Friday, March 13, 2015

Greater Leap Forward

After my last post about the Surface 2 EFB I use for work, I intended to write soon after about the iPad-based system I'm using in the Pacer, using a real-life cross-country flight as an example. However, the weather has been so crummy that what little Pacer flying I've been able to do on my days off has been entirely local - until this week, when I went cross country in a big way. On Sunday and Monday I flew from Flying Cloud to Peachtree City, GA, and then on to Sebastian, FL - a trip of 1230nm, 12 flying hours, and 7 landings. I'll write about that in the next post. It was an eventful trip weather-wise, and did a good job of showcasing where the modern GA EFB systems really shine, but the photos turned out useless due to glare off of the iPad's screen (I'm new to the iPad and didn't know how to take screenshots at the time). So, the below screenshots are from the last leg of the trip running in simulation mode, with weather from several days after I actually flew it.

There are a number of excellent EFB platforms available for the iPad, and a lesser number available for Android systems. The Surface 2's orphaned operating system, Windows RT, predictably has absolutely zero aviation apps available (indeed, few apps of any sort), other than the ported version of Jeppesen Flight Deck Pro that my company uses. Because GPS synchronicity, VFR charts, and weather overlays are all disabled on my airline's installation, it makes it fairly useless for general aviation purposes. I have Avare, a freeware charting and GPS program with limited flight planning capabilities, on my Android-based phone, and it's fine as a backup but I wanted more capability, so I bought a used iPad 2 off of eBay. Though a few years old, a fairly basic 16GB iPad 2 makes a fine EFB platform so long as you have the 3G model for internal GPS, or an external GPS receiver. The addition of a rugged Otterbox case and/or a RAM mount, space permitting, completes the hardware package.

The most popular EFB applications for the iPad are (in rough order of popularity among GA pilots): Foreflight, WingX Pro7, Garmin Pilot, and Jeppesen FlightDeck. I have experience with the first two, and use a version of FlightDeck for work, but am most familiar with and comfortable with WingX. It helps that they're giving away free subscriptions to CFIs (normally a subscription is $75/yr for VFR and $150/yr for full capability). A good friend and former student of mine whose Warrior I fly occasionally has been using WingX for years, and has always been very impressed with Hilton Software's frequent improvements and responsiveness to customer suggestions. I will say that I do think Foreflight seems a little more intuitive and better integrated, but WingX has a few neat features that Foreflight does not, and supports a greater range of external hardware options.

Here's what WingX, and all the other EFB programs, are at their very basic core: a way to display VFR sectional charts while superimposing your flight planned route and current position. For this, they're honestly not really any better than paper charts. I love paper charts, I still use them for local flights and Cub flying. They're easier to read than electronic charts, which need to be zoomed up to be readable, at which point it's easy to miss important information downrange. It's much easier to rotate a paper chart so that it is aligned with your course, while still being able to read labels upside down or sideways; with electronic charts you pretty much always have to switch back to "North Up" mode to read them (I just leave it there, myself). That said, sectionals are a pain to fold in a manner that's usable in the confines of a small cockpit, and planning a flight that goes between panels or between sectionals is a pain in the ass. Most of all, long flights end up requiring a lot of charts, which are expensive and take up space, and then they expire within six months (or if you're IFR, every 28 days). If you're going to do much cross country flying, a program like WingX will save you money over old-school charts.

Modern EFBs are, of course, much more than simple chart readers. They're fairly sophisticated flight planners and GPS navigators. On the above screenshot, notice that the top of the moving map prominently displays groundspeed, track, and GPS altitude (generally accurate within 100 feet, even using the iPad's internal GPS). Below that is cross-track error, next waypoint, distance, bearing, ETA, and ETE. In the map you can see several gray dots that show where I'll be in 5 and 15 minutes if I maintain my present track. Several overlays are available; I currently have 100LL prices displayed (you can see where my cheapskate priorities lie!) but at various points in the trip I chose to display flight rules (as in the last screenshot), ceilings, vis, or wind speed. More about weather overlays in a second. On the left-hand side I have both route and the Airport/Facility Directory (A/FD) displayed, but I usually only toggle that on when I need it.

You can plan flights from WingX's moving map route editor, or go over to the dedicated route planner. Here's one of the things I found really useful during my trip: if you've updated the weather database recently, you can use the altitude optimizer to find the best altitude considering winds aloft. It's still a little primitive (you can't store aircraft performance profiles, and it assumes a constant entered true airspeed regardless of pressure altitude and temperature) but it's a heck of a lot simpler than eyeballing winds aloft forecasts and interpolating between altitudes and forecast stations. I saved a significant amount of time and money on this trip by frequently going higher or lower than normal due to winds aloft, a major consideration in a 105-knot airplane.

