Next? Death of the Approach Plates

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If you spent any time in the military, you may have heard the phrase "steadying the horses" as a euphemism for a dated procedure that makes no sense. It refers to a story, perhaps apocryphal, in which 20th century Army investigators once discovered that artillery crews couldn't increase their rate of fire because the field manual required waiting 20 seconds between rounds to steady the horses that once drew the caissons, but hadn't for 50 years.

As I've continued evaluating the new iPad mini, it occurs to me that we have lots of horse steadying going on it aviation, no more so than with the format of the approach plate. Anyone who evaluates a new tablet will, sooner rather than later, call up a plate and see how it looks on the display. It's a fact that neither the iPad, the mini nor any of 7-inch tablets will display a plate full size suitable for the typical 45-year-old presbyope to comfortably read. So you pinch scale it up and view it in sections. No biggie, really.

But it is a compromise. Even as tablets improve in leaps and bounds, their escalating capabilities continue to be hobbled by having to display a paper graphic standard created 70 years ago. Now I know all the arguments to retain the familiar plate design, most of which are rooted in overblown claims that standardization equates to safety. It sometimes does, but on the other hand, as an instrument instructor, I spent a lot of time training students to look through all the clutter on a typical plate to pick out maybe five bits of relevant data.

We all know we're eventually going to abandon the standard approach plate graphic format, we just don't know when. The accelerating pace of tablet acceptance will, I hope, eventually force the issue. And we're at a good juncture for this to happen. We've previously reported on the FAA AeroNav division's desire to charge more for its data to offset dwindling revenue from the sale of paper products. If the government and the FAA in particular are really serious about saving money, why not ride the breaking tablet wave, do away with AeroNav's cumbersome drafting process and start working on formats that suit these devices?

What that would be, probably, is not a tif of some new paper design but a data-driven approach that would allow the app itself to draw an approach graphic optimized for its display capabilities. I'm told that if apps aren't capable of this now, they eventually will be and not very far in the future.

The FAA and vested interests—AeroNav and perhaps Jeppesen—may resist a change like this simply because of inertia. But as tablets get cheaper, more capable and easier to use, the pace of their adoption will accelerate and sheer market momentum will likely force a tipping point away from paper.

I'm not sure of the timeline of this, frankly. But I'll place my bet now: Within three years, you'll see the first innovative new approach-plate graphic designed specifically for tablet display. When you press the airport icon, followed by the approach you want, it will be there perfectly scaled and readable.

We're getting long overdue to put these horses back in the barn permanently.

Comments (34)

Until the FAA actually accepts tablets or versions of the IPad for air carriers without the usual grief they are good at giving when trying to get them approved for cockpit use, I seriously doubt there will be any changes to the standard approach plate, unless there are some serious changes in the way the FAA operates. As for pt91 users who knows.

Posted by: matthew wagner | November 28, 2012 8:39 PM    Report this comment

I love your column Paul and it’s usually the first thing I read on Avweb. But I disagree that the current approach plate graphic format as we know it will be abandoned any time soon. The paper method of delivery is going away but I think the format in which the information is presented, particularly with Jepp plates, is very good and has undergone a huge amount of improvement even over the past 20 years. I recently started using NACO charts much more but I still have a Jepp subscription so I’ve had a chance to really compare the two. Even seemingly small differences make a big impact on how easily you can find the needed information. Today’s charts are the result of millions of hours of experience and human factor engineering and they do a good job are presenting a lot of data but making the high priority stuff easy to find. I think tablets will allow some incremental changes in the same way paper charts have evolved over the years. But like the current format it will be the result of slow, painstaking research into what really works best.

Posted by: Scott Dickey | November 28, 2012 11:48 PM    Report this comment

Actually, the in-panel capabilities of current avionics could be better-utilized as well. I've long thought that you could almost do away with the plate if the necessary info was in the box. With a GNS530 in the panel I have the profile view available once the approach is loaded but I still need the plate to get all of the info that is not in the 530. Perhaps more advanced FMS systems display all of that but, what I still need the plate for are:

The layout so I can see which transition to load. On many approaches, particularly the GPT T, there are multiple initial fixes so I need to see the overview to pick the right one (never mind pronouncing some of them). The overview could be shown as I scroll through them maybe but a plate system that showed that first would help and have less clutter.

