Thursday, August 18, 2011

21st Century Charts?

Not all that long ago, nearly every airport's FBO could sell you a reasonable assortment of charts. They would, typically, stock the (VFR) Sectional Chart for the local area and for a few nearby areas along with corresponding (IFR) Low Altitude Enroute Charts and books of Instrument Approach Procedures (IAP's or "Plates"). Then a few years ago the rules changed for chart distribution agents and a ton of those small airport FBO's got out of the chart-selling business. Since then, I've gotten my charts via mail subscription. That has worked just fine, but presents a problem when a trip is planned on fairly short notice that will venture into areas beyond the coverage of the charts that are in the airplane. Such was the case with last week's trip to North Carolina and Tennessee.

While I was wondering how I was going to lay hands on Enroute Charts and Approach Plates covering my intended routing down the Outer Banks, across the Appalachians and then back home, a solution came along courtesy of Tony Oliva. Tony is a retired USAF pilot, with thousands of hours in B-47's, C-130's, C-141's and who knows what else. These days he flies a 1977 C-182Q, a sister to N631S. Tony is also a member of the Cessna Pilot's Association, and he described in a post on CPA's forum his acquisition of a tablet computer and a subscription to an on-line service that furnishes all of the Sectionals, Enroute Charts, and Approach Plates you could ever desire. If Tony, whose wisdom on all matters related to aviation I respect immensely, thinks something is a good idea that's good enough for me. So on the Saturday before our intended departure I set out to replicate what he had done.

The result appears at left, sitting on my knee-board somewhere over West Virginia on the way home. The hardware is an Acer Iconia A500 Tablet with 16GB of internal memory, running Android Honeycomb 3.1. The tablet is Wi-Fi capable which allows the downloading of the software side of the solution – Aviation Maps ver 1.3.15 from Avilution. For just $4.95/month, Avilution makes available for download all of the Sectionals, Enroutes and IAP's for as many states as you care to specify. The initial download takes quite some time, but updates happen more quickly. And then the fun starts.

You can enter flight plan way-points and the software draws a magenta line on the screen showing the intended route of flight. You can tap additional waypoints on the screen and insert them into the flight plan. If you tap an airport you can then bring up the A/F-D (that's the "Airport/Facilities Directory") information on it...and another tap brings up any Approach Plate you may need. The Iconia's 10.1" screen provides a crisp, legible display. Finally, the internal GPS allows the system to track your progress (via a little airplane icon) as your flight proceeds.

The now-familiar "pinching" gesture on the touch-screen lets you scale the displayed chart to suit the situation and a "sliding" gesture re-centers the chart as needed. And you can switch between the Sectional view and the Enroute Chart view virtually instantaneously.

The display is, let's say, acceptable in bright sunlight...which is pretty good for an LCD. Battery life is excellent – I ran it for about 5.5 hours and still had plenty of charge in reserve.

There are a couple of things I need to work on. First, the tablet needs a home. Just sitting on my knee or on the right seat isn't a permanent answer. Second, the Iconia's internal GPS doesn't hold satellite lock very well. I'm looking at the possibility of getting a low-cost Bluetooth GPS receiver that could sit up on the glare-shield and pair with the tablet. But other than those items, I really like the system. I need to fly with this solution for a while to be sure that I understand where any pitfalls may be. But it looks like I'll be able to let my paper chart subscriptions lapse.

And yet... I just like the paper charts so much. A decade ago, Stephan Wilkinson had an article in Air & Space Magazine titled "The Art of the Chart", wherein he gave voice to the affection we pilots (of a certain age?) have for those lovely paper artifacts. As long as paper charts are printed, N631S will have on board at least the local Sectional so that twice a year I can unfold and admire a new one.

The end of my previous post left us on the ground at KJWN in Nashville. Patricia and I enjoyed three days of seeing the sights in and around that fair city but on Friday it was time to head home. With the expected tailwind, there was no need to plan a fuel stop, but a "butt break" would be in order. So I filed a fairly direct route to Charleston, WV's Yeager Airport (KCRW).

Flying over West Virginia, the most prominent features in view are the surface coal mines, both active and closed. In the cases of active mines, the surface of the earth has been torn open to expose the black coal seams that lie under the shallow strata of stone. The closed mines are undergoing remediation but still appear unnatural and devoid of life. It will be years before nature reclaims those devastated areas.

We landed at KCRW and bought sandwiches and salads from the deli case at Executive Air Terminal, the FBO – actually quite fresh and tasty. Then we took off on our last leg, climbed to 9,000 feet (to get 4,000 feet of terrain clearance over the mountains) and headed for home. After an uneventful flight we landed at KVKX about 3:30 PM.

Over the six days since leaving on Sunday morning we'd put 11.6 hours onto N631S's tach. We'd flown over five states and landed at six airports. And we'd burned about 128 gallons of 100LL aviation gasoline at an average cost of $5.33/gallon. And we had fun!


