February 14, 2013

Gate to Gate with an Electronic Flight Bag

Happily replacing a 50 lb. Flight Bag with an iPad

I have been carrying an iPad and participating in an Electronic Flight Bag (EFB) program for a little over a year now. The ability to use an EFB has been an option at my airline for several years, but the iPad was only approved a little over a year ago, and even then it was not approved for all phases of flight.  This week, after more than a year of FAA observed testing and evaluation, I finally flew my first flight using an EFB from gate to gate.  The EFB program is a huge leap forward and I'm thrilled to shed the extra weight of my manuals, but it will take some time to get comfortable with the change.

Before the iPad became an alternative, a laptop computer was the only EFB option available to our pilots and it was required to be completely shut down during taxi, takeoff, landing and most operations below 10,000 feet.  Since the EFB was not usable during all phases of the operation, pilots were still required to carry paper manuals, and the EFB was just something else to carry.  That, combined the cumbersome nature of a laptop in the cockpit and the extended time required to restart most computers, resulted in a relatively small number of participants in the program.

I elected to participate last year after the iPad was approved as a replacement for the standard laptop.  It still wasn't approved to be used from gate to gate, but the ease of operation and quick boot time made the iPad a viable option worth my time and money.  I say it was worth my money, because the company did not purchase iPads for our pilots until earlier this year.  If I wanted to take part, I would have to purchase my own.

So with my new toy in hand, I happily signed up, completed the required training course and downloaded my electronic manuals.  At that time I was permitted to jettison three large binders that resulted in a significant reduction in the weight of my almost 50 pound flight bag.  My aging back would like to offer sincere thanks to those who made the EFB program a reality.

Even though I was three manuals lighter, there were other manuals that I was still required to carry since they could potentially be needed during phases of flight when the EFB was not allowed to be used...the last item on the “Before Starting Engines” checklist clearly required EFB/PEDs (Personal Electronic Devices) to be turned off. While the benefits may have seemed small in the beginning, I quickly became adept at accessing information on the iPad and found the device to be incredibly useful.

The next step was to get FAA approval for the use of iPads during all phases of flight.  It probably goes without saying that seeking change to long standing policies and procedures with the blessing and cooperation of the U.S. Government was a process that required significant levels of patience.  We started out with a test program on the Boeing 777, where a small number of pilots were given iPads and instructed to use them in the cockpit for what was supposed to be a one month test.  It was no big surprise that the test was late to get started and ran longer than planned.  But in the end, the FAA agreed that the iPad was safe for daily operations and approved them to be used as EFBs during all phases of flight.

The 737 came next, then the MD80 and finally the 757/767.  Each jet had to be tested individually and approved separately, a process that took months per fleet.  As of right now, the Boeing 777 and 737 fleets are completely up and running, the MD80 is approved, but iPad mounts are still being installed, and the 757/767 fleet is still in the test phase.

As an MD80 pilot, I was genuinely excited to see my first set of “RAM mounts” on a recent flight.  The mount is held in place using two heavy duty suction cups that are attached to the window next to the pilot and the iPad is secured to the mount using a spring mechanism that clamps onto the top and bottom of the iPad.  The mount is reasonably adjustable, allowing the pilot to place the EFB into a position easily viewed and manipulated and can be positioned vertically or horizontally at the pilot's discretion.

An internal spring clamps the iPad between the top and bottom brackets.
Heavy duty suction cups attach the mount to the window.
The iPad can be mounted in portrait...
...or landscape mode at the pilot's discretion.
Change...even the good kind...isn't always easy

It came as a mild surprise to me that quickly and efficiently navigating my way through the iPad during daily flight operations would be an adjustment...but of course, someone else had already thought of that.  In order to provide pilots with the time needed to become fully acclimated with the new devices, there is a required 30 test period that starts from the first day the pilot uses a RAM mount.  During this time, pilots are still required to carry all paper Jeppesen charts.  Once the trial period is over, only emergency and abnormal procedures manuals will have to be carried.  My kit bag will go from nearly 50 pounds to almost nothing at all.

I was elated to see that first set of RAM mounts installed in the cockpit, but as I maneuvered my into my seat for my first experience from gate to gate with an Electronic Flight Bag, I was relieved to know that I had a two and a half hour flight to experiment with the Jepp TC Pro app.  Most of my experience on that first flight was positive.

Not part of the original design

Part of the problem is that none of our airplanes were originally designed to have an iPad mounted in the cockpit.  The mounting location is slightly different for each fleet, but I am told that the EFB is slightly too far from the pilot on the Boeing 757/767 and a little too close on the 737.  The 777 uses a completely different mounting system...high tech Velcro...and I don't know enough about it to know if the mounting location has been fondly received by the pilots.  I found the mounting location on the MD80 to be a little too close and slightly awkward to manipulate, but certainly usable and easy to view.