The minimums. Yes there are 4 categories of A/C for which mins are shown on the plate but the box is installed in 1 A/C so we know the catagory at install. An electronic plate system could also be set up to show only one category for reduced clutter.

The missed procedure. The GPS will take me to the holding fix but the direction of turn or "climb to XXX then turn" are not depicted.

A system that was set up the way we brief plates, that used all of the screen real estate for each of those individual parts would make each part more readable.

Posted by: TIM MORRISON | November 29, 2012 7:53 AM    Report this comment

Until there are approved "pathway in the sky" displays for approaches, we ARE still "using horses" in aviation. A tablet is just a good piece of paper; we need real approved 3D approaches/displays to enter the modern age.

Posted by: Mark Fraser | November 29, 2012 8:11 AM    Report this comment


You make a good point about horses. Like Scott Dickey, not so sure about format. There are livelihoods, not mindless inertia, at stake in FAA and elsewhere, tied to the existing processes. I expect a vigorous rear guard action. I'd look elsewhere from AeroNav's desperate effort to replace a revenue stream, and only partially at the capabilities of tablets, to see where the underlying processes are changing or can be changed.

For example, in the G1000 approach you've seen a series of magenta rectangles on screen lead to the airport, an extension of the enroute rectangles from your flight plan. Like a video game, just keep the view inside the rectangles and all works out just fine. Slick format. You still need the plate for details like MDA, freqs, where to get weather if not at the destination, and so on. If all that was published was data needed to draw the screen, and maybe a little essential info in a box with MDA et al, and maybe some or all info in the box is sensitive to location and altitude -- well you get the drift, and I'm probably a few years behind what is actually going on.

The trick is moving those with livelihoods to a new livelihoods based on new processes. The process would split because not everyone has a G1000-like panel. Elements of the old process would persist to the extent those with older gear will need something like the old plate. They could see the older format on their tablet, and maybe even in paper if they chose.


Posted by: DANIEL DEDONA | November 29, 2012 8:20 AM    Report this comment

Extend this to the TERPs process, restricting data collection and design to only what is needed in data to draw either electronic or paper maps and plates, and you've got most of the costs surrounded.

As soon as the underlying data structure to support two or more lines of the process is established, AeroNav could figure out costs for the new supporting infrastructure and all will be well for Pt 91 ;-) . . . and everyone else, I suppose.

Would love to know what FAA and AeroNav are thinking. One thing about pilots - we make our own decisions over time. The decisions we made pushed handheld GPS well before it was "approved", pushed iPads well before formal acceptance, and are killing AeroNav's paper cash cow. Their first attempt to deal with it was largely uninformed, to be kind. Not sure how insular their retreat to reconsider has been. Maybe you could share what you know? One thing is sure. The longer they keep the discussion bottled up, the worse their feelings are going to be hurt when they look up and see where we've gone. Makes you wonder why they keep doing that ;-).

Posted by: DANIEL DEDONA | November 29, 2012 8:21 AM    Report this comment

Paul--you always have thought-provoking columns!

How about examples of the kind of changes you envision?

Posted by: jim hanson | November 29, 2012 8:25 AM    Report this comment

Paul--you always have such thought-provoking columns!

How about examples of the kind of changes you envision?

Posted by: jim hanson | November 29, 2012 8:27 AM    Report this comment

One of my problems with switching to electronic-only version of aviation navigation charts is cost. If I spend $20/mo on paper charts and purchase a $500 tablet, it'll take me 2.5 years to break even (assuming $100/year data subscription costs). But it's also easier to pay in small increments over time for my paper chart subscriptions than it is to plop down one large lump sum.

