Not too long ago, I was completing a pre-flight walkaround of a Boeing 747 at McCarran International Airport in Las Vegas. On a dusty and windy winter night, it was easy to imagine what I couldn’t see at that late hour—the deserts and mountains beyond the city, stretching off in all directions, the great Western wilderness that makes even the glittering sprawl of Vegas look isolated and contained when you see it from high above.
As I came around the forward section of the port wing, I paused to look up at the refueling team. Maybe it was because I’d recently been on a binge of Star Wars films, but something about the sight of the two guys in their dusty uniforms, standing on their equipment in the howling wind and darkness, diligently programming the complex set of switches, lights and gauges that lie beneath the opened refueling panel of the air-smoothed wing—the scene looked as amazing and futuristic to me as any of the busy hangar bays or outer-planet desert flight lines that are depicted in science fiction. More amazing even, because this, of course, is real.
The sight of that refueling panel made me think about the role of technology in aviation, and how its only purpose is to help us make our way through entirely nonvirtual realities—snow, dust, wind, the bitter temperatures at cruising altitude, the actual offline miles, so many thousands of them, between departure and destination. There are no bells and whistles on that refueling panel, no obsession with “clean” design of the sort that sculpted my smartphone, none of the over-the-top graphics I see so often on the central display of new cars I rent. This panel is pure business: the tools a trained professional needs to safely and accurately fuel a 747, and then close the cover to smooth the wing to its first purpose.
These days, the 747-400 isn’t a brand-new aircraft design, of course. Indeed, it’s often the case that when children come up to the flight deck after landing these days, they’re surprised by the cockpit layout and instrumentation of the 747, especially if they’ve just connected to our flight from one of our new Airbus A380s or Boeing 787 Dreamliners.
Still, though, for the last few years, there’s been something new in the iconic 747’s cockpit, something that younger visitors recognize immediately, and that to me, when I was a kid, would have seemed right out of Star Wars. It’s an iPad—or iPads, as each pilot carries their own. The first iPad, it’s easy to forget now, was released only in 2010. And yet this small, new device has entirely changed how we work on the enormous plane that was designed decades before it.
To understand how the iPad changed my job, it’s worth describing the paper that used to be involved in a commercial flight. Let’s divide the dead trees into three main categories: the individual flight paperwork; the aircraft manuals; and the required charts, both for airfields and enroute airspace.
At check-in at the airport, we’d print out a “briefing pack” that included flight plans, weather charts, important notices, and detailed weather and operational information for every airport and flight information region we’d fly near. On a long flight, London to Singapore, say, or for a series of shorthaul flights, this stack could easily be an inch thick.
Meanwhile, on the flight deck itself was a set of manuals large enough to be worthy of their name: the aircraft library. There were so many of these binders that the library had its own special checklist to verify that none of the required paperwork was missing. To the right of one of the observer seats was a set of bookcases, entirely full. Technical documents like these, of course, are regularly amended, and so entire teams were dedicated to removing outdated manuals and replacing them with new ones on the changeover days. Pilots were also issued with personal copies of many of the manuals, and these had to be amended, as well—by collecting the paper amendments and then individually swapping out each changed page, a task suited to an afternoon at home sat on the floor of the living room, with the windows closed, lest a breeze scramble your careful piles.
Finally, there were the airport charts, for every possible destination and diversion, and multiple copies of each, plus the enroute charts, and also a set of progress charts that we could write on. (I wrote about my love for these in my book, Skyfaring; I still have some of the progress charts that were given to me by pilots when I was a child.) The charting was so voluminous that only a subset would be specially loaded and checked for each flight, depending on our routing and our destination—yet another tedious pre-flight task.
The advantages of finding an electronic home for much of the flight paperwork, aircraft manuals and airport charts are obvious. There’s suddenly no need to swap pages in and out of charts and manuals, or charts and manuals in and out of flight decks. There’s a huge savings, in both economic and environmental terms, in using less paper. Updates and changes can be easily highlighted. There’s no need for one pilot to leave their seat in order to retrieve one of the less frequently used manuals from a shelf behind them. And the most significant savings, of course, is fuel saved by reducing the aircraft weight. I don’t know the exact numbers, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the case for buying thousands and thousands of iPads could be made on the fuel savings alone.
Still, the introduction of the iPad was something that I, and some of my colleagues perhaps, too, approached with some trepidation. Why change a system that we already know works well?
But, in fact, I was impressed with the careful pace of the introduction, the extensive training we were given, and the safeguards that were put in place. There were many of these safeguards, but here’s one of the cleverest, in my opinion: For some months after we started operating with the iPads, all the paper charts were onboard, as well. They were kept in a sealed bag, however, and if we had to break the seal during a flight, we had to file a report explaining why it was necessary to use the paper charts. I don’t know anyone who ever had to open the bag. And, even today, we carry backup copies of a few of the most essential manuals, in addition, of course, to the QRH, the Quick Reference Handbook, that contains the non-normal checklists, among other information.
