Some of the questions I get asked about flying are timeless. Have I ever seen something I can’t explain? (No, but on winter nights the hours of aurora borealis can be downright eerie.) How do airplanes stay up? (Think of the movement of a wing through the air like that of a water ski on a lake.) But a more recent question that’s frequently asked is: what are pilots doing on their iPads?
That’s an excellent question because the iPad marks the biggest change in my job since I started flying as a commercial pilot nearly two decades ago. It has made my job easier and aviation more efficient.
On our iPads, we can view details such as the number of available seats and route-specific customer feedback long before each flight. We may message cabin crew to discuss operational matters (e.g. a VIP or large school group may be traveling) or simply to share or seek recommendations for restaurants or excursions at our destination. Primarily, however, pilots use iPads as a library, atlas and tool for flight planning, briefing and logging.
An aircraft library consists of dozens of manuals, documents and forms. Some, such as operations manuals, technical descriptions, and loading instructions, are specific to each aircraft type. Others contain more general information – everything from the formal definitions of turbulence to a planet’s oceanic radio frequencies. On the Boeing 747, these books, some individually thicker than a stack of a dozen iPads, were locked behind the doors of dedicated cockpit bookshelves.
Removing the paper versions in favor of an iPad-based library not only saves trees but also fuel, and we can access each manual without unbuckling our seatbelt, removing our headset, and climbing out of our seat.
We also often use the iPad to prepare for a flight. For example, before we fly to new or challenging airports, we may need to watch an introductory video. I can now do this from home or on the train to work, rather than in a dedicated audiovisual room at Heathrow as I used to. (If I forget my iPad, I can borrow one; the protective case on the borrowed iPads is a reproachful red, though.)
And of course many of our documents are updated regularly and with the utmost care. Notices of each change used to be posted at the airport until it was time to update the manuals, when a team at Heathrow went from one aircraft to the next replacing old manuals with new ones. Pilots amassed thick stacks of new pages to include in their personal aircraft manuals at home. (I used to do this on the living room floor with no music or TV to make sure I didn’t make a mistake.) Today we just push a button.
Our iPads also include a navigation app called Lido mPilot, which opens a world map and the day’s route over it. From this view we can zoom in to see airways, minimum altitudes, navigation beacons, and the comfortably curved isogonic lines that indicate magnetic variations. To show or remove data layers or to declutter the screen, we just need to tap a button; and we can tap anywhere in the world to see air traffic control frequencies, satellite phone numbers, and local directions and notices.
Unlike the globe I once turned in my childhood room, cities, rivers and sea routes are not marked. Only a handful of mountains are named, and even national boundaries (as opposed to those of flight information regions, the true countries of the sky) appear only vaguely. Luckily, the navigation app overrides the iPad’s auto-lock feature, so our maps never go blank at a critical moment. (I wish every cooking app would do the same.)
The Navigation app also includes our airport-specific ‘signs’, as we used to call them when they took the form of thousands of paper-thin sheets in on-board binders or in little booklets that we collected at Heathrow before each flight. The text and maps on the signs tell us everything we need to know to fly to a specific airport, such as: B. its opening hours, air traffic controller call signs and even local speed limits (both in the air and on the ground). On digital signs we can add our own notes, zoom in or out, or even highlight an expected taxi route and mark our expected parking position. And it’s a delight – especially on dark and stormy nights – to move seamlessly from one panel to the next with a simple tap, rather than having to turn physical pages, rearrange loose sheets, or refocus the beam of the cockpit’s chart lights.
The iPads also serve as a flight briefing and logging tool. Before each departure, a team of planners creates a briefing package. It contains everything that pilots need to know in order to fly from A to B with a specific aircraft at a specific time: maps showing possible areas of turbulence, wind, air temperature and optimal altitude data, the preliminary payload and fuel loads and, most importantly, the Sequence of airways, waypoints and navigation lights that form our planned flight path.
Once upon a time, after a flight crew met at the airport and introduced themselves, the next task was to print out and staple together maybe a hundred sheets or more of this briefing packet. Nowadays we download them straight to our iPads (via another app, Lido mBriefing). Because electronic updates can be issued easily – and much closer to the time of departure – we can also fly more efficient routes that better match the latest wind forecasts, as well as our latest payload, which can change significantly as last-minute passenger bookings and freight are added will. (A heavier aircraft might benefit from a different initial cruising altitude and therefore, as winds vary with altitude, perhaps a very different route.) After we read through the package together, the captain orders the last fuel load and we set off the plane, where we confirm the fuel load with, you guessed it, a fuel app.
By law, pilots are required to log the time and fuel on board upon departure, at various waypoints en route and upon arrival, as well as in the event of any renewed clearance from air traffic control. In the past, these notes were made on a printout of the route, which could contain more than 20 pages. In July, however, the obligation to carry and fill out a paper flight log was finally lifted.
Today, after parking and disabling the iPad’s aptly-named airplane mode, we’re completing and submitting the log electronically (all the live information we use during flight comes via the plane’s own systems). As for my pen – housed in the separate little holder next to the front pocket that was a feature of generations of white pilot shirts – I can cruise back and forth around the world these days without ever taking it out. But like so many of my colleagues, nostalgia comes easily to me, and I’m not ready to leave it in my desk drawer at home just yet.
Mark Vanhoenacker is a British Airways Boeing 787 pilot and author of Imagine a City (Chatto & Windus/Knopf)
Follow Markus on Twitter @markv747 or email him [email protected]
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