Another issue related to the location of the mount is the fact that I now have something in my peripheral view that I am not used to seeing.  Pilots are habitual in the way they sit and set up the cockpit. Everything has a place and the seat needs to be just right. Too high, too low, too close to the controls or not close enough, and it just doesn't feel right.  So as small as it may seem, having something in my field of view that isn't normally there is definitely an issue with which I will have to become accustomed.  The problem is amplified at night when light from the screen is an added distraction, but by the end of the day I had performed two landings, one in the light of day and one in darkness and poor visibility...both met with my standards, so I suppose the distraction is reasonable and something I will eventually grow accustomed to.

Navigating the charts

I first started using Jeppesen charts in the 1989 while working on my instrument rating.  After 24 years of use, I am intimately familiar with them and readily admit that I am set in my ways when it comes to organizing them for daily use.  I've used plastic yellow, green and red tabs in my Jepp binder for as long as I can remember. It's what I'm used to and I don't have to think twice about where something is when I need it. The Jepp TC Pro app allows the pilot to “favorite” airports and specific procedures, in effect allowing him to tab pages in the iPad, but this isn't the process I'm used to and it will take some adjustment.  My new procedure is to "favorite" all the pages I will need for a specific flight before leaving the gate and rearrange them into the order I expect they will be needed.  I inevitably miss one or two...and finding a chart I wasn't expecting to need isn't always easy in the heat of battle.  I'm sure, as with all things, this will get easier as I become more familiar with the new program.

No more chart revisions?

In my humble opinion, the two greatest benefits to carrying the iPad are the reduced weight of my flight bag and the ease and speed of revisions.  Unfortunately, the latter presents a few obstacles to overcome.  Every pilot, from Cessna 152 to Airbus A380, is required to use current and up-to-date aeronautical charts.  When I arrive at the airport for work, one of the first things I do is check my company mail box.  This is where the flight office places my chart revisions.  With the iPad and a reasonably fast internet connection, updating is now quick and simple, but the process could easily take an hour or more with the old paper manuals...or a poor internet signal.

I am required to have current manuals when I depart on the first leg of my trip.  If an update becomes available after my first departure, then I am not responsible for its content...but there's a catch.  At home, I have a cable internet connection that is fast enough to stream movies to my home PC or television.  When I click the "update" button on the Jepp TC Pro iPad application, all my manuals are updated within a minute...two at the most.  The internet connection available to me at work is far slower than the one I have at home and the connection available in most hotel rooms is pitiful at best.  The updating process that goes so quickly and easily at home could easily take an hour or more with a slow internet connection.  Sometimes with an especially slow connection, the app will give up altogether or worse, corrupt the data.  In either case, the EFB is rendered useless.

There will almost definitely be a time when my manuals were current when I left the house, but out of date when I reached the airport.  Without an internet connection fast enough to quickly load my subscription updates, I will either be late or illegal for my first flight.  Clearly this is an issue that will have to be addressed in short order.  I suspect it is one that my airline is actively attempting to solve.

As I write this, I have completed two trips with my new iPad as an EFB. I'm counting the days until my 30 trial period has expired and I'm already on the hunt for a new and much smaller Flight Bag.  Regardless of any growing pains the program may be experiencing, I think the EFB is a tremendous leap forward and I am in high hopes that we will continue to find new and better ways to utilize this new technology.

Sent from my iPad


  1. Welcome to the new age. It's great to get a report from the front lines.

    I have been flying "gate to gate" with an iPad for a few years now. Foreflight on my iPad gives me all my plates and a moving map as backup for my G1000. It's great technology.

    I have one suggestion: Make sure your company gives you a backup iPad. Not one that the FO has, but one for you, which you load *identically* to your primary. When yours fails (everything fails, as a pilot you know that, and being able to just pull out the backup unit it key to safety.

  2. Welcome to the new electronic era :). Glider pilots use PDAs for navigation for about 18 years. I hope that your mount with suction cups will be replaced by something better. In my experience suction cups have ugly tendency to flip off when pressure is decreasing. Usually 4000m AMSL is enough to have your PDA on laps. So in case of decompression you will need to re-mount your holder once again. Did you consider decompression scenario during certification process?

    Thanks for another good post.

  3. Hi Airline Pilot Chatter,

    I see you had started the facebook and I am inspired by your vision of sharing the greatness in aviation. Great work!

    Great stuffs should be spread around and hope that I can be part of this sharing, just like your various posts on aviation.

    Meanwhile all the best to both of us to pursue and serve people through aviation. Glad to know fellow aviators contributing to the society.

  4. Thank you for share your experience with ipads!
    For our planes (An-148)the suction caps seams to be the only way to mount ipads in the cockpit. There are no piece of metal in window frame to hold something else but glass, perfect design really)). Have you approved your ipads as a class II EFB with double caps? Were suction mounts a problem to certify theme?
    Thank you

  5. Thanks share yore site,Easily chatng EFB and slove the problem.Useful information like this one must be kept and maintained. So I will put this one on my twitter list! Thanks for this wonderful post and hoping to see your post soon!
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