One-pound iPad replacing pilots' 40 pounds of flight manuals

Stephen Galle , a US Airways pilot, programs an electronic flight bag, which airlines have been given FAA approval to use. The old paper versions are also still carried on board.
Stephen Galle , a US Airways pilot, programs an electronic flight bag, which airlines have been given FAA approval to use. The old paper versions are also still carried on board. (MICHAEL S. WIRTZ / Staff Photographer)
Posted: July 17, 2011

Capt. Stephen Galle was in the cockpit of the future on an Airbus A330 just landed in Philadelphia from Manchester, England.

Rather than shuffling through paper navigation charts, route maps, weather information and airport diagrams, the US Airways pilot flicked on a tablet computer, a little larger than an Apple iPad.

Like other digital innovations - the paperless boarding pass for travelers and global-positioning satellite technology to guide airplanes - the so-called electronic flight bag is a software alternative to 40 pounds of paperwork that pilots traditionally carry in well-worn black flight cases.

US Airways Group Inc. has been working with the Federal Aviation Administration to install the technology on 20 Airbus A330s that fly to Europe and 20 Airbus A319s that operate on the East Coast shuttle, and to the Caribbean and Latin America.

Other commercial airlines, cargo and general aviation pilots are experimenting with the iPad to replace paper flight operation manuals and reference books.

Last month, American Airlines became the first carrier to get FAA approval to use the iPad during all phases of flight, from takeoff to landing, on Boeing 777 flights from Los Angeles to Tokyo and Shanghai.

In May, Alaska Airlines gave its 1,300 pilots iPads for use before takeoff, and above 10,000 feet - with a goal eventually for flight navigation.

The US Airways technology goes beyond the iPad to incorporate satellite-signal technology, called NextGen, designed to replace radar and overhaul the nation's air-traffic navigation system by 2020.

The real-time technologies aim to do more than save paper: reduce delays, allow planes to fly more direct routes, save fuel, increase safety, and provide air-traffic controllers and pilots more accurate information to keep aircraft safely separated in the sky and on runways.

"If it was up to me, this would be like the 'Starship Enterprise,' " said pilot Galle, referring last week to the fictional starship in the Star Trek television shows and films. "I like the updated technologies."

A big advantage of ditching reams of paper is to reduce weight and save on fuel. "Every pound you fly around, you burn a certain amount of fuel," said US Airways pilot Ron Thomas, director of flight technical operations. With two and often three 40-pound pilot kit bags on a plane, that's a reduction of 80 to 120 pounds, he said.

"Pilots working with paper are constantly switching charts, depending on where they are going, what airspace they are in," said US Airways Capt. Mike Davis. "This eliminates that, and streamlines it. It also keeps the charts updated. With paper, pilots have to do that themselves."

Laptops and portable electronic devices have been used in cockpits for years. In 2007, American got FAA approval for pilots to store some flight documents on personal electronic devices. "It lightened the load a little," said Capt. David Clark.

When the iPad came along, American partnered with navigation chart company, Jeppesen, a Boeing subsidiary, to come up with an application "suitable for airline use," Clark said.

American estimates the iPad, which weighs a little more than a pound, will save $1.2 million in fuel annually.

While it may seem a no-brainer to put lightweight tablets on airplanes, the FAA requires rigorous testing to ensure they can withstand rapid loss of pressurization and don't interfere with other electronics.

Alaska Airlines uses the iPad to reference company manuals on the ground, and above 10,000 feet, but not yet during "critical" phases of flight. With more testing, and a permanent mount in the cockpit, the airline hopes to use the iPad from takeoff to landing, said pilot Brian Moynihan.

FedEx and United Parcel Service use electronic flight bags. "It's an efficiency improvement in our operations," FedEx spokesman Jim McCluskey said. The technology "gives us the ability to update data in the field all over the world." FedEx keeps paper charts and manuals onboard as a backup to the electronic data.

UPS has used electronic flight bags in 11 aircraft, and is seeking FAA permission to use the iPad in the cockpit of its entire fleet of 218 aircraft this fall, said spokeswoman Jackie Blair.

The Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, which represents 405,000 general aviation pilots, is hearing from members - ranging from student pilots to full-time corporate pilots - about "a lot of interest in apps specifically for the iPad," said spokesman Chris Dancy. "The same weight savings come into play" for general aviation pilots whose aircraft are smaller and have lower maximum takeoff weights, he said.

The FAA has given the green light to "about a dozen operators" to use iPads in the cockpit, but the "carriers are in an evaluation period," said FAA spokeswoman Kathleen Bergen. "Pilots also must carry hard copies of the information loaded onto the iPad as a backup."

The FAA is also concerned about cockpit distractions from use of personal electronic devices for activities unrelated to flight. A prime example was the two Northwest Airlines pilots who overshot the Minneapolis airport by 100 miles in October 2009 when they lost track of time while working on their personal laptops.

Contact staff writer Linda Loyd at 215-854-2831 or

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