Business & GA, Commercial

Pilots, Toss Away Your Flight Bags

By David Jensen | April 1, 2001
Send Feedback

A typical scene at a major airport: Pilots walk to the gates dutifully carrying their black, near-suitcase-size bags bearing charts, flight manuals and aircraft technical manuals. Meanwhile, the business travelers walk to the gates toting plywood-thin laptop computers, which can store as much data as the pilots’ 40+ pound bags, with capacity to spare. This may not be typical for long.

United Airlines flew in late January two flights to evaluate a new computerized substitute to the pilots’ familiar paper-bearing satchels. Called the Electronic Flight Bag (EFB), it is being developed by United and is an outgrowth of a program that investigated the delivery of real-time graphical weather data to the flight deck via a laptop computer. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) funded the graphical weather data program, called Aviation Weather Information Network (AWIN), and Honeywell sponsored it. United participated in AWIN, too, and decided that, in addition to weather, the laptop could also store all the data existing in those black bags, thus saving both the expense of paper distribution and the sore backs of pilots.

So, in addition to graphical weather information coming via the GTE Airfone System from Honeywell’s Weather Data Center in Phoenix, Ariz., the United pilots aboard the two evaluation flights, Capt. Joseph D. Burns and Capt. David Sambrano, also were able to pull up on a laptop all Jeppesen charts and United’s newly created digital flight manual. The aircraft technical manual was also stored in the computer’s memory–in this case, for an Airbus 319. All of this information was in a Fujitsu 3400 Pen Tablet (Burns called it a "Palm Pilot on steroids"), which weighs less than 3 pounds (1.36 kg) and provides a 10.4-inch (26.4-cm) diagonal display.

The flights–UA335 from Denver to Los Angeles and UA228, returning to Denver–became the first two revenue service flights to use the EFB. United officials believe other firsts resulted from the flights:

  • First FAR 121 flights to use true Internet protocol (IP) to a flight deck, and

  • The first FAA-approved cockpit application of off-the-shelf, personal computer (PC) technology for supplemental information.

The evaluation flights launched a six-week evaluation program, according to Burns, who also happens to be United’s director of flight operations technology. The unit was to remain on the A319 for 30 to 40 more legs. NASA will finance the flight trials as part of the AWIN program. "The agency wants to see if [EFB] is practical," Burns explains. "Then there will be nine months of product refinement and determining the best broadband to the aircraft," he told Avionics Magazine. "We had the Airfone on [the evaluation] flights, but the data rate may not be great enough.

"By the first quarter of 2002, we’d like to field the product," Burns adds of the EFB. "We’ve been approached by several major carriers who are interested in it for their pilots."

A sizeable market may well already exist for the EFB. To outfit all of United’s pilots alone would require 10,800 laptops, not counting spares. The cost of equipment would obviously decrease if the airline simply furnished one laptop for each of its 601 aircraft.

"But we feel there are so many benefits besides [in] the flight deck that it would be best to have one laptop per pilot," says Burns, "for example, [providing for] computer-based training.

"We have an extensive network in which employees communicate with the company, called SkyNet," he adds. "With their laptops, the pilots would have access to the network in their hotels, their homes, wherever."

Currently, the computer is carried on board and placed for use on the pilots’ tray table. "Ultimately, we will have a permanent mounting position," says Burns. "It will probably be an articulating arm to hold the computer, with a single power connection and data connection." He assures that the EFB, which offers no flight-critical information, "will not be in the [pilots’] direct field of view."

Meshing conveniently with the EFB program is Pub Trax, United’s internal project to digitize all of its operations documents, including manuals, into a common platform utilizing an object depository. The depository allows updates to become company-wide automatically. "We’ve already digitized the flight ops manual for the [Boeing] Triple Seven and A320," Burns reports. "We will have the total fleet fully digital by the end of this year. We need that in place before we can distribute the Electronic Flight Bag."

United plans to have EFBs installed on one aircraft type within a year and on its entire fleet within three years. One set of paper manuals will remain in each aircraft as backup.

A United Product?

Does this mean the EFB will be a United Airlines product? "We may market it," Burns replies. He added that Honeywell may also want to produce the EFB, but a Honeywell official claims his company currently has no such plan.

United has yet to fully define its EFB product. "We don’t want to be plugged into any specific hardware," says Burns, "but we are going to a Windows operating system. The PC platform is very viable for secondary information."

The EFB unit for the evaluation flights had a Global Positioning System (GPS) receiver built in, with a window-mounted antenna, according to Burns. "We use the GPS for rough position information and track-up information for the weather picture, so you know what weather you are going into.

"The primary reason for the GPS is to overlay track and positioning information onto the weather map," he adds, "though you also can overlay the aircraft [symbol] on top of the Jepp plates. That shows you where you are geographically in relation to the airfield.

"Ultimately, we’d like to grab nav information from the internal 429 [data] bus instead of having the additional GPS. We want to use as much information that’s already in the aircraft as possible."

Fully committed to using the EFB, United also is looking into expanding the unit’s capabilities. Automatic dependent surveillance-broadcast (ADS-B) information will be considered, says Burns, "but only for the display of traffic on the ground–not airborne traffic, because we have TCAS [traffic collision alert system]."

Receive the latest avionics news right to your inbox