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Editor's Note: This article first appeared in Twin & Turbine, Jan. 2005, and is reprinted here by permission.
You know all those little cubbyholes at the pilot shop where you find Jeppesen aeronautical charts? Imagine a factory filled with thousands of them. Aisle after aisle of cubbies filled with charts stacked six feet high. You see high- and low-altitude en route charts, area charts, terminal approach charts, arrival and departure procedures, and airport manuals for the entire world.
This is the Jeppesen chart factory, and the whole place is buzzing with activity. The smell of ink and paper fills the air and printing presses hum in the background. Industrial-sized reams of paper are wheeled around and loaded into printing presses as big as semi trucks. Charts are being sorted and stacked, weighed, and shrink-wrapped for shipping.
Pilots worldwide know Jeppesen. The company supplies 80 percent of the world's airlines with charts, and a similar share for the general aviation market. It also offers flight-operation services, trip planning, aviation-weather services, aircraft-maintenance information, and aviation training. A subsidiary of Boeing, Jeppesen employs about 1,200 at its headquarters and distribution facility outside Denver in Englewood, Colo., and approximately 600 more at offices around the world.
The company wasn't always so big. The company's founder, Elrey Borge Jeppesen (a.k.a., Captain Jepp) was a teenager when he was introduced to the world of aviation on a $5 thrill ride with a barnstormer in 1921. He was immediately hooked, and thereafter spent time sleeping in hangars and fueling up airplanes in order to catch the occasional ride. When he went up for his first solo, he had logged two hours and 15 minutes of flying time. He was 20 years old when he got his pilot license. Orville Wright signed him off on January 29, 1929.
License in hand, the world was his for the taking. Captain Jepp borrowed $500, bought an old Army-surplus JN4 Jenny, and began barnstorming with Tex Rankin's Flying Circus out of Portland, Ore. He quit high school so he could join other circus pilots and fly into small towns, do stunts and aerobatics to attract attention, and then land and give as many rides as they could for $10 each.
He was flying high and living large, but such a lifestyle could only last so long. While barnstorming in Texas, he started looking at other flying jobs and landed a contract with Fairchild to fly aerial photographers over the Louisiana delta. It wasn't barnstorming, but it was a steady paycheck. Then he got a contract with Royal Dutch Shell to help conduct an aerial survey of Mexico. Since most of Mexico was uncharted at the time, flying there was even more exciting than barnstorming at times.
Both barnstorming and aerial photography missions were generally flown in good weather. It wasn't until 1930, when Captain Jepp became an airmail pilot, that his real flying challenges began. The mail needed to get through, rain or shine.
Weather in the 1930s was a wholly different kind of problem for pilots than it is today. Other than lighted airway beacons, navaids didn't exist. Airplanes weren't really equipped to fly on instruments, either. Most of them didn't have an electrical system -- just a single turn-and-bank gyro run by a venturi-driven vacuum, and that was prone to icing up. All you could really count on were the altimeter and compass. Since there were no aeronautical charts, most pilots relied on road maps. They just followed roads, rivers, and railroad tracks to get around.
Captain Jepp faced an unfortunate choice in bad weather. He said, "Whether to go or not was pretty much up to the pilot. But if you didn't get the mail through, you might get canned." Heading off into marginal weather with marginal equipment was just a dreadful part of the job for a while, which meant it was only a matter of time before you crashed.
One day, when the weather was particularly bad, one of Jepp's coworkers refused to fly his route. The post office fired him immediately and picked the next pilot to take his place. Fortunately the next pilot stood up and said if the first pilot won't go, he wouldn't go either. And so it went, on down the line. Faced with a potential mutiny, the post office relented and postponed the flights. "I guess if we hadn't straightened it out, they'd have fired us all," Captain Jepp recalled.
Despite the newfound cohesion in the pilot ranks, they still kept taking flights that were risky. In the winters of 1930 and 1931, many of Jepp's fellow pilots died flying in poor visibility, often due to lack of any type of published aeronautical information. When the ceiling is overcast at 200 feet and the visibility is a quarter mile in snow, road maps become pretty useless.
Faced with lousy odds, Jepp began compiling his own aviation data to better his chances. He used a hand-held altimeter and climbed up water towers, smokestacks, and hills to record elevations, and made detailed drawings of airport layouts and surrounding terrain. He recorded the lengths, drainage patterns, and slopes of strategically located fields. And he wrote down phone numbers of local farmers to provide weather reports. All this information went into a black, loose-leaf, 10-cent notebook. The first set of Jeppesen charts was born.