Another aspect of the introduction that I found interesting was the actual positioning of the iPad. I occasionally lament that the windshield of my car gets ever more clogged—with a toll pass, inspection stickers and various parking garage decals, and I often think of how sacrosanct and well-regulated the views from an airliner’s cockpit windows are in comparison. The iPad rests in a special mount, technically called a “viewable stowage,” on each of the forward side windows (on the 747-400 there are two windshield panes and two side windows on each side). Ironically, the viewable stowage lies directly over the metal clipboard clip that was installed on the 747 to hold paper charts in place—something the 747’s designers never could have imagined.
The iPad doesn’t interfere with the view at all. During a departure or approach briefing, we’ll often take one iPad out of the mount and hold it between us to look at a chart together—a bit of body language that highlights the importance of being “on the same page” for a briefing, even if the “page” in question is an expensive piece of glass designed in California.
The iPad, of course, has been adopted by all sorts of fields, and to all sorts of purposes. By the time iPads appeared in the cockpit, most pilots were thoroughly familiar with smartphones and many had an iPad or a similar tablet computer of their own. Personally, I found it challenging to have to adopt the caution we use with everything at work, to a device I already felt casually comfortable with at home. On my personal phone or laptop, for example, I never hesitate to update the software. But when a new version of the iPad software is released, we’re not permitted to update it until we get the “all clear” from our company, for obvious reasons. The regularly issued updates to our charts and manuals, on the other hand, are obligatory before we fly.
There are other differences that I found interesting. For example, using personal mobile devices in day-to-day life, I’ve never really paid much attention to how much the brightness setting affects battery usage. But on a sunlit flight deck, the brightness of the iPad is at or near the maximum. Even on long, sunny flights, the battery life is sufficient, but we’re nevertheless required to carry a backup battery, and the pre-flight charge we must have on both the iPad and the backup battery is strictly regulated (75 percent is the minimum).
The question of screen brightness in an aviation environment presents other challenges that don’t apply to using an iPad on a couch at home. When flying at night, especially on an approach (when our eyes haven’t been acclimated by apron lighting, for example), the lighting in the flight deck and on the instrument displays is typically set to a very low level, to maximize our visibility. The dimmest normal setting on an iPad is oftentimes still far too bright for me on such approaches, and so our charting app has a separate brightness control that allows us to set it even lower. Sometimes when I next turn on my iPad after such a flight, at home in daylight, I can hardly make out anything at all on the screen—and then I remember I last used it on a rainy, dark descent into Houston or London or Vancouver. There’s also a toggle in the charting app that prevents the screen from auto-dimming or auto-locking.
Having been taught how to make the most of these options, I have to say that I’m a big fan of the iPad. The charting app, for example, allows us to select from the many different plates for each airport and assemble them in the way that’s most useful to us. For example, departing from Heathrow, I might organize the plates in the following order: parking chart, ground chart, instrument departure chart, instrument departure text page; followed by a very useful “Airport Facility” chart that shows the entire airport environment and details for each runway, plus MSAs and nearby airfields, etc.; and, finally, the most likely approach charts in the event of an airborne return. I can swipe through these as the departure progresses—a huge improvement to flipping through paper booklets or individual pages.
It’s also a particular pleasure to have the briefing paperwork for each flight available electronically. In our pre-flight briefing with the cabin crew, for example, we talk about the areas of forecast turbulence and the regions of higher terrain. But a picture is worth a thousand words, and now we can plug our iPad into a display at the front of the briefing room, and look at a map of the route together. It’s a great way to “show” instead of “tell,” to use the words every businessperson learns in presentation training, and I’ve found it makes a big difference in terms of raising questions and building teamwork.
With the old paper manuals, I had an almost physical sense of where various bits of information resided in each book. I could flip to a given section almost intuitively. But I’ve moved away from that sensibility, and I now appreciate a really important advantage of e-manuals: the ability to bookmark various important pages from the entire “library,” and to organize those bookmarks in a way that’s most useful. For example, my current bookmarks include the logon addresses for various CPDLC systems around the world (a text-based system of communicating with controllers), the basic landing distance calculation pages and the rather long list of details we need to record after an autoland. And, of course, I’m glad not to have to sit on the living room floor every few months and swap new and old pages in and out. That’s the kind of thing I’ll tell young pilots about when I’m an older captain, and they won’t believe we ever had to do that.
It’s also worth noting that the iPad has changed pretty much everything else about how we work, and that includes replacing a lot of our non-safety-critical paperwork, as well. Our passenger lists appear on the iPad, and with much more detail than we ever had on paper, which allows a pilot to deliver a signed kid-friendly “logbook” to a young traveler before departure, for example. Our company and departmental magazines appear on the iPad, as do various forms and reports that we used to have to file on paper. There’s a great app that shows us the entire crew, including photographs, which is a big help on a 747 on which there might be 18 crewmembers in total.
After all that, there’s still enough memory on ours iPad for some personal additions. I’ve got an Economist magazine subscription, something to read over breakfast by the beach to get me up to date on what’s happening in the far-off land I’m in (or some of the countries I’ve just flown over). There’s even enough room to download the latest Star Wars movie, to watch at the hotel on those rainy nights in Houston or Lagos, when you get back from a nice dinner with the crew, but you’re still too excited by your job to sleep.
Mark Vanhoenacker is a senior first officer for British Airways who flies Boeing 747-400s. He’s the author of “Skyfaring: A Journey with a Pilot.” You can reach Mark at [email protected].