There is also the problem of battery/software/device failure to contend with, compared to paper. Which really means it's $1200 and 5 years before you reach the break even point. (Though fortunately, I have a 696 which counts as an EFB, so I only need one more device).

That being said, I'm sure at some point I will eventually go paperless if for no other reason because it'll become harder and harder to buy the paper charts at a reasonable cost. But I'd rather not be forced to do so until I feel comfortable with the concept.

Posted by: Gary Baluha | November 29, 2012 8:45 AM    Report this comment

I love your column Paul and it’s usually the first thing I read on Avweb. But I disagree that the current approach plate graphic format as we know it will be abandoned any time soon. The paper method of delivery is going away but I think the format in which the information is presented, particularly with Jepp plates, is very good and has undergone a huge amount of improvement even over the past 20 years. I recently started using NACO charts much more but I still have a Jepp subscription so I’ve had a chance to really compare the two. Even seemingly small differences make a big impact on how easily you can find the needed information. Today’s charts are the result of millions of hours of experience and human factor engineering and they do a good job are presenting a lot of data but making the high priority stuff easy to find. I think tablets will allow some incremental changes in the same way paper charts have evolved over the years. But like the current format it will be the result of slow, painstaking research into what really works best.

Posted by: Scott Dickey | November 29, 2012 9:11 AM    Report this comment

When I call up an approach plate on my iPad, it is perfectly scaled, and readable.

If you want to go iPad Mini, good luck pinch zooming. I can't see that to be entirely a safe operation when you're on the final segment. It's just a matter of time before someone craters one because of an iPad.

The FAA allows iPad to be a paper replacement solution to approach plates and charts. Anything beyond that I suspect will require a panel mount that has real redundancy and fail over solutions that an iPad simply isn't capable of. It doesn't matter how you present the approach plates. A dead battery on an iPad or an iOS crash at the wrong time, and well...good luck.

Posted by: Amy Zucco | November 29, 2012 9:27 AM    Report this comment

I would agree with amy's comments. i use foreflight on my iPad 3, and have no trouble viewing (i'm 69) any NACO approach plate. when you rotate the ipad to portrait format, the plate fills the entire screen. my only beef is that you have to lock the view to keep the plate full-screen when you re-rotate the ipad to landscape format.

i also have a seattle avionics subscription, which allows me to geo-reference my position on the approach plate. that is simply awesome. because we've learned from approach plates, it's more informative (from a situational awareness point of view) to see where your ship is on a plan view than on a gps (GNS530, say) map.

i'd like to also have the capability of having geo-referencing on a profile view.

Posted by: MILLARD ALEXANDER | November 29, 2012 9:55 AM    Report this comment

I fly with foreflight on an ipad3.

The ipad screen is not visible in direct sunlight (and only just visible on a bright day out of sunlight). The ipad touch interface is not usable in turbulence. The ipad will turn itself off to cool off in the middle of a flight on a hot day.

No device with these issues can or should replace paper, and paper should always be in the cockpit as a backup.

The ipad is great on the couch in the living room, but merely helpful in the air.

Posted by: Unknown | November 29, 2012 10:25 AM    Report this comment

We need to be careful and deliberate about moving from paper plates to electronic plates on tablets. The tablets must be more reliable than they are now. Paper does not crash. Tablets do. I recently witnessed a tablet crash during an instrument approach in IMC. Thankfully, a paper plate was on hand.

Posted by: Unknown | November 29, 2012 10:37 AM    Report this comment

Just pick your platform carefully. Those expensive aviation specific units I'm a lot more willing to use than consumer grade tablets. The consumer market is full of glossy screen (hard to read in sunlight) and overheating prone units that crash far too frequently. Yes, I use one, but I also carry all my plates as paper (I actually prefer flying off the paper ones, so the tablet is really sort of a backup in case the paper ones blow out the door or something). :-)

Posted by: Brian Knoblauch | November 29, 2012 10:59 AM    Report this comment

Depends on which plates you're reading. The Jepp design is more readable and less cluttered. On an iPad, the live area is one-for-one with the paper when the iPad is at full scale. (Not pinched up.) It's smaller than NACO plates, but the type is larger. NACO plates are a little less than 90 percent full on the iPad, with smaller set size on some the type and less snap from the paper.

