Electronic Flight Bag -- Update

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Last August John Ruley wrote about how you can make your own electronic flight bag, using a Tablet PC and relatively inexpensive software. After testing it on a couple of actual cross-country flights, he has some different things to say about it.

Editor's Note: This article is reprinted from Cessna Owner Magazine by permission from Cessna Owner Organization -- 888-MYCessna.


I took a trip to Mexico a few months ago -- and I did not take my do-it-yourself Electronic Flight Bag (EFB) with me. Thereby hangs a tale ...

To review, an EFB is a portable computer running software that can augment or replace paper charts for in-flight use. As I wrote in Roll Your Own Electronic Flight Bag it's possible to build a pretty reasonable EFB by adding Jeppesen's FliteMap software (and an NMEA-compatible GPS) to a Tablet PC; this gives you a 10- or 12-inch, color, moving map that can be configured to look like a VFR sectional chart, IFR en route chart, WAC chart or just about anything else you might want. For IFR operation, you can add Jeppesen's FliteDeck, which provides IFR approach plates, or you can download NOS plates from AOPA's web site.

I had tried this out on several local test hops before writing the previous article, but I only tried it on a trip after the feature went to press. Here's how it worked out in practice.

A Real-World Test

My wife -- a pediatrician -- needed to go to Monterey, Calif., for a medical continuing-education conference. Monterey is on the northern California coast, about 50 miles south of San Francisco. It's an easy one-hour flight from our home base in Modesto. Since I had the hardware (a Motion Computing M1200 Tablet PC) and software ready, I decided to use it. I had a demo copy of FliteMap but didn't have FliteDeck, so I downloaded approach plates, airport diagrams and related procedures for Modesto and Monterey from AOPA's member website. These come in Adobe Acrobat format, and can be displayed very nicely on the Tablet PC in portrait (vertical) orientation. I also printed the plates and diagrams out for use as backups in case anything went wrong with the tablet. I had paper en route charts, plus my regular Jeppesen binder available as a back-up. But I really wanted to see how the electronic stuff would work on a cross-country flight.

It was great while planning the flight. The M1200 has a built-in 802.11 wireless Ethernet card, and I have a wireless access point plugged into the DSL line in my house; so I could sit in the living room (or anywhere else) and get a complete weather briefing using DUATS on the web or the built-in DUATS interface in FliteMap. It has an especially nice feature that puts weather information (SIGMET and AIRMET boundaries, NEXRAD precipitation echoes, and wind bars) directly on the map display, so you can easily see where you may have problems -- a turbulence AIRMET over the coast range mountains and the usual IFR and mountain obscuration AIRMET both applied, and it was easy to see where we could expect to start hitting the bumps and seeing the scud.

With the flight plan filed, we went out to the airport, pulled N16460 out of the hangar, and plugged all the pieces in. At this point, things got to be a little less convenient. I have a yoke-mounted Garmin 92 GPS, which needed to be attached by cable to the M1200, and then an auto/air adaptor had to be plugged into the cigar lighter to power the M1200 (it will run about 3 hours on its internal battery, but keeping the unit charged saves that for emergency use). The resulting collection of cables is reminiscent of using a portable intercom system, and gets to be a bit of a mess (which could be reduced with judicious use of cable ties and velcro).

Still, with both Kate and I aboard, it all looked pretty good. I gave her my regular clipboard with the back-up paper charts, put the M1200 in my lap, went through my regular starting and run-up procedures, and we were off.

We Don't Need No Stinkin' Night Vision

This was about dusk. One reason that I like the M1200 over other Tablet PCs I've tested it that it has a very bright backlight, which helps; I've also found that the display is compatible with my polarized sunglasses. I had no trouble seeing the airport diagram, and even used the M1200's stylus to write out my departure clearance.

By now, the sun was going down, and it was time to ditch the sunglasses, which actually made the M1200 display easier to read. After getting us settled into an on-course climb, I had Kate take over the airplane, while I switched from viewing the airport diagram to FliteMap's moving-map display. One annoyance is that it defaults to a "north-is-up" view that's fine for flight planning but inappropriate in flight; correcting that just takes a few taps of the stylus.

As the sun went down, though, I began to notice a problem: The M1200 display was actually too bright! There are two fixes for that: I got out the stylus and turned the brightness down (this involves using a "dashboard" application that Motion Computing provides with the M1200), and I also set the "Night Vision" feature of FliteMap, which gives you red text on a black background. Both helped -- for awhile.

Of course, while I was doing this, I was "head down" while Kate flew the airplane and watched for traffic. Once I got things set up to my satisfaction, I got my head back outside the airplane, helped watch for traffic, and coached her to stay on the airway (she's a certificated private pilot, but not yet instrument-rated and a bit rusty on VOR tracking).

As we got close to Monterey, we could see the "marine layer" leaking in from the coast, and things got a little busier. At this point I switched to Acrobat Reader to view the Monterey Approach Plate, and the screen brightness became a problem again: Unlike FliteMap, Acrobat has no "night vision" feature. The electronic approach plate was nice and bright -- so bright that I was having trouble switching between it and the instrument panel unless I turned the panel lights up ...

Time To Switch To Paper

At this point I made a very important (and, I think, correct) decision. I switched back to FliteMap, handed the M1200 to Kate, and took the clipboard with the back-up paper charts. A for-real instrument approach is no time to be playing with an unfamiliar piece of instrumentation in the cockpit! Before handing the M1200 to Kate, I did bring up FliteMap's built-in timer, and asked her to trigger it, using the Stylus, at the outer marker.

At this point a second problem turned up -- this one specific to the M1200 and other large Tablet PC's with 12 inch displays -- it's too big for Kate's lap! She has short legs and pulls her seat up to the most forward position possible in order to reach the rudder pedals; to hold the M1200 she had to turn it sideways!

After completing the instrument approach (almost to minimums, and downwind), and clear of the runway, I took the M1200 back, and the electronic airport diagram was fine for taxiing. But I've decided that it has no business on my lap during an instrument approach -- for that, I need old-fashioned paper approach plates.

I made the trip back a few days later, in daylight VFR conditions -- and the M1200 was fine for those; though, again, I decided against leaving it in my lap while landing (I was alone this time, and just set it on the co-pilot's seat). All-in-all, not perfect, but not too bad.

Take Two: Mexico

A couple of weeks later, I found myself planning our June trip to Mexico with LIGA International -- and I faced a quandary: It would be fun to take the M1200 along, and I'd learn a lot using it ... But we were taking a full load (4 people, personal baggage, and a small quantity of medical supplies), and the trip would both begin and end with night instrument approaches. On top of that, the electronic charts I have only cover the continental U.S., so I'd have to take my Mexican Jeppesen charts anyway -- for that matter, on this trip, with the responsibility for passengers, I wouldn't be comfortable without my full set of paper charts, which make an inch-thick stack on two clipboards.

After a bit of soul-searching, I decided, reluctantly, to leave the M1200 at home and stick with the paper charts. With four people in the airplane on only our second trip south of the border in it, I just didn't need the distraction.

Incidently, I don't think the distraction factor is unique to the M1200 (or EFBs, for that matter). A friend of mine has a Cessna 206 with an UPSAT MX20 multi-function display in the panel; and I've noticed that it has a nasty tendency to attract all the eyes in the cockpit!

I will continue to use it for less-complicated flights, so that I should eventually be comfortable enough to use the unit without being distracted by it. In the long run, with Mexican as well as U.S. charts in FliteMap's database, I think I will be able to use it on future Mexico trips; but I'm still going to want paper approach plates in my lap when I'm doing instrument approaches. There's just no sense taking chances!