Business & GA, Commercial, Military

Editor’s Note: Widespread Use of EFBs

By Dave Jensen | July 1, 2005

In the May issue, I extolled in this space the virtues of the electronic flight bag (EFB) and reported that adopting this promising technology need not be costly. The expense can be kept in check, according to sources I quoted, by adopting the "building block" approach: initially employing portable computers approved for Class 1 or Class 2 operation and adding applications incrementally. My intent was to show that the cost of entry can be modest and that use can be expanded.

What about Class 3 EFBs, which, as part of an aircraft's avionics, must be fully certified? They are more costly, but can be said to confer the longer-term advantage. Besides employing avionics-grade construction, they can offer features like ownship icons on maps and taxiway charts. What's more, Class 3 EFBs represent the future; they will be standard in the Airbus A380 and Boeing 787, and probably will be included in most, if not all, new commercial aircraft designs. Typical of computer technology, the topmost product eventually becomes commonplace.

Craig Larson, Boeing's director of crew information services, says the first Boeing Business Jet (B737) with a Class 3 Jeppesen EFB will enter service late this year, and an EFB-equipped B747-400 will begin operation in mid-2006. Four airlines operate or have ordered B777s equipped with the Jeppesen EFB.

Since Class 3 EFBs represent the top of the line, a step-by-step approach to incorporating electronic flight bags as a useful flight operations tool should include the ultimate step. Most important, however, is for operators to assess their needs and pocketbooks to determine what they can afford now and hope to achieve by adopting EFB technology.

Clearly, there is widespread recognition of the benefits of EFBs of all classes. For example, EFBs have entered the helicopter marketplace and perform tasks as unique as the vehicles in which they are installed. I talked to Raylund Romero, maintenance and flight operations management system manager for Louisiana-based Petroleum Helicopters Inc. (PHI), one of the world's largest rotorcraft operators, with about 250 helicopters. Most of PHI's helicopters support offshore oil and gas drilling and production in the Gulf of Mexico. However, the operator also provides charter services outside the United States and has about 60 aircraft on contract for emergency medical service (EMS).

Fifteen PHI helicopters are fitted with EFBs; eventually all of the operator's aircraft are to be equipped, according to Romero. "Our desire is to go to a paperless environment," he says. "Our whole maintenance operation is paperless, and now we're able to go paperless in the cockpit, too."

PHI chose a Class 2 EFB, with software supplied by Ramco Systems. It includes a wireless screen that straps to the pilot's leg. (With two hand controls plus foot petals, helicopter pilots find it more convenient to have items strapped to their legs.) The screen has a wireless 802.11 link with a Panasonic ToughBook computer in the aircraft.

Outfitting more than 250 aircraft with EFBs is a large undertaking. How did PHI decide to take the step? "We've had a vision to go wireless for over 10 years," says Romero. "But the technology wasn't available until now."

As with fixed-wing aircraft, the EFBs in the PHI helicopters store electronic manuals and charts, and provide data to assist in aircraft maintenance. They also calculate weight and balance, which can be a precise undertaking with rotorcraft. The EFB will automatically calculate the weight shift from a flight's fuel burn and then show the pilot how to seat his passengers--say, heavier ones in the front of the cabin and lighter ones in the back, or vice versa. For PHI's offshore, charter operations, the EFB will prepare a customer's billing immediately after the flight. Billing no longer needs to take four or five days.

Like other EFB users, PHI is adding new applications to its devices, step by step. Robert Murphy, a PHI pilot who also helped write the software for the EFBs, says the company wants to use the devices for maintenance tracking and to establish an electronic logbook for pilots to note discrepancies during flights.

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