Here's another great feature that is worth its weight in gold. As long as you've downloaded the NOTAMs recently, WingX displays temporary flight restrictions (TFRs) for the next few days and makes them painfully obvious by outlining them in red. Simply tapping on the TFR brings up all the pertinent info. Instead of UTC dates and times, it simply tells you whether the TFR is currently active, and if not, how long from now it will go active. In this case, there's a rocket launch from Cape Canaveral in 8 hours, 27 minutes. Incidentally, there's also a lot of restricted airspace around that area. WingX makes it super easy to look up special use airspace (just tap it!) but unfortunately doesn't tell you whether it is currently active. I was on VFR flight following and just asked ATC; otherwise I could have called a FSS (I assume I could have found it somewhere on my DUATS briefing but didn't look hard enough, I guess).

WingX's best feature, in my opinion, is how easy it makes it for the pilot to obtain weather information. Tap on any airport, tap display wx, and this panel pops up, showing the METARs, TAFs, etc for the airport and surrounding area. Here's the fairly obvious problem: you need a way to update the weather for it to be useful on a longer flight. ADS-B is fantastic for this and is free once you buy the receiver, but reception is spotty below 3000 feet. On the ground and at low altitudes, a 3G-enabled iPad will often have connectivity, allowing you to regularly download weather. I don't yet have an ADS-B box and 3G isn't enabled on my iPad, so I was reduced to running into the FBO at each fuel stop and trying to download updated weather; they didn't always have WiFi. The weather was significantly worse than forecast for a portion of my trip, and better than forecast for another portion, and I ended up getting updates the good old fashion way: listening to AWOSes and ATISes downrange and calling Flight Watch.

If you do have an ADS-B-In source, WingX does a really nice job of integrating datalink weather with the moving map display. Here's a NEXRAD radar overlay. Pilots have gotten themselves into trouble trying to use datalink radar in a tactical fashion, but it's great for making long-range strategic decisions as long as you recognize that you're looking at what the weather was doing somewhere between 5 and 30 minutes ago.

I haven't really even begun to scratch the surface of WingX's features, like the GPWS display (top left), or how it displays which runway you're taking off on and counts down feet remaining, or the terrain profile view (bottom center button), or ability to split screens with multiple displays, or how it automatically brings up the airport diagram (and shows your position on it) when you're below 45 knots on landing. There's just a lot of really neat capability built into the program and I'm still constantly discovering new things. I've heard the same said of Foreflight and the other EFB programs. My point is, there's a heck of a lot of capability available to the VFR pilot for $75 a year - that's essentially all one need spend on flight information, once you have the hardware. It's a rare good deal in GA. Also worth mentioning is that, as usual, the general aviation community is enjoying the benefits of modern technology well, well before it trickles down to the airline guys. We're finally getting EFBs several years after they came into widespread usage within GA, and the capability in our expensive, custom, FAA blessed EFB software is a small portion of that contained in off-the-shelf consumer software one can download and be using in 5 minutes.

One final note...the iPad is a very reliable piece of hardware, but it's not infallible. You need to have a backup. For flights within 200 miles of my home base, I have paper charts available. I also, as mentioned, have the free Avare program on my Android phone. I'll be switching over to an iPhone 6 soon (I have a MacBook and iPad already, so why not complete the transition to total Apple fanboy!), and I'll be able to use my existing WingX subscription on that for no additional cost.


Anonymous said...

Hey Sam,

I've been using Foreflight on iPad for almost 2 years now as my primary chart source. You're correct about having a backup. On a few occasions, my iPad has overheated due to sitting in the sun on the ramp during a quick turn. Out comes the iPhone for 5 minutes while the iPad cools down. Other than that, it has been nearly flawless. I feel external power is a necessity as well.

Michael said...

Having a backup for EFB is a required at least for IFR flying as per the advisory circular that sanctions the use of EFB. Whether it be another EFB or paper chart, I always carry aback up even if VFR.

Thanks for the articles Sam, they are always very informative.

Sam Weigel said...

Michael-- Do you have a reference for that? The only guidance I'm aware of that applies to Part 91 operators is that contained in AC 91-78, which suggests a backup (paper or electronic) but doesn't require it, IFR or VFR. AC 120-76C requires a backup source of information, but only applies to Part 91F, 121, and 135 operations. Of course, if you went IFR without a backup and subsequently screwed the pooch when your iPad went TU, I could see the feds getting you on 91.13.

Sam Weigel said...

I hasten to add that previous comment wasn't meant to sanction operating IFR (or VFR) without a backup, just clarifying the legal requirements. I do sometimes leave the iPad at home during local flights - but then I have the Twin Cities TAC & sectional available for easy reference.