Product Roundup: PDAs in the Cockpit

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With the right software, PDAs (personal digital assistants) allow their users to take notes, check email and perform a host of other tasks. It was inevitable that they would find their way into the cockpit. But what applications are available for them? AVweb's Denny Arar takes a look at the software available for the most popular of these devices the Palm in this product roundup.

The folks who created the world's most popular personal digital assistant may have been prescient when they called them Pilots (and later, PalmPilots). Several versions later, the Pilot part of the name is gone, but these ubiquitous palmtop computers lead a not-so-secret life as great tools for aviators. Software for devices based on the Palm operating system can help you with almost every aspect of flight planning and log maintenance, or even boning up for an FAA exam. Add the right hardware accessory and your Palm can be a GPS device or a weather information receiver. For pilots, who invariably tend to be gadget freaks, the Palm is a natural companion.

Some Hardware Notes

If you don't already own a Palm, here's some basic information to introduce the diminutive devices and their lineage.

Palm IIIc (image copyright Palm Inc.)Devices based on the Palm operating system currently include several flavors each of the Palm III and V; the Palm VII (with built-in wireless connectivity to the Internet); the IBM WorkPad; and Handspring Visor. Prices range from about $180 or so for an entry-level model (including the HotSync cradle you'll need to install software from your PC) to $499 for the Palm IIIc, the first Palm with a color screen. Palm Inc., the company (now a 3Com subsidiary) that makes Palms, has done an admirable job of maintaining backwards compatibility on the operating system so that most older models (Palm O.S. 2.0 or later, which basically covers everything after the Pilot 5000) can run most Palm software. But note that I used Palm III series models to try out the products in this review. Also note that older models have less memory in which to store applications; to make room for the full-featured flight-planners, you might have to remove other apps.

Accessories...

Palm HotSync cradle (image copyright Palm Inc.)If you're thinking of chucking your trusty kneeboard in favor of your handheld for in-flight use, make sure you're comfortable with the brightness of the screen a personal decision you can only make by actually trying out your handheld in your own cockpit under "real-life" conditions. And to keep your PDA handy, you'll also want to consider buying either a yoke mount (Revolv Design offers one for $59.95, but only for Palm III models) or Force Technology's Bond (for all Palm Computing devices) basically a lanyard that latches firmly to the bottom of the PDA, which you can then hang around your neck.

...And Shopping Resources

Don't expect to buy Palm-based products for aviators off-the-shelf at your local computer mega-store: You'll be shopping online and downloading software from the Web. The good news is that you'll be able to try almost all the software packages before you buy, either in demo form with certain features crippled, or as trialware that expires after a set period. I found many of the packages I looked at by browsing Zenith Air's helpful PalmPilot for Aviators page; it's not an online shop, but there are links to the Web sites for the products. Annoyingly, however, Zenith Air puts the product Web sites in frames: You can't see their URLs to bookmark them. Even worse, after a few seconds Zenith Air's homepage returns without prompting. Still, it's a good resource.

A handful of e-tailers sell these products. They're easiest to find at PalmGear HQ, which lists 44 in its Aviation category (curiously, a keyword search under "Aviation" returned only 32 entries). The huge Handango PDA software store, formerly known as PalmCentral, carries some of these products as well.

Say Goodbye to Your E6B!

FlyTimer 2000...

FlyTimer main menuThe most ambitious Palm software for pilots is FlyTimer's FlyTimer 2000, a combination desktop-PDA package that costs $89.95 at FlyTimer's Web site and promises soup-to-nuts flight planning functionality. The concept is that you do heavy-duty data entry i.e., flight plans and checklists on the desktop, then transfer your creations to the Palm during a HotSync session. Then you can take the Palm with you on your flight, using the checklists and flight plans the same way you'd use handwritten ones thereby eliminating some cockpit paper clutter.

FlyTimer is the only one of the products that you can't download. It comes on a CD-ROM, along with a security key code required for installation, which for me at least, was a time-consuming hassle. For starters, I had to upgrade my Palm desktop and HotSync programs (neither of which were that old to begin with) with later versions available on Palm Inc.'s Web site. Then the desktop piece of FlyTimer 2000 wouldn't run because I had to get a new version of a .dll file for my Windows installation. While the people at FlyTimer were very helpful (and even lent me a color Palm IIIc for this round-up), a user who had to seek as much tech support as I needed through conventional means probably would have become very frustrated.

