The Day My Tablet Died

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Many pilots are placing more reliance on the Electronic Flight Bag. This requires that we become aware of its foibles as well as its magic.

Portable moving map displays have come a long way towards making the lost pilot a thing of the past. However, its use requires more awareness and preparation on the pilot’s part—especially in the IFR environment. Overall, this is a positive development resulting from the advent of cockpit tablets and associated aviation apps. But the pilot must be fully aware of the possible problems that arise with the use of the tablet.

The Problem

Recently, I was flying in Florida with an ambient temperature of about 90-degrees when my iPad went dark. I couldn’t turn it on and thought it had died for good; however, just like the phoenix, it revived itself on the drive home—a few hours later. For me it was a minor inconvenience but potentially could have been more serious.

Most IFR pilots have switched to Electronic Flight Bags (EFB), which include hardware and aviation apps. I subscribe to ForeFlight, Garmin Pilot and JeppFD for Florida. I’m relatively proficient, but not an expert. Both ForeFlight and Garmin Pilot provide considerable capability including weather, filing a flight plan, weight & balance, or finding the telephone number of the FBO at the destination.

In flight, if the tablet is connected to a wireless AHRS source, backup attitude information including heading, ground speed and GPS altitude might be provided by the app. However, for purposes of this discussion, I’m going to limit EFBs and associated apps only to IFR enroute and terminal charts (SIDs and STARs). I’ll call them e-charts to differentiate them from charts—the old-fashioned type printed on paper. JeppFD provides only e-charts but my subscription also provides paper enroute charts.

A couple of designated pilot examiners told me that they routinely “fail” an applicant’s tablet during practical tests. Some private applicants take on a “deer in the headlight” look—especially when flying C172s with analog instruments and no moving map. In demonstrating a diversion, the applicants can’t simply use the “nearest” airport feature. They must also be able to read a chart and draw a course with a plotter. Instrument applicants must also demonstrate that they can fly without a moving map. If they show up with a G1000 airplane for the practical, at some point the G1000 goes dark.

In little more than a decade the cockpit tablet has become an indispensible part of flying IFR. But be aware of its dark side.

Regulatory Issues

Part 91 regulations don’t require pilots to carry charts in an airplane, and if the pilots do, there is no requirement that the charts be current. However, if a pilot runs into a recently built wind turbine (and survives), the FAA could invoke FAR 91.13 Careless or Reckless Operation and FAR 91.103 Preflight Action rule—the requirement to be familiar with all available information regarding that flight. It would include any relevant information gleaned from aeronautical charts.

Comparing e-Charts With Paper

The following is a personal and subjective comparison and I look forward to hearing differing opinions. The big advantages of e-charts are:

  1. Instrument e-charts are up-todate, only if you update the apps periodically. However, you still need to check for NOTAMS for last-minute changes. Usually the NOTAMS are available through the apps—if connected to the internet.
  2. Geo-referencing provides an unambiguous graphical real-time location but usually requires a higher-level subscription. That is a big benefit especially for terminal charts.
  3. Much lighter flight bag. Just the Jepp Florida approach charts fill a 2-inch Jepp binder.
  4. Most of us have experienced an IAP chart departing through an open door/window during a run-up. Not so with e-charts.
  5. The enroute e-charts developed exclusively for apps allow turning on and off layers with different information such as weather, contour information, and geographical landmarks like roads. Zooming in and out is advantageous to see more or less detail.

Advantages Of Paper

The major advantages of paper enroute charts over enroute e-charts:

  1. For planning purposes, I find paper easier to use especially for trips of more than 500 miles.
  2. In flight, especially in unfamiliar airspace, when I hear “advise when ready to copy an amended routing” I usually depend on the paper enroute chart to re-orient myself.
  3. Perhaps due to my familiarity, I can find information quicker—especially frequencies.
  4. Even in light turbulence, maneuvering an iPad Mini is sometimes a challenge. Perhaps less so with a larger tablet, but a larger tablet would not work well in my Mooney.

Backup

Facing the reality of e-charts and tablet failure modes, we need backup. What are the options? Let’s start with my specific situation, fully realizing that it might not be universal. In my Mooney, I have a Garmin GTN 750, which has enroute and terminal echarts and a Garmin GTN 650 with enroute e-charts. Additionally, I have my iPad with the previously mentioned apps.

Thus, I have several e-chart electronic sources, all geo-referenced, both panel mounted and portable. However, I still carry Jepp enroute paper charts as back up. I also have the option to print, prior to the flight, terminal charts—should I want further backup.

I’m not suggesting that my approach is the only one (or even the best one) especially since it depends on installed and portable equipment. I look forward to hearing from fellow subscribers about your perceived need for a backup.

Address The Overheating

Cooling the tablet can be accomplished using the X-Naut Cooling Case, to which the tablet is affixed and the entire assembly can be mounted.

In warm climates when the display is active and facing the sun, and perhaps connected to a charging source, temperatures can easily reach three digits. This could be enough for the unit to go into self-preservation mode and shut down. Once it shuts down, it might not revive during the flight since it needs lower ambient temperatures to cool off.

For pilots who fly airplanes without panel mounted moving maps and terminal e-charts, the solution may be to carry two tablets. This might be acceptable in some parts of the country but not a solution in hot weather. If the first tablet has a thermal shut down, the second one might do likewise shortly thereafter.

