Tuesday, February 03, 2015

Great Leap Forward

My airline recently rolled out our Electronic Flight Bag (EFB), a Microsoft Surface 2 tablet, and I've been using it for about a month now. The idea of a paperless cockpit has been around for a long time, and we're a bit late to the party; EFBs have been de rigueur at most major airlines for a couple of years. The most common platform, by far, is Apple's iPad; it's used by Alaska, American, United, FedEx, and UPS, plus many regional airlines, corporate flight departments, and thousands of private pilots. There's a wide variety of well-proven off-the-shelf EFB software available for the iPad, and reams of data on the system's reliability. The FAA is getting very experienced at approving iPad-based EFB installations.

For a variety of reasons, my airline chose not to go that route. First, we are a very Windows-based company - we Mac users are barely tolerated and most training & crew applications are not supported on our machines. Secondly, Microsoft is one of our largest corporate customers, and we're currently expanding in the Pacific Northwest. Frankly, we're not a company that's entirely known for its tech savvy. It probably shouldn't come as a surprise that our choice of a fairly uncommon tablet paired with an orphaned standalone operating system (Windows RT), combined with Jeppesen having to do a custom port of their FlightDeck Pro software, resulted in rather lengthy delays. Even now, we're merely in the test phase; until the EFB is fully proven, we're still carrying around ship sets of Jepp charts and operational manuals (individual subscriptions are thankfully a thing of the past - updating Jepps was always among the most hated of pilot chores).

That said, now that the EFB is finally here, I think Microsoft, Jeppesen, and my company absolutely knocked it out of the park. For what it was designed to do, both the hardware and software are beautiful, functional, and intuitive. Here's a good measure of just how easy it is to use: I received my tablet a few days before recurrent simulator training, did the hour-long training DVD, and was able to effectively use it for the first time during two intense days in the sim (one of which, the maneuvers validation, is a graded checkride). All the present features are contained in two programs: Jeppesen FlightDeck Pro is used to view IFR enroute charts and terminal/approach/airport plates, and Secure Content Locker provides access to all company and aircraft manuals and bulletins. The operating system incorporates a number of intuitive touchscreen gestures to make it easy to smoothly switch between programs or even split the screen between them. For example, the other day my Captain and I briefed a Category III ILS approach with the approach plate on one half of the screen and the company Cat III briefing card on the other half.

My favorite feature of the Surface 2 EFB, versus equivalent iPad-based systems, is the inclusion of a very nifty hinged cover that incorporates a backup battery and keyboard. It attaches to the Surface with a magnetic hinge / power connector. While connected, the backup battery recharges the main battery. I typically carry the Surface between flights with the cover connected and closed, take it out during the preflight and input the flight plan and other information with the keyboard, and then disconnect the cover/keyboard and stow the Surface in its RAM mount (which is suction-cupped to the side window). You can leave the backup battery / keyboard attached if needed, but I've found that the mount holds the Surface alone much more securely.


Besides the company's stated reasons for going to an EFB system (to save fuel and waste by eliminating the paper charts, the weight of which is considerable), I believe its use also increases safety. There's a lot less heads-down time spent digging through Jepp binders for charts, especially in response to last-minute runway, procedure, and route changes. Finding and highlighting critical information is far easier than with paper charts & manuals, particularly in low-light conditions. The mounts allow for easy EFB removal for briefings; I've found that physically taking the EFB in my hands and turning towards the other pilot is far better for facilitating crew communication than facing the window as we talk. I'm also finding that having the EFB makes me far readier to dig into the manuals when I'm not quite sure about something or haven't done a particular procedure in a while; it's a lot more tempting to wing it when the definitive answers are hidden deep within one of about seven heavy paper manuals (good luck guessing which one!). Finally, casual studying for upcoming training is a lot more palatable on the Surface; I made heavy use of it for this purpose in the days before my recurrent events.

That said, there are some improvements I hope to see over time. Even though all the manuals are searchable, you still have to know which manual to search. The content locker includes a master index that tells you where various references are located but it's not clickable; it would be nice if each subject included hyperlinks to the relevant sections of each manual. We also have a paper "Fast Access Tab" that contains selections of most commonly-used reference pages from various manuals, but it's not on the EFB yet. The internal GPS is not enabled, so some nice Flight Deck Pro capabilities like geosynchronous charts & airport diagrams are not available. We are also prohibited from connecting to airborne WiFi, though it could provide invaluable updated weather, radar overlays, and turbulence plots. Both of these issues are primarily due to FAA restrictions. Hopefully once we have full approval for the EFB, we'll be able to make some headway in getting the feds to let us use its full potential.

Really, my only serious complaint is the Windows RT operating system. It's not really a bad OS, it's just completely orphaned. There are hardly any third-party apps available, and no aviation apps at all other than our custom, IFR-only copy of Flight Deck Pro. I had been hoping to use the Surface in the Pacer, but it turned out to be useless for VFR flight. I ended up buying an iPad 2 off of eBay and running WingX Pro7, which I'll write about in another post soon. Thus, we tripled the number of tablet computers in our household nearly overnight. That said, while my airline allows us to use our Surfaces for personal use (on the ground only), it was never a focus of the program. For strictly company use in the flight deck, I have very few complaints, and became an EFB addict within days of its introduction.