Personally, I can't read the NACO well if it's in my lap; it's a squint. I detest having the iPad on the yoke, as many of us do. On the yoke, it's comfortable to read.

As for a redesign, there are dozens of ways to improve it. One is to adopt an amalgam of the current design decluttered and optimized for tablets. Another is to superimpose the required data on a tablet moving map--could be a sectional, an airport view or a low-alt IFR chart.

Put yourself in a minimum condition airplane: A steam gauge Cherokee with two navcomms. What do you need for the approach: the frequencies, the inbound course, the intermediate altitude, stepdowns, if any and DH/MDA. That's about it, really.

So I'd make any additional data configurable by the user. If you want to add MSA, elevations, obstacles, whatever, have a preference to do that. All this, by the way, is readily doable
for Part 91 ops. There's no 91 small aircraft requirement that you carry approved paper plates, just have "all available information."

Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | November 29, 2012 11:28 AM    Report this comment

As for the iPad failure and someone cratering, yeah well, someone will (and has) cratered because they didn't have a flashlight, got their shoelace caught on a rudder pedal and sneezed in the flare and cartwheeled the airplane. I could go on.

The FAA has and is approving tablets for some for-hire operators to go paperless and they are. Sensibly, both crew have their own iPads. Increasingly, we're hearing from Part 91 operators who have simply stopped carrying paper. To me, that's a small risk, but I don't consider it irrational. I guess at this point, I'd do it, too.

By the way, having the iPad go dark is not the terror you imagine it might be. Some years ago, flying Part 135 charter, I mistakenly pulled the wrong plate binder from a wing locker. The right was stored five feet away were I couldn't get the right plate. It was IMC, too. I told the controller, he briefed the plate for me and I landed. No big deal. I doubt if it's any different now.

To a degree, this is a little like another kind of horse steadying. We still teach students to plot a course and do basic pilotage, which they must demonstrate on the checkride, despite the fact that we know we are teaching them a skill they will never use. Or so rarely to hardly justify the effort to teach it. It has become yet another filter to pilothood--if you can do this task, well then, we guess you can be a pilot.

Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | November 29, 2012 11:40 AM    Report this comment

Since geo-referenced plates (e.g. foreflight) know where you are on the approach an "interactive" plate could highlight the important information for that segment of the approach (or arrival). Crossing altitudes, headings, turn entry, warnings if you stray too far in 3D space from the published info, etc. It's all there if the data is used instead of a rasterized paper plate.

And how about grabbing the latest metar from FIS for your destination as a gentle reminder to dial that ATIS - with the frequency made larger on the interactive plate so our older eyes can see it better. I can think of a few dozen other advantages as well.

I don't know all the legal details but I don't think anything stands in the way of Foreflight or others innovating in this space as an "advisory" enhancement to the existing plate info. They're probably already working on it.

Paul's absolutely right. the future is here.

Posted by: neil cormia | November 29, 2012 11:43 AM    Report this comment

As for maintaining a large AeroNav staff to provide employment, I dunno about that. When threatened with extinction by the march of technology or for any other reason, federal bureaucracies are very good at circling the wagons and protecting their internal interests, which is one reason we have a multi-trillion dollar public debt.

When I visited Jeppesen some years ago, we happened to look at some old plates showing LF approaches. "How old are these," I asked, thinking the 1940s. Nope. The last LF range was shut down in 1968, although I doubt many aircraft were flying them even in the 1950s.

I guess the overarching point is that tablets have proven to be far more disruptive than many of us thought to a degree of adoption that's quicker than many envisioned. And it's getting quicker. My view is that this breaking wave will just overwhelm any resistance to it, more so than any previous technological transitions.

But then I thought GPS was just a fad.

Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | November 29, 2012 11:50 AM    Report this comment

"I don't think anything stands in the way of Foreflight or others innovating in this space."