Dr.ATP said...

I lurched into the EFB world when my wife gave me an iPad. I have always loved paper charts, and remember Beryl Markham's comment that she never threw away a chart that she had used for navigation.

I have been using two apps: SkyCharts and fltplan.com's free app, and they each have different features and different weaknesses. SkyCharts has a very weak flight routing tool (no lat/long, no distance/radial), but all of the charts you could ever want: IAPs, Sectionals, Low Altitude, Terminal Areas, and even the back of the terminal area chart. It also includes the complete A/FD and all STARS and DPs. fltplan.com allows more flexible routings, but you have to enter the route on their website (tough for reroutes) and it only has sectional and IFR enroute charts, although they are working on IAPs. With this app you can cache a nav log and a weather briefing, eliminating 90%of my cockpit clutter.

All of these take some time to learn, though, and I have been chair-flying a lot of routes to learn them. (The FAA's intrnsigence with my medical also encourages more chair flying...)

If I weren't so cheap I'd just get ForeFlight.

Chris said...

I love my paper charts, too. When flying in the Rockies, the rental airplane I was flying did not have a terrain equipped GPS (which was fine because I've never used one). Chart skills were critical because GPS direct routes don't cut it when flying below the mountain tops. The instructor was impressed that I was under 40 and that my chart/pilotage skills were good. This must be a dying art.

Early this year, I bought an iFly 700, which is a touch screen moving map GPS that shows your position on current sectionals, TACS, and low altitude charts (as well as A/FD, approach plates, and airport diagrams). It's a delightful, economical tool. On local flights, I don't even bother to break out the paper charts any more. But when we flew from NY to FL a few months ago, I still had paper sectionals for the entire route with me. And I used them happily. I'm not quite ready to give up that paper security blanket. Maybe someday, but not today.

Frank Van Haste said...

Jim, Chris, thanks for your comments.

I'm allergic to Apples, Jim - so the Android tablet solution appealed to me. I also use the fltplan.com app (their ETE estimates are uncanny!

Chris, I think good map and pilotage skill has always been sparsely distributed. It may be getting worse among the youngsters but I'm not sure. My son is 33 and is excellent with a map.



Gary said...

I have also given in to the use of the iPad and foreflight. I like the charts for planning at home and do keep a few charts in the plane for our favorite routes. It's jusy so much cleaner and faster with the EFB.

Thanks for the follow up on Nashville, CRW is going to be my stop unless the ladies take less baggage (yeah right), I wouold like to make Big Sandy as Chris suggested. I am keeping fingers crossed for some good tailwinds.

Frank Van Haste said...

Gary, thanks for stopping by.

Hope you can get to Big Sandy with good reserves. 100LL at CRW is pricey. I was fortunate that I didn't need fuel at that stop. Love the long range tanks!

Re: the EFB, I suspect that it will steadily get easier to use and more effective. I know that, for example, when an Atlanta Center controller gave me an off-airway vector near the mountains I was able to check the terrain clearance more quickly on the tablet than I could have wrangling a paper sectional.

Best regards,


Cedarglen said...

Thaks for the great post on electronic charts. It is sort of like Boeing's EFB, but for the little guys. When coupled with a (good) GPS reciever, they are almost a FMC system. They are the future - they are here! Of course, many GA pilots grew up with paper charts and plates as their comfort zone. Major changes have happened before and they will continue. While paper charts will disappear in time, I suspect that GA pilots over 35 have little to worry about. All things aviation have a price attached, but the current monthly subscription cost of $4.95 does not seem all that bad, but I'll bet that the hardware and initial software buy hurt a but. As the hardware and software available to GA community improves, so do the options. The smart pilots buy as much integrated cluck and their bucks can afford and ALWAYS have a "Plan-B" at hand. As effective (and fun) as these gadgets are, sooner or later a critical component WILL fail. Did I mention Plan-B? Paper may suffer wrinkles, tears and coffee stains, but that's why they are updated ever six months or so ,right? Thanks for a great post! -C.

Cedarglen said...

Addendum: The shot of the W. Viginia coal mine is sad. I'm thinking even stronger terms. Thanks for including the flight and fuel stats. At nearly $60 per hour, for fuel alone, I sure hope yo had a good time!!!

Frank Van Haste said...

Craig, thanks for your comments.

I agree about Plan B. I expect that I'll print out the critical approach charts and enroute flight plan info regardless of what electronics are un-board.

The hardware was $399...you can save about $50 if you don't need instant gratification and so can buy online. The Avilution software is free but requires the subscription.

And yes, $60/hr for fuel is a lot, but we DID have a ton of fun, and if you compare with what commercial air would have cost for similar travel, it's really not too bad.

Stop by again, OK?