It wasn't long before other pilots started requesting information out of Jepp's "little black book." Soon they were asking for it so often that Jepp started selling copies for $10 each. The word spread, and Jeppesen books became synonymous with accurate flight information. (The original "Little Black Book" now resides at the Museum of Flight in Seattle.)
Early navigational aids were just beginning to populate the United States in the 1930s, and they were not the "sophisticated" ADFs and VORs we know today. These were the low-frequency radio beacons that offered only four courses by transmitting Morse code. The beacons were set to transmit the letter "A" (dot-dash) on one side of the airway, and the letter "N" (dash-dot) on the other. If you were on course, the two canceled each other out and you heard a steady, monotonous tone.
The radio ranges were new, and only a few airlines were using them for en route navigation. Captain Jepp pioneered using them for approaches by creating his own letdown procedures into nearby airports. Using the station and its four courses, he designed approaches in good weather to safely get him down to 500 or 600 feet, and then added them to his Airway Manual in case of a bad night.
As the Jeppesen book grew, airlines became interested, too. Most of them had their own custom procedures, and liked having the ability to change them whenever they wished. So Jepp set up tailored services to win their business, knowing full well that all the approaches would become standard one day. United Airlines became the first airline subscriber to his Airway Manual service.
In 1934, Jeppesen & Company officially began from his basement workshop in Salt Lake City, Utah. Jepp was also flying for United at the time, which is where he met his wife Nadine, one of aviation's first stewardesses. They were married in 1936.
Captain Jepp kept adding new charts to his book, and the chart business continued to grow. Before the United States entered World War II in 1941, he had the whole country charted. He moved the company to Denver and started supplying aviation information to the U.S. Navy to support the war.
In 1947, a significant milestone was reached when Standard Instrument Approach Procedures were introduced. In one of his most significant contributions to aviation safety, Captain Jepp cooperated with the Civil Aeronautics Administration (forerunner to the FAA) and helped define the approach template design.
For the next 50 years, Jeppesen continued expanding its business. Offices were opened in Washington, D.C., Germany, Australia, China, and Russia to provide worldwide coverage. When there was a strategic fit, other companies were purchased. Nearly a dozen aviation firms were acquired and integrated into Jeppesen to help it expand its expertise and increase its global coverage. The company methodically grew into the world's largest provider of aviation information.
Making charts is now a little more sophisticated than having someone climb up a smokestack to note the elevation. In the United States, the FAA provides approach-procedure source data to Jeppesen directly using a standard update form known as an 8260.
Jeppesen's Aviation Data Management department processes the changes noted on the 8260s. Analysts, many of whom are IFR rated pilots, review 8260s and other source documents line by line, and carefully input the changes into the Jeppesen Aviation Database, a proprietary master database the company uses to manage all its aviation data, including updates for charts, GPS, and FMS systems.
Analysts must gather similar forms from every country in the world. While this may seem overwhelming, Jeppesen has it down to a science, and there is a logical flow to it all. The office is divided geographically, so analysts get used to working with data from specific countries. Updates for the entire Western Hemisphere are handled this way from the Colorado facility. The Eastern Hemisphere is done at a similar Jeppesen plant in Frankfurt, Germany.
Once all the changes are coded into the database, the affected charts are gathered into a production schedule for processing, printing, and distribution. Next the changes are annotated onto their respective paper charts to determine how they will be implemented. Bearing changes on radials, frequency changes, new obstructions, runway additions, closures, or completely new GPS approaches are just a few of the possibilities. Some changes are simple and involve only a single digit number, while others may require extensive rearranging of existing symbology to fit a new icon into a congested area. Or sometimes a whole new chart is needed. Once the analysts figure it all out, they pass the data on to the compilers, who edit the master electronic files.
Throughout the updating process there are multiple layers of proofing going on. All corrections are verified several times to ensure they are done correctly. Obviously it is very important to make sure everything is right. Jeppesen understands that safety depends on accurate charts, and that their reputation is staked on having them be right.
Next the Printing and Distribution Group takes the electronic file and makes film negatives out of them, which in turn are used to make printing plates for use on the presses. Due to the cost of making plates, it is most efficient for charts to be grouped onto large sheets, printed on both sides, and then cut apart at a later stage. The trick is to figure out which charts (out of tens of thousands) to group together onto each sheet, how often to print the group, and in what quantity.
The solution all depends on which charts are arranged on a sheet and how many of each is needed. The goal is to never run out of charts, but also not to overprint and have to throw away excess that become out of date before being sold. Sound complicated? It is. So much so that Jeppesen consulted with a Ph.D. candidate to create a computer program to help them figure it out.