You're right. It's mainly getting the data, Neil. Right now, the app providers get the plates as completed graphic products. The data that goes to build them does exist, but evidently not in a way that get be accessed just yet. But it'll happen.

Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | November 29, 2012 11:52 AM    Report this comment

Jepp and other nav-data providers must get the raw approach and departure/arrival data or they couldn't reformat it for our IFR GPS units. Why can't app providers get it? Just curious - are the monks guarding the gate?

Posted by: neil cormia | November 29, 2012 11:58 AM    Report this comment

I'm not precisely sure at what level Jeppesen taps into the data. They may be getting the raw stuff, but I know that the app providers are working from the finished product in either PFD or tif provided by AeroNav.

Answering your question about why has proved elusive.

Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | November 29, 2012 12:27 PM    Report this comment

New data based plates would be nice, but current plate data could be much improved just by fixing the pdf output. NACO plates are needlessly bulky because all text is converted to millions of tiny line segments. All iPads include the Futura and Helvetica fonts used on NACO plates so there is no need for this data redundancy. The data size of current plates could easily be reduced by 10X just with this simple change. This would directly translate into smaller disk space requirements, faster downloads and faster drawing of the plates on the iPad.

FAA Aeronav has traditionally been bound to a paper process so data file size was not a concern. Now that a large portion of the fleet is going electronic, how about paying attention to the quality and size of the pdf data? Why can't we download the plates and navigation data to our iPad in less time than it takes to fly the route the plates cover?

Posted by: ERNIE BROCK | November 29, 2012 12:33 PM    Report this comment

Paul, WOW, I bet you have a strong opinion on this topic!

I believe your last comment on 'Disruptive Technologies' applies here. It's up to those small groups of outside entrepreneurs to make the leap into the flight profile 3rd dimension. Foreflight and others did it with a dumb iPad display and GPS locator to transform the way we view paper charts, 'Enhanced Paper Charts'. Garmin transformed the way we flight plan by using a computer generated 2 dimensional world. (Some Fad) So if we want to find the next disruptive technology; it's not likely the big technology guys, because they are protecting their present assets. Perhaps an inventive company can do it in 3 years, but it seems another display device is also needed for any newly invented information format.
I'm satisfied that some industry inventors are creating the next transition; with help by your commentary and blog. Clearly, the FAA will never take the first step because they will be taking our money to support something other than the Part 121 airlines.
History tells us, the Swiss invented the electronic watch but the Japanese developed and mastered the technology transition into the world market.

Posted by: PHILIP POTTS | November 29, 2012 1:03 PM    Report this comment

Older tablets that my company used had a nasty habit of locking up requiring rebooting. Other issues were other pilots that would change settings. Had one shut down during a training flight in the middle of an approach. After the feds recinded that EFB authorization when the new AC came out, it took 2 years of work to get approval for the IPads we are authorized to use now. After that happened Apple "upgraded" the software and now my company has to get that "upgrade" approved before we can use it. With the way the FAA works more "updates" will come out first creating a real mess for approvals. During another training session in the sim the touch screen became an issue during an approach when accidentally touching it with my arm when using the IPad with the leg strap that our POI required us to use. Paper doesn't lockup or go blank during an approach. The IPads we use still lock up occasionally but not anywhere near as bad as Windows based units. Pt 91 operators would be amazed at some of the silly restrictions POI's come up with for using the IPad for pt 135 ops. As I said earlier big changes in the way the FAA operates have to happen before paper approach plates are changed or eliminated.

Posted by: matthew wagner | November 29, 2012 8:41 PM    Report this comment

Let's take it a step further. In a glass-panel aircraft there's no need for ANY "plates" - whether on paper or on a hand-held device. Modern avionics are capable of overlaying flight-path constraints onto moving-map displays. They also are capable of commanding autopilots to execute flight paths that are compliant with those constraints. The visual presentation on a screen is just there to inform the pilot about what the boxes are doing. You could turn off the screen, and the boxes still would fly the same approach.