One way to keep the iPad cool is to use an X-Naut Cooling Case. The iPad Mini version has two cooling fans and is powered by four AA batteries or mini-USB cable. The iPad version uses four fans (as illustrated) It is a bit clunky size-wise but seems to work well. Turn it on before getting into the plane and keep the iPad away from direct sunlight. While the tablet can be of considerable help in the cockpit, it requires dedicated planning to ensure it provides the needed information in a timely manner.

Luca Bencini-Tibo ATP/CFII, is a FAASTeam Lead Rep, aircraft owner and is a graduate of MIT and Harvard Business School.

This article originally appeared in the November 2017 issue of IFR Refresher magazine.

For more great content like this, subscribe to IFR Refresher!

 

Comments (6)

It's interesting that the disadvantages listed are the writer's personal preferences, but doesn't include any universal downsides to e-charts: The tablet could overheat or run out of battery and shut down, or the software itself could crash. There is also the matter of forgetting to download the charts required for the flight.

As far as backups go, all of the major EFB providers I'm aware of allow for at least two copies under the same subscription. I personally use my phone as my backup device; while it's a much smaller screen and not as convenient, it does work.

I have also found that contrary to the writer's experience (or at least assumption), having the tablet plugged in to a power source causes it to heat up less than when it's running off of its internal battery. This works best if you start off on external power (so the battery never depletes enough to need charging), which also has the added benefit of saving the tablet's battery power in case the aircraft electrical system goes offline.

Posted by: Gary Baluha | May 21, 2018 1:38 PM    Report this comment

Gary,

I have a personal tablet, personal phone, work tablet, and a work phone, all with EFB. My tablet and personal phone are complete mirrors that have complete CONUS/Canada/Carribean charts. My work tablet/phone have charts for the places I'm flying "now" because of space constraints. In addition, I have two separate WAAS GPS (one with AHRS) units that are always charged, plus all of the devices have their own (lower resolution) GPS capability.

I got the idea from a story (possibly apocryphal) where the examiner or CFI told the pilot to take off the (reading) glasses off in a controlled scenario for some reason. The pilot then took out another pair of glasses, which where listed as "dropped" by the examiner / CFI, so he took out another pair of readers and asked if he wanted those "dropped" as well. The examiner / CFI laughed and said yes, so the pilot pulled out yet another pair of readers. At that point the examiner / CFI said "ok you win" effectively.

I had a CFI doing my BFR fail my tablet, he laughed when I turned my phone on and promptly failed the AHRS GPS and my in-panel GPS. I then pulled out the mini-WAAS GPS I keep in my eVest and pressed the power button while keeping the plane straight & level. He asked what would happen if he failed my phone, I pulled out my work phone, clipped it to the mount, and handed him my personal phone. At that point he figured out that I had planned sufficiently far ahead so we moved onto other scenarios. Had he failed my other GPS, I would've had the built in (lower resolution) device GPS. Had he failed that phone I would've still had my final tablet. If you have enough backups it gets to the point where the examiner / CFI runs out of plausibility, but worst case scenario is he fails everything with any electrics in the panel and all external devices for some reason. I'm still comfortable flying like that, but really the examiner / CFI just passed from plausibility to being ridiculous.

Posted by: Joe Servov | May 21, 2018 4:09 PM    Report this comment

Paper charts are a nightmare during turbulence while trying to fly. Having electronic backups is just common sense. I even carry a bad Elf for a backup just in case.

Posted by: bruce postlethwait | May 22, 2018 7:15 PM    Report this comment

It's pointless to argue against ForeFlight like e-Nav devices and/or paper backups. The pilot should be encouraged to be properly organized, practical and proficient in the use of both.

Posted by: Rafael Sierra | May 23, 2018 12:58 AM    Report this comment

I was doing an ILS in actual with my plate on ForeFlight. My intermittent G/S decided to fail leaving me with a LOC approach to minimums (if I were lucky). I don't know what I hit on the iPad but it locked up. I had to fumble for my paper charts. NOW I have the paper approach plate ready if it will be a low approach. Yes, I've kept my paper subscriptions.

The ADS-B in radar, airports' ceiling/vis, and real-time PIREPs are WONDERFUL and cause me to divert when necessary or continue when I can in bad WX.

The X-Naut Cooling mount (that interfaces to my RAM mount) is GREAT! Never does the iPad overheat even in the summer here in Georgia or Florida or The Bahamas! Before that, the iPad was useless in the summer. Yes, charging my iPad Air heated it up faster than running off the battery and charging is necessary on multi-hop trips.

Be prepared for a iPad failure or GPS failure, especially IMC or at night. I agree that an examiner should flunk anyone who can't handle a failure of any piece of electronics or the alternator or vacuum or even the pitot tube. I've suffered all of these over the years!

This said, I LOVE my ForeFlight, BadElf GPS, and Stratus ADS-B in! I carry redundant charging/power cables and iPad DualMicro RapidCharger (plugs in 12V jack, $29.99 from MarvGolden.com, doesn't vibrate out of the jack)! I can't see spending 10-20 times more for panel-mount.

Posted by: Bob Toxen | June 5, 2018 12:56 AM    Report this comment

We're creating imbeciles in flight training now.....very little stick and rudder, dependency on technology, and loading the student up with checklists that used to be a half a page long........Sorry......I'm an old fogie.

Posted by: Sandy McQueen | June 8, 2018 5:37 PM    Report this comment

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