Once the sheets are composed and the printing plates have been made and loaded, big reams of paper are fed into the printing press. These are very hungry presses. Jeppesen issues more than a billion sheets of paper per year. Industrial printers hum off as many copies as necessary, and the double-sided, printed sheets are gathered by hand at the other end.
From there they are placed in a machine that aligns the stacks and slices them into the familiar sizes we know today. The giant slicer has a powerful set of blades that can cut a stack of several hundred charts at a time. Another machine rounds off the four corners and drills the seven holes in each chart to match the chart binders. The result is a large stack of double-sided, printed charts that are all the same one.
Pilots, of course, don't want a big stack of the same chart; we just want one of each. So stacks are sent to the Revision Assembly area and fed into large, custom-built collating machines. These machines have a long conveyer belt and use pneumatic suckers to pick off single copies of charts from each of the stacks and pile them into collated stacks.
The 40-year-old collating machines are great, but they have one drawback: They won't handle any foldout charts, the ones in your binders that open up into a multi-page spread. The foldout charts have to be added in by hand. Dozens of workers surround several stacking and sorting tables set up for this purpose. During the busiest times, everyone at Jeppesen, from the president to the newest employee, takes a turn at these tables to help get the product out.
In the final steps, the stacks are put onto a very accurate scale that can distinguish whether a single chart sheet is missing. Remember, quality control is pervasive at every step. If the weight does not check out, the stack is rejected. If not, it gets shrink-wrapped, packaged, and shipped.
Making negatives, creating printing plates, setting up the printing press, and cutting and drilling charts is a time-consuming process, and the cost per sheet is expensive for a low-quantity print run. Color, print-on-demand technology aims to replace all that, and Jeppesen has been acquiring state-of-the-art color digital presses to streamline their printing process.
The company's new Hewlett Packard Indigo w3200 presses are designed for high-volume printing and are able to quickly produce the most complex chart graphics and photos. These five-color printing machines print 8,000 full-color images per hour (136 pages per minute). Charts are printed straight from digital source files, and come out consecutively, eliminating time spent on collation. They are automatically cut and drilled with holes, too. "Put simply, they will let us print what our customers need when they need it," said Jeppesen President Mark Van Tine.
Having the flexibility to print both small- and large-quantity jobs economically will allow Jeppesen to offer more customized, paper-based services in the future. Using print-on-demand, you can print 10 copies or 10,000 copies; the cost per sheet is the same. In addition, the new printing technology will help Jeppesen manage wild fluctuations in chart printing workload. For example, when the FAA decided to revamp most of the arrival, departure, and approach procedures for Dallas-Fort Worth International airport, hundreds of charts needed to be changed to the new procedures all at once. With print-on-demand, Jeppesen can take these types of challenges in stride.
While print-on-demand is the future of printing, Jeppesen is also working to get beyond printing charts altogether. Employees know that the paperless cockpit, or electronic flight bag (EFB), is the wave of the future, and they intend to lead the way.
Jeppesen already produces electronic data and software for use on board private and business aircraft. JeppView software and services provide vector-based approach charts and electronic en route charts for use on PCs, laptops, portable displays, and cockpit multifunction displays. The company's NavData service includes the classic GPS card update service, and its Skybound service allows pilots to do their own GPS card updates via the Internet.
Airlines are adopting even more sophisticated systems. Jeppesen provides all the software -- including the award-winning Taxi Positional Awareness application -- for the Boeing EFB, the first fully integrated EFB certified by the FAA for Part 121 service. It has all the charts, plus electronic performance calculations, checklists, taxi-position awareness, document browsers for electronic manuals, electronic fault-finders, and maintenance logs. Eventually it will also have high-speed Internet for datalinked weather, NOTAMs, and email, too. Jeppesen is working with a variety of hardware providers to supply similar software for portable EFBs as well.
For future cockpits, Jeppesen is working on synthetic vision systems. This highway-in-the-sky technology allows you to see 3D navigation fixes, terrain, obstacles, and airports on the primary flight display in any weather. The system has already been demonstrated in a Piper Cheyenne on flights out of Centennial Airport in Denver. Jeppesen is also working with NASA, Honeywell, Rockwell Collins, and other companies on synthetic vision systems. Systems under development are very advanced, and regulatory hurdles are the primary challenge facing them at this point.
The next time you visit your local pilot shop and see those stacks of cubbyholes filled with Jeppesen charts, take a moment to consider what it took to get them there. Captain Jepp created a company that continues to drive the development of the world's aviation system. Although he passed away in 1996 at the age of 89, he leaves us a legacy of aviation safety that will reach far into the future. And with the new projects Jeppesen has under development, its clear that the famous chart factory is set to revolutionize the way we fly once again.
Editor's Note: You can also read an interview with Captain Jepp here on AVweb.
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