Monday, October 26, 2009
A digital replacement for most cockpit paper (but keep your clearance pad!)
Over the years, we’ve reviewed quite a few electronic flight bags (EFBs) and other devices that have claimed to eliminate paper from the cockpit. While each had its pros and cons, the fact remains that nothing has been a complete replacement for paper charts, especially for instrument pilots. FlightPrep’s ChartBook comes close, offering FAA NACO sectional, WAC, TAC, high- and low-altitude instrument procedures, plus GPS moving map, flight planning and optional in-flight weather and traffic-avoidance functions. All this in a hardbound-book-sized package that weighs less than three pounds and works quite well in the cockpit.
Like other EFBs, ChartBook is based on a general-purpose computer; but FlightPrep chose a different platform than the usual notebook or tablet PC. ChartBook’s hardware is a modified version of a CTL Convertible Classmate PC, built on Intel’s Atom processor (also used in low-cost “netbook” devices) running Microsoft’s Windows XP Home Edition. The Classmate PC is a small notebook PC for school children, which accounts for its relatively small size (9.5x7.5x1.5 inches) and diminutive keyboard (adults may find it cramped). I didn’t write this article on it, but it was perfectly acceptable for preflight use, i.e., entering waypoints and getting weather briefings. The term “convertible” refers to ChartBook’s touch-screen display, which folds down over the keyboard to make a tablet PC–like package that can be controlled using the built-in stylus or a fingertip.
FlightPrep made two major modifications to turn CTL’s Convertible Classmate into an effective EFB: First, the hard disk is replaced with a 32 GB solid-state disk (SSD) that has no moving parts and can be used at any altitude (conventional hard disks have media that spin at high speeds, cushioned by air pressure, which makes them vulnerable to shock and prone to failure in the flight levels). Second, my evaluation unit had an upgraded screen with increased brightness (a $200 option). It was easily the brightest and clearest display I’ve seen on any battery-powered EFB—it worked well even in direct sunlight (at full brightness, I could use it with sunglasses). I’d highly recommend it to anyone considering ChartBook.
To exploit ChartBook’s hardware, FlightPrep bundles it with its ChartCase Version 5 software. It has two operating modes that neatly match the hardware’s two configurations: By default, it starts in a preflight mode with a Windows menu bar. This worked well with the ChartCase in a conventional notebook PC configuration. It provides full flight planning and filing (including a sophisticated plain-language router function that lets you combine automatic routing at selected altitudes on Victor airways with specific fixes) and full DUATS weather briefing and filing functions, with both a configurable computer-generated vector chart and on-screen display of raster-scanned versions of NACO paper charts.
For cockpit use, there’s an in-flight mode (selected from a toolbar icon) that does away with the Windows menu bar and, instead, operates from large on-screen buttons that are easily selected with a fingertip. By default, the in-flight mode splits the display between an editable route list and GPS moving map, but if you press the “Charts” button, it’ll switch to a full-screen display that shows a sectional chart with the aircraft position superimposed over it. At that point, other buttons will let you look at any of the other charts (such as the low-altitude en route chart in our photo), and zoom in or out (there are eight zoom levels).
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