Properly installed on both desktop and Palm, FlyTimer 2000 has lots to offer after you spend some time on setup. The only screen that must be filled out on the Palm itself is the one with your basic aircraft information, including identifier, UTC adjustment, usable fuel capacity and burn rate (presumably at cruise, although it's not specified). Flight plans and checklists are best dealt with via the desktop software. It comes with an impressive collection of checklists that you can easily customize (although I wish they were organized in chronological sequence as they are once you transfer them to the Palm rather than alphabetically, so that the Descent checklist is near the top while Starting Engine is towards the bottom). Equally impressive is the inclusion of the entire current (at shipping time) FAA Aeronautical Services Informational ATA-120 database of waypoints airports (organized by identifier codes), VORs, and NDBs plus space to enter fixes and user-defined waypoints. It's easy to pick the waypoints you want and add them to your flight plan.

When you're through customizing checklists and putting together your flight plan (you can create as many as you like), you simply install the FlyTimer 2000 .prc file using the Palm desktop software, then HotSync to transfer everything to your PDA. You now can navigate through your various checklists and activate your flight plan; the software brings up each leg and times it until you tap on "End." You can also add your own alarms to remind you when to switch fuel tanks, for example. The waypoints in the database have latitude and longitude pre-entered, so the Palm automatically performs fuel calculations.

I did run into another glitch. When I activated my test flight plan, the legs of the flight came up backwards. The company told me they'll fix this in future releases, and also gave me a workaround but it certainly was irritating. FlyTimer 2000 also has a Utilities section which includes E6B calculators (as well as forms for PIREPs and useful reference info such as the meaning of various tower lights). Some of the E6B calculations such as wind corrections can be entered into the automatic flight planning routines, but again, the procedure isn't at all obvious or intuitive.

The folks at FlyTimer have tried very hard to make their software user-friendly. If you don't want to learn Graffiti the handwritten text-entry system used by the Palm OS in which each letter can be created by a single stylus stroke you can use a built-in software keypad which basically works like a phone keypad. But that's awkward and time-consuming at best, as you'll know if you've ever tried to spell somebody's name on a phone keypad in order to get to their voicemail box. And I was left feeling that I was doing a lot of extraneous tapping to navigate through the program. You have to tap once to highlight a menu item and then tap a "Select" button to go to it why not just let people go to the menu item when they tap on it? Overall, I suspect most people might find this ambitious program a little too much of a hassle for regular use.

...AirCalc Pro...

Air Calc Lite screenshotInfoEquipt's AirCalc Pro 2.0, another flight-planning package, costs more ($99.95, including a companion time calculator) but is less automated than FlyTimer 2000 mainly because it lacks the built-in waypoint databases. This means you either have to enter latitude and longitude coordinates for every waypoint manually (ugh), or you dispense with specific waypoints and just use the package to perform E6B calculations in logical sequence, carrying over the appropriate data between screens. This program does factor in wind and temperature correction. However I found it difficult to navigate between the multiple data entry screens.

The weight and balance section is first-rate, depicting the results in graphical form after you enter the envelope coordinates for your aircraft. You don't, however, get any checklists. I found AirCalc Pro too complex for my tastes (like FlyTimer 2000, it takes up nearly 400K of the Palm's limited memory), but it's certainly worth checking out if you're the thorough type and revel in calculating every minute detail of a flight.

InfoEquipt also has a midrange product, the $19.95 AirCalc Lite. It lacks leg planning but does offer most basic calculators (although I was dismayed to find that wind correction angle was among the missing features). InfoEquipt offers bundles that include its software products and either Revolv Design's yoke mount kit or a baggage scale, costing less than they would if bought separately.

...AV8R...

If you are comfortable with your paper flight plans but simply want some help with the math, AV8R is a great little product, or actually two bundled products that come in one download. The first, called simply AV8R, is basically a collection of E6B calculators time/distance, time/fuel, wind correction, conversions, and so forth. As with the other flight planners, results are carried over between calculators as appropriate: For example, if you figure out how long a flight leg will take and then select the fuel calculator, you'll find the time already entered.

