature of JetFuelX is that it applies contract prices and calculates fuel discount program memberships into the equation.

At first glance, an Internet-posted fuel price may seem more expensive, but it could actually be cheaper when lesser-known variables are considered by JetFuelX. In partnership with Honeywell, ForeFlight enables Pilatus pilots to upload flight plans and weight and balance info directly from ForeFlight into the Honeywell Apex flight management system (FMS).

In addition, a partnership with Satcom Direct allows a corporate pilot to receive an airline-style pre-departure clearance (PDC) at 70 airports in the US. If the flight plan is filed through the ForeFlight app, the user receives an IFR clearance via e-mail, and text message 20–30 minutes before scheduled departure time.

No verbal contact with clearance delivery is necessary or required. Then, 15 minutes before the scheduled departure time, the current ATIS is sent via e-mail and text message. Collins Aerospace ARINCDirect can be used to create and modify flight plans, access interactive aeronautical charts, compute weight and balance, and conduct runway analysis while considering the specific configuration of the customer’s aircraft.

Pilots have the option to use electronic oceanic plotting procedures, which is less cumbersome than the old school oceanic grid paper charts. Graphical weather overlays, including radar, turbulence, icing, and winds, can be applied to the map.

The application works in conjunction with the Collins ARINCDirect flight planning subscription. Which app or software a pilot prefers tends to be a function of the law of primacy.

Collins is a stalwart of the industry, and many corporate pilots got their professional start using a Collins FMS or avionics suite. They appreciate the familiarity and maintain a preference for the brand across a multitude of devices.

Connectivity providers

No matter how good a cockpit application is, it’s only as effective as the signal (bandwidth) to and from the aircraft.

Viasat maintains that it’s important to have a connectivity solution that operates efficiently in the current environment, while also allowing for future technological advances and trends. This means the ability to use the Ku and Ka band – Ku being more widespread, whereas Ka provides higher capacity.

The Viasat Global Terminal 5510 is a dual band system that makes use of the Viasat-2 Ka band service and allows for higher-bandwidth Ka as that frequency becomes more ubiquitous in the future. Viasat Select uses the direct service model to tailor connectivity solutions based on the needs of the operator.

It’s analogous to having an à la carte residential streaming service in lieu of the all-or-nothing approach typical of cable TV providers. The company realizes that a one-size-fits-all approach is incongruent with most flight departments, so it can customize plans with flexible coverage, price, and performance options.

The ViaSat-3 constellation of satellites will further increase Ka band capacity and speed well into the future. In the ATG space, SmartSky continues to make strides with its low-profile antennas combined with patented beam-forming technology that gives each aircraft its own signal.

SmartSky currently holds STCs on Citation XL/XLS, Gulfstream G350/450/500/GIV-X (G450)/GV-SP (G550), Challenger 601/604/605/650, Embraer EMB-135/140/145, and King Air 200/300/350 aircraft, with plans of adding more in the future. The technology provides for extremely fast delivery, with monthly subscription plans covering the range from 5–50 Gb.

Although routers are a necessary component of airborne connectivity, they are the last thing a flight department wants to spend money on – that is, until there’s a proven advantage and return on investment. The Honeywell GoDirect router costs 70% less than previous-generation routers, is 65% smaller, 45% lighter, and uses 35% less power.

An older legacy system can be swapped out with the GoDirect modem in 30 minutes. So, what changed from the antiquated systems of 10 years ago? Honeywell engineers figured out that most of the cost, energy consumption, and bandwidth loss came from the processing embedded within the router.

They surmised that, since every device using the router contained a processor, they could offload processing to the devices and utilize ground stations for what was left. The technical term is “distributed processing,” but the result was a router that did exactly what it was designed to do – move data – and do it fast.

Conclusion

With any technology come the questions “How do we use it?” and “Is it more beneficial than deleterious?” There are definite safety and efficiency benefits to having an iPad loaded with the latest aviation apps in the cockpit.

There are a lot of excellent features embedded within these apps, but there’s also a potential for distraction. Mastering all the functions takes time, and doing so on the ground is surely a best practice. Familiarity is the key.

Pilots are creatures of habit, and eventually become dependent on tools they use every day. Once a pilot becomes “iPad adapted,” he/she feels lost if the device is taken away. The usefulness of a digital cockpit is a function of the quality of the application and the reliability and continuity of the signal. The willingness to address both will achieve gains in safety and efficiency.


Shannon Forrest is a current line pilot, CRM facilitator, and aviation safety consultant. He has more than 10,000 hrs TT and holds a degree in behavioral psychology.