Even if you're hand-flying an approach, you'd be far better-served by an overlay on your nav display, than by having to integrate two separate pieces of information in your mind. It's like the difference between having to interpret swinging CDI needles versus simply looking at a moving-map display, to determine your position in the universe. There's no comparison.

Posted by: Tom Yarsley | November 30, 2012 6:28 AM    Report this comment

One point Paul mentioned is the graphic design of the plate itself. Often these things are designed by 20- and 30-year olds with athletic eye muscles; they have no clue what is about to hit them at age 40.

The use of small text when large areas of whitespace abound is not only wasteful of our optical resources but could be dangerous on final approach. As we age, not only does our near vision deteriorate but short term memory fades requiring more frequent looks at the chart. Note to Chart Makers: The TEXT should be as LARGE as possible!!

Posted by: A Richie | November 30, 2012 8:56 AM    Report this comment

Okay, we have navigation by iThingy and the Aussies are working out fly by wire for GA, so just toss your iPad in the cockpit then go home and play video games while your plane and iPad go fly wherever they want to.

Posted by: Richard Montague | November 30, 2012 10:18 AM    Report this comment

Just go look at the UK IAIP (equivalent to our US AFD) and their approach plates - clean, simple and with the right amount of color to make everything refreshingly crisp and clear.

Posted by: Graeme Smith | November 30, 2012 1:40 PM    Report this comment

Oh my god Paul, aviation is nothing but horses. Almost everything in it is at least 50 years old and stagnant:

FA reports
Carb heat on a brand new SkyCatcher.
Checkride a multi, you can't legally fly a single.
With AMES rating and have ASEL, you can't land ASES on water.

Etc, etc. Could literally go on for days.

Posted by: Adam Frisch | November 30, 2012 5:18 PM    Report this comment

I'm not a pilot, just an enthusiast- is it worth bringing the Kindle into question? Simpler tech, long battery life, display easy to read in direct sun...

Posted by: Joseph Schwartz | December 1, 2012 1:33 PM    Report this comment

I've been using Foreflight for about a year on an iPad 2, and I've been mostly happy with it. I recently purchased a year's worth of the Flight Guide IEFB, and I really like the ability to "overlay" the approach plate plan view onto any chart (sectional or enroute). The top and bottom sections of the plate appear as thumbnails in the upper corners of the display, and can be expanded by double-tapping on the thumbnail. Great situational awareness!

I too was a fan of Jeppesen over the NACO plates, but like most of us, I couldn't justify the cost of going to Jeppesen on the iPad. My view is they could corner the electronic plate market when (if?) NACO starts charging the app-makers for chart/plate data. If Jeppesen priced a similar product competitively, then Jepps would be everywhere on tablets.

Posted by: BRUCE POULTON | December 5, 2012 6:10 AM    Report this comment

Aviation is (or rather should be) evolutionary rather than revolutionary. This is the foundation of safety. I do not trust "gadgets" that frequently fail. Computers are completely unreliable, and you are deluding yourself if you think otherwise. I will continue to use paper for as long as I can, while the gadget-addicted kids (who have zero situational awareness without a moving map) crash a few airplanes to work the bugs out of the system.

Posted by: Ernest DeSimone | December 13, 2012 10:54 AM    Report this comment

Paper requires no care and feeding and is relatively robust. Everything electronic requires upkeep and is somewhat fragile. I'd like to see a pad like device that recharges itself in sunlight and automatically updates its contents every 28 days, is instantly on every time I stare at it, doesn't require finger gestures or other turbulence-incompatible methods to operate it and won't croak if left in an airplane below freezing or baking in the sun. I have a Kindle, and if it were bigger and downloaded plates instead of ads, and charged itself when sitting in the sun, it might be THE thing that replaces paper charts. I can't help but imagine SOMEONE will come up with such a device soon and the regulators will end up cooperating with the demand from pilots.

Posted by: FILL CEE | December 14, 2012 2:23 AM    Report this comment

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