AV8R-WB, the second app, handles the weight and balance chores. Once you've entered all the data, including the points defining the envelope of your aircraft's tolerances, the program generates a graph showing whether you're within limits. All this for only $10 and the developer donates some of the proceeds to Young Eagles. What a deal! By way of comparison, you'd pay $8 to get a weight-and-balance-only program from Benc Software Productions.

...It's in the Wind...

Speaking of Benc Software Productions, how about a quick and easy way to figure out a crosswind component and head- or tailwind? You input the runway and wind info and the company's $10 Pilot's Wind Computer doesn't just do the math to help you make sure you don't exceed your aircraft's limits: it generates a graphic to show you runway and wind on a compass. Stand Alone Inc.'s Crosswind Calculator does much the same, for the same price, so check out both sites to see which one's appearance you prefer.

...And More

Another deal: Bit Heaven Software's Pilot's Friend, a $7 shareware app for tracking elapsed time for VFR flights and using it to calculate fuel consumption and distance based on your input. Pilot's Friend also automatically exports trip data to Bit Heaven's $5 shareware logging program, Pilog Pro. Nothing fancy here, but it's a cheap alternative to jotting down the same stuff on a paper planner.

A product from French developer GPS Pilot lets you use map data either supplied or from an attached GPS device to produce the type of information you get from a dedicated GPS unit costing hundreds of dollars more than a Palm. With the $80 Flying Pilot 4.1, you input your waypoints, aircraft and wind info to get maps, distances and estimated time en route. The software supports GPS input, too. Flying Pilot is one of several mapping and GPS products for Palms from this French software developer, so check out their Web site

Logs & Checklists

If you're carrying a Palm anyway, you might be able to forgo a logbook or checklist. On the low end, Stormgate Communications' AvLogbook ($12) is a capable logbook with enough filtering and sorting options to ease the task of tracking down an ancient sortie. Stormgate offers free utilities to convert data from your Palm logbook into a .CSV format text file and vice versa. This lets you import these all-important logbook records to a spreadsheet on your PC or send properly formatted desktop logs to the Palm.

Stormgate also has a checklist program. Very reasonably priced at $5, AvCheck requires generating the list on your desktop and then converting it to a Palm data file with another free utility. You can, of course, use it for anything that requires a checklist.

If you just want a little app to help you store flight information so you can transfer it later on by hand, Bit Heaven's Pilog Lite is a free download. But for $5, the Pro version stores multiple trips and imports data from Bit Heaven's Pilot's Friend trip-tracking software (see above).

If you make your living as a pilot, you might be willing to spring for a more powerful desktop/Palm duo. NimbleFeet Technologies' Captain's Keeper offers a detailed database that syncs directly to a Windows desktop application. It lets you generate all sorts of reports and printouts. But for most GA pilots, this $99.95 bundle will be overkill.

Test Yourself

Is there a written FAA exam in your future? You're probably spending every spare second with your nose in a Gleim test prep book, but it's a bit unwieldy to lug with you all day long. Palmtop Publishing has an alternative: its Private Pilot Pocket Review a companion product to Gleim's printed product lets you drill yourself anyplace you can sit down with your Palm. It's not cheap $49.95 for the Private Pilot review but you can take it with you almost anywhere and it's got tons of multiple-choice questions to help you bone up for the big day. [Customers will receive a coupon worth $20 or more towards the purchase of the Palmtop Aviator's Bundle with any order for a Gleim "red book". Ed.]

The Instrument Pilot Pocket Review goes for $69.95, and Palmtop Publishing has recently launched modules for commercial pilot, ATP, CFI and flight engineering tests. The company also sells a very useful Airman's Pocket Reference, which offers information on everything from light gun signals to common aviation terminology plus some basic calculators as well. It's $49.95 by itself, but you can save a couple of bucks by getting it as a bundle with the Private Pilot Pocket Review for $89.90.

More?

Regardless of how you use a computer now and what your automation needs are for your flying, odds are that more and more aviation-specific applications will be forthcoming for the Palm. And, while this product roundup was confined to devices capable of running the Palm OS which has the largest market share, by far, for this segment of the industry similar applications are available for PDAs using Microsoft's Windows CE operating system. AVweb intends periodically to update this roundup with additional details on these applications, new ones that come on the market and those available for Windows CE